Thousands of years before Walnut Canyon was established as a national monument, the canyon landscape was the homeland for the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai, Navajo, Apache and Paiute people. The Walnut Canyon Rock Images Virtual Tour formally acknowledges past and present traditionally-associated communities.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is a part of the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, which also includes Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater National Monument. Established in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation, the purpose of Walnut Canyon National Monument is
To preserve and protect ancient Northern Sinagua cliff dwellings, pit houses, and other cultural resources found in the canyon’s deeply incised and meandering topography. Perched on natural promontories and nestled in alcoves, these resources, of great ethnographic, scientific, and educational importance, provide public inspiration and enjoyment.
The Monument was managed by the United States Forest Service from 1915 until September 24, 1938, when management was transferred to the National Park Service.
Following historic exploration of northern Arizona and the completion of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad to Flagstaff in 1882, Walnut Canyon and its cliff dwellings were a popular tourist destination for Flagstaff locals and railroad visitors wishing to see ancient “ruins” of what they assumed was “a lost civilization.” These early tourists and explorers partook in several practices that severely damaged archaeological resources. For example, it was common practice to loot pots (ceramic vessels) and other artifacts from the rooms, and to explode whole walls of cliff dwellings with dynamite to improve the lighting conditions for digging. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the quantities and types of cultural materials have been lost to looting, but the damage was irreversible.
Since the creation of the Monument, and the ratification of further legislation protecting archaeological sites, the Federal Government is obligated to project all natural and cultural resources of Walnut Canyon for the enjoyment of present and future generations for years to come.
For more info, visit the official National Park Service page for Walnut Canyon National Monument.
First Nations Peoples – Past and Present
Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 500 archaeological sites along the ten miles of Walnut Creek. Due to its ecological diversity and varied terrain, Walnut Canyon was an ideal place for habitation and resource gathering in the arid environment of the Colorado Plateau. The canyon has a long history of human occupation, with people using the canyon as early as 7000 BCE (before common era). The following descriptions are archaeologist’s general descriptions of cultures, not peoples; the descendants of these earlier cultures are still alive and present in the American Southwest.
Paleo-Indian (~13,500 to ~8,000 BP (Before Present)): The Clovis culture is the earliest well-defined material culture in the Americas, though excavations over the past few decades have uncovered sites that likely pre-date the Clovis culture. Their descendants created the cultural diversity of North and South America, from the coldest reaches of the northern tundras, to the dense Amazonian jungles, and the plains of the American West. But archaeological investigations still strive to understand where the culture came from and how it developed. Evidence of Clovis people is usually only associated with their specific style of creating stone tools – usually large spear points used to take down massive mammoths and other megafauna of the Pleistocene. While finding the remnants of these ancient gatherers-and-hunters is difficult, there have been several discoveries of Clovis points near Walnut Canyon. Most notably, several Clovis points were discovered in Wupatki National Monument, just 25 miles northeast of Walnut Canyon.
Walnut Canyon’s environment would have provided game, resources, and shelter to these nomadic peoples. The steep gorge might have been an ideal spot for hunters to force large herds of animals over the cliff, as this was a common technique for hunting large game during that time (though no direct evidence for this practice has been found yet at Walnut Canyon).
During the end of the Pleistocene, the climate grew considerably warmer, and along with this came changes to the animals and plants available to prehistoric peoples. These ancient hunters started making smaller projectile points that could be used on the prehistoric bison that now roamed over much of the American southwest. There is evidence that these Paleoindian cultures that followed the Clovis were utilizing Walnut Canyon either as temporary shelters, or as a place to hunt the many animals in the biodiverse area. During excavations in Walnut Canyon, archaeologists found what is probably an Eden point, dating to 10,000 years ago. This point would probably have been used to hunt the mule deer or elk that frequented the canyon.
None of the rock images in Walnut Canyon can be unambiguously identified with the Paleo-Indian cultures. In fact, there are no solidly-identified Paleo-Indian rock images anywhere in the Americas, only a few very ambiguous figures that people have attempted to identify as representations of extinct animals of the Pleistocene like mammoths and camels.
Archaic (~8000 BP to ~500 CE): After the extinction of large game animals like mammoths and mastodons, the Paleo-Indian gatherer-and-hunter cultures in the Southwest shifted to a lifestyle and culture, known collectively as Archaic period. The Archaic culture is primarily identified by their stone dart points, which were much smaller than the Paleo stone points. Archaic stone points are throughout Walnut Canyon, but the points only generally diagnostic of culture and time.
However, in a cave near Walnut Canyon, several split twig-figurines were found. These split twig-figurines are willow twigs shaped in animal effigies, which were carbon-dated to around 3500-4000 years ago.
Split twig figurines from Walnut Canyon area (Photo: NAU IdeaLab)
Once again, Walnut Canyon does not contain any rock images that are clearly identifiable as Archaic. Some have suggested that sites with multiple parallel scratch marks may be Archaic, but this identification is not definitive.
Sinagua (~500 CE to 1300 CE): In the Flagstaff and Verde Valley areas, archaeologists have identified pithouses and other structures built by early agriculturalists, dating to around 500 CE, and extending to roughly 1300 CE. Harold Colton, the founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona, assigned these cultures the name “Sinagua,” from the Spanish “without water.” Sinagua was a reference to the original Spanish name for the San Francisco Peaks that tower over the Flagstaff area, “Sierra Sin Agua.” The Spanish were surprised that such large mountains did not have large permanent rivers flowing from them. Early archaeologists further subdivided Sinagua culture into the Southern Sinagua, concentrated in the Verde Valley south of Flagstaff, and the Northern Sinagua found in the general Flagstaff area. The Northern Sinagua built and inhabited the cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon National Monument in the 12th-century CE.
As inhabitants of some of the earliest cliff dwellings in the Southwest, the Sinagua people at Walnut Canyon were extremely knowledgeable of how to cultivate maize, beans, squash, and other plants that they farmed on the rim tops surrounding the canyon. The Sinagua also gathered wild food resources and hunted game in and around Walnut Canyon. With approximately 180 or more inhabitants living there for several generations (between 1100 CE and 1220 CE), Walnut Canyon was likely a ecologically diverse and culturally rich center within the Northern Sinaguan culture.
Sinagua cliff dwelling, south end of Island Trail (Photo: NAU IdeaLab)
There is little doubt that many of the rock images found in Walnut Canyon were created by the Sinagua culture. Elements found in Walnut Canyon, like footprints, geometric elements, stick figures, animals, and fluteplayers, are characteristic of Sinagua rock images found elsewhere in the Flagstaff region.
The modern Pueblo nations (Hopi and Zuni) retain a special relationship with the canyon to this day, as they trace some of their ancestry to the Sinagua who lived here before.
Pai (~1400? CE to present): The Pai cultures are believed to have arrived in the general Flagstaff/Sedona area around the 14th-century. They are commonly split into three cultural subgroups: the Yavapai, which lived primarily around the Verde Valley; the Hualapai, which lived west of Flagstaff; and the Havasupai, which lived northwest of Flagstaff, most notably in Havasu Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon.
Apache (~1400? CE to present): The Apache are an Athabascan-speaking culture, placing their origins somewhere in northwest America. A small mount of archaeological material can be identified as early Apache culture with certainty. As gatherers-and-hunters, most of the Apache goods were perishable and they burned the possessions of the deceased. The date of their arrival in the American Southwest is unclear, but was probably around the 13th or 14th century.
One rock image site in Walnut Canyon (WACA 268) had several Apache potsherds (broken pottery), suggesting that the rock images might be Apachean in nature. Another rock image site has many elements in a style called “Verde Incised,” common in the Verde Valley and believed to be associated with Apache culture (WACA 462).
Navajo (~1400? CE to present): Like the Apache, the Navajo are an Athabascan-speaking culture. Some ancestors of the Apache and Navajo arrived from the northern speaking Athabaskan languages related to those of Western Canada and Alaska and about 70-80% of their vocabularies overlap. The Navajo are one of the largest Native American nations, occupying a large reservation in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.
No unambiguously-identifiable Navajo rock images have been found in Walnut Canyon, but given their active presence in the area over the past 600+ years, it is quite possible that some of the rock images in the canyon may have been created by them.
Walnut Canyon is located 10 miles southeast of downtown Flagstaff, Arizona, and roughly 4 miles south of Interstate 40. The canyon runs 12 miles along the western and northern edge of Anderson Mesa, with 10 miles winding its way through the heart of Walnut Canyon National Monument. Six million years ago, Walnut Creek cut this ancient canyon 400 feet through several distinct geological layers that shaped the biodiversity and history of the canyon. The Coconino Sandstone forms the steep, inner gorge of the canyon, and shows this region was once home to sweeping Sahara-like sand dunes from the cross-bedded layers they left behind. The Kaibab Formation, mainly limestone, created the sloping upper canyon. Layers of hard limestone make up the overhangs, and soft limestone eroded to create alcoves. Naturally-occurring overhangs provided ideal locations for building stone masonry walls to enclose living and storage rooms that the Monument is now famous for. To read more about the natural features and ecosystems, refer to the Walnut Canyon National Monument website.
Geologic cross-section of Walnut Canyon (Figure: Zach Zdinak)
The region acts as a biodiverse transition zone with plants and animals typical of highlands, lowlands, desert environments, and cooler temperate environments. The canyon ecosystem has approximately 400 species of plants, including: Gambel oak, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Utah juniper, Rocky Mountain juniper, banana yucca, pinyon pine, Stansbury cliffrose, fernbush, and prickly pear cactus. The canyon’s ancient inhabitants used many of the plants for food and medicine. Researchers have identified 121 bird species, 69 mammal species, and 28 species of amphibians and reptiles. Some of these species include the Rocky Mountain elk, coati, mule deer, grey fox, great horned owl, and various hawks and falcons. The Mexican spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, finds secluded nesting areas within the protected monument borders.
From rolling, open plains on the plateau to the deeply incised microclimates of the canyon, the Walnut Canyon environment contains vast differences in topography resulting in the creation of various habitats for a range of plant and animal species. The region acts as a biodiverse transition zone with plants and animals typical of highlands, lowlands, desert environments, and cooler temperate environments. The canyon ecosystem has approximately 400 species of plants, including Gambel oak, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Utah juniper, Rocky Mountain juniper, banana yucca, pinyon pine, Stansbury cliffrose, fernbush, and prickly pear cactus. The canyon’s inhabitants used many of the plants for food and medicine.
The south-facing slopes of Walnut Canyon (left) receive more direct sunlight, and are warmer and drier than the north side (right). The vegetation on the south side (e.g. cactus,yucca,juniper) tends to be more heat and drought tolerant than that on the north side (Douglas fir, ponderosa pine). Above the rim, forests of ponderosa and pinyon pine dominate. At the bottom of the canyon, where more water is available, you’ll find water-loving riparian plants like walnut, ash, cottonwood and willow. (Photo: Northern Arizona University)
Researchers have identified 121 bird species, 69 mammal species, and 28 species of amphibians and reptiles. Some of these species include the Rocky Mountain elk, coati, mule deer, grey fox, great horned owl, and various hawks and falcons. The Mexican spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, finds secluded nesting areas within the protected monument borders. Click the links for more information on the animals, plants, and environment.
The coati (or coatimundi) is normally found in southern Arizona into Mexico, but has established a home at Walnut Canyon (Photo: Jongleur100 [Public domain])