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The Sinagua

Prehistoric People of the Desert Southwest

500 A.D. -- 1300 A.D.

The word "Sinagua" is a contraction of the Spanish words "sin agua," or, "without water," an allusion to the arid country in which the tradition arose. The pronunciation of Sinagua is "seen aug wah."

Between the 6th and the 15th centuries, the Sinagua people, who probably emerged from Yuman origins, occupied the region which encompasses the ponderosa and pinyon/juniper forests and the grasslands and desert scrub country from the vicinity of Arizona’s Sunset Crater volcano southwestward to the state’s Verde River. They practiced a rudimentary flood plain agriculture in the early centuries, irrigating their farm plots with systems of check dams and irrigation ditches. They supplemented their crops with hunting and gathering. They lived in hamlets of lodges which evolved over time from circular pithouses to "sub-square pithouses with lateral entries or antechambers, teepee-like structures, masonry-lined pithouses, and small masonry surface structures," according to Cordell. "Overly large circular pithouses may have been associated with intercommunity ceremonial activities."

rock house

The Sinagua who occupied the northeastern part of their range experienced a cataclysmic interruption of their lives between 1064 and 1067, when the Sunset Crater erupted repeatedly, blanketing some 800 square miles of land with lava, cinder and ash. Although Sunset Crater continued to erupt intermittently for two more centuries, the Sinagua began to move back into the region within a matter of years, capitalizing on a period of increased rainfall and, possibly, the mulching effects of the ash falls. As they established new pithouse and pueblo villages, the Sinagua – more than either the River and Delta or the Upland Yuman groups – expanded their sphere of interaction with both near and distant peoples, especially the Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, Patayan and, possibly, even the Mesoamericans.

Walnut canyon

During the 12th century, the Sinagua of the Sunset Crater region appear to have evolved, in many respects, into a synthesis of traditions. For example, they reflected relationships with the Mogollon in pithouse architecture and ceramic styles; the Hohokam in crafts and Mesoamerican-style ball court construction; the Anasazi in pueblo masonry and ceremonial chamber, or kiva, construction; and the River and Delta Yumans in projectile point styles. Directly or indirectly, they acquired parrots, copper bells and mythology from Mesoamerica. Like the Zuni and Hopi, the Sinagua likely established clans, and they seem to have adapted several different religious beliefs, which we see expressed through their burial customs, including cremations and flexed and extended inhumations.

Like some Puebloan neighbors, the Sinagua developed an organized and stratified social system. According to National Forest archaeologist Piter Pilles (writing in Ekkehart Malotki’s and Michael Lomatuway’ma’s Earth Fire), the Sinagua built upscale villages at prominent locations, incorporating prestige architectural features such as community ceremonial chambers, courtyards and ball courts. They buried high status individuals, for instance, the well-known "Magician" at the Sinaguan site called "Ridge Ruin," with elaborate grave offerings such as ceramics, wands, baskets and jewelry.

In the 13th century, the Sunset Crater Sinagua began to abandon their region, probably because annual average rainfall diminished. Some moved to the southwestern part of their range. In the 14th and 15th centuries, they built cliff dwellings, including the famous five-story, 20-room Montezuma’s Castle (which had no association with either the Aztec emperor Montezuma nor with any castle) in a towering limestone balcony overlooking Beaver Creek. Others, said Pilles, "probably moved east to the Zuni area and the Rio Grande Valley, while the majority moved through the Hopi Buttes area before arriving at the Hopi Mesas?" The Sinagua migrations seem to be incorporated in Hopi oral histories. The Sinagua culture as a distinct entity disappeared from the archaeological record after the 15th century.

Sinagua Archeological Sites

-- J. W. Sharp


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