Casa Malpais

Stone walls of a square kiva, typical of a Mogollon kiva
Stone walls of a square kiva, typical of a Mogollon kiva
The stone ring foundation of the solar observatory structure
The Solar Observatory

Casa Malpais was first begun around 1240 CE and was abandoned before 1400 CE. It is one of the last settlements found that has been attributed to the Mogollon culture. At its height, Casa Malpais consisted of about 60 rooms with a Solar Calendar and a Great Kiva built nearby. As the Hopi and Zuni consider Casa Malpais to be sacred, there must have been migrants from Casa Malpais to both. By 1400, the Mogollon culture had essentially disappeared, merged into surrounding cultures.

The stone pueblo at Casa Malpais was built of basalt found locally as the pueblo was built on terraces down the side of a volcanic basalt mesa. The constructions bridged some of the fault fissures in the surface rock. Construction material was everywhere: the Springerville volcanic field is the third largest volcanic field in the continental United States. Logs for roof beams were close by, too. At the foot of the mesa a good stream flowed and there was good agricultural land on both sides. Life was good until a really severe drought hit in the late 1300's. That drought was enough to cause major upheaval and mass migrations all over the Puebloan world. Many of those in this part of Arizona were to the lands of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Laguna.

Today, Casa Malpais is a Springerville city property and can be visited only while on a tour organized by the good people at the Casa Malpais Archaeological Park and Museum at 418 East Main Street in Springerville. Tours originate at the museum and are only available Tuesdays through Saturdays, March through November.

Looking between the stone walls of the entryway to the square kiva
Looking through the entrance to the square kiva
Map showing the routes of migration taken by Kayenta potters as they left the Kayenta-Tusayan area in the late 1200's
Routes of the Kayenta-Tusayan
migration in the late 1200's CE

Great wooden roof beams hauled about 20 miles by hand, a huge stone kiva, windows and slots that allow summer solstice light to fall on intricate pictoglyphs inside and a network of finely engineered irrigation canals in the river valley below. But beneath the ruins are even deeper secrets — beneath lie the only catacombs found in the prehistoric West. And in the architecture and artifacts, these ruins along the Little Colorado River also hold clues about the birth of a new religion that evolved at the same time as the almost simultaneous collapse of civilizations all across the Southwest.

The village now known as Casa Malpais once supported between 200 and 400 people. The ruin includes many pictoglyphs and astronomical sites. One platform seems to have provided a tether for a captive eagle for ceremonies: many ancient Pueblo people considered eagles to be divine messengers passing between Heaven and Earth.

The ruins include an observatory designed so that the rising sun would illuminate specific designs on the walls on the longest and shortest days of the year. The designs on the walls include a flying parrot, a bear paw, a double spiral, a woman the Zuni say represents a sacred corn maiden and symbols for migration, the sun and other ancestral beings.

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

Map showing the locations of the larger Southwestern cultures around 1350 CE
Southwestern Cultures in 1350 CE

The waters and springs that feed the Little Colorado originate in the mountains around Casa Malpais. The river wanders across the 7,000-foot-high volcanic plateau and down through grasslands, deserts and deep canyons 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 1000 and 1400 CE was influenced by the surrounding Hohokam, Mogollon and Ancestral Puebloans. Migrations from different areas were common, depending on short term weather events and encroaching marauders. The blending of cultures that happened here spurred the development of the kachina religion, which then spread throughout the Southwest as the old cultures died.

The rise of the kachina religion may help explain the decline of the highly centralized Chaco culture, with its system of wonderfully engineered roads made by a people with no horses or cattle and who never invented the wheel. Casa Malpais and the nearby ruins may have played a crucial role in this religious 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 and two even older cultures that were fading out: the Hohokam and the Jornada Mogollon.

The Zuni 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 eventually reach their homeland on a cluster of mesas in western New Mexico. For centuries, they have maintained small sacred shrines in the Casa Malpais area. Zuni religious leaders make regular pilgrimages to these sites where they are within view of the surrounding sacred mountain peaks. They pray and leave tokens in nearby caves, caves whose locations remain secret. They say the Little Colorado is the umbilical cord that connects them to their origins. They call the place where the rivers meet near Casa Malpais "Zuni Heaven."

The Hopi, related through language to the Aztecs of central Mexico, believe they also emerged from a previous world drowned by the Creator because of the foolishness and wickedness of human beings. Immediately after emergence, the different Hopi clans set off on epic migrations, seeking the best place to live. They explored the two continents they found themselves on and found many lush places. However, all of them finally circled back to the Hopi mesas, realizing they would lose their way spiritually in those other easier places to live. They realized the harshness of their homeland would hold them to their prayers and right way of thinking. Some Hopi oral traditions hold that several clans came directly to the Hopi mesas from the area around Casa Malpais, including the Stick, Butterfly, Turkey, Spider, Road Runner, Coyote, Kangaroo Rat, Boomerang, Fire, Bamboo, Reed, Greasewood, Hawk and Parrot clans. The Hopis call the area around Casa Malpais Wenima and say that the kachinas lived here, which reinforces the evidence of pottery shards and pictoglyphs found at the site.

This has prompted some archaeologists to argue that the kachina religion emerged from the cultural cross-fertilization that happened at Casa Malpais and the other 9 known pueblos in the area. This new religion would have challenged the centralized theology of Chaco which had made possible the organization of society and construction of 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 Chaco-oriented priests failed to avert. The moving of the center of Chaco cuture to Aztec may have helped ease the environmental problems for a few years but eventually, Mesa Verde, Yucca House, the Hovenweep area and Aztec would be abandoned and most of those people would migrate down to the Pajarito Plateau before continuing on down the hill to the Rio Grande Valley.

The failure of the older traditions to deal with the climatic disaster would have spurred the spread of the kachina religion. 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.

More kiva stone walls typical of Mogollon design
Stone walls of multiple kivas typical of Mogollon style
A view of the Casa Malpais neighborhood, the stream, the valley, mountains on the other side
The Casa Malpais neighborhood
Photos are courtesy of Archaeology Southwest

Sites of the Ancients and approximate dates of occupation: