Native Americans - Farmers Of The Desert

The Hohokam

The Hohokam tradition, which spanned some 1450 years – from early in the first millennium to A. D. 1450 – seems to have materialized from a void and vanished into darkness. In between, the Hohokam made the Sonoran Desert bloom. They raised new standards in artistry, innovation and craftsmanship. They set their cultural sails to Mesoamerican winds.

The Hohokam Region

Like the Mogollon to the east, the Hohokam occupied a geologically and ecologically diverse region. At its maximum, their range extended from the basin and range and the low desert country of northern Sonora and southern Arizona northward up the famed Mogollon Rim escarpment and onto the Colorado Plateau’s southwestern edge.

In the basin and range area of southeastern Arizona and northeastern Sonora, mountain peaks reach elevations of more than 10,000 feet above sea level, and valley floors lie at elevations as low as 500 feet above sea level. In the mountain ranges, which trend from north northwest to south southeast, spruce and fir dominate the highest elevations. Pines and aspens, pines and oaks, and oaks and chaparral dominate the intermediate elevations. Typically, just above the mountain debris slopes, or bajadas, grasses and then desert scrubs signify the transition from forested lands to the Sonoran Desert. Along the upper parts of the bajadas, the statuesque columnar cactus, the saguaro, presides over a diverse plant community which includes, for instance, acacia, jojoba, triangle-leaf bursage and prickly pears. Lower, the saguaro dominates growths of mesquite, paloverde, cholla and bitter condalia. Cottonwood, sycamore, walnut and ash trees grow along washes. In desert flats, creosote, mesquite and acacia assume preeminent roles. Annual rainfall in the region ranges from some 30 inches at the highest elevations to less than 10 inches in the lower elevations. Most of the rain falls during two periods, mid-winter and mid-summer. Temperatures in May through September often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

To the west, in the low desert country which descends to sea level at the mouth of the Colorado River, small mountain ranges lie like elongated islands within the desert basins. Plants grow sparsely on the rocky mountain crests. Small to medium-sized bushes cling tenaciously to scattered footholds down the slopes and across the desert floor. On the upper reaches of the bajadas, the saguaro stands guard over barrel cactus, hedgehog cactus, teddybear cholla, desert agave and desert ironwood. Along the lower slopes and in the washes, screw-bean mesquite, blue palo verde, bur sage, ocotillo and cholla characterize the plant community. In the open valley floors, creosote, mesquites, various cholla species and beavertail cactus command the landscape. Annual rainfall averages less than four inches, and summer temperatures frequently reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Along the slopes of the Mogollon Rim (which extends from southeast to northwest for nearly 200 miles across the heart of Arizona) and the Hohokam corner of the Colorado Plateau, open ponderosa pine forests with a carpet of grass stand in powerful contrast to the thorny desert basins to the south. Because of the higher altitude of the Colorado Plateau – as much as several thousand feet above the desert basins – annual rainfall averages about 20 inches. Summers stay cooler. Winters can turn fiercely cold.

The land served as both commissary and general store for the Hohokam people. Wild fruits, seeds, nuts and roots, both from the desert and the mountains, supplemented Hohokam agricultural crops as food sources. Many desert and mountain plants yielded materials for construction, tools, weapons, clothing, containers and campfires. Bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, white-tail deer, antelope, rabbits, rodents, turkeys, quail and reptiles from across the desert and the mountain slopes fell to Hohokam hunters’ arrows, nets or snares. Rock exposures served as quarries for the lithic resources essential to the manufacture of weapons, stone vessels and tools. Clay deposits provided the raw material for the crafting of ceramic pots and figurines.

Hohokam Origins

When the archaeological curtain first lifted to reveal the early Hohokam, who occupied the south-central Arizona desert region early in the first millennium, there stood, not the last representatives of a predominantly nomadic hunting and gathering people, but rather the residents of full fledged farming and industrial communities. According to George J. Gumerman and Emil W. Haury in their article, "Prehistory: Hohokam," in the Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest, the early Hohokam excavated long and complex canal systems to irrigate their fields of corn, beans, squash and other crops. They dug wells to tap underground water sources. Their craftsmen sculpted stone into bowls and trough-like grinding basins; turned local clays into simple but well-made vessels and figurines; used turquoise to fashion elaborate mosaics; and made Pacific coast shell into jewelry and ornaments. Just to confuse archaeologists, the Hohokam also produced an assemblage of rudimentary artifacts which resembled those of early Mogollon farmers to the east.

Based on the initial archaeological evidence, the first researchers believed that colonial pioneers must have imported a more advanced Mesoamerican tradition to found the Hohokam culture around the beginning of the first millennium. Based on later archaeological evidence, other researchers – perhaps most – came to believe that local descendants of ancient hunting and gathering traditions of the desert responded to Mesoamerican influences and emerged as the Hohokam. Still other students have suggested that Hohokam immigrants arrived from some unknown Mesoamerican homeland region to sweep over the desert hunter/gatherers and set up colonial housekeeping in southern Arizona sometime in the second half of the first millennium. Some investigators argue that the Hohokam region became a Mesoamerican frontier outpost. Others believe that the Hohokam represented an local development with no more than a Mesoamerican veneer. We see Hohokam origins and their early development through a foggy window.

The Hohokam Culture, First Phase

In their first phase, which lasted some seven or eight centuries, until about A. D. 750, the Hohokam established early, small villages primarily in the vicinity of the confluence of the Gila and Salt Rivers (near modern Phoenix) and on the flood plains of the Santa Cruz Riverfarmer indians (near modern Tucson). Within their villages, they built small clusters of lodges around open courtyards, with areas set aside for work sites and cemeteries. They used the work sites for food processing, manufacturing and crafts areas. They used the cemeteries both for inhumations and for cremations. "Hamlets made up of several courtyard groupings may have been occupied by about 100 individuals," Linda Cordell said in her Archaeology of the Southwest, Second Edition.

The earliest Hohokam lived – presumably as extended families – in unusually large (1000 to 2500 square feet) lodges, which had either rectangular or square floor plans, often with two narrow entrances and two interior fire hearths. To raise a structure, the builders scraped away loose desert soil, often exposing a caliche hardpan which would serve both as foundation and floor. They erected a framework of primary vertical post roof supports at the corners and sometimes along the central axis, and they added smaller vertical support posts along the outer walls. They built a flat or slightly pitched roof and sloping walls of brush and grass and plastered the structure with mud or clay. They might have used the largest structures, not as residences, but as gathering places for the community. They had to rebuild their structures continually because the available materials and the construction methods suffered frequent failure. The Hohokam also built small isolated oval-shaped brush field houses near their crop land, presumably to serve as temporary lodges during the busy and demanding planting, growing and harvest seasons. The early structures served as templates for Hohokam structures throughout the history of the tradition.

In practices that would change little over time, the Hohokam furnished their lodges with low sleeping platforms, woven sleeping mats, blankets, cooking pots, eating bowls, storage vessels, baskets, grinding stones, tools and weaponry. They stored food in granaries or storage compartments just outside their lodges.

The typical Hohokam family manufactured (or traded for) a surprising diversity of products. From the fibers of willow and arrowweed, say archaeologists John P. Andrews and Todd W. Bostwick in their book Desert Farmers at the River’s Edge: The Hohokam and Pueblo Grande, the Hohokam wove baskets for "purposes in which heavier or more fragile pottery was unsuitable." From wood, they made "digging sticks, paddles, handles, and other objects." They also made wooden wands or staffs, perhaps as symbols of high status. From the cotton of their fields, they wove "blankets, breech cloths, skirts and kilts, hats or turbans, and shirts." From fibers of the agave and other wild plants of the desert, they wove mats, sandals, belts and ropes. From minerals such as turquoise and argillite, they crafted jewelry such as lip and nose plugs, beads, pendants, effigies and mosaic pieces. From shell imported from the beaches of the Gulf of California and the Pacific coast, they made jewelry and ornaments. From animal bone, they made tools, whistles and flutes. From smooth stone materials such as quartzite, obsidian and jasper, they produced elaborately barbed lance and, later, arrow points, and they made knives, choppers, fleshing tools and farm implements. From slate, they made plain but distinctive paint palettes. From coarser stone materials such as vesicular basalt, they fabricated food milling basins (metates), hand-held grinding stones (manos) as well as mortars and pestles. (Grit in food processed on the grinding stones wore the teeth of Hohokam smooth by the time they reached adulthood.) From local clays, Hohokam potters fashioned an array of thin-walled vessels, plain in the early centuries, beautifully painted or incised by A. D. 750, and they fashioned human-shaped ceramic figurines, usually of women, possibly as fertility icons. (These were similar to figurines manufactured in Mesoamerica.)

Although we have no direct archaeological evidence for the division of community responsibilities, we can suspect that Hohokam men cleared foundation sites and built village structures, excavated irrigation canals and water wells, opened farm plots, made weapons and tools, hunted game and perhaps crafted stone and shell jewelry and ornaments. Hohokam women may have plastered house structures, planted and harvested crops, prepared meals, woven fabrics, gathered wild plant foods and materials, produced ceramic pots and figurines and, certainly, cared for young children.

According to Andrews and Bostwick, the Hohokam planted their crops in a series of earth mounds along irrigation canals and near washes, possibly with extended families cultivating their own small plots. They may have raised several crop species, for instance, corn, beans, squash and cotton, in each mound. They may have produced two crops in their fields each year, one during the mid-winter rainy season, another during the mid-summer rainy season. They likely encouraged the growth of useful wild plants such as the agave, sunflowers and tansy mustard along the margins of their fields or mounds.

Like the Mogollon people to the east, the Hohokam men, traditional hunters, took the larger game with spears in the early centuries and with bows and arrows after A. D. 400 to 500. They probably used nets and snares to trap smaller game. The women, traditional gatherers and foragers, harvested wild plant foods and materials both on the desert floor and on the mountain slopes. From the archaeological evidence, we know that the early Hohokam traded with Mesoamerican peoples for shells from the sea and for macaws and parrots from the tropics.

In the second phase of their development, which lasted for about two centuries, until near the end of the first millennium, the Hohokam people, in a surge of energy, expanded their geographical range by three to four times. With a population increase likely attributable to their agricultural success, Hohokam groups "budded" and migrated eastward up the Gila and Salt River systems and deeper into the basin and range country; westward down the Gila River system and deeper into the lower desert area; and northward up the Agua Fria and Verde River systems into the Mogollon Rim and onto the Colorado Plateau. At the same time, the Hohokam looked southward, intensifying their interactions with Mesoamerica.

They built larger villages, some with populations exceeding 1000 people, and they now clustered their lodges, not around multiple courtyards, but around a central community courtyard. Reflecting Mesoamerican influences, the Hohokam began building platform mounds (often sculpted and capped trash mounds) and excavated ball courts. The platform mounds, typically three- to 10-foot high rectangular structures with plastered flat tops and sloping slides, measured several hundred to several thousand square feet in area. The mounds evidently supported a Hohokam-style timber, brush and mud plaster building, or "temple," and they may have served as a dance or ceremonial stage. The ball courts, typically eight to 12-foot deep oval-shaped excavations, would cover one and a half to two times the area of a modern basketball court. As in Mesoamerica, a Hohokam ball court would have served as a field for sacred games. As the scenes of communal events, the mounds and ball courts tended to unify the Hohokam and integrate their lives.

In this period, we begin to see the emergence of a social hierarchy. In the larger villages, the Hohokam began to give a somewhat more formal arrangement to lodges, presumably those of higher status residents, near the central courtyards. They still seemed to give no thought to the layout of lodges in outlying areas. They cremated and buried high status individuals with significant grave offerings, for instance, with "figurines, finely serrated projectile points, and copper bells [from Mesoamerica]" according to Cordell.

We also see, in the second period of development, a blooming of artistry and craftsmanship, reflecting new levels of Hohokam creative energies. For instance, Hohokam artisans expanded their use of imported shell, carving and grinding pieces into beads, bracelets and pendants, often forming them as stylized birds, reptiles and animals. They also used shell to produce intricately designed mosaics. They made long and slender barbed arrow points, primarily for use as burial offerings. They created paint palettes with finely carved borders, sometimes with representations of human or animal figures. They sculpted stone, often with bowl-like cavities, in the form of animals, birds and reptiles, primarily as funerary offerings. Increasingly, they used ceramic vessels as a painter’s canvas, rendering images of dancers, burden carriers, birds and many other motifs. They produced more realistic clay figurines, adding bits of clay to represent clothing and painting designs in red or black to represent tattoos. In an expression of their appreciation for artisanship, the Hohokam traded with the Mesoamericans for mosaic mirrors, which the skilled craftsmen to the south created through a laborious process of setting meticulously sliced pyrite crystals into an adhesive matrix.

Hohokam villagers expanded their irrigation systems, extending canals into new fields, and they excavated new channels to bring water into their communities. They even dug canals to deliver water from springs into cisterns for storage.

Many archaeologists regard the second period as the zenith of the Hohokam tradition.

In the third period, from about A. D. 975 to 1150, the Hohokam slowed their rate of expansion, although they did settle new agricultural land in southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau where they could take advantage of soils improved by cinder and ash from the Sunset Crater eruption. They continued to build villages with central plazas. They built lodges which were proportionally longer than (but otherwise similar to) those of earlier periods. They accelerated construction of ball courts, evidence of their rising interest in the sacred games. They relied more on farming, introducing new crops such as amaranth, and less on hunting and foraging.

Hohokam artisans began exploring new media, especially the painting and acid-etching of marine shells from the Gulf of California and the Pacific coast. "Large Laevicardium shells were coated with a pitch in geometric or animal designs and then immersed in a weak acid solution, probably produced from the fermented fruit of the saguaro cactus," said Gumerman and Haury. "Exposed surfaces of the shell were eaten away by the acid leaving the pitch-protected areas to stand out in relief. Often the shell was then painted, usually in red and green or blue." Ceramists still made "many types of small, thick-walled vessels, animal effigies, and footed vessels," according to Gumerman and Haury, but they turned from representational life forms to geometric designs which were "extremely complicated with offset panels of solids, fringed lines, interlocking scrolls, and other motifs?" They also began mass producing a buff-colored pottery painted with red designs, possibly for use as trade wares. They hand-molded small ceramic heads, probably making dolls of them by attaching them to fiber or textile "bodies." Stone workers seemed to grow weary of their trade, producing indifferently made effigies and palettes.

The Hohokam expanded their trade networks over a vast area, which extended from the Gulf of California and the Pacific Coast eastward to the Texas High Plains, a span of 1000 miles, and from northern Arizona southward to Jalisco, a span of 1200 miles. They exchanged the produce from their fields and the products of their artisans for hides from the plains and for shells, macaws, exquisitely fashioned pyrite mirrors and copper bells from Mesoamerica.

They placed special value on copper bells, which they used as funerary offerings in cremations. "All these bells were of the "tinkler" type, with suspension eyelets, slotted bases, and pebble or nodule rattles inside the resonator," said Gordon R. Willey said in An Introduction to American Archaeology, Volume One. "They were all made by the ‘lost wax’…method of copper casting…"

Near the end of the third period, about A. D. 1100, the Hohokam found themselves caught up in the mysterious swirl of transformation and migration which swept across the puebloan peoples throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico. For reasons which defy modern comprehension, the Hohokam abandoned ancient communities and withdrew to their geographic birthplace in southern Arizona. Change, possibly triggered both by Anasazi migrants from the Colorado Plateau region and by intensified Mesoamerican influences from Mexico, characterized the fourth and final period of Hohokam history.

The Hohokam, joined by Anasazi, built new, larger and more concentrated settlements, some covering a half a square mile in area. They located them farther from river banks. They enclosed some areas within massive compound walls, allowing entrance only by ladder or by a single portal. Although they continued to build traditional lodges of post, brush and mud plastering over a shallow pit, they began to employ a new form of architecture, on the natural surface of the desert. Gumerman and Haury said that "…they began to experiment with new types of wall structures including solid clay walls and clay walls reinforced with posts… Sometimes, the surface, clay-walled structures consisted of contiguous rooms…" Late in fourth period, the Hohokam constructed such structures "on top of massive walled mounds two meters [about six and one half feet] or more in height. The mounds were constructed of thick clay walls and supporting interior walls, forming a honeycomblike structure." Most strikingly, the Hohokam began building multistoried "great houses," massive structures with walls more than six feet thick at the base. Surrounded by compound walls, the great houses served unknown purposes. The village farmers extended canal systems and also began to experiment with floodwater irrigation, terraces and even dry land farming.

For some unknown reason, the ferment of change, which stimulated population concentrations, new construction, new architecture and new agricultural endeavors, signaled, not a dynamic new age, but rather the twilight, of the Hohokam tradition. Between A. D. 1400 and 1450, the Hohokam, like puebloan peoples across the Southwest and northern Mexico, abandoned their communities. Some apparently dispersed into neighboring regions, perhaps to surviving or to newly founded pueblos. Stragglers may have remained behind, diminished in material wealth, technology and artisanship, but giving rise to the Pima and Papago peoples who greeted the Spanish entradas into southern Arizona in the sixteenth century.

In their centuries in the desert, the Hohokam left their signature in terms of their extensive and sophisticated irrigation systems, their extraordinary artisanship and their Mesoamerican patina. We shall explore those aspects of the Hohokam people more thoroughly in the January 2002 edition of DesertUSA.

Jay W. Sharp


"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8) This Page
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)

Pueblo Rebellion
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing



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