When we think about remnants of ancient civilizations, we often think of places like Egypt, Greece or Italy. Athens, Cairo and Rome are certainly places people visit for the primary purpose of observing and learning about history. However, one thing I learned about travel, generally speaking, is that history is all around us. Evidence of historical events, both the human and natural kind, can be found almost everywhere, and sometimes in some unexpected places.
Wupatki National Monument sits about 30 miles north of Flagstaff and is easily accessible via U.S. highway 89. Those traveling through the area can visit the remnants of several abandoned pueblos, as well as sunset crater, the site of a volcanic eruption, on a convenient 36 mile scenic drive.
In the 11th, 12th and early 13th centuries, the region around the present day four corners was home to one of the most advanced civilizations in North America north of the Aztec Empire.
They had houses large and small.
They even had buildings that would serve the equivalent function to the larger buildings we have in urban areas today.
Recent evidence indicates that the population of the continent before Columbus’s arrival was likely much higher than we had originally thought. Before the pueblos were abandoned and subject to 700 years of weathering, these building were certainly more densely packed together than they appear today. Archeologists and historians are still debating why the settlements here and in other nearby places were just abandoned. It is likely that a combination of drought and over-hunting made the region no longer ideal for civilization at the time. Looking out upon them and imagining this past, it becomes possible to speculate about people’s lives at the time.
Some things were certainly different from our lives today. For example, they did not have the means to travel long distances, as horses would be introduced by the Spanish centuries later. So, there were few journeys or adventures. However, based on human nature, there was certainly the friendships, conflicts, drama, power struggles, rivalries, parties, shared experiences and accomplishments that go along with life in towns and cities.
There were definitely events, one of which is evidenced by Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument on the same scenic drive
Evidence points to this volcano erupting in the later half of the 11th century. The eruption was seen by Anasazi and Sinagua inhabitants of the region. They probably talked about it for years, possibly even the entire two-ish centuries between the eruption and their mysterious departure from the region.
The volcanic eruptions changed the landscape of the area in ways that can still be seen today. Slopes in the area still appear black from the ash that followed the eruption.
Scientists can identify the minerals deposited on the rocks in the area.
These minerals likely altered the manner in which the Anasazi and Sinagua people farmed the area when they lived in these pueblos.
I began to wonder what other records, knowledge and traditions were lost when these civilizations collapsed. Could they have had scientific knowledge that we will never benefit from? Did they have philosophical ideas worthy of our consideration? Is there a history we could be learning from?
Sometimes it feels like we fail to consider the history of a place before “our” involvement- before we arrived. What event constitutes “our” arrival is open to debate. Regardless, “our” involvement in the North American continent spans between 150 and just over 500 years out of a history that goes back at least 13,000. What happened on this continent before Columbus arrived certainly impacts our lives today.
Even if we talk about the course of events on the scale of our individual lives, the same bias often surfaces. We’ll move to a city and learn what highways jam up at what hours of the day, what restaurants to go to, etc. But, what about the city a few decades ago? There is often a reason, based on the migration of people, why the best Italian restaurants are in one neighborhood and the best Chinese ones are in another.
As I took a deep breath and gazed out into the open sky I thought about a phenomenon I had first thought of nearly 20 years ago. Right now, there is something happening, in another town, involving people I do not know yet, that will have a significant impact on my life. The same can be said for anyone else, including anyone reading this entry.