Where did Hohokam culture come from? To the first
scientists who asked this question, the Hohokam seemed to appear in
Arizona quite suddenly with the ability to build sophisticated
irrigation system to water their crops. Early archaeologists
proposed that Hohokam culture developed in Mexico and moved into
what is now Arizona.
In the 1990s, a major archaeological dig along the Santa Cruz River
in Tucson resulted in a startling discovery. Archaeologists
identified a culture and people that were ancestors of the Hohokam.
Called the Early Agricultural Period, this early group grew corn,
lived in sedentary villages all year round and developed
sophisticated irrigation canals. This group might have occupied
southern Arizona as early as 2000 BC! Originating as archaic hunters
and gatherers who lived on wild plants and animals, these peoples
settled in permanent communities and produced their own food instead
of living a more mobile life and gathering what nature provided.
Omar Turney map of 1929 showing prehistoric irrigation canals north
and south of the Salt River in the Phoenix area.
Carla Booker and Alexandra Howard recording a prehistoric canal
exposed in a trench at the Riverview development in Mesa.
O’odham water control gate in
historic period irrigation canal.
The Hohokam were the only culture in North America to rely on irrigation
canals to supply water to their crops. In the arid desert environment of the
Salt and Gila River Valleys, the homeland of the Hohokam, there was not
enough rainfall to grow crops. To meet their needs, the Hohokam engineered
the largest and most sophisticated irrigation system in the Americas.
The canals were perfectly laid out on the landscape to achieve a downhill
drop (or gradient) of 1 to 2 feet per mile. Many of the canals were massive
in size. The Arizona Museum of Natural History discovered a prehistoric
canal at the north end of Dobson Road that measured 15 feet deep and 45 feet
wide. Irrigating up to 110,000 acres by AD 1300, the Hohokam irrigation
systems supported the largest population in the prehistoric Southwest.
Mural in the Arizona Museum of Natural
History of the Rowley Site, near Park of the Canals in Mesa, c. 1200-1450,
by Ann and Jerry Schutte.
Life for the Hohokam focused, in large extent, on agriculture and growing
crops. The canals required the organization and labor of thousands of people
to build, maintain and operate. Farmers had to maintain the fields and open
and close the irrigation gates at the proper time. They had to protect crops
from rabbits, birds and other marauders. Planting and harvest times would
require the efforts of the entire community.
Disease was a significant problem for pre-industrial people. While some in
the communities had medical knowledge and offered traditional cures,
treatments were not available for many maladies. Infant mortality was high,
with perhaps one out of every four children dying before their first
Life was not all work and illness. The Hohokam held large community
gatherings at ballcourts and temple mounds. Here, people would trade goods
and young people could meet potential marriage partners from other villages.
Structure of a Hohokam village.
The Hohokam organized their villages to separate and coordinate different
activities. Houses clustered into residential areas. To keep the village
neat, the Hohokam disposed of trash in pits and piles within specific areas.
They used large open areas in the village for messy activities including the
use of large earth ovens (hornos). Hornos, which measured 6 to 10 feet
across and 6 to 8 feet in depth, were used to pit bake the hearts of agave
plants and other foods such as corn and possibly squash.
Families lived in single room structures that surrounded rectangular
courtyards where daily activities took place. Each room would house a
nuclear family consisting of mother, father and their children. The families
joined in these “courtyard groups” were closely related and formed an
extended family unit. In Hohokam society you would live in a group with your
parents and your brother’s and sister’s families. This extended family
functioned as a basic social and economic unit, sharing resources and daily
Trade and Exchange
Map of Hohokam trade.
Reproductions of the front and back sides of a pyrite
mirror from Mesoamerica, traded to the Hohokam and found in the
The Hohokam traded goods widely across the American Southwest and
Mesoamerica (Mexico). Hohokam cotton and woven goods such as blankets were
highly prized and fetched a good price in the exchange networks. Shell
bracelets, pendants, rings and other objects made of shell from the Gulf of
California were traded into the Hohokam area. Pendants and other objects
made from turquoise were traded from many different sources into the Hohokam
heartland. Ceramic pots were traded widely and it is not unusual to find
vessels made in northern, southern and eastern Arizona in local Hohokam
sites. Many of these traded ceramics are unusual shapes such as canteens,
duck effigy pots and other unique types.
Many rare objects typically used only by the elites of Mesoamerican society,
were traded into the Hohokam area. Copper bells, created from native melted
copper and using a lost wax technique, were obtained from northern and
western Mexico. Pyrite mirrors, made from a round disk of schist on which
were glued thin sheets of pyrite (a reflective metallic mineral often called
fool’s gold), were traded from the Valley of Mexico.
Hohokam craftsmen produced a wide array of artifacts made from stone,
bone, shell and clay. Stone was chipped into cutting tools with sharp edges
or hammered into other shapes. Stone bowls sported a variety of motifs
including rattlesnakes, frogs, and lizards. Highly symmetrical and
well-polished axes were produced in large numbers at Mesa Grande.
Petroglyphs, rock art pecked onto boulders, can be found throughout the
Bone was carved into intricate shapes. Long bone hair pins, often found with
males, had ends carved into mountain sheep and other forms, including a
human foot. Bone tubes were carved with elaborate geometric designs. Pointed
awls and needles used in making baskets and clothing are common in Hohokam
A variety of shells were collected in the Gulf of California and traded into
the Hohokam area. Artisans used shell to make a wide variety of objects,
many of which were used as ornaments. Shell bracelets are a common artifact
type found on Hohokam sites including Mesa Grande. Crafted by removing the
center of a clam shell, the bracelets were typically worn by men on their
upper left arm. Shells with designs etched into them with a mild acid
represent one of the earliest examples of this advanced technology.
Figurines, small fired clay dolls, are also found in the early Hohokam
villages and are similar to those made in Mesoamerica. Figures give us
information on Hohokam dress and ornamentation. Some figures portray mothers
with infants and children and several have been found of pregnant women and
even women in childbirth.
Objects of stone: ball player’s paddle, frog, bird effigy,
digging stick weight.
Ground stone axe and arrow shaft straighteners.
Small jewelry objects carved from shell.
Hohokam Red on Buff ceramics.
Ida Redbird, a famous Maricopa potter, firing ceramics.
The art of making ceramics was highly advanced in the Hohokam culture. Using
different firing techniques and paints hey made jars and bowls of different
styles and colors. Archaeologists once thought that each Hohokam village
produced the bowls, jars and scoops that it needed. Recent research has
revealed, however, that certain communities were centers of ceramic
production and provided specific types of pottery to other villages through
Ceramics are produced from two distinct materials, clay and ground up stone
or “temper” that is added to the clay to make it easier to work, resistant
to cracking in the firing process, and more durable after the ceramic was
fired. By studying the temper, researchers can determine where the ceramic
was made. By examining the ceramics found at single village, archaeologists
can identify the other villages with which it traded. This provides
information on the interaction between villages and helps to understand
trade networks and to reconstruct social, political and economic ties.
Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico
Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico
The Hohokam are typically considered to be a southwestern Native American
culture. Yet they clearly have very strong ties to the cultures of
Mesoamerica, especially Mexico. Hohokam platform mounds are similar to
mounds built and used in Mexico by such groups as the Toltec, Aztec and
Maya. Ballcourts, while architecturally different from those to the south
are also a clear cultural connection with the ideology of Mesoamerica.
Even the types of foods utilized by the Hohokam show a Mesoamerican
connection. Corn (maize), beans and squash were the three major crops in the
prehistoric American Southwest and were also the principle foods of the
Hohokam. But the Hohokam also used other Mesoamerican food plants such as
agave and amaranth.
What Happened to the Hohokam?
Note Pima Ki (house), Spanish style ramada,
and women with carrying baskets.
This traditional O’odham structure is similar to Hohokam
Frank La Roche photograph, 1901.
O’odham (Pima) baskets.
One of the most intriguing questions concerning the Hohokam focuses on
the “collapse,” when evidence of the Hohokam is no longer seen in the
archaeological record. What happened to this amazing culture that flourished
for so many centuries? Researchers have suggested floods, salt buildup on
the fields and warfare as causes of decline, but there are reasons to doubt
each of these explanations.
The Hohokam decline is part of a larger pattern of abandonment seen
throughout the American Southwest. Recent studies suggest that people began
migrating toward the south during a major drought in the Four Corners area
in the 1200s. From AD 1200 to 1450 large portions of the prehistoric
Southwest were largely abandoned.
Recent studies show a dramatic rise of population in the Salt River Valley
from AD 1100 to 1300. At the beginning of this period, the Hohokam
constructed their last large irrigation network on the river and used all of
the available water to irrigate crops. This stressed their most critical
resource, water. Major changes in Hohokam culture resulted, including the
construction of the mounds. While these changes appear to be in response to
a need to share water and feed an ever increasing population, their attempts
fail. From 1350 to 1450 the population plunges and traces of the Hohokam
disappear from the archaeological record.
Despite this decline in numbers a smaller O’odham population survived and is
a thriving culture today. The members of the Salt and Gila River communities
celebrate their heritage as descendants of the ancient Hohokam.