Sinagua and Salado Cultures

Salado pueblo in the Sierra Ancha's
A Salado pueblo in the Sierra Ancha Mountains
Montezuma Well: a Sinagua irrigation ditch
A Sinagua irrigation ditch
at Montezuma Well

The Sinagua (meaning: Without Water) people occupied the area of north-central Arizona from the Salt River north to the Little Colorado River and north side of the San Franciso Peaks Volcanic Field, including most of the Verde River Valley and parts of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Archaeologists have dated the Sinagua culture as extending from about 500 CE to about 1425 CE when the last of their major structures was abandoned. Several modern Hopi clans trace their ancestry back to Sinagua migrants leaving the Verde Valley for religious reasons. There are also stories among the Hopi and Zuni of the fireworks that accompanied the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano around 1000 CE. Those stories could only have been passed into their oral histories by later migrants from the San Francisco Peaks area at the northern end of Sinagua territory. The Hopi still return to some ancient Sinagua sites to perform religious ceremonies in honor of their ancestors.

In many respects, the Sinagua were a "buffer" people between the Ancestral Puebloans to the north (with their masonry pueblos) and the Hohokam to the south (with their advanced irrigation systems). Early constructions were pithouses, built to sustain daily life while the folks engaged in subsistence agriculture. As they developed irrigation systems, they also built larger pueblo structures.

The Sinagua culture has been broken into two distinct subsets: the northern Sinagua, based around the Flagstaff area, and the southern Sinagua, based around the Verde and Salt River Valleys.

The northern Sinagua left behind ruins at Walnut Canyon, Wupatki and Elden Pueblo. The southern Sinagua left ruins at Tuzigoot, Sycamore Canyon and Montezuma Castle. Parts of the irrigation system they built at Montezuma Well have been dug out and are in use today.

Many of the northern Sinagua seem to have migrated into the upper Little Colorado River basin and then to the Hopi mesas. There is the possibility that some went north and west to the Fremont people, ritual specialists and potters going with them. The southern Sinagua seem to have gone mostly east to the Zuni, Acoma and Laguna areas. A few went south to the Hohokam, but they were also feeling the effects of the drought and their culture was collapsing, migrating outward in all directions. In 1350 CE the Valley of the Sun (the home of Pueblo Grande) was the most densely populated area in the southwest. By 1450 it was almost completely depopulated.

A view of Wupatki, a Sinagua ruin
Wupatki, a northern Sinagua ruin northeast of the San Francisco Peaks

The Salado Culture

View of a Salado Polychrome bowl found at Tonto National Monument
A Salado Polychrome bowl

The Salado built many constructions in the Tonto Basin but a significant number of them have been drowned beneath Roosevelt Lake. Some are preserved at Tonto National Monument but there are others throughout the valley and in the nearby mountains. The design and construction of Salado settlements points to a large Hohokam influence, especially with the construction of largely ceremonial adobe mounds in the larger centers. Over time the functions of the mounds changed and while they were still being built in later settlements, their size shrank.

The Salado diet consisted of beans, pumpkins, maize, squash, amaranth, whatever berries were in season and whatever their hunters could bring in. They built simple irrigation systems and grew cotton to supply a primitive textile industry for long enough to evolve intricate woven patterns in shirts and such.

The Tonto Basin is watered by the Salt River (hence the "Salado" name) and the earliest settlements were built in the open valley. As the population increased, the Salado spread out and built higher and higher in the mountains. Around 1330 the climate changed: drought set in and the water table dropped. That pushed the people further into the mountains along the routes of other water sources until eventually, by the mid-1400's, the whole area was abandoned and some of the people went north, some east, some south. What they left behind were many masonry constructions, sandals and baskets woven of yucca and agave (any woven cottons didn't survive the passage through time), bone tools and Salado Polychrome pottery, both decorative and functional. They also left macaw feathers (from central Mexico) and seashells (from the Gulf of California), testaments to the amount of trade they enjoyed with far-off cultures.

Map showing the locations of the main cultures in the Southwest around 1350 CE
Cultures of the Southwest
1350 CE

The Salado figure prominently because of their Salado Polychrome pottery. While many ancient Salado Polychrome pot shards have been found in the Tonto Basin, close versions have also been found spread from northern Arizona to northern Mexico and from the Phoenix basin to the Alamogordo area in New Mexico. The Salado style came into its own around 1280 CE and remained in use until about 1450 CE when everything changed. Archaeologists feel the style evolved in northeastern Arizona and migrated from there with the migration southward from the Kayenta pueblos.

1450 CE was a time of major turmoil in the southwest and the vast majority of residents abandoned the Tonto Basin as the deeper effects of a long term drought set in. By about 1500 the Apache had moved in and were well settled when the first Spaniards came through.

All types of Salado Polychrome share a number of broad categorical similarities but with significant variation over the roughly 170 year time span of its production. The base paste was generally brown to reddish-brown in color and was tempered with sand. Usually a red and/or white slip were used to cover both the interior and exterior of the vessel. Black paint was used on one or both surfaces, usually surrounded by a white slip. The black paint used was most commonly organic but a mix of organic and mineral paints appears on some vessels. Studies have shown that Salado Polychrome was produced across the full range in which it has been found, it didn't emanate from a single production area and spread through trade. It more likely spread as individual potters migrated and produced new vessels using the new clays and pigments available wherever they settled.

Map of the distribution of Salado Polychromes
Map showing the distribution of found Salado Polychrome pottery
One of the Salado dwellings at Tonto National Monument
One of the Salado pueblos at Tonto National Monument
Montezuma Castle
Montezuma Castle
Upper photo courtesy of the US Forest Service
Other photos courtesy of the National Park Service