Note: This story is from my book Overlooked Arizona, 35 Great Arizona Destinations You Shouldn’t Miss!
Perched on a hilltop in the high desert of Arizona’s Verde Valley, the ruins of the Sinagua Indian pueblo of Tuzigoot give visitors an opportunity to look back in time and walk in the footsteps of an ancient civilization.
In contrast to the rugged mountains to the north or the harsh deserts to the south, the Verde Valley must have seemed a paradise to the ancient people who first settled here. Deer, antelope, bear, and small game were abundant, and the grasslands above the Verde River supplied mesquite beans, wild legumes, grapes, and other plants. The river provided fish and turtles, ducks and geese. Salt deposits in the valley provided valuable trading material.
For thousands of years the Verde Valley has been a melting pot of humanity. The first people here were hunters and gatherers searching for wild game and grasses. Traders followed, digging salt and minerals, and settlers came next to farm the valley’s fertile bottomlands.
The first homes built in the valley were pit houses dug beside the river, while later Indians who settled here lived in caves and rooms hollowed from cliff faces. Sometime about 1000 A.D., a tribe of southern Sinagua built masonry homes on a ridge and established a thriving agricultural community. The Sinagua practiced dry farming in the foothills, and diverted streams to irrigate lowland farms. Crops included squash, corn, and beans. By about 1300 A.D., there were some 50 major pueblo sites, many surrounded by smaller outlying pueblos, in the middle of the Verde Valley. For reasons we still do not know, in the early 1400s, the Sinagua left this area, never to return.
Who were these ancient settlers? Why did they leave? What became of them? Some answers are lost in time, but archaeologists have uncovered clues at Tuzigoot that help solve parts of the mystery.
The pueblo at Tuzigoot grew slowly over a 400 year period, beginning with a series of small rooms in the center of the hilltop. There seems to have been no overall construction plan, and rooms appear to have been added at random as the population increased. At its peak, the pueblo extended about 500 feet on a north-south axis along the ridge top, with the main section about 100 feet wide. The pueblo contained 86 ground floor rooms and as many as fifteen second story rooms, housing a population of 225 people.
Most rooms sheltered single families and were used for sleeping and eating. Some rooms had stone or clay-lined fireplaces for cooking and heating, but outside fire pits were also used. Many trough style stone metates and two-handed manos for grinding corn have been found in the ruins. Storage cists were set in corners and clay vessels for storage were submerged in the floors. The rooftop entrances provided both light and ventilation.
The pueblo’s walls were made from limestone and sandstone deposits on the ridge. Pine, juniper, and cottonwood trees were hauled up the hillside to be used as roof support posts. In the long tradition of the Sinagua, new rooms were built on the ruins of old ones. Entry to most rooms was by a ladder through rooftop hatches.
The soft, porous limestone used in the pueblo’s walls required constant attention, and the Sinagua spent a lot of time rebuilding deteriorating walls. This is still a concern today, and the National Park Service, which administers Tuzigoot National Monument, continues to work to stabilize the ruins.
The Sinagua spent much of their time outdoors. The pueblo had a plaza that served as a community gathering place. Residents made pottery and household goods here, socialized, and met with traders to display their goods for barter. The plaza provided space for children to play, for dances, and for holding festivals and religious ceremonies.
Rooftops provided additional living space. From the pueblo’s rooftops they could watch for traders bringing goods to barter and neighbors coming to visit from other nearby pueblos. Roofs were fine places to grind corn, weave sandals and baskets from yucca plants, and to dry animal hides. Flint knapping, striking stones together to make stone tools, was a constant chore. The Sinagua were fine artisans, fashioning stone tools, awls and needles, handsome woven cotton garments, and stone and turquoise decorations. They had a wide trading network that covered hundreds of miles.
Few prehistoric Indian tribes were self-sufficient, so trading was essential. The Sinagua acquired pottery from the Anasazi and Hopi, parrots from Mexico, and seashells brought by traders from the Gulf of Mexico. Hohokam traders from the south, and northern Sinagua and Anasazi came to acquire salt from the valley’s lake deposits, and copper ore from the local hills provided by the Sinagua.
Though they seemed to live in a paradise, life could be harsh for the Tuzigoot. Child mortality was high, and when children died they were buried in stone-lined crypts beneath the floors of pueblo rooms, in hope that their spirits would be incorporated in succeeding generations. Few Sinagua adults lived past age 40. When they died they were buried in the hillsides with a few personal possessions. Their heads were covered with rush matting and their bodies wrapped in cotton cloth. Archeologists at Tuzigoot have uncovered over 400 burial sites, and it is believed many more still exist.
Historians have not come up with an explanation why the Sinagua suddenly abandoned their pueblos, around 1400, or where they went. Some speculate that several years of drought may have made it impossible to continue to support themselves in the Verde Valley and they moved on in search of a new home. Others think an epidemic disease may have been a factor, or hostile Indian tribes moving into the area. Yet another theory is that they may have disbanded over internal conflicts and been absorbed into other Indian tribes. Whatever the reason, they disappeared, and no separate Sinagua tribe exists today.
Today Tuzigoot National Monument is comprised of 58 acres that includes a stone visitor center housing a small museum and gift shop, and the main ruins. A circular ¼ mile trail, that can be steep in places, winds up the hill and through the ruins of the old pueblo. Visitors can walk inside some of the rooms and get a small idea of what life was like for the ancient people who lived here, and climb to the rooftops to look out across the Verde Valley, which today provides resources to support an even greater population of residents.
Tuzigoot National Monument is located just north of Clarkdale, Arizona, off Alternate US Highway 89. The parking lot will accommodate a couple of RVs, as well as passenger cars. The visitor center is wheelchair accessible. Wheeled vehicles, such as wheelchairs and baby strollers, are not recommended on the ruins trail. The trail guide is available in Braille, large print, and on tape, on request.
Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winter hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The monument is closed on Christmas day. National Parks Passes, Golden Eagle Passports, Golden Age, and Golden Access Passports are honored. For more information, write Tuzigoot National Monument, P.O. Box 219, Camp Verde, AZ 86322 or call (928) 634-5564.
It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing, and we’ve got another great prize this week. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Dead Letter by Catherine Bender. The first book in the M. Falconm mystery series, it’s the tale of amateur detectives in their golden years with a treasure trove of unexpected skills and unconventional tactics, including a sweet wheelchair bound grandmother type who is a master computer hacker, a semi-retired actress who seizes the opportunity to live her dream of being a super spy, a homeless veteran, and other blue hairs who are not content to rock their lives away in boring retirement. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – April distance brings May existence.