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Secrets in the Cinders Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Tom Gidwitz

How Native Americans in the Southwest survived--and even profited from--an eleventh-century volcanic eruption

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The crew excavates a pit house three miles from Sunset Crater. (Mark Elson) [LARGER IMAGE]

Fifteen miles northeast of Flagstaff, a 1,000-foot cone dominates the landscape. Named for the rosy cinders that tint its summit, Sunset Crater sprang to life centuries ago, splitting the earth and shattering the lives of the ancient people who felt its wrath. Recently a research team dug into the volcano's cinders and discovered remarkable evidence that when Sunset Crater erupted a millennia ago, thousands faced catastrophe. And then, with flexibility and resilience, they built a new way of life on the posteruption landscape.

Evidence of flight and adaptation lives on in the tribal memories of the Hopi, Native Americans who are direct descendants of the prehistoric Sinagua who lived around Sunset Crater. The time of u'wing pangk yama, "when fire came forth," is still a strong presence in their rituals and traditions. "Long ago the ground trembled, a big black smoke came," a Bear Clan member told the team, and earthquakes heralded a "big fire that came out of the ground." Ash, lightning, windstorms, and explosions drove some ancestors from their pueblos into smaller dwellings. They dispersed north to the Grand Canyon, west to the high desert, and northeast to the Hopi mesa villages.

Sunset Crater exploded at a time when the Southwest's primary political powers were beginning to collapse. These upheavals, Elson thinks, may be indirectly rooted in the frightening orange fire fountains, visible to so many. "If social systems had been weakened prior to the eruption, perhaps due to several years of drought or even minor social unrest, the eruption could have been seen as a big-time sign that change was in order."

Tom Gidwitz is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

For further reading on this topic, see Volcanoes of Northern Arizona: Sleeping Giants of the Grand Canyon Region by Wendell Duffield (The Grand Canyon Association: Grand Canyon, AZ, 1997), a introduction to the region's volcanoes and a detailed road guide. See also Black Sand: Pre-History in Northern Arizona by Harold S. Colton (Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 1973) and Earth Fire, a Hopi Legend of the Sunset Crater Eruption by Ekkehart Malotki with Michael Lomatuway'ma, (Northland Press: Flagstaff, AZ, 1987).

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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