Hohokam

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The Hohokam were the original inhabitants of the Valley of the Sun.  These ancient people lived in central and southern Arizona for more than a millenium before disappearing about 1450.  They were expert farmers who engineered hundreds of miles of canals to irrigate their fields.  This feature will explore the Hohokam civilization and examine the rich cultural legacy they left behind as well as possible reasons for their decline and lessons our modern civilization can learn from their experience.

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Transcript

Narrator: They are known as "Those who have gone," and for over a thousand years, this ancient culture flourished in Arizona. They were one of the most successful desert-dwelling people known, and their legacy still can be found today throughout much of the central and southern portions of the state. But while much is known about their achievements, there is much that remains to be discovered.

Douglas Craig: The Hohokam were a remarkable group of people. They were farmers and artisans who occupied most of south central Arizona, going all the way up to the Mogollon Rim down to the U.S. and Mexico border. And where we pick them up in the archeological record is between about A.D. 500 and maybe 1400, 1450. We lose track of them shortly before the Spanish arrive. In terms of what sets them apart from other prehistoric or pre-Hispanic groups in the area is, for one thing, they were master farmers and were able to sustain themselves for hundreds of years practicing agriculture.

Narrator: The Hohokam cultivated a variety of crops, including corn, squash, and several varieties of beans. They also were successful growers of cotton.

Todd Bostwick: When we find the remains of the tools that they used to weave the cotton, we find cotton seeds and we find cotton pollen. And in fact the Hohokam were the first cotton growers in the Southwest, well before their contemporaneous societies, so not only could they weave the beautiful textiles, the traces we do find, but they could trade it. And so they would be providing a commodity that would be in high demand throughout the Southwest.

Narrator: At their most successful, the Hohokam had tens of thousands of acres of crops under cultivation, an impossible feat without a steady supply of water.

Jerry Howard: Typically when people hear about the Hohokam and their building canals here in the desert, they get this picture in their mind's eye of these Native Americans building little tiny ditches out across the landscape. But that wasn't the case. The Salt River is a large river. It would flow with a great quantity of water. And they began to build systems that were really monumental efforts of both engineering and labor to build them. We've reconstructed one of the profiles of the canals as archeologists see them in the field today. So what you're seeing is the actual size and shape of the canal, but also the actual sediment, the soil that came out of that canal.

Narrator: With no draft animals available to them, the Hohokam dug their canals by hand. Most of the work involved the use of digging sticks to loosen the soil, which would've been carried away in baskets. But as impressive as the construction effort was, so were their design skills.

Jerry Howard: The engineering that went into these canals was really complex. It wasn't just a matter of building a ditch out across the desert; they were able to look at the landscape and then map these canals right onto the contours of the land. The irrigation systems that they built here were the largest gravity-feed irrigation networks ever built in the prehistoric New World. That's really quite an accomplishment.

Narrator: In addition to their canal system, the Hohokam left behind other important remnants of their culture that help investigators to reassemble the past.

David R. Abbott: There were lots and lots of ceramics that were being made. Everybody had to have ceramics. They were -- bowls and jars were basic necessities of Hohokam life. And by tracing the constituents of the ceramics -- the clays and then also the rock particles that they used for temper – by tracing where those materials came from on the natural landscape, we have a way of figuring out where individual ceramics were made. And then because ceramics were widely traded and distributed, we can use that, we can trace out the movements of those ceramics and use those as a way of determining who were interacting with who during prehistoric times.

Narrator: Much of that interaction took place at ball games that were played on courts found throughout the Hohokam territory.

Douglas Craig: We think the ball game and the ball courts served both probably a secular but also a ritual function within Hohokam society. It seems to have been at the core of a regional ceremonial and exchange system, and we find these ball courts everywhere from Flagstaff down to the U.S./Mexico border, from Gila Bend to Safford. So we find them far and wide. I think we've recorded close to 240 of these ball-court features in Arizona, and it really does appear that it's more than just a recreational activity, that there's really something more going on to that, that it was really the heart of their religious system as well as a way of bringing people together.

Narrator: But sometime in the early 1100s, platform mounds began to replace ball courts as the main form of public architecture in Hohokam villages.

Todd Bostwick: The Hohokam built two different types of public architecture. In other words, this is architecture that's built to have functions where the public participate. For the ball courts, it was to watch the games, but later in their occupation of the desert, The Hohokam began to build platform mounds. And it's very interesting that for some reason the ball courts were abandoned and then platform mounds became substantial components to the same villages that had ball courts.

Narrator: In the Southwest, platform mounds are unique to the Hohokam. The large mound at Pueblo Grande is believed to be the focus of ceremonial responsibilities for an entire canal system. About the size of a modern football field, it is another example of sophisticated Hohokam engineering.

Todd Bostwick: It's not just a simple pile of dirt: it had structures and courtyards, there were clearly cooking areas. And there's a lot of debate about what was going on top of the Hohokam platform mounds, but we believe here at Pueblo Grande that the platform mound served two functions. One was it was essentially a church for religious activities and also an administrative center.

Narrator: Although much remains to be learned about sites such as Pueblo Grande, it is believed that the shift in focus from ball courts to platform mounds represents a critical turning point in Hohokam society.

Doug Craig: The Hohokam, large villages still were present and flourished for another 300, 350 years, so it's not so much a decline, but there was definitely a restructuring of Hohokam society that happened at about 1100, and that coincided probably with a breakdown of the ball-court system, this regional exchange and ceremonial system that was replaced then by a more sort of focused, hierarchical system, particularly in the Phoenix area, associated with the canal systems.

Narrator: By the mid-15th century, the Hohokam had abandoned their major settlements.
Left behind, however, are vestiges of their many accomplishments as farmers, engineers, artisans, and even astronomers who charted celestial events. And while the reasons for their disappearance remain unclear, their legacy is very much in evidence.

Jerry Howard: The Hohokam really left us quite a legacy here in the Valley. Early Anglo farmers, when they came into the Salt River Valley, opened the Hohokam irrigation canals, re-engineered them, re-opened them in order to start a new agricultural society here today.