Volcanic Destruction? Not Always

Reconstruction of ancient Arizona eruption shows how local peoples survived, thrived.

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"The Sinagua might have seen that lots of plants — big plants — were growing in areas with mulch, and moved there," Elson said. They soon learned to manage the cinders to farm flat lands that were previously too dry to grow crops.

Increased production led to larger populations. The Sinagua originally lived in small clusters of pit houses, holes enclosed by walls only a few feet high. After the volcano, they began building pueblos from stone and mud. One such structure, the Wupatki pueblo, eventually expanded to nearly 100 rooms and had sections that rose three stories high. It possibly housed 100 or more people.

Elson believes Wupatki acted like a fort to mark a clan's territory. It looks out over a broad, flat expanse of land, so occupants could see an approaching enemy.

The land had become more violent. Archaeologists have found the number of dismembered bodies increased after the explosion. The 1943 eruption of Paricutin, a similar volcano in Mexico, erased established boundaries, and 300 people died as local subsistence farmers fought over land. This may have happened around Sunset Crater as well.

Wupatki lasted about 150 years, the time it took for desert winds to blow away the volcanic cinders. Yet it may still teach us something about how to respond to disaster.

After Paricutin erupted, the Mexican government resettled nearby farmers. “Those towns are now deserted or weak,” Ort said. The Sinagua show that "decisions made at a family level are more efficient and effective," he said.

Elson agreed. The modern instinct to await organized evacuation instructions can be counterproductive in certain disasters. The people at Sunset Crater "could see the lava coming. They packed up and moved," Elson said.