Casa Malpais: Death by Religious Warfare?

One of the most intriguing clues to the mystery of the regional collapse of ancient civilizations throughout the Southwest lies on a high plateau grassland that lies at the edge of both the Sonoran and Great Basin deserts—the stone ruins of Casa Malpais, a 50-room pueblo on a lava flow riddled with caves. Casa Malpais is the most visible and accessible of a string of pueblos built along the headwaters of the Little Colorado River, which runs down through the Painted Desert, a subdivision of the Great Basin Desert, and on down into the Grand Canyon, which harbors a threadlike piece of the Mojave Desert.

The ruins dream in the sun: great wooden beams hauled by hand for 20 miles (32.2 km); a huge kiva (ceremonial structure) linked to the spirit world; windows and slots that allow summer solstice light to fall on intricate pictoglyphs; a network of exquisitely engineered irrigation canals. But these ruins harbor even deeper secrets—beneath lie the only known catacombs in the prehistoric West. And in the architecture and artifacts, these ruins along the Little Colorado also hold clues about the birth of a new religion that may help account for the collapse of civilizations throughout the Southwest.

The village once supported 200 to 400 people and includes many pictoglyphs and astronomical sites. One platform apparently provided a place to tether a captive eagle for ceremonies, since many Pueblo people considered eagles to be divine messengers passing between Heaven and Earth. The village was built in the late 1200s and largely abandoned by the late 1300s, including an observatory designed so that the rising sun would illuminate designs on the walls on the longest and shortest days of the year. The designs on the walls include a flying parrot, a double spiral that suggests an emerging corn sprout, a woman the Zuni say represents a sacred corn maiden, a bear paw, symbols for migration, the sun, and ancestral beings.

The discovery of catacombs below Casa Malpais caused an archaeological sensation. Both the Hopi and the Zuni objected to disturbing the bodies of people they consider their ancestors. So the city of Springerville agreed to seal the catacombs, with suitable prayers and offerings by Hopi and Zuni spiritual leaders.

The waters and springs that feed the Little Colorado originate in the surrounding mountains. The river wanders across the 7,000-foot-high (2,133 m) volcanic plateau and on down through grasslands and deserts to the Grand Canyon. The stretch of slow, muddy river water between St. Johns and Springerville offers one of the few areas where ancient people could divert water to irrigate farmland. As a result, the region has lured people for thousands of years. The irrigation-based civilization that arose here between about a.d. 1000 and 1400 was influenced by surrounding groups and may have welcomed migrating groups from different areas. This blending of cultures spurred the development of the kachina religion, which then spread throughout the Southwest. The rise of the kachina religion may have led to the decline of the dominant religion centered in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the high point of the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) civilization.

This may help explain the decline of the highly centralized Chaco culture, with its baffling system of wonderfully engineered roads made by a people with no horses or cattle and therefore no use for the wheel. Casa Malpais and the nearby ruins may have played a crucial role in this transformation due to their uniquely documented mingling of different cultures. In addition, the region forms the overlapping frontier dividing two of the oldest and most vital of the pueblo cultures, the Zuni and the Hopi. The Zuni, linguistically related to groups in California, believe they emerged from a previous world in the depths of the Grand Canyon. They then followed the Little Colorado River out of the Grand Canyon and across the desert to their homeland on a cluster of windswept mesas in New Mexico. For centuries, they have maintained shrines in the area. Religious leaders make regular pilgrimages to these sites within view of the surrounding sacred mountain peaks. They pray and leave tokens in some of the caves, whose locations remain secret. They say the Little Colorado is the umbilical cord that connects them to their origins and call the place where the rivers meet near Casa Malpais “Zuni Heaven.”

The Hopi, linguistically related to the Aztecs in Mexico, believe they also emerged from a previous world drowned by the Creator because of the foolishness and wickedness of human beings. The different clans set out on epic migrations, seeking the best place to live. They explored the world and found many lush places. But finally all circled back to the Hopi mesas, realizing they would lose their way spiritually in such easy places. They realized the harshness of their homeland would hold them to their prayers and right thinking. Their oral traditions hold that several clans came to the Hopi mesas from the area around Casa Malpais, including the Kangaroo Rat, Turkey, Road Runner, Boomerang, Fire, Stick, Butterfly, Bamboo, Reed, Greasewood, Coyote, Hawk, Spider, and Parrot Clans. They call the area around Casa Malpais Wenima and say that the kachinas lived here, which reinforces the evidence of pottery shards and pictoglyphs.

The rich Zuni and Hopi oral traditions, plus recent archaeological findings, suggest that this stretch of river with its 10 known villages is crucial to understanding the dynamic mingling of cultures and ideas that shaped the prehistory of the region and perhaps help explain the mysterious collapse of farming-based, pueblo-building cultures throughout the Southwest. The evidence shows that over a period of several hundred years these settlements along the Little Colorado River provided a cultural melting pot, taking ideas from all the nearby cultures and blending them into something new.

This has prompted some archaeologists to argue that the kachina religion emerged from this cultural cross-fertilization. This new religion would have challenged the centralized theology of Chaco, which made possible the huge settlements, massive irrigation works, and expertly cobbled roads radiating outward from Chaco for hundreds of miles. That highly centralized Chaco system may have faced a crisis, which the prayers of the Chacooriented priests failed to avert. That would have spurred the spread of the kachina religion, which was connected to older traditions. The decline of Chaco coincides with the spread outward from the Casa Malpais area of kachina motifs on pottery found in villages and burials. Moreover, the rise of the decentralized kachina religion coincides with the decline of centralized, irrigation-based civilizations throughout the Southwest.

This absorbing history of triumph and collapse of desert civilizations over the course of 1,000 years illustrates both the bounty and the dangers in even the richest of the world’s deserts. This jagged, often-harsh landscape has also spawned an equally vivid and fascinating recent history, including the most compelling myths and stories of the fabled American West.