Arizona: Wupatki National Monument Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The thirty-six-thousand-acre National Monument is the site of Indian ruins dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The most famous ruins are Wukoki, the Citadel, Lomaki, and Wupatki Pueblo. The structures were built after a nearby volcanic eruption blanketed the area with volcanic ash, attracting a variety of Indian groups–the Sinagua, Cohonino, Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, and Cíbola–to the newly arable land. The site was abandoned in the thirteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the site was inhabited by Navajo and Hopi Indians. By the turn of the century, archaeological excavations had begun there.

Site Office


Wupatki National Monument

HC33 Box 444A

Flagstaff, AZ 86004

ph.: (520) 679-2365

Web site:

Except for a short period of about one hundred years, the Wupatki basin was uninhabited by archaic peoples. High winds, extremely varied temperatures, lack of water, and poor soil made the region inhospitable to long-term settlement. Even now, depending on the season, temperatures range from near 0 to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Annual rainfall is minimal, vegetation is scant, and the area can appropriately be described as desolate. Archaeological evidence suggests that archaic peoples were familiar with the area, because stone tools have been found to the east of the basin, on alluvial terraces along the Little Colorado River, but it is unlikely that early peoples inhabited the Wupatki basin itself unless conditions there were very different from what they are today.

Earliest Inhabitants

In the eleventh century the closest inhabitants to the Wupatki basin were the Sinagua (Spanish for “without water”), who at that time had been living for about four hundred years in villages to the south and east, around the San Francisco Peaks. The Sinagua were known for their ability to survive in semidesert conditions, successfully living and farming with very little water. Besides farming, some Sinagua also apparently hunted and gathered in the Wupatki basin.

In the last months of 1064 c.e., the Sinagua no doubt experienced strange rumblings and shaking of the earth on which they were living and cultivating. Gases and molten rock were about to erupt in the nearby Wupatki basin, and to form the volcanic cone known as Sunset Crater. The Indians fled the area before the eruption, which, according to tree-ring dating methods, took place some time during the winter of 1064-1065.

The eruption must have been surprising to the Sinagua and any other people in the vicinity because it occurred in an unimposing stretch of rocky, dry land, rather than an obvious volcano. Molten rock and highly compressed gases, a combination known as magma, exploded through the earth’s crust, blowing rock and cinders all around the point of the explosion. This debris formed a small, cone-shaped volcanic mountain. The explosion also scattered ash and cinders for hundreds of miles around the point of eruption.

Before long, the Sinagua realized that the dark, unusual-looking residue that remained on the soil after the volcanic explosion had actually enriched the land and made it more suitable for agriculture. The ash and cinders worked as a natural mulch that conserved moisture and made the ground more fertile. As a result, dry farming became possible in the Wupatki basin. During this same time period, rainfall in the area also increased. It is unclear whether the increased precipitation was directly related to the eruption, but the climatic change also improved the ability of the region to support farming. Nevertheless, experts believe that, while farming was now possible in the Wupatki basin, it was never exceedingly productive.

The Arrival of Other Tribes

The Sinagua returned to the area, but they were not the only people drawn to this newly fertile region. Indian peoples who lived nearby in all directions gradually began migrating to Wupatki basin. The Cohonino came first, followed by Anasazi from the Kayenta region to the north. Hohokam moved up from the Verde Valley to the south, Mogollon migrated from the southeast, and Cíbola peoples, who were closely related to the Mogollon, migrated from the east.

Within two generations, Wupatki basin, once nearly barren, was supporting a population of between four thousand and five thousand people. The basin rapidly developed into a multicultural area, a “melting pot” of different Indian peoples living near one another. Because each of these groups also had numerous trade contacts outside the Wupatki basin, the cultural mix was broadened even further.

The diverse Wupatki community was unusual in prehistoric southwestern life. Before and after Wupatki, tribal groups tended to stay in specific areas, among their own kind. They lived separately, although peacefully, for centuries, frequently relocating where they could find better conditions, but mostly remaining with people of their own culture and apart from other groups.

For more than one hundred years, however, the multicultural community of Wupatki apparently fared quite well. Despite the potential for conflict that might have been caused by the interaction of different cultures and customs, archaeological remains suggest that the groups coexisted harmoniously and productively. The peoples appear to have learned from one another. There is much evidence that architecture and certain types of physical structures were borrowed, particularly by the Sinagua, from the Anasazi and the Hohokam. Because only the physical artifacts and ruins of the Wupatki community remain, no one knows if or to what extent they adapted beliefs, customs, or rituals from one another.


Until they moved to Wupatki basin, the Sinagua had traditionally been pithouse dwellers. They usually lived in underground rooms, with roofs supported by four poles and an entrance passage that also served as a ventilator. At Wupatki, however, the Sinagua built and occupied the largest pueblo, now known as Wupatki Pueblo, apparently using the Anasazi pueblo style as a model. Wupatki Pueblo, in front of which the monument’s visitors’ center was built, was the only major pueblo built by the Sinagua in the area. The residence, constructed from sandstone and limestone held together with clay mortar, was so soundly built that it still remains fairly intact, despite the passage of seven hundred years and the destruction caused by vandals throughout the centuries.

The dwelling appears to have been occupied as early as 1106, and during the twelfth century as many as three hundred people lived in it. The residential compound contained single-story, single-family houses as well as a multilevel highrise that probably had more than one hundred rooms.

The Anasazi apparently influenced the Sinagua in other ways besides architecturally. The Sinagua also built a circular amphitheater or “dance plaza” that resembles an Anasazi kiva. Kivas were round, mostly underground pit rooms that the Anasazi used for religious and ceremonial purposes. Although similar in shape to an Anasazi kiva, the Sinagua amphitheater did not have a roof, as kivas did, nor all the ceremonial trappings of a kiva. It is unclear whether the structure served the same purpose as a kiva, but most likely it was used for ceremonial gatherings of some kind.

Ball Courts

The Hohokam at Wupatki basin also appear to have influenced the Sinagua, because the Sinagua constructed an oval ball court at their pueblo. These courts, which are similar to others found in Mexico and Central America, were the signature structure of the Hohokam throughout the Southwest. Although the specifics of the game or games played in the ball courts are not known, it is likely that the courts were introduced to the Hohokam from Indian peoples living in what is now Mexico. To the Maya and Aztec peoples there, the game had religious or ritualistic overtones. Apparently, the goal of the game was to get a rubber ball through a stone ring without using hands or feet. Whether the game was changed when played by the Hohokam and others throughout the Southwest is unknown.

The unique aspect of the ball court at Wupatki is that it is made of masonry; typically these courts are constructed of adobe. The Wupatki ball court is also located near a blow hole, a crack in the earth through which air passes in and out. Since other communities in the Southwest were built near blow holes, it is likely that these holes had special or possibly sacred meaning to the Indians.

Other Ruins

Among the other accessible ruins in the Wupatki monument area are Wukoki, Lomaki, and the Citadel. Wukoki, a three-story pueblo constructed entirely of finished blocks of Moenkopi sandstone, was built on an outcropping of the same kind of sandstone. Lomaki, an exquisitely constructed pueblo (its name means “beautiful house”), sits near a collapsed crack in the earth that may have had a special meaning to the people. The Citadel, originally a two-story structure that included fifty rooms and may have housed as many as sixty people, resembles a fortress, even though there is no evidence of war or fighting in the area at that time. These were the dwellings of Kayenta Anasazi, a distinctive subgroup of the Anasazi, whose homelands were to the northeast of Wupatki, in the Four Corners area.

Influences in the Region

It is likely that the Anasazi were the dominant group in Wupatki basin. Theirs was a dynamic and expansive culture close to its height of development in the twelfth century, and they exerted the most apparent influences on architecture and possibly religious ritual of all the residents in Wupatki basin. The Anasazi, who had a long tradition of dwelling in pueblos, traced their roots to Basketmaker peoples, among the earliest farmers in the Southwest. Experts speculate that the development of pueblos may be related to the development of farming, since growing crops meant that the Anasazi had to stay in one place for extended periods of time.

The building of ball courts suggests that the Hohokam may have been the second most influential of the peoples in the multicultural Wupatki basin. The Hohokam, who lived primarily in the Salt and Gila River valleys, were also known for their engineering abilities, particularly for building extensive networks of irrigation canals that enabled them to survive in near-desert conditions from about 200 to 1450 c.e. Neither pithouse nor pueblo dwellers, the Hohokam usually lived in single-room, separate rectangular houses. They were also skilled artisans who created exceptionally fine jewelry.

The Mogollon and Cohonino, who migrated to Wupatki basin in smaller numbers than the Anasazi and Hohokam, were less advanced than the other cultures there. The Cohonino, for example, remained living in pithouses even at Wupatki. Consequently, very few of their cultural artifacts now remain. The Mogollon, whose culture during the eleventh century seems to have been influenced by the Anasazi’s, are best known for their exquisite pottery. A Mogollon subgroup, for example, created the highly geometric, black-and-white pottery known as “Mimbres.” With its detailed depictions of plants, animals, insects, and people, this pottery is among the most beautiful of the ancient Southwest. It is not clear how many Mogollon moved to the Wupatki basin, or whether they lived in pueblos there.


Like many other pre-Columbian dwelling places in the Southwest, the Wupatki basin was not long occupied. The drought that gripped the region during the thirteenth century affected the Wupatki basin as greatly as other areas. The volcanic ash that made the region arable was gradually dispersed by winds and time. It is also possible that soil depletion and disease affected the people’s ability to remain in the area. By 1225 nearly all residents of the Wupatki basin had departed, leaving behind hundreds of pueblos.

Evidence suggests the Sinagua left initially in small groups and then in larger numbers for the Verde Valley, where the water supply was still ample and where related peoples also lived. The other residents may have returned to their homelands or migrated to new areas; no one knows for sure.

From the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries, the Wupatki basin was again largely uninhabited, although the Hopi, who trace their Parrot Clan to Wupatki Pueblo, apparently lived in the pueblo for a while, possibly half a century after the Sinagua left. In the mid-nineteenth century, Navajo people as well as some Hopi began living nearby.

Archaeological Expeditions

Although Spanish explorers traveled near the area in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the first Anglo-American to document the existence of the Wupatki ruins was Lieutenant Lorenzo Sitgreaves. Sitgreaves came upon them in 1851 while searching for an overland route through New Mexico to the Little Colorado River. Eleven years later, Arizona became a U.S. territory separate from New Mexico, and shortly thereafter Wupatki was surveyed by archaeologist John Wesley Powell. Throughout the late 1800’s, the Wupatki region began attracting more people. Both Navajo and Anglo-American ranchers grazed sheep in the area, and the newly constructed railroad brought settlers from the East. As a result of the growth of a new community around Flagstaff, many people visited the ruins and raided them of pottery and other artifacts.

The ruins at Wupatki were not systematically studied until the turn of the century, when archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes mapped and documented the area. The first custodian of Wupatki, J. C. Clarke, named the large pueblo Wupatki, changing it from Wukoki, the label Fewkes had given it. Wupatki was established as a National Monument in 1924. In 1933, it was studied and partially excavated by the Museum of Northern Arizona.

In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the jobs program known as the Civilian Works Administration (CWA), the Wupatki ruins were among several prehistoric Indian sites excavated and stabilized by workers in the National Park Service, under the auspices of the Southwestern Monument Service. Artifacts found during that excavation are housed at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Many of the hundreds of pueblos and prehistoric sites on the thirty-six-thousand-acre National Monument have not been excavated. Exhibits at the visitors’ center include a re-creation of a typical Wupatki room, a variety of crafts and artifacts characteristic of the peoples who lived in the area, and displays that explain the history of the region.

For Further Information
  • Gaede, Marni, ed. Camera, Spade, and Pen: An Inside View of Southwestern Archaeology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980. Offers a unique view of prehistoric southwestern Indian cultures such as the Anasazi and Hohokam through personal interviews with people who investigated and studied the archaeological sites where these peoples lived. The photographs by Marc Gaede that accompany the interviews are spectacular.
  • McGregor, John C. Southwestern Archaeology. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. A helpful chronological study of the major early cultures of the Southwest, with extensive information about the pottery and other artifacts the cultures left behind. Photographs, numerous illustrations, and maps add to this thorough history of prehistoric life in the Southwest.
  • Noble, David Grant. Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide. 2d rev. ed. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Press, 2000. Offers a thorough yet concise look at the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest. Excellent photographs and numerous simple maps add to the book’s usefulness.
  • Wilson, Josleen. The Passionate Amateur’s Guide to Archaeology in the United States. New York: Collier Books, 1980. Offers brief descriptions of archaeological sites throughout the country. Entries include hours, phone numbers, addresses, admission fees, and directions.
Categories: History Content