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Earth Notes: Hopi Mesas

A black and white image of a Hopi pueblo  on top of a sheer mesa
Ansel Adams
Public Domain
First Mesa, 1941

The Hopi Mesas in Northeastern Arizona rise more than 600 feet above the surrounding landscape. They form the southern edge of Black Mesa, a large geologic uplift that peaks at more than 8,000 feet above sea level. The mesas form dramatic terraced pinnacles, comprised of sandstones and shales deposited millions of years ago during the Late Cretaceous period.

This unique geological landscape allows for the creation of hundreds of springs. Moisture from winter snowpack and summer monsoons seeps down through the porous sandstone, until it hits a layer of shale or clay, which forces the water to move horizontally. It’s carried by gravity toward the edge of the mesas and eventually emerges from the bedrock as a spring. Deeper beneath the mesas are vast underground aquifers that contain water collected during the last ice age. It’s so pristine, it requires no treatment or purification in order to drink.

The Hopi Mesas are the final destination of a series of epic migrations that Hopi ancestors endured across the southwest and beyond. Drawn to this location by divine prophecy and life-sustaining water, the ancestral clans gathered, establishing their villages at the edge of the sheer cliffs. For over a thousand years, Hopi people have lived upon the mesas, in one of the longest, continuously inhabited settlements in the southwest. It’s known in Hopi tradition as Tuuwanaasavi, the Center of the Universe.

This Earth Note was written by Lyle Balenquah and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Lyle Balenquah, Hopi, is a member of the Greasewood Clan from the Village of Paaqavi ("Reed Springs Place") on Third Mesa, located in northeastern Arizona. He currently works as an archaeologist, as well as a river and hiking guide across the Four Corners region. Through his work he advocates for the protection and preservation of ancestral landscapes, combining his professional training with personal experiences and insights about Hopi culture and history.
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