Episode 17: Hohokam – Masters of the Desert
Ancient Civilizations of North America
Dr Edwin Barnhart (2018)
The Hohokam, believed to have evolved from the Cochise* desert culture, occupied the central Arizona desert. They constructed 700 miles of irrigation canals (which was more than the Inca) between modern day Phoenix and Tucson between 750 and 1150 AD. The canals used water control gates to reduce flow during heavy rain and to direct flow to different fields. The first European settlers in Tucson repaired the Hohokam canals for their own use.
The Hohokam began with part time farming in the flood plains of the Gila and Salt rivers. When seasonal floods kept destroying them, they moved to higher ground, which they irrigated with canals. One subgroup, the Desert Hohokaum, used wells and rainwater for irrigation. Hohokam platform mounds, built between 750 and 1150 AD, seem to have been inspired by Mexican trade partners.
A severe 12th century drought led the Hohokaum to abandon the region for wetter areas. However they returned between 1300 and 1450 AD to rebuild and extend their irrigation canals. They now adopted above ground “room block” architecture, possibly influenced by Ancestral Pueblo immigrants, who also brought Selado Polychrome pottery to the region.
The Hohokaum used the paddle and anvil method of shaping buff colored pottery, which often featured geometric designs.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, some Hohokam built isolated rancheros between Hohokam village clusters, which collaborated with multi-village communities in maintaining the canals. Suggestive of strong central leadership, this period is also associated with large public architecture projects, consisting of platform mounds, great houses and ball courts (200 altogether). The latter were large oval pits dug seven feet into the ground. As no balls have been found, it’s believed they were used for public performances.
The great houses were astronomically aligned multistory structures of stone and adobe and were most like used for religious purposes.
Grave artifacts included jewelry and artwork made of clay, stone and cotton imported from Mexico and bowls and stone pallets** carved from bone, sandstone, quartz and basalt. The presence of turquoise and obsidian jewelry, as well as copper bells and marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, also points to regular trade with Mexico. The presence of human figurines is strongly suggestive of ancestor worship.
Social stratification seems to have increased after 1300, and a mid-14th century drought caused the Hohokaum to turn more to their Ancestral Pueblo neighbors for trade. By the early 14th century, the region housed 80,000 Hohokaum.
All maintenance on canals stopped after 1350 and by 1450 the Hohokaum had disappeared. They would be replaced by the Pima (currently known as O’odham). Using remaining Hohokaum canals for agriculture, the Pima lived in square houses with rounded corners built on top of shallow pits.
**The craft of carving stone pallets most likely derived from Chile via western Mexico.