Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dreams of Summer: Living Under the Threat of Destruction at Wupatki

The San Francisco Peaks, a gigantic stratovolcano, rises beyond the ruins of the Citadel at Wupatki National Monument.
There is a huge difference between living close to the Earth without advanced technology and living in a highly technological society. Well, lots of differences actually, but today I'm thinking about living in ignorance of geological hazards. The thought arose because of our visit to the rather fantastic pueblos of Wupatki National Monument in the region east of Grand Canyon. There are lots of archaeological remains of the people who lived in the Colorado Plateau over the last 12,000 years, but few of them are as spectacular as the pueblos that were built between 1,100 and 1,285 AD. Many, maybe most, were fortresses. Some of these people seemed to be living in fear.
The Citadel ruin at Wupatki is built on the eroded remains of a basalt lava flow.
There has been a mountain of speculation about why the Ancestral Pueblo people and other cultures took such a defensive posture in their architecture. It is well known that most of the Colorado Plateau was abandoned in the late 13th century, and the hypotheses are numerous. There were a series of droughts, including a 25-year-long monster. These was evidence of warfare in a few places. Soils had washed away in many places. There could have been religious or cultural forces in place that caused migrations. It's an interesting issue that will keep archaeologists busy for a long time.
The view of the San Francisco Peaks from the top of the Citadel ruin.
Archaeology played a special part of our summer field studies journey across the Colorado Plateau. Half our students were majors in the subject (or possessed a lot of interest in the subject) who were learning geology. And our geologists were learning archaeology. I've been doing joint trips with our anthropology professors for a decade now, and we find a lot of common scientific ground as we travel through this fascinating landscape.
The hundred room pueblo at Wupatki
Wupatki National Monument preserves structures and sites of numerous ancient cultures, but the most visible were built by the Sinagua people, whose descendants still live in the region (the Hopi, Zuni,  Pima, Tohono O'odham, and Yavapai people). The region was a crossroads of sorts, and direct evidence suggests habitation as early as 500 AD. People lived at the site for 600 years, perhaps never suspecting that they were living on volcanic ground.
That changed in 1085 AD or so when Sunset Crater, a basaltic cinder cone, erupted, sending out lava flows, cinders and ash over a region totaling about 800 square miles (the longest lava flow was 6 miles long). Lava flows covered several villages.

It's possible that some cultural recognition of volcanism existed in the stories and traditions of the people who lived in the path of destruction, but maybe not. Can you imagine the impact of seeing a volcanic eruption in progress for the first time as a people? What kind of stories would be told explaining the phenomenon? Many of the old ruins are built on older volcanic deposits. Did the logical thinkers among the people recognize in a flash the origin of the ground and rock on which their homes were constructed?

In any case, the region was abandoned for a few decades, but settlers came back, finding that the ash had rejuvenated the soils. A gift of the gods? One wonders. They lived and built homes in the region for two more centuries before leaving the land for other places. Although the abandonment was part of a regional pattern, one can wonder if those two centuries included a healthy fear of the fires from down below in the crust?
Sunset Crater, the youngest volcano in the San Francisco Peaks Volcanic Field. It erupted about 1085 AD
The Sinagua people of Wupatki may or may not have known about volcanoes prior to 1085 AD, but in our highly technological society, we understand a great deal about volcanoes, and geology has provided us the tools to figure out the probabilities of future eruptions. Likewise, we are able to calculate to a reasonable degree the probabilities of earthquakes within given time frames (over a 30 year period, for instance). We can calculate flood probabilities before a particular storm arrives.  But that also means we live with a certain amount of fear. This is good in the sense of allowing the society to prepare. But fear can also be manipulated.

I can imagine a shaman or other kind of leader of the Sinagua threatening his or her people with the return of the legendary fire gods of the volcano to achieve some nefarious end. Can we imagine anyone who would be tempted to manipulate scientific knowledge into a fear of volcanoes (can you say "SUPERVOLCANO" nice and loud?) or earthquakes (can you say CASCADIA?) to achieve influence and power?

Source: (actually, this is good article)
Nah, I'm sure no one would fan the flames of fear in modern society...the internet and other mass media has brought knowledge and wisdom to us all.

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