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The Wanderers of the Fourth World

The Ancestral Puebloans have left a legacy of stunning cliff dwelling in the canyons of the Four Corners. Today, the mythology of the Hopi is able to shed refreshing insights into a people who believe that they alone hold our world in balance.

Philip Coppens


Walpi

Formerly known as the Anasazi, the Ancestral Puebloans, emerged in the American landscape ca. 700 AD and disappeared ca. 1300 AD. The Anasazi, which means “ancient ones” in Navajo, have become the subject of intense speculation, including plots in “The X Files”, because they seem to have vanished without a trace. Their new name of Ancestral Puebloans suggests that, despite popular belief, we now know where they went: they were the ancestors of the Puebloans, the people that lived in the villages which the Spanish conquered when they arrived in these parts of America. Their territory is what is now known as the Four Corners, which is most of northern Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Utah and Colorado, including the Grand Canyon and into Southern Nevada and includes Native Americans tribes like the Navajo and the Hopi.
The Ancestral Puebloans intrigue many. They were a true culture: the first North Americans to use looms to weave cotton, to make blankets and even socks from yucca leaves, interwoven with turkey feathers, to make sandals. At the same time, and for no obvious reason, they also deliberately flattened and broadened their skulls by binding the heads of babies against cradleboards. For some, this is suggestive evidence that they did as such to make their children resemble the people who brought them their civilisation: “gods”.

The story of the Ancestral Puebloans lives on in the mythology of the Hopi, considered by many to be the most mysterious and mystical of all Native Americans. It begins with the claim that their ancestors emerged from the Third World through a crack, into this, the Fourth World, in a placed known as Sipapu. Their Sipapu – other Native Americans have such places of emergence elsewhere – is located near Desert View, 25 miles of Grand Canyon Village, near the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers. Reaching it requires a seven hour trek, along the Salt Trail Canyon. The Sipapu itself is a natural salt dome, six to eight meters high, topped by a permanent spring – a mineral hot spring, though some wonder whether it is a geyser.
Though some try to make the location of Sipapu into a mystery, in truth, it is not. Even the Rough Guide suggests that the Sipapu’s location – “somewhere near the Grand Canyon” – does not feature on any map, is only known to the Hopi, and that they are the only people allowed to visit. As a matter of fact – and any internet search will reveal – the location of the Sipapu is well-known and relatively frequently visited by those walking the canyons – and does appear on (some) maps.

The Sipapu in the Grand Canyon

Some, like Frank Walters in “Book of the Hopi”, have noted that seeing the Sipapu as a place of emergence is a myth, and that the Hopi use the Colorado River merely as a symbol for the water to the west. Waters argues that unlike the emergence from the First and Second World, the emergence from the Third World into ours was “merely” a voyage by sea by those deemed worthy to survive the last catastrophe. As such, the Sipapu cannot be seen as a place of emergence, as the Fourth World did not have any.

Either way, at the beginning of the Fourth World, they were greeted by Maasaw, the caretaker of the land. He had also been appointed the head of the Third World, but had become a little self-important, lost his self-humility and other deities had therefore made him the deity of death and the underworld. But Maasaw was given a second chance in the Fourth World. He ordered the survivors to separate into clans, to begin a series of migrations across the continent, whereby the stars would guide them. Eventually, they would meet again and settle. Maasaw gave each clan one or more sacred tablets, which would guide them along their migrations.
To each clan, he also gave a small water jar, which was magical, and came with instructions, which included a description on how to make a new water jar, in case the old one was broken or needed replacing. The Hopi argue that this water jar is the missing ingredient in how to make sense of the locations chosen by the Ancestral Puebloans to live: the water jar meant that they could settle miles away from rivers, as the water jar allowed them to create springs and rivers wherever they settled. Once they abandoned their dwellings and continued their migration, they took the jar with them, rendering the site once again as dry as a bone. Hence, when archaeologists say the Ancestral Puebloans vacated their settlements because of drought, they might miss out the key element of the story – say the Hopi and their mythology.
The notion that these clans were on a “divine migration” also explains why several settlements were so often abandoned after a century, or even less, of occupation. The archaeological consensus that the cliff dwellings that typify the Ancestral Puebloans were abandoned because of drought, might therefore be a complete fallacy.
Finally, the Hopi argue that each clan was supposed to complete four migrations, but that only some did, specifically those that kept the “door on top of their heads” open and realised the purpose and meaning behind the four migrations, which was that these migrations were purification ceremonies. Once completed, they would return to the sacred circle, to establish the Hopi Mesas, their permanent settlement – until the advent of the Fifth World.

The Hopi Mesas are three mesas, relatively near each other, roughly northeast of Flagstaff and southwest of Chinle – Arizona. They are quite literally in the middle of nowhere, while the entire Hopi Reservation itself is surrounded on all sides by the Navajo/Apache Indians. One of the reasons why the Hopi are such outsiders even within the Native American community, is that they never signed any peace treaty, and as such, seem to have missed out on certain benefits other Native Americans were able to receive. The Hopi will argue that of all Native Americans, their “door on top of their heads” nevertheless remains the most open.
The Hopi Mesas are the homeland of the Hopi, the “divine” destination of the wandering tribes of the Ancestral Puebloans. The “real” Centre of the World is Tuuwanasavi, a few miles from the village of Oraibi. It was the Bear Clan that was the first to complete their four migrations and, arriving from Mesa Verde, they settled on Second Mesa. Still, Oraibi, the settlement on the Third Mesa, is today seen as the oldest town in Northern America, as it has seen continuous inhabitation since it was occupied.
When other clans arrived, they either settled on or near the other mesas; the Snake Clan for example came from Hovenweep and settled on First Mesa. With each tribe arriving “home”, it was the task of the already present tribes to welcome – or not – the new tribe. The Bear Clan was of paramount importance in such judgments. The arrival of new tribes obviously had great social consequences, but for the Hopi, the key question was one of rightfulness: whether the new arrival had the right to be granted access.
A key question that would allow the arriving tribe access to the sacred centre of the world was whether or not they had lived in accordance with the divine rules (as set out at the start of the wanderings by Maasaw) and had not abused their magical powers. For example, it is said that when the Bow Clan was at first not admitted, they decided to plant a snake at Ghost Cove Valley, which was meant to create an earthquake that would destroy the mesas. The resident clans believed that a sacrifice was necessary to cancel this negative power, and the Bear Clan would sacrifice a boy, with a request to the other resident tribes to provide a female sacrifice, which was offered by the Parrot Clan. It shows the complexity that was and remains present within Hopi customs.

Today, the Hopi have nevertheless acquired the same legal privileges other Indian tribes have received and have refrained from opening any casinos. Many of their festivals are now off limits to outsiders and photography is no longer allowed either. A brochure for visits to the Mesas advises: “please do not approach any kivas, or ceremonial buildings. Do not go near or pear into Katsina resting places.”
The kiva is the “Hopi church”, while each of the mesas centres around a plaza. They form the stage for the various Hopi festivals, which occur through the year and focus on their deities [Katsinas]. In Hopi mythology, the deities are believed to live in the San Francisco Peaks, to the west of Flagstaff, within sight of the Hopi reservation. The highest peak, at 12,643 feet, is Mount Humphreys, a volcanic cone that dominates this desert altiplano. Though named in honour of Francis of Assisi, to the Hopi, they are known as Nyvatukya’ovi, and to the Navajo, Dook’o’oosliid. Their tops are almost always surrounded by clouds, and it is easy to see why they were seen as the source of life-giving rains – as they were.

The San Francisco Peaks, seen from near Wupatki

The Hopi still make annual pilgrimages (which are linked with their festivals) on foot from their mesas, 65 miles east, to shrines hidden in the mountains. Upon the winter solstice, the deities are then said to depart from the mountains – as rain clouds – and come to live with the Hopi on the mesas. After the harvest – in early July – they return to their mountain resort.
Though a lot of attention has been drawn to the San Francisco Peaks as the residence of the deities, in truth, they are but one of four “Cloud Houses”, residences of the gods, which are the four highest points around Oraibi, each one in a different direction. Another sacred hill is Hard Rock Mountain or Navajo Mountain in Southeastern Utah. Four migrations, four cardinal points… four sacred mountains.

With a place of emergence in the Grand Canyon – to which annual pilgrimages occurred as well – and their gathering of the clans at the mesas, their wanderings still need to be explored. It is clear that most of the abandoned sites across the Four Corners – if not beyond – are linked with these migrations. Some of the ruins have inscriptions that show a signature of a specific clan, as well as on which migration this clan constructed a particular cliff dwelling.
Most of the Ancestral Puebloans villages were cliff dwellings, set into the sheer cliff face of canyons. It is clear that these were less than ideal settings from a mundane perspective, especially in the – cold – winters. Archaeologists will argue that they had certain defensive advantages, but this single benefit clearly does not outweigh the disadvantages.
One such site is Hovenweep National Monument. This is a cliff dwelling that for archaeologists is a “late burst” of the Ancestral Puebloans shortly before they disappeared, whereas within a migration framework, it is a settlement of the final migration of a clan, before heading for the Hopi Mesas. At Hovenweep, the tall towers are considered by archaeologists to have functioned as astronomical observatories and it underlines the Hopi mythology that the cycle of migrations was linked with the constellations – on their travels, they were guided by the stars.
Another clan sojourned at Chaco Canyon, which is now believed to have been home to 4000 to 6000 people, and which equally had complex astronomical alignments built into its design. The Hopi see canyons as passageways from this world to the Underworld, with spirit migration occurring between the two worlds: spirits emerged from the canyon, and the dead returned to reside in the Underworld. In fact, some stories go that these ghostly inhabitants rise from the abyss with glowing eyes and monstrous forms, travelling across the Painted Desert to revisit their earthly homes on the Hopi Mesas.
At Chaco Canyon, the largest Great House is known as Pueblo Bonito, which contained both housing and ceremonial centres. The site’s 15 great kivas could hold 400 people each. The largest kiva in the Southwest is Casa Rinconada and has a window for viewing the summer solstice sunrise and lets those rays inside the structure. Further astronomical connotations to this site are a spiral petroglyph near the top of Fajada Butte, which is carved behind three upright slabs of rock, which cast a light to give a calendar marking for the equinoxes and solstices.

The history of Chaco Canyon and other cliff dwellings underlines the nature of their wanderings. The “Chaco clan” had settled in three main areas: Chaco Canyon itself, Mesa Verde, and Tsegi Canyon, also known as Navajo National Monument (a misnomer). Tsegi Canyon has the typical 13th century cliff dwellings, but it is known that by 1300, irrigation had lowered the water table and had made farming impossible, resulting in the canyon being abandoned – if one follows the traditional archaeological explanations. The people moved to Keet Skeel (according to Navajo legends) and Betatakin. Hopi legend states that as many as eight of their clans lived there for fifty years, just before their migrations ended at the Hopi Mesas, fifty miles south.
Mesa Verde is dated to 1200-1250 AD and thought to have had a population of 2500 people at its peak. The site was completely abandoned by the late 13th century, and drought is once again blamed for its abandonment. Archaeologists believe that each settlement had far less people than it had rooms, as some rooms were used for storage. Its most striking dwelling is the Cliff Palace, containing 150 rooms, which might have housed 120-200 people.
Why anyone wanted to settle at Chaco is a mystery, as it was even dryer back then than it is now. Still, archaeology has been able to show that the top of the land – above the canyon – was crisscrossed with dams, terraces and irrigation channels, underlining that for some reason, water was once plenty – or at least sufficient to feed the population. The magical water jar might explain some things.

It is known that the clans had to perform four migrations. Interestingly, settlement in Chaco Canyon predated the arrival of the Ancestral Puebloans; the first nomadic tribe arrived here in 100 AD and began to plant crops. Could this mean that a tribe settled at Chaco during a previous migration, as early as 100 AD? If so, the cliff dwellings should then be seen as the typical building style of the final/fourth migration, before the clans headed to the Mesas.
Chaco Canyon provides other insights into what life was like for the Ancestral Puebloans. The Chaco culture only truly began in 1020 AD, reaching a heyday in ca. 1050 and 1125; the last definitive tree ring dating is of 1132. By 1200, the site was completely abandoned. In 1907, Chaco Canyon was thought to have sheltered 20,000 people. That figure was later revised to 5000 people, based on the number of rooms in the pueblo. Now, in light of the few burials that have been found on the site, as well as the lack of signs that the upper floors were ever inhabited, as well as the canyon’s poor soil, archaeologists estimate a population of “only” 2000 people.
Though all these cliff dwellings seem to be in isolated canyon locations, in truth, each site traded extensively with other centres. It is known that the Chaco culture used masonry techniques that around 1000 AD came from Mesa Verde, which allowed for the construction of these remarkable dwellings. Furthermore, their construction should be seen as being almost on par with the Great Pyramid or Stonehenge: in total, 200,000 tree trunks were used, mostly ponderosa pines and corkbark fir. These were brought from hillsides fifty and more miles away, without the use of animals or the wheel. If only 2000 people lived here, it underlines the scope of the undertaking, and hints that building these cliff dwellings must have been seen as a sacred duty.

Chaco Canyon is also known to have had contact with the cultures of Mexico, as they kept macaw and parrots from Central America. The site itself is known for its huge quantities of turquoise, 50,000 pieces of which have been found in Pueblo Bonito alone. It was the most valuable trading commodity, and Chacoans acquired it from distant mines, mostly to the east, in the Cerrillos region. With basic tools, prehistoric miners scooped 100,000 tons of rock from Mount Chalchiuitl, two miles northeast of Cerrillos, leaving a cavern 300 feet wide and 200 feet deep.
Once mined, it was crafted into sacred and ornamental objects. These were then transported to Mexico; ninety percent of the turquoise found in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, originated from here. This Turquoise Trail – now roughly coinciding with Highway 14 – was one of the oldest thoroughfares in North America, connecting mines along the eastern flanks of the Sandia Mountains with the settlements of the Rio Grande valley. It not merely saw the transport of turquoise, but also of gold, copper and coal.

Though Chaco Canyon was therefore likely seen as a temporary home for these wanderers, it is clear that an enormous amount of work went into its construction and that it developed into a powerful economic centre. But religion was nevertheless of primary importance in its design. One of its most interesting features is that radiating out of the complex, is a series of straight lines and wide roads, some as long as ten to twenty miles, wandering into the deserts. Most of the roads link up to some of the 75 other Ancestral Pueblo Great Houses, while others seem to go nowhere. In total, the network is more than 450 miles long and linked Chaco with outlier communities.
But that is not all. Each road is on average thirty feet wide – wide enough for eight men to walk next to each other – and is often in the form of a causeway, built of hard-packed stone. The longest one discovered so far is 64 miles long, and goes towards Salmon and Aztec. Most of the roads are arrow straight, regardless of the terrain on which they were built. If the road hit a cliff, staircases, ladders or roads allowed the traveller to continue. It underlines that for some reason straightness needed to be maintained at all costs, and that the roads must have had a ritual, rather than economic purpose – on par with the so-called leylines of Western Europe?
The Great North Road begins at the Pueblo Alto, on the northern rim of the canyon; it is almost perfectly straight and astronomically aligned. Most of the lines take in small shrine-like structure, which display evidence of shamanistic activity. Settlements along the tracks were often set apart a day’s walk. Frank Walters has labelled this network “race tracks” and added that such ceremonial races were still held during the Flute and Snake-Antelope ceremonies of the modern Hopi. Interestingly, the same Flute and Snake races also involve the small jar of sacred water, which the Hopi say brings the rains.
In the 1930s, anthropologist Alexander Stephen lived with the Hopi and found that each pueblo had a sun-watcher. His position is able to shed light on this radial network of roads. From a location in the village, the sun-watcher would observe the position of the solar disc through the day, relative to specific horizon features, such as peaks and notches, to tell the time of day and year. The Hopi erected sun shrines at places on the horizon where the sun rose or set. Some of these were up to 24 kilometres from the observation point. And at the appropriate times, when the sun rose or set over a shrine, runners were sent to plant prayer sticks within it. Archeo-astronomer Ray Williamson observed that “the young Hopi initiates run in as straight a line as possible to the shrines and back… They follow, as it were, literally, the straight road of a beam of sunlight.” So, to some extent, this radial network of roads is indeed a race track – though one with stellar and religious connotations. And it underlines that before finally settling in the Centre of the World on the Hopi Mesas, Chaco Canyon was a temporary sacred centre.

The Hopi migrations were the divine instructions of Maasaw, but according to author Gary A. David, they are far more interesting than what most have assumed so far. In “The Orion Zone”, David argues that “[the constellation] Orion provided the template by which the Anasazi determined their villages’ locations during a migration period lasting centuries. Spiritually mandated by a god the Hopi call Masau’u, this ‘terrestrial Orion’ closely mirrors its celestial counterparts, with prehistoric ‘cities’ corresponding to all the major stars in the constellation. By its specific orientation the sidereal pattern projected on the Arizona high desert also encodes various sunrise and sunset points of both summer and winter solstices.”
David has shown that the three Hopi Mesas can overlap the three stars of Orion’s Belt, with other key Ancestral Puebloan sites corresponding to other stars of this constellation – and neighbouring stars: Chaco Canyon coincides with Sirius. Orion itself is made up (amongst others) from the Betatakin Ruin in Tsegi Canyon and Keet Seel Ruin as representing the double star Rigel, the left foot or knee of Orion; Homol'ovi Ruins State Park is Betelgeuse, while Wupatki is Bellatrix and Canyon de Chelly Saiph. Even the Sipapu in the Grand Canyon is mapped, and corresponds with Pi 3 Ori.
Orion’s Belt is therefore sacred to the Hopi, the “Centre of the World”, but it was also very important to the Mayans, who actually saw it as the point where the creation of the Fourth World occurred. Specifically, the Mayan creation myth sees Orion’s Belt as a huge Cosmic Turtle, whose back was cracked open by a lightning stone. From this crack, the Maize Gods grew and it is therefore a place of emergence too. That Orion’s Belt features so prominently in the layout of the Hopi homeland therefore suggests that they had strong links with the Mayans, as plenty of evidence near the mesas – e.g. Wupatki – has demonstrated.
David believes that the stone tablets given by Maasaw to guide the Hopi in their journeys must have contained this “grand scheme.” Their purificational migrations are therefore literally “as above, so below”: in accordance with the movements of the stars, the deities.

Though the Hopi are the wanderers of the Fourth World, as they are now settled in the Centre of the World, their focus is on the Fifth World. On Prophecy Rock near Oraibi, there is a pictograph of the emergence of the present world. The Hopi elder Grandfather Martin held a press conference in 1991, arguing that we were seeing the end of the Fourth World and that eight of the nine prophecies related to this event, had already occurred. The final prophecy and ninth sign of the Hopi states: “You will hear of a dwelling-place in the heavens, above the earth, that shall fall with a great crash. It will appear as a blue star. Very soon after this, the ceremonies of my people will cease.” With such prophecies defining the end of this World, it should not come as any surprise that the Hopi and the Ancestral Puebloans are expert stargazers and why astronomers believe that in the 11th century, they might have observed an explosion in the Crab Nebula. It were the skies that they had depicted on the landscape of the Fourth World, and it will be the skies that will inform them when this World comes to an end. As such, the Hopi are indeed an “apocalyptic movement” in the strictest of terms. And they believe that only their ways is what keeps this Fourth World in balance. Just like Maasaw had said all along…