A Millennium Ago

The Southwest has many locations where there are remnants of native peoples who lived a millennium ago. I always wonder when visiting those sites what life would have been like in the environment and circumstances existing then. One of the days while in Flagstaff this last week we drove through and walked around in the Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. They both are located just to the north of Flagstaff within 20 miles of each other. Sunset Crater is the site of a volcano cone which erupted almost exactly a millennium ago.

The Sunset Monument landscape is full of thousand year old lava flows and eroded cinder hills and arroyos which clearly show the effects of the eruption on the surrounding area. Information on site describes the discovery and excavation of homes of native people who lived in the area which were buried in the lava flow and ash. Twenty miles north from Sunset Crater the landscape descends in elevation, the pine trees disappear and vegetation changes to junipers, sage and brush of the high desert. The Wupatki National Monument located there was established in 1924 to protect the remnants of a number of native pueblo structures in the area.

Those who decide such things believe the pueblo ruins we see today were constructed just following the eruption of Sunset Volcano by those displaced by the eruption. Those looking for a new home found that the layer of ash from the volcano enriched the soil, retained scarce water and made the growing of their crops easier.

Free access is allowed the public to these ruins. There are rules about climbing the walls and removing stones, but otherwise the public can walk in and around up close to the structures to their hearts content.

The picture of the ruins below is the Wupatki pueblo ruins for which the National Monument is named. It is the largest of the ruins within the Monument. Experts believe as many as 100 people lived here within its walls in 1100 AD. The visitor center sits behind the camera. You can see an excavated round kiva used for spiritual ceremonies by the native people in the second photo. The smaller structure and kiva in the second photo adjoin the large structure in the top photo just 50 yards or so away.

The American Southwest is full of wide-open spaces. The climate is so arid in many places that development is essentially impossible. Those who study these ancient peoples believe the population of this area reached a peak in 1100 AD not matched before or since. Possibly several thousand people lived within a day’s walk of this ruin. The people who lived here then are named the Sinaguans by modern scholars. They believe by 1250 AD all of the pueblos in the area were abandoned – the native people moving on because climate change made the land unproductive for their crops.

The photo below was taken near the western boundary of the Wupatki Monument. It looks out toward the northeast across the Monument and across the painted desert beyond – there’s not many tall buildings to be seen, is there? I can’t help but imagine what it might have been like living a millennium ago out in this desolation – my family and several others living in one of these pueblos that we had built. We spend our days caring for simple crops which along with those animals we hunt make possible our existence. We have children – maybe we live long enough to have grandchildren. I’m sure that we love and care for family in the same way we know today. I’m sure we would laugh, and tell stories, maybe sing a few songs, maybe we would dream and plan for better days, we would mourn the passing of loved ones and maybe weep just as we do today. Scholars tell us the native cultures believed in a God. Solomon wrote 3,000 years ago in Ecclesiastes 3 that God “set eternity in the human heart”. I don’t know what their religion taught about life after death, but I can’t help but think they would contemplate it just as we do. Would life have been simpler than today – probably – no Android phones or automobile GPS screens to figure out.

Solomon is often quoted in Ecclesiastes 3,

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, …., a time to tear down and a time to build, …., a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,….”

You remember those words that Pete Seeger put to music in the late 50s and that the Byrds made a pop hit out of at about the time I turned 18 years old. Solomon goes on in Ecclesiastes 3 to make a statement about life that we don’t remember so well. He says,

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God…. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.”

Solomon’s description of the nature of life written three millenniums ago remains amazingly relevant today. Though neither Solomon or the Sinaguans had to deal with an Android phone, their life like ours, was centered on finding satisfaction in all their toil. There is still nothing better for us in a modern world than to be a people who find happiness and do good while we live. We do well when we learn that life is a gift from a God who hopes we learn contentment in simple things – a pueblo built by stacking rocks, food and clothing provided by our toil, time at the end of the day to understand and accept our purpose, and time now and again to reflect on the hope of an eternity that He put in our hearts. A thousand years ago the natives a few miles north of what is now Flagstaff found a reason in life to gather and stack stones – within a couple centuries after they began life there natural forces began the process of scattering those same stones. A thousand years from now people may find traces of our existence. If they are wise, they will still be reading Solomon and they will accept the simplicity and contentment of an understanding that life abides in people “finding satisfaction in all their toil” and accepting that, “whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before”.


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