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Wupatki: a Toltec outpost?

Did the Mayan and Toltecs of Mexico have a “northern colony” as far north as Arizona? Archaeological evidence shows that the sacred centres of the so-called Hohokam conform to a Mexican template.

Philip Coppens


Amongst the great illusions of the modern era, are borders. This is best in evidence in the manner in which the United States of America is carved up. But even their national borders, especially with Mexico, are largely a fantasy – frequently demonstrated by the thousands of Mexicans that continue to enter the country illegally.
There were no such borders some centuries ago and the great cultures of Mexico, the Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs, are suspected of having had northern outposts that stretched into Arizona and New Mexico – if not other states. But the best example of this States-side presence can be found in Arizona, and especially at the site of Wupatki.

Wupatki is a dozen miles north of Sunset Crater, just northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. The main ruin of Wupatki is six miles west of nearest permanent source of water, the Little Colorado River, underlining the importance the builders attached to erecting their great house here. In fact, this ruin was once the largest building in over fifty miles. Tree ring dating has given the period between 1106 and 1220 AD as the time of its occupation. Its name translates as “long cut house” and it is indeed a four story, hundred room pueblo block, 345 feet long and 140 feet wide, which conceals a number of natural caves upon which the structure was placed. The site’s main claim to fame, however, is that it is the site that has the northernmost ball court – and this ties it into a Mayan framework, even though it is almost with viewing distance of the Hopi Mesas, home of the local Native Americans.
Though Wupatki is the most northern ball court, it is not a stand alone structure. Over two-hundred ball courts, all built between 700 and 1200 AD, have been discovered in Southern Arizona. All were an integral part of the villages that were constructed by a culture now labelled as the “Hohokam”, which some refer to as “Northern Toltecs”, underlining their connection with Mexico, the accepted homeland of the Toltecs. It is known the Hohokam traded in cotton and salt for treasured ritual items from the south, such as copper bells, onyx, parrots and macaws.
Importantly, even game balls used for the game have been found in the region, at the Hohokam site near Toltec, Arizona – a site quite aptly named. The ball was dated to 900-1200 AD and is now in the Arizona State Museum in Phoenix. These were made of carefully shaped rocks and covered in pine pitch or other materials, similar to the ancient Mexican ball game, the objective of which was to move the ball towards a goal by using a curved stick or kicking it with feet and legs only. Though often portrayed as extremely brutal, with victors and/or the defeated ritually slain for the gods, the ball game was also an expression of the Mayan creation myth and thus performed a sacred task and important social function.

Wupatki was not the centre of this culture, but together with the Casa Grande monument, southwest of Phoenix, it is the most touristy. The actual centre of the Hohokams was Snaketown, located near Santan (Arizona), inside the Hohokam Pima National Monument, just south of Phoenix. The town may have had up to 2000 inhabitants. However, after excavations in the 1930s and 1960s (which revealed that the site was inhabited from about 300 BC to around 1200 AD), the site was completely recovered with earth, leaving nothing visible – and visitable – above ground.
The excavations also revealed that Snaketown had two ball courts, numerous mounds, a large central plaza, several large community houses and hundreds of residential houses. In short, if you were not told it was located in modern Arizona, you would conclude this is a typical Mayan/Toltec complex. The ball courts of Snaketown are in the shape of an oval bowl, formed by two parallel banks. Each is about 60 meters long, 33 meters apart, and 2.5 meters high. There is a similar ball court at Casa Grande, though few visitors will see it, as it is located near the picnic ground, on the “far side” of the parking area, and not within the main tourist compound of the complex. The ball court of Wupatki, however, can be entered.

The Hohokam were farmers. They built irrigation canals, running off the Salt and Gila River, and in the case of Casa Grande, past Grewe, a type of twin site, a mile east of Casa Grande. Interestingly, until a few centuries ago, the Gila was apparently able to accommodate ships. In their irrigated field, the Hohokam grew corn, beans, squash, cotton and tobacco. Corn, of course, had been cultivated in Mexico in prehistoric times and provides further evidence of the ancient links that exist between the region and Mexico.
Experts have listed this irrigation system as being on par with the canalisation works that were carried out in ancient times in the Near East, Egypt and China. One example of the ingenuity of the irrigation system can be seen in Montezuma Well, south of Flagstaff, and is ascribed to the Sinagua culture, even though it was the Hohokam culture that began the construction of this site in ca. 600 AD – the Sinagua culture arriving later on the scene (or being a latter version of the same culture). The well has a constant supply of warm water and was the life-blood of the people who lived here. Today, over 1.4 million gallons of water flows into the well every day, a rate that has not fluctuated measurably despite recent droughts throughout the state of Arizona. But it is an irrigation ditch that is of most interest and which dates back over 1000 years, to the Hohokam culture; the water of the well runs into a “swallet”, an underground passage, to emerge on the other side of the hill, where it was canalised, to join the Beaver Creek. Dug with stone tools, the canal is three foot deep and stretches over five miles long. Even today, residents of Rimrock rely on water flowing through the irrigation ditch for their gardens and livestock.
Montezuma Well has another interesting feature: a sinkhole – sometimes, especially with the Mayans referred to as a cenote – and was seen by the Mayans as a place of emergence. Chichen Itza was constructed where it is because of the presence of this cenote. The Mayans linked the cenote with the creation mythology and the local Native Americans, the Yavapai people, equally say that they emerged into this world from this sinkhole. Furthermore, near Montezuma Well, there is another ball court, located at the foot of Sacred Mountain. Anthropologist David Wilcox in 1991 classified it as an “early Classic period Hohokam court”, dated to ca. 1075-1250 AD, measuring 32 metres in length and 23.8 metres in width.

In recent years, the astronomical knowledge of the Mayans has been admired, but it is clear that their astronomical obsession was shared by the Hohokam. Casa Grande, like Wupatki a four story structure, is the largest structure known to have been built in Hohokam times. Interestingly, the wood used in the ruin was pine and mesquite and pine trees only grew more than fifty miles away. Some 640 beams were used in the “big house”, underlining the effort that went into the construction of this single structure alone. The house was built from caliche, a lime-rich mud, which, when solidified underground, has the consistency of cement. Only by adding water can it be softened, which is why it now has a very famous large metal roof, to protect it from erosion from the rain.
Its astronomical connotation is visible in several aspects. Its walls face the four cardinal points. A circular hole in the upper west wall aligns with the setting sun during the summer solstice. Other openings also align with major events involving the principle objects in the sky, the sun and the moon. According to the Pima, these were the openings through which “the Bitter Man” would salute the rising and setting sun and science has been able to confirm these claims.
Casa Grande’s early explorers, specifically Frank Hamilton Cushing, saw in the Great House a temple. In its floor plan, he saw the pattern created by the Hopis in the ceremonies during which the cornfields were consecrated. Wilcox later endorsed this view, as the astronomy of the site fits in with concepts enshrined in cornfield consecration ceremonies. It underlines that the Hohokam not merely formed a bridge between Mexico and the States, but also towards the modern Hopi.
As such, Casa Grande is a three-dimensional realisation of the annual ceremonial pattern in which the central area of a cornfield symbolises the “Hill of the Middle”, with the surrounding areas of the field representing the “hills” of the four cardinal directions. The rooms represented the four directions, whereas the central tier of rooms visualised the two vertical directions of up and down, i.e. the “Middle”.
Most intriguingly, civil engineer Henry Hillman even found a common unit of measure used at Casa Grande: 2.75 to 2.80 feet – the megalithic yard. Applying it to Casa Grande makes the building a nearly perfect 3:4 rectangle, with a diagonal of 5… a Pythagorean theorem! And with this observation, we should ask whether there is not even a bridge between the Hohokam and the megalithic monuments of Europe too. But we would be sailing too far offshore if we entered that debate here.

The Hohokam culture occupied most of southern and parts of northern Arizona, but the sites around Sunset Crater – dominated by Wupatki – are particularly interesting.
Though south of their current “home territory”, the Hopi consider the region to be a “power spot”. According to the Hopi, Sunset Crater is a sacred mountain where angry gods once threatened to destroy evil people with volcanic fire. This is fact, not myth. In 1064 AD, a volcanic eruption created Sunset Crater. Cinders, ash and sand spread out over 800 square miles. But rather than create devastation, the cinders formed a type of mulch that conserved moisture and thus promoted the growth of plants. The fertile soil soon became an attraction for nearby people, even though there were already local people, the Northern Sinagua – a name given to this culture by the Spaniards.
The area around Wupatki thus became a melting pot of Anasazi from the east and north, the Hohokam from the south and the Mogollon from the southeast. The resulting culture is now labelled Hisatsinom, which only existed for a period of 150 years. Despite being short-lived, it is seen as highly interesting, as each culture learned from each other in a context of co-operative cultural exchange.
The Hopi argue that they already lived here and that it was the Bear Clan that founded Wupatki. They argue the “Northern Sinagua” never existed as such. They add that the nearby site of Wukoki (part of Wupatki National Monument) was supposedly a stopping place for the Snake Clan on its way south. This claim has been partially verified by Kayenta pottery that was found there.
Built by wandering tribes, by 1225, the last inhabitant left Wupatki, as it seems that the volcanic effect had finished, even though there was a final burst of activity from Sunset Crater in 1250, upon which it became an extinct volcano. Today, a total of 800 ruins have been found in the valley, and four primary ones around the Sunset Crater itself, underlining the area became a magnet for thousands of people.

Of all ruins, Wupatki is by far the largest. The site has been partially excavated and is known to have encompassed two pueblo complexes, a spring, a large circular community room, the already mentioned ball court and a blowhole. It is, in fact, the latter structure that is the reason for its sanctity – just like the cenote was the reason why Chichen Itza became important.
Blowholes are an interesting phenomenon: water-cooled air rushes out when the air pressure below ground is greater than that above, creating a geological anomaly, known as a “breathing cave”. No wonder, therefore, that such a phenomenon was incorporated within religion and became known as an opening into the Underworld. In fact, the blowhole is known to connect to an underground passage, which apparently has never been fully explored, as “size, depth and complexity” are unknown – as the panels on the site explain. In 1962, some excavations inside did find ceramics, petroglyphs and masonry from the 12th century, underlining that the Hohokam descended into this underworld, and no doubt used it for their rituals. Noting that only in recent years, the Mayan underworld of the Yucatan has begun to be explored, hopefully some time soon, someone will explore the Wupatki underworld, as the excavators had suggested in their 1962 report – an invitation that has so far gone unheeded. The 1962 study also found that the various blowholes in the area seemed interconnected, in areas at least 24 miles apart. It was likely that there was a possible relationship between the system of caverns and the underground water drainage of the Flagstaff-Wupatki region, tying it in with similar underground complexes in the Yucatan, as well as the importance of underground water systems within the Mayan creation myth.

As such, Wupatki continues to adhere to the strict structure of sacred sites, in evidence at Chichen Itza, which itself was said to have an opening into the Underworld, and was therefore seen as a three-dimensional rendition of the Mayan creation myth. The same template is clearly present in Wupatki, where the Hopi Indians refer to the blowhole as the breath of Yaapontsa, the wind spirit, who lives in an earth crack in the black rock at the base of Sunset Crater.
That Wupatki was important because of this, is also underlined as the site had the only ball court in the Sunset Crater region. It measured 23.4 metres wide, 30.6m long and with a 1.8m high wall. It was, in fact, one of the last ball courts to be built and the only known masonry court in the southwest.
At Wupatki, there is also a small petroglyph of a snake, near a kiva, about six inches in diameter, facing north. In that direction, one can find that the ceremonial plaza and the ball court form one straight line of sight from this petroglyph. Interestingly, the round plaza of Wupatki goes against the norm, as plazas were usually rectangular. Some have therefore wondered whether it doubled as an astronomical observatory. The structure has just one door, located at 60 degrees azimuth, where the sun rises on summer solstice. Above, at 240 degrees, where sun sets on winter solstice, is an upright post, arguing for its astronomical usage.

Wupatki blow hole

Along the road approaching (or leaving, depending on which way you enter the park) Wupatki is Citadel Ruin, situated on a natural outcrop, which is situated north of what is a sinkhole, a depression of 500 feet in diameter and 125 feet deep. Is this another sacred cenote? Though its name suggests a military purpose, no evidence exists to warrant this conclusion. In fact, this is likely to be another astronomical observatory. On the northeast and southwest corners of Citadel are turret-like extensions, which could have been solstice markers. Another, pentagon-shaped room has an observation window that seems to face the summer solstice sunset.
Below, as one approaches the Citadel, is Nakakihu, the “house standing alone”. One third of the pottery that was found here, came from the Prescott area, 90 miles south, and underlines the scale across which these cultures easily traded. Interestingly, in between Wupatki and Prescott, at Tuzigoot (Cottonwood), an entire Mexican macaw was found buried beneath the pueblo floor.
But it was not merely to the south that trade extended. At Montezuma Castle (near Montezuma Well), a heavy block of catlinite and 652 pieces of cut pipestone beneath a floor at Tuzigoot came from afar as well. The only place in the world where this is mined, is at Pipestone National Monument, in southwestern Minnesota.

The other pueblo near Wupatki is Wukoki, a name which means “big house”. The big house has windows in its central tower, which is moulded to the contours of a red-rock outcrop, and built with bricks of the same material. The windows look out in all directions and some have given it defensive qualities, though it is now believed that some windows were actually aligned so that observers could monitor the sunrise at specific dates of the annual calendar. This would put Wukoki on par with Casa Grande and similar structures at nearby Wupatki – and Chichen Itza, which equally had astronomical alignments and knowledge incorporated into its design.
Some have argued that the astronomical knowledge of the Hohokam went far beyond the basic observations of the sun and the moon. Two astronomers, John Barentine of Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and Gilbert A. Esquerdo, research assistant with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, have even argued that a supernova that occurred on May 1, 1006 AD has been inscribed in the White Tanks Regional Park near Phoenix by the Hohokam. The supernova of 1006 is known to have been the brightest event visible from Earth for thousands of years, reaching the brightness of a quarter moon at peak, meaning it would have cast shadows on the ground. Barentine and Esquerdo believe that the event has been immortalised by the Hohokam as the night sky would have placed the supernova in the constellation Scorpius, which matches the depiction of a scorpion and star symbols on the rock. Modern research now strongly suggests that ancient rock art in this region contained much astronomical knowledge. Still, some have criticised these conclusions, arguing that the Native Americans did not interpret the constellation Scorpius as a scorpion. But then… the Hohokam could have been Toltecs, couldn’t they? In fact, Barentine observes as much, arguing that the Mayan word for the group of stars is Zinaan ek, translated as “The Stars of the Scorpion”. Barentine underlines this connection, saying that “the figure of Tlaloc, a bug-eyed Aztec water god associated with entreaties to nature for rainfall, is found in petroglyphs in the American southwest. The Mesoamerican ball game, originating among the Olmecs sometime around 1000 BC, was played as far north as Arizona. So at least the possibility exists that the identification of Scorpius was transmitted to the Hohokam from Mexico.”

Snake town ball court

Just like there is controversy about who and what the “Northern Sinagua” were, there is still a belief in some quarters that one section of Chichen Itza was built by the Maya, the other by the Toltec, but this version is now being disputed by archaeologists, who have shown that both parts are largely contemporaneous. And the debate whether it were Toltecs or Mayans that might have influenced with the cultures of Arizona is equally largely academic and of secondary importance to the fact that these regions traded with the south. One might ask: what’s in a name?
But some names might be more important than others. Is it a “coincidence” that Snaketown, the Hohokam capital, just happens to focus on the snake, when then Mayan chief deity was Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent”? That a snake petroglyph is prominent at Wupatki? And what to make of the migration south of the Snake Clan, when we note that the Hopi note that it was not a northern migration of the Toltecs that created the Hohokam culture, but that it were their ancestors that travelled south? The Hopi are known to have a "migration symbol", whereby a number of circles indicates the number of rounds a tribe covered around the American continent before settling down. At the Hopi Mesas, this is four, the "required" number. The same symbol has been found at Chichen Itza, and here, it indicates that the people that constructed Chichen Itza covered only one round before returning to the same area, and settling there. The symbol at Chichen Itza therefore attests to the Hopi belief that the Mayas were aberrant Hopi clans who did not complete their migrations. However neatly that fits into the Hopi legends and underlines their importance, many observers nevertheless feel that the Hopi ancestors were those that left Middle America – hence the presence of the ball courts and so many other direct parallels in this region with the civilisations of Mexico.
Snakes are also important for the Hopi, specifically during the Snake Dance and the great Water Serpent is known to both Hopi and Zuni. Snakes are seen as the guardians of springs. In one version of the Mayan creation myth, the Aztec built a temple on top of Snake Mountain for their patron god Huitzilopochtli, who then built a ball court at the base of the mountain, and in the centre he placed a hole, called an Itzompan, or Skull Place. In Chichen Itza, this Snake Mountain was nothing else than the famous El Castillo pyramid, known to have incorporated astronomical alignments. Should these “big houses” be seen as the equivalents of the Mayan pyramids?
One aspect of Wupatki should not be overlooked: it was built on top of natural caves. Equally, the “Snake Mountain” of Chichen Itza contains a man-made cave, which was believed to be a passage to the Otherworld. Coincidence, or evidence of a common heritage?