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The Hohokam Millenium

Suzanne K. Fish and Paul R. Fish, ed. (2008)


Hot, dry regions of the world have produced some of the most memorable preindustrial civilizations, and the southern deserts of Arizona are no exception. The aptly named modern Phoenix, now the fifth largest city in the United States, arose not from the ashes but from the ruins of what was the most populous and agriculturally productive valley in the West before 1500 C.E. When the early Southwestern archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing entered this Salt River valley in 1892, he climbed atop an earthen monument in what would become urban Phoenix and exclaimed at the discovery of "one of the most extensive ancient settlements we had yet seen." Before us, toward the north, east, and south, a long series mounds, lay stretched out in seemingly endless succession." Entrepreneurs arriving from the eastern United States a few decades earlier had, like Cushing, seen not only house mounds but also the former courses of the most massive canals ever built in the pre-Columbian Americas north of Peru. They soon reestablished large-scale irrigation by laying out new canals virtually in the footprints of the prehistoric ones, triggering the growth of the future city. (1)

Among preindustrial societies throughout the world, the Hohokam hold the distinction of having constructed massive canal networks (up to 22 miles in length) and irrigated extensive tracts of land (up to 70,000 acres) in the absence of state-level government and a corresponding level of societal complexity. Archaeologists have not yet identified the graves or dwellings of rulers with such obvious high status and power that they could have imperiously resolved the inevitable disputes that arise among multitudes of water users or regulated the huge labor force needed to build and maintain the canals. Nor have archaeologists found evidence of a developed Hohokam bureaucracy that could have provisioned and organized workers. Yet the canal systems alone clearly required a tremendous amount of coordinated labor. Jerry Howard, an expert on Hohokam irrigation, estimates that it would have taken nearly a million person-days of labor to construct the trunk-lines of just one of the Phoenix Basin canal systems. That figure does not include the additional effort needed to build secondary lines out to fields, clean out annual buildups of canal sediments, and make repairs after storms and floods.
The Hohokam also constructed earthen ball courts and platform mounds of modestly monumental size relative to those found elsewhere in the ancient world, again without all-powerful rulers or an established bureaucracy. The placement of these monuments imparted a unique pattern to Hohokam landscapes. Large villages with ball courts or platform mounds appear about every three miles along major canal lines in the Phoenix Basin and at greater intervals among surrounding settlements. The largest villages stood at the centers of clusters of smaller settlements, each cluster forming an organizational unit of population and territory that Hohokam archaeologists call a "community." (5)

[Cp. the civilization of Harappa, in the Indus Valley: Ever since the discovery of Harappa, archaeologists have been trying to identify the rulers of this city. What has been found is very surprising because it isn't like the general pattern followed by other early urban societies. It appears that the Harappan and other Indus rulers governed their cities through the control of trade and religion, not by military might. It is an interesting aspect of Harappa as well as the other Indus cities that in the entire body of Indus art and sculpture there are no monuments erected to glorify, and no depictions of warfare or conquered enemies. ( 9) It is speculated that the rulers might have been wealthy merchants, or powerful landlords or spiritual leaders. Whoever these rulers were it has been determined that they showed their power and status through the use of seals and fine jewelry.]

The great majority of Hohokam people lived within the outlines of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and within the range of the towering saguaro cactus, one of its distinguishing species. Sonoran Desert vegetation differs from that of the Chihuahuan Desert to the east and the Mohave Desert to the west, thanks to rainfall that arrives in both winter and summer rather than mostly at one time of year. The two seasons of rainfall allow the Sonoran Desert to support large cacti such as saguaro and cholla and dryland trees such as mesquite, ironwood, and paloverde, in addition to the shrubs common to all three deserts. The fruits and buds of the cacti and the beanlike pods of the trees provided plentiful and reliable wild staples in the Hohokam diet. Groves of mesquites and plants with edible small seeds, including saltbush, grasses, pigweed, and goosefoot, flourish along Sonoran Desert watercourses. (7)

Sometime between 1400 and 1550 CE, Hohokam society collapsed, and the Hohokam disappeared as a coherent archaeological culture. Because archaeologists have found so little evidence for what really happened at the end, they hold conflicting opinions and promote different scenarios. The long record of large and sustained agricultural settlements within Hohokam boundaries ends without any clear transition to groups with new cultures. We have little information about the people of the Phoenix Basin until the Spanish Jesuit missionary Father Kino visited the area more than a century later, in the 1680s. By that time, indigenous peoples did not closely resemble the Hohokam.
One current scenario, based on reconstructions of annual Salt River stream flow from tree-ring data, sees disastrous fourteenth-century floods leading to unpredictable harvests, hunger, and disease, forcing many people to leave the region. According to another view, an increasingly hierarchical and demanding leadership fostered political instability and was overthrown from within. O'odham oral traditions describe events of this sort (see chapter 15). Other archaeologists propose that the deadly new diseases introduced into central Mexico by the Spaniards traveled rapidly along the trade routes, dealing a devastating final blow to the Hohokam. (9)

The hard times of the Early Ceramic period might well have led Tucson farmers to move north to become the first settlers and canal builders in the middle Gila and lower Salt River valleys. In a twist of fate, the deeply cut rivers farther south might have accelerated the development of permanently settled life, the rise of the Hohokam, and the emergence of the Hohokam cultural core in the Phoenix area. Certainly no archaeologist before the 1990s could have guessed that a catastrophe in Tucson might have given birth to Phoenix! (15)

By that time, potters were producing a greater diversity of vessels that could be used for a wider variety of purposes, including, most importantly, cooking. The ability to routinely cook foods such as stews would have permitted the preparation of soft foods and therefore the early weaning of children. Women who stopped breastfeeding infants earlier became fertile again more quickly and could bear more children. (19)

Many archaeologists assume that women made the pottery vessels found in the Hohokam area. Why? First, early ethnographic and historic descriptions of ceramic production in this area indicate that women were the primary pottery producers, although men sometimes painted pots made by their mothers, wives, or sisters. Second, worldwide cross-cultural comparisons show that traditional, hand-built pottery made for use in the household is almost always made by women, whereas wheel-thrown pottery made for sale is nearly always made by men. Third, the few pre-Hispanic Southwestern images that depict people making vessels are of women. finally, Southwestern burials that contain potters' tool kits are those of adult females. I am confident, therefore, in assuming that almost all the people who made Southwestern vessels were women, but not every Hohokam archaeologist would agree. (23)

Southwestern Native American parents rarely gave verbal directions on how to do something, but they did offer a critique after the child finished the task. Through observation and imitation, children gradually attained mastery of the many tasks involved in making and painting a pot. (25-6)

With the warm climate and abundant resources of the desert, we might expect that Hohokam life was idyllic. Yet during the later Classic period, when inhumation rather than cremation was the rule and complete skeletal remains are available for study, at least some Hohokam villages experienced high mortality rates for infants, children, and teenagers. At the large site of Pueblo Grande, few people lived beyond 50. Frequent patterns denoting nutritional stress, including anemia, characterize the inhabitants of this village as well. (29)

Dams now impound the mighty rivers that once filled the largest irrigation works in ancient North America, and their courses run dry. Most traces of the people who built and maintained the canals and whose villages stretched from one end of the Phoenix Basin to the other have disappeared as well. A few fragments of broken pottery, an occasional chipped stone tool, or bits of shell jewelry on the surface of the ground are often the only markers revealing where a Hohokam village once stood. Everything else has been destroyed, plowed under, or covered over by asphalt and concrete.
Appearances can be deceiving, though, as archaeologists found out in the late 1970s when they started probing beneath the surface of modern, metropolitan Phoenix. Much to everyone's surprise, once the layers of dirt and asphalt were stripped away, thousands of well-preserved features from Phoenix's distant past emerged into view. The remains of Hohokam houses, in particular, seemed to be everywhere. Although these houses were small and unimpressive by today's standards—most were one-room pole and brush structures covered with hardened mud—they have provided archaeologists with a wealth of information. Much of what we currently know about Hohokam domestic life, for example, is based on the analysis of artifacts and preserved bits of food found in and around the houses. We also now have a much better idea how Hohokam villages were internally organized, as a result of studies of the spatial arrangement of houses within settlements. (31)

Shells with etched designs are limited to the Hohokam Sedentary period (900-1150 CE). (35)

If archaeologists could travel back in time to the Hohokam millennium, many of us would eagerly ask the first Hohokam people we encountered, "Who are you?" We would hope for a layered reply that listed the various ways they identified themselves and were identified by their contemporaries. Their answers would reveal what anthropologists call "social identity," or where individuals stand in relation to the important social divisions and institutions of their society. (39)

Most archaeologists do not think that the Hohokam lived under a state-level government, because we see no evidence for all-powerful rulers backed up by force or well-developed administrative bureaucracies. (40)

Fewer people know that the Hohokam were also master builders and highly proficient engineers. They built mostly with wood, brush, and adobe. If river cobbles or other rocks were available, Hohokam builders sometimes mixed them with adobe. All these materials were readily at hand and well suited for the hot, dry, desert environment, but with the exception of river cobbles, they seldom survive long enough for archaeologists to record them, much less for the public to appreciate them. So, unlike the stone buildings of the Hohokam's Ancestral Pueblo neighbors to the north, most Hohokam architecture has melted back into the desert. As a result, the Hohokam are known more for their crafts than for their constructions.
Yet examples of two types of Hohokam architecture, ball courts and platform mounds, have survived the ravages of time and can tell us a great deal about ritual behavior. To build these structures, Hohokam communities had to divert some of their members from subsistence-related tasks such as farming, hunting, and gathering wild plants—not a trivial decision in the harsh Sonoran Desert. They also had to organize people to perform heavy labor for long periods. Because neither ball courts nor platform mounds were essential for survival or even for the conduct of everyday life, the choice to invest significant time and energy in building them gives archaeologists important clues to the nature of Hohokam society. Hohokam people almost certainly built and used ball courts and platform mounds as part of their ritual activities. (50)

Reaching up into the sky more often relates to elevated status for an individual or group. We cannot be sure whether such symbolism figured in the shift in Hohokam ritual architecture from ball courts to mounds, but many lines of evidence point to a corresponding shift from a more egalitarian society to one with ranked social groups. (54)

The archaeologist Erik Reed once said that he wished the Gadsden Purchase had never happened and the Hohokam had stayed in Mexico where they belonged. Like many other archaeologists who worked in the northern Southwest, Reed found most aspects of Hohokam culture, including architecture, aesthetics, village plans, and iconography, radically different from those of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples he studied. Archaeologists looked to the south, to Mesoamerica, to find the origins of the eccentricity they saw in Hohokam culture. Looking from the north to the south, they asked: How did Mesoamerican culture cross the great unknown sea of northwest Mexico to land on a Hohokam island in southern Arizona? Hohokam migration from the south seemed the obvious answer. (57)

All this evidence of a western Mexican influence on the Hohokam tells us that they were not an eccentric, unique, and isolated people. What looks like an island of Mesoamerican influence when I viewed from the north becomes the tip of a peninsula when examined from the south. (62)

Temper can be any non-clay material, and Hohokam potters used crushed micaceous schist, a kind of metamorphic rock, for this purpose. The silver mica in the schist particles gave the plain ware vessels a sparkle, as if they had been dipped in glitter. (67)

The potter then set the pot aside to dry slowly—again, we do not know exactly how. In the hot Arizona sun, rapid drying would have been risky, potentially causing cracks to form in the pot. The potter might have set the green pot in a relatively cool, dry place indoors or covered it with damp cloth or grass. When the pots were completely dry, potters fired them in the open, using a wood fire and little else. The Hohokam did not build kilns, as far as we can determine. (68)

Gila Butte is a double-crested peak that stands 500 feet above the Gila River. From Interstate 10 heading toward Phoenix, one sees Gila Butte rising to the east, high above the searing plain, just after crossing the Gila River bridge. One imagines climbing to the top and surveying the entire valley—the view stretches for miles. Gila Butte is an outcrop of hard, durable, metamorphic rock that forces the Gila River to curve around its base. A few miles west of Gila Butte lies the site of Snaketown. This important site was an enormous residential and ceremonial center with several early forms of ceremonial platform mounds and two ball courts around a large central plaza, nearly 60 trash mounds (long-term, mounded accumulations of residential trash), and hundreds of houses. It was a focal point of the Hohokam world for at least 500 years. (71)

In what archaeologists call the Phoenix Basin—the conjoined valleys and confluence areas of the Gila and Salt Rivers and their major tributaries—Hohokam engineers constructed the largest irrigation systems in prehistoric North America. Around these impressive waterworks stretched a heavily populated landscape of villages and monuments. In the lower Salt River valley, for example, where the city of Phoenix now stands, 14 irrigation networks with an estimated aggregate length of 300 miles watered 400 square miles of agricultural land and settlements. These engineered landscapes supplied the food that made possible a dense population and a vigorous society. From this core area, significant Hohokam influence reached more than 50,000 square miles across Arizona. (83)

When I began working in Arizona, I noticed that Hohokam red-on-buff pottery looked similar wherever I saw it, whether at Gila Bend, Phoenix, Globe, Tucson, or somewhere else. I even saw Hohokam pottery in the juniper- and pine-covered country to the north. The distinctive presence of the sparkly, mica-schist temper specially prepared for making this pottery, along with other production characteristics, suggested a common source or source areas. The widespread distribution of this pottery puzzled me because it is not durable and breaks easily—which is why we find so much of it on Hohokam sites. It was special nonetheless; many people went to great lengths to obtain some of their own. For centuries this pottery retained strong market value throughout the Hohokam world. (84)

Trade, in general, serves many purposes, including circulating resources, people, and ideas and providing social cohesion. The Hohokam traded continuously across the ancient US Southwest and excelled in this arena. How do we know this? Ethnography provides some clues. The historic Akimel O'odham (River people, or Pima), Tohono O'odham (Desert People), and other native peoples commonly distributed food through ceremonies and by trading resources for labor. Writing in the 1930s, the anthropologist Ruth Underhill noted that to acquire corn and wheat from the River People, the Desert people traded goods to them, including cactus seeds, syrup, and fruit; agave hearts, cakes, and fiber; gourds; peppers; acorns; woven sleeping mats and baskets; dried meat from deer and mountain sheep; buckskin; pigments; and salt. They also held ceremonies at which people from better-off villages gave food to residents of villages that had fallen on hard times, creating a tradition of reciprocity. (84)

Like the Hohokam, their Akimel O'odham, or Pima, descendants built and maintained large canal irrigation systems along the Gila and Salt Rivers to water their crops of corn, beans, squash, and cotton. In the 1850s, Pima farmers using canals they had built atop the prehistoric ones produced huge surpluses of corn and wheat that they sold to the US military and to immigrants heading for California. Today the mighty Gila River is dry, except after winter storms and summer rains. Gone is the lush habitat with its cottonwoods, cattails, arrow weed, and mesquite groves lining the banks of the river. The contemporary desert conditions result from the upstream diversion of water on the Gila River by non-Indian farmers in the 1880s, together with drought. Both crippled Pima farming. Then, in 1924, the construction of Coolidge Dam near San Carlos, Arizona, ended irrigation agriculture as it had been practiced on the Gila river for nearly 2,000 years. (93)

During much of the Hohokam occupation of the middle Gila River valley, the river was aggrading—that is, soil deposits were accumulating on the riverbed rather than eroding away. The river occasionally overflowed its banks, which added to the buildup of the river terraces. Water flowed year-round and was confined to the narrow river channel except during floods. The predictable stream flow provided excellent conditions for the establishment of canal systems. But toward the end of the Preclassic period, after many years of floodplain stability and predictable stream flow, Hohokam farmers faced an environmental catastrophe. Sometime between 1020 and 1160, the Gila River underwent a dramatic change as it cut down into the floodplain and became much wider, more like the river channel we see today. This downcutting would have made many Hohokam canal headgates unusable and forced irrigators to rely on fewer locations for water intake, triggering the rebuilding of canals and the loss of cultivated land. (95)

I own a for-profit firm that specializes in doing Hohokam archaeology. I spend much of my time dealing with finances because every two weeks I must cover the paychecks of my 35 full-time staff and up to 30 part-time field staff. Hohokam archaeology was not always done this way. The laws that guide my daily work were developed and refined over more than a century, and they have transformed the profession of archaeology. "Following the money" reveals a great deal about the roots of today's Hohokam archaeology because money, laws, and the institutions in which scholars work have a long and dynamic relationship. (109)

[Daniel Lopez:] The word huhugam means "something that is all gone," such as food or when something disappears. Huhugam is used to refer to those people who have disappeared.
Who really knows who they were or what happened to them? Did they really all die off, as some theories say, or did all or some of them remain to be the forefathers of the modern-day Tohono O'odham?
Today we are here, the Tohono O'odham, and we do not know how far our past generations go back in time. We just say that we go back to the Huhugam. We are here today, but we know that some time in the future we will also be called the Huhugam. (118)

The Big House, or Siwan Wa'a Ki, is another site well known to all people and mentioned in O'odham legends. The world knows that Casa Grande Ruin has been there for hundreds of years. O'odham know that the place is ancient because it is mentioned in some of the tribal legends. (119)

When archaeologists first came to O'odham country and asked who had made the potsherds and mounds there, they probably received the answer, "Huhugam O'odham." The word huhugam, which the archaeologists converted into "Hohokam," refers to anything that is finished and no longer exists. Thus, one can say huhugam o'odham, meaning "finished people-like-us." The word o'odham can also mean "Native American" or "human." To the O'odham, the Ancestral Pueblos and ancient Egyptians are also huhugam, as are all ways of life that once were and are no more. Indeed, this ubiquitous word can refer to many things besides people, such as water, cooked food, and money. (125)

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