Pre Columbian Mesoamerica

Mel is such a history buff. And nothing intrigues him more than how civilizations seem to have thrived in places that would seem relatively (or completely) inhospitable to support ‘advanced’ life as we know it. And one such place would be the southwestern part of the United States.

For when you drive in this otherwise parched and seemingly dry region, it seems incredible that an advanced society that built complex towns and irrigated the land to produce enough food for a flowering of art and culture. Today though these sites illustrate abandonment for a long time, and it was an eye opener to visit the various museums where remnants of the Sinagua culture is preserved. Collectively these sites of peoples who inhabited the region are called ‘pueblo’ dwellings. But then this is Spanish word, meaning a town.

Using Phoenix as a base, Mel started with a drive of about 100 miles north to a ‘castle’. Only that it wasn’t really a castle. And more importantly, the person the place was named after? Well,

Montezuma was not here

Montezuma Castle 15
The “castle”

Costing only $5pp for entry, the word castle may invoke visions of large fortresses with its strong walls. Like that you see in Europe or Asia. But that was not to be. For instead of an imposing fortress, it was cliff side homes that were carved into solid rock. Some postulated that these were constructed by women, though that might not be unimaginable. As a sort of ‘high rise’ of the times, it certainly had nothing to do its current name. For Montezuma the Aztec emperor was certainly not connected to the site! But the name stuck because the first westerners to view the site thought it was so…

It is not possible to climb up to the structure, and that is partly the design. Access even when the site was inhabited was said to be via ladders.

Montezuma Castle 25
Get educated!

So this really helped with the local defense of the homes. And there were probably a couple of other advantages too; such as being on high ground from river overflows. Recall in our essay on Antelope canyon, there are frequently intense storms that may lead to flash floods rushing through narrow floodplains? Well, geographically this area has similar attributes and this may be one of the key drivers to build high!

Montezuma Castle 26
The real bush that scratches

A visit to this site would not take long. The thing though is to take one’s time to enjoy the site by sitting on the numerous benches. And there is a large outdoor ‘auditorium’ too. But more important is to appreciate the little placards that the NPS has placed all over introducing the native flora and its uses to the native Americans. That in itself was an educational experience!

But like many places all across the southwest of the US, sometime in the 1300-1400s these sites were abandoned for reasons that we still do not understand. It is said that the site was looted in the last 200 years, so today what the museum showcases are just a small portion of what could have been!

That’s a big big well

Drive to Drive to Montezuma Well
Heheh…nearly got lost!

Now if the site at Montezuma castle served as a place of abode, Montezuma’s well further up north was the source of water. It is a very large sinkhole which is said to discharge 1.5 million gallons of water every day! Imagine what that amount of water can be used for! And indeed the near 118m diameter well provided a constant source of water that would have supported a huge and possibly intense agricultural settlement.

Montezuma Well 3
The giant limbstone sinkhole well

It is possible to walk from the ‘rim’ of the well down to the water’s edge. There is a little hole in the corner of the sinkhole that streams water down and out of the sinkhole spring to an outlet that feeds the irrigation channels. And the remnants of the people who lived here can be seen. At the “rim” of the well overlooks the water source. Must had been someone important, perhaps a sentient guarding the precious resource!

The well was also considered to be of religious significance and there has been words of warning to visitors not to try swimming in the well.

Pithouse ruin1
The Pit house

The trail is reasonable and getting down to the water’s edge was definitely something to do. Just before the well there was what they called a pit house. Evident that people lived here since the ground was covered with markings of folks having done work cooking over open fires. Again it is a mystery why the entire area was abandoned with such a vital resource at hand. And the mystery deepens with no explanation of the Sinagua being replaced by other cultures!

Thus it is quite the next thing to do, and that is to seek out the advanced sites such as,

Hill-top settlements

Tuzigoot 18
Must had been busy!

The first one that Mel visited is called Tuzigoot. In current native American speak (of the Apache), this means ‘crooked water’. The site of the village or town is on top of a ridge about 36m above the Verde floodplain.

Tuzigoot 23
It’s a huge complex!

It was said to have been built and inhabited between the 1100-1400s. There are said to be 110 chambers as can be observed from the walls and they scatter all over the ridgeline. There seems to be a “fortress” at the top, perhaps the tallest of the rooms which commands a view. Again access to these buildings would have been with a portable ladder, suggesting similarity to that in Montezuma.

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There are supposed to be petroglyphs at the site, but Mel must had missed it totally! At the museum, a collection of mortars used for milling grain. They come in all shapes and sizes! In addition there are tools and other daily implements that are on display. All these artifacts recovered from the site after excavation in the 1930s.

Besh Ba Gowah 1
Right next to the city community center

And if one think that the Sinagua were the only advanced civilization in the northern reaches of modern Arizona, be surprised to know that more than 100 miles away the site of Besh Ba Gowah holds the key to seeing yet another pueblo site. Again the name is a recent one, given by the Apaches to mean ‘place of metal’. The people who inhabited this area though are called the ‘Salado’, distinct it seems from Sinagua further to the north.

It is said to be a 200-room pueblo settlement.

Besh Ba Gowah 11
Lilac cactus! A first for Mel

Like the Sinagua, these people inhabited this place between the 1200-1400s. However unlike what Mel saw at Tuzigoot, the Salado built multi-storied structures. Though the mortars for milling appear to be the same… the museum on site does carry a large complement of tools and daily implements too like Tuzigoot.

It’s truly a wonder what happened to the Sinagua people in the 1400s. Did invaders pushed them to move away? Or was it because of climate change that forced them to abandon all that they had built? Whatever the reasons, it is evident that an advanced civilization was here in the southwest of the US and they apparently vanished well before the arrival of the western explorers.

These sites aren’t expensive to visit. They all cost just $5pp for entry. But they hold a lot of history, and mystery too. Someday we will know. Know what happened in the 1400s.

Mel was at the Pre Columbian sites in June 2017

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