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Walnut Canyon: Home of the Pre-Columbian Sinagua People

Walnut Canyon: Home of the Pre-Columbian Sinagua People

Walnut Canyon is a United States National Monument located in southwestern state of Arizona. This national monument is situated near Flagstaff, about 230 km (142.92 miles) to the north of Phoenix, the capital of Arizona. One of the important features of Walnut Canyon is that it has been identified as the home of a group of Ancestral Puebloans known as the Sinagua.

The Ancestral Puebloans were an ancient Native American culture that inhabited what is today known as the Four Corners region of the United States, i.e. the southwestern corner of Colorado, the southeastern corner of Utah, the northeastern corner of Arizona and the northwestern corner of New Mexico.

Sinagua’s Presence

Sinagua is a contraction of the Spanish words sin agua , which means ‘without water’. The Sinagua were a Pre-Columbian people who lived between the 7th and 15th centuries AD in central Arizona. The name given to this group of people attests to the arid region in which the Sinagua managed to survive.

Prior to the 12th century AD, the Sinagua had maintained a light presence in Walnut Canyon. It was only around 1120 AD that this culture began to have a greater existence in the area. It was also about this time (during the 12th and 13th centuries AD) that the Sinagua were most successful, and they had adapted to much of the western Mogollon Rim, the San Francisco Mountain volcanic field, and the Verde Valley.

Sinagua petroglyphs at the V-bar-V petroglyph site.

Sinagua petroglyphs at the V-bar-V petroglyph site. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Walnut Canyon Settlement

In Walnut Canyon, the Sinagua built over 80 dwellings, which possibly inhabited several hundred people. Walnut Canyon is thought to have been formed due to 60 million years of erosion from flowing water and wind. The ledges formed due to the winding course of the Walnut Creek provided natural alcoves which would later be used by the Sinagua as shelter.

When the Sinagua first arrived in the region, they lived in pit houses and freestanding pueblos scattered around the canyon rims. As the population increased, however, a different type of domestic architecture was introduced.

Walnut Canyon National Monument Cliff Dwellings.

Walnut Canyon National Monument Cliff Dwellings. (CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Sinagua transformed the natural alcoves in Walnut Canyon (found below the canyon rim) into unique cave dwellings by the 1100s. These shelters can still be seen today. Limestone rocks cemented with golden colored clay were used to form walls around the eroded limestone caves. Additionally, wooden beams were used to reinforce the doorways.

Most of the Sinagua dwellings are found in the southern and eastern parts of Walnut Canyon, so as to make full use of the sunlight. Nevertheless, some of these shelters have also been found in the canyon’s northern and western areas, and were perhaps used during the warmer months.

Dry-Farming, Hunting and Gathering

The Sinagua living in Walnut Canyon had a society that was based on agriculture. Despite the hostile environment, the Sinagua developed strategies that allowed them to thrive in this region. For instance, they employed a farming technique known as ‘dry-farming’, which allowed them to harvest corn, squash and beans (known also as the ‘three sisters’). Corn is able to tolerate the sun, and provides shade for squash and beans, which are lower growing, and do not require direct sunlight in order to survive.

Ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people on Island Trail at Walnut Canyon National Monument.

Ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people on Island Trail at Walnut Canyon National Monument. ( Public Domain )

As for water, one source where the Sinagua could get this precious commodity was the Walnut Creek. Still, the creek did not flow all year round, and was therefore not exactly a reliable place for the Sinagua to get water from. In order to overcome this problem, the Sinagua built terraces and rock check dams which enabled them to conserve rainwater.    

Apart from planting their own crops, the Sinagua also obtained sustenance by hunting and gathering. For example, deer, bighorn sheep, and other small animals found in Walnut Canyon added protein to the diet of the Sinagua. Additionally, wild grapes, berries, yucca, and the Arizona black walnut were harvested from the canyon, whilst other plants found growing on the canyon rims were collected, and then either eaten or used for medicinal purposes.

The view up Walnut Creek from the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon National Monument. Ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people can be seen under the rock overhangs on both sides of the canyon.

The view up Walnut Creek from the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon National Monument. Ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people can be seen under the rock overhangs on both sides of the canyon. ( Public Domain )

The natural alcoves that were built by the Sinagua were occupied for approximately 125/150 years. It seems that around the middle of the 13th century AD, the Sinagua in Walnut Canyon decided to abandon their dwellings there, and settle in nearby villages. One possible explanation for this migration is that there was a drop in the annual average rainfall, which would have made farming even more difficult. After the 15th century AD, the Sinagua culture as a distinct entity disappeared from the archaeological record.

Featured image: Cliff dwellings of the Sinagua in Walnut Canyon. Photo source: CC BY SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Dept. of Anthropology, Northern Arizona University, 2016. The Sinagua. [Online]
Available at: http://www2.nau.edu/d-antlab/Soutwestern%20Arch/Sinagua/sinagua.htm

National Park Service, 2016. People. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nps.gov/waca/learn/historyculture/people.htm

National Park Service, 2016. Walnut Canyon National Monument. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Walnut_Canyon_National_Monument.html

Sharp, J. W., 2016. The Sinagua. [Online]
Available at: http://www.desertusa.com/ind1/du_peo_sin.html

Subia, T., 2014. Walnut Canyon Ancient Cliff Dwellings At Walnut Canyon National Monument. [Online]
Available at: http://www.arizona-leisure.com/walnut-canyon.html

Zentner, J., 2016. The Remarkable Cliff City of Walnut Canyon. [Online]
Available at: http://www.desertusa.com/desert-arizona/walnut-canyon.html

Comments

Excellent place to visit. Its basically a loop around the middle of a canyon. Not for the unfit. Lots of steps down metal stairs to the actual site itself. Very surreal place to walk and imagine life on a canyon outrcopping.

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