CAMP VERDE Arizona - Not far from Interstate I 17 in Yavapai County Arizona a casual visitor will see the same vast expanse of desert that he has seen elsewhere in Arizona. He may be led to believe that the dry rocky soil and craggy whitish gray cliffs sprinkled with cacti and shrubby trees were
not unusual. It would appear to be just as desolate, barren, and uninhabitable as all of the rest.
But then again, he may be there to inspect one of the great marvels and mysteries of the world—the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people. The name “Pueblo” is used to describe the present-day Native American culture that is descended from multiple prehistoric tribes including the Sinaguans. It was the Sinagua culture that built and inhabited the best preserved cliff dwelling of today, “Montezuma’s Castle.” The five-story structure was made utilizing natural caves, stones, mortar, sycamore timbers, grass, and mud. At one time, it housed as many as 50 people. Oddly enough, the central American king of the Aztecs, Moctezuma (c.1466 - 1520), never extended his reign as far north as Arizona. But because he was well known to the American miners and soldiers that settled the area in the 1860s, the king’s name was nevertheless attached to the structure that was probably constructed 800 years prior to Moctezuma’s birth.
So who were the Sinaguans and why did they build such structures? First of all, the term “Sinagua” is Spanish in origin and literally means “without water.”
It was given to them by an archeologist who in turn borrowed it from the first Spanish explorers who were surprised that such large mountains would be without perennial rivers.
The Sinaguans inhabited northern Arizona from about 500 AD to 1425 AD and were both hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. The “hunted” portion of their diet consisted of elk, deer, rabbits, ducks, and turtles. They also farmed corn, beans, squash, and maize by utilizing irrigation canals that were fed by springs, most notably “Montezuma’s Well” some 11 miles away. And while adobe and cliff structures made by the Sinaguans can be found all over the area, it is interesting to note that the irrigation system was first constructed by the predecessors of the Sinaguans, the Hohokam (pronounced ho-ho-KAM, with the accent on the last syllable).
Now that we have an idea of who the Sinaguans were, the question remains, why did they build cliff dwellings? There are no solid answers, but it is fascinating to observe the evolution of their structures over time. Early on, they utilized dugouts, or small depressions made in the earth and covered with flat or semicircular roofs made of dried mud mixed with grass. But as time progressed they became more settled and gradually abandoned a nomadic lifestyle. Then they banded together and built nicer more adequate shelters.
What better place to build a home than in a huge cave that sheltered its inhabitants from the hot sun, wind, and dust storms? Not only that, but it was sure protection from hostile tribes or other invaders.
So what ultimately became of this hardy culture? That question still baffles scholars to this day. Montezuma’s Castle was inhabited for about 400 years, or about as long as Europeans have been in North America. But about 1425 AD they seem to have vanished. Some theories speculate that conflict with the incoming Yavapai tribe, high infant mortality, an eroding trade system, or prolonged drought drove them from their homes. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these. But whatever the case, they have given us many lasting treasures to remember them by.?