Coronado Trail National Scenic Byway

Words from the Road

Casa Malpais
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Image: Casa Malpais, ancient Mogollon Indian ruins north of Springerville
Photograph by Peter Ensenberger

Casa MalpaisOn a windswept lava hill laced with fissures and a complex, sacred history just outside Springerville, you can still see the great kiva where the Kachina danced, the snow-graced peaks of the sacred mountains, the ancient pathway to the place of emergence and the gleaming, antelope-graced grasslands. Of course, you cannot see the great caverns down below, with their sacred catacombs and their ancient, consecrated burials. However, if you listen closely to Casa Malpais pueblo's genial guide and stretch your imagination like the flared wings of the hawk wheeling overhead on the updraft, you may sense the drama here that transformed the Southwest 800 years ago – and that still has archaeologists in a tumult of theory and speculation.


Casa Malpais, a complex of perhaps 50 rooms on a lava flow riddled with caves, offers visitors the best glimpse of a lifeway that for centuries sustained the Mogollon Indian people. Sitting in the sun on the outskirts of the ranching town of Springerville, Casa Malpais is the most visible and accessible of a string of pueblos built along the headwaters of the Little Colorado River, a cultural crossroads that shaped the history of the whole region. For $5 each, visitors can take a 1.5-mile stroll through the ancient village, up a spiral staircase cut from lava and onto a mesa top with a panoramic view of a sacred landscape. The city of Springerville owns the site and offers the tours, hoping to both preserve an ancient heritage and to draw modern tourists.


The ruins dream in the sun: Great beams hauled by hand for 20 miles; a huge kiva, or ceremonial structure, linked to the spirit world; windows and slots that force summer solstice light to fall on intricate pictographs; and a network of exquisitely engineered irrigation canals. But these ruins harbor even deeper secrets. Beneath the site in caves formed by air pockets in lava flow, lie the only known burial catacombs in the ancient West. In the architecture and artifacts, these ruins along the Little Colorado also hold the clue to the birth of a new religion that may hold the key to one of the most absorbing mysteries in archaeology. “It’s unique,” observed archaeologist Patrick Lyons, “in terms of the setting, the catacombs. It’s on the Hopi-Zuni frontier and is claimed as a special site by both. It’s accessible, but it hasn’t been loved to death, so it’s a great visitor experience. The tour guides do a great job and field a wide variety of questions in a good way.” The 90-minute tour of the 17-acre site that supported 200 to 400 people offers a fascinating glimpse of a ancient and mysterious way of life.


Many features still puzzle archaeologists, including a low wall that surrounds most of the ruins. The site includes many pictographs, petroglyphs 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 ruins of 50 to 60 rooms, originally more than 80, mostly built in the late 1200s and largely abandoned by the late 1300s, includes an “observatory” – a circular area about 75 feet across, designed so the rising sun would fall upon designs on the wall 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 Indians say represents a sacred corn maiden, a bear paw, symbols for migration and other symbols for the sun and for ancestral beings.


Casa Malpais remains best known for the sensational announcement a decade ago of the discovery of a network of caves harboring the reverently interred bodies of many of the ancient residents of the village. However, both the Hopi and Zuni tribes objected to disturbing the bodies. Honoring the respect attributed to the site, the city sealed the catacombs, with suitable prayers and offerings by Hopi and Zuni spiritual leaders. Discussion of the catacombs beneath the remaining ruins are discouraged on the tour, but all visitors are reminded of the areas sacredness to the Indian people. But quite aside from the catacombs, Casa Malpais and the string of other ruins along the upper Little Colorado River offer crucial answers to ancient riddles.


The waters and springs that feed the Little Colorado originate in the surrounding mountains. The river wanders across the 7,000-foot-high volcanic plateau and on down through grasslands and deserts to the Grand Canyon. The stretch of slow, muddy water between St. Johns and Springerville offers one of the few areas where the hydrology and topography make it possible to divert water to irrigate farmland. As a result, the region has lured people for thousands of years. The irrigation-based civilizations that arose along there between about A.D. 1000 and 1400 started as typical Mogollon settlements, but soon showed the influence of northern immigrants associated with ancient Puebloan groups. Moreover, pottery shards, petroglyphs and pictographs suggest that perhaps 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. 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 mingling of different cultures. In addition, the region forms the overlapping frontier between two of the oldest and most vital of the pueblo cultures – the Zuni and the Hopi.


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 their homeland on a cluster of windswept mesas in New Mexico. They say the Little Colorado is the umbilical cord that connects them to their origins and call the place “Zuni Heaven” where the rivers meet near Casa Malpais. The Hopi people 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 they all circled back to the Hopi Mesas, realizing they would lose their way spiritually in such easy places. They believed the harshness of their homeland would hold them to their prayers and to right thinking. Hopi oral traditions hold that several clans came to the Mesas from the area around Casa Malpais, including the clans Kangaroo Rat, Turkey, Road Runner, Boomerang, Fire, Stick, Butterfly, Bamboo, Reed, Greasewood, Coyote, Hawk, Spider and Parrot. The Hopi people call the area around Casa Malpais "Wenima" and say that the Kachinas lived here, which reinforces the evidence of pottery shards and pictographs.


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 ancient history of the region and perhaps helps explain the mysterious collapse of farming-based, pueblo-building cultures throughout the Southwest. Casa Malpais was one of the first major settlements on the upper Little Colorado, starting perhaps 1,000 years ago. The settlements along the river fall into three clusters, with Casa Malpais, Danson, Hooper Ranch and Rudd Creek pueblos forming the oldest and southernmost grouping. Mogollon immigrants apparently built Casa Malpais, moving in from their heartland in the White Mountains and along the Mogollon Rim. They built huge, rectangular kivas that could hold more than 100 people, which they entered by doors and tunnels. They also constructed in the kivas strange pits on either side of the central hearth, perhaps as a place to grow ceremonial plants like beans and squash during the winter. Some archaeologists also suggest the pits were covered with planks on which people pounded during ceremonies, so the sound would reverberate impressively.


The Mogollons generally built rooms in solid adjoining blocks as the village grew. In making pottery, they used metallic paints and glazes and burned wood to heat their kilns, resulting in distinctive colors. The northern Puebloan groups favored different architecture and pottery styles. They built smaller kivas – usually big enough for 10 to 50 people – and climbed down ladders through doors in the roof. They usually built the village around great central plazas, where they held the cycle of ceremonies throughout the year. They used plant-based glazes and paints and coal to heat their kilns, resulting harder, finer glazes. Casa Malpais began in the Mogollon pattern, but later showed evidence of the influence of immigrants from the north. For instance, archaeologists have uncovered large, ceramic plates with holes around the edge. Northern area potters used these plates as a sort of lazy Susan for making large pots, turning the raw clay pot sitting on top of the huge plate to work as they shaped it. Suddenly, the plates started showing up in the previously Mogollon settlements along the Little Colorado. The evidence suggests that these newcomers began to affect cultural and artistic styles in the Mogollon settlements.


Some evidence shows Casa Malpais was abandoned as the trend accelerated and larger villages grew along the river to the north. The ruins at Sherwood Ranch just up the river from Casa Malpais best capture the transition. There, a Mogollon-style great kiva dominates one end of the 400-room village. But the later construction at the other end of the village contains a central plaza and a smaller, roof-entered kiva. The transition appears gradual, indicating the two cultures blended and so spurred a period of cultural and artistic change and ferment. Later larger ruins to the north near St. Johns also show a cultural mixture, but this time the northern or Puebloan pattern seems dominant. One intriguing possibility suggests the Kachina religion emerged from this cultural cross-fertilization. Some experts think that the rise – or revival – of the Kachina religion challenged the centralized theology of Chaco, which made possible the huge settlements, massive irrigation works and impressive joint undertakings, like the 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. That could have prompted the struggling people of the region to turn to the new, Kachina religion, which perhaps grew from the roots of older traditions.


Certainly, the decline of Chaco seems to coincide with the spread outward from the Casa Malpais area of Kachina motifs on pottery found in villages and burials. Moreover, the decline of Chaco and the spread of the more decentralized Kachina religion come just before the regional decline of centralized, irrigation-based civilizations throughout the Southwest. In the end, the Kachina religion spread to many of the pueblo peoples who claim connections to those vanished ancients – including the Hopi and Zuni and many New Mexico pueblo cultures. The debate continues among archaeologists, which means that the long-neglected ruins along the Little Colorado River may play a key role in resolving one of the great debates in Southwestern archaeology. In the meantime, Casa Malpais waits in the high, breezy sunlight – a prayer on a hill that has guarded its secrets and the bones of its makers for 800 years.