Ring's reflections: New picture emerges of Hohokam culture

2013-03-21T00:00:00Z 2013-03-21T10:05:57Z Ring's reflections: New picture emerges of Hohokam cultureOpinion by Bob Ring Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A.D. 450 to A.D. 1694

In the last 40 years, archaeologists have changed their minds about the origin of the prehistoric Hohokam, who built extensive irrigation systems, ball courts and platform mounds, made beautiful pottery and jewelry, engaged in wide-ranging trade, and whose culture lasted a thousand years.

The old story - based on a handful of Hohokam site excavations - talked about the Hohokam migrating from Mexico with their distinctive culture already fully developed to settle in villages along the Salt and Gila rivers near Phoenix in about 300 B.C., with a small group moving south to Tucson around A.D. 200 to live along the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers.

The Hohokam Millennium

But today's theory, based on extensive new excavations, summarized by Henry D. Wallace of Desert Archaeology Inc. in "The Hohokam Millennium," is that Hohokam culture slowly "developed in place" from relatively short-lived small farming villages of the desert people in the Tucson valley and then expanded northward to accelerate "the development of permanently settled life … and the emergence of the Hohokam cultural core in the Phoenix area" in about 450 A.D.

That is not to say that Mexico did not strongly influence the Hohokam. Scholars now believe that many aspects of Hohokam culture sprang from western Mexico, noting similarities in architecture, pottery, figurines, rituals, religious beliefs and other artifacts.

In turn, western Mexico was influenced by the earlier advanced civilizations in central Mexico and Guatemala, including the Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayas. Western Mexico then served as a "pass-through" to the Hohokam for certain aspects of art, architecture and artifacts from these great cultures.

Trade would keep the Hohokam in continual contact with Mexico.

From the huge area of arable land at the junction of the Salt and Gila rivers, the Hohokam soon expanded over an area in Arizona larger than the state of South Carolina - bounded by the Agua Fria and Verde rivers to the north, the Mogollon Rim to the northeast, the Dragoon Mountains to the southeast, the Mexican border to the south, and the Growler Mountains to the west.

Villages flourish

In the Tucson Valley in A.D. 450, small Hohokam villages with pit-house homes (dug into the ground and covered with brush and dirt) were spread out along the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers where the Hohokam could conduct irrigation farming.

Beginning about A.D. 750, these small river villages had grown, and seasonal camps in outlying areas were established for hunting and gathering, or limited farming. A number of these riverside villages contained large, basin-shaped ball courts with earthen embankments that probably served as sports arenas as well as places to hold religious ceremonies and other communal activities.

Between A.D. 950 and A.D. 1150, Hohokam settlements dispersed farther to farm on fertile areas of Tucson's lower mountain slopes. The population increased, and there were more permanent habitations. The largest villages were on terraces just above the Santa Cruz River - with well-built pit houses surrounding central plazas.

Some villages produced decorated red-on-brown pottery for their own use or for trade. The Hohokam also made plaited baskets by weaving yucca, cattail and beargrass into various shapes.

Farming was the Hohokam's main enterprise. Crops included corn, squash, beans and cotton. Cotton was used for food (in the form of cottonseed cakes) and clothing (cotton fiber was spun into yarn and woven into ponchos, shirts and belts).

A culture vanishes

As opposed to the huge net of irrigation canals totaling hundreds of miles along the Salt and Gila rivers to the north, Hohokam in the Tucson Valley built smaller-scale canals and used floodwaters from the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers to water their crops.

By A.D. 1275-1300, most of the smaller villages had been abandoned and settlements in the Tucson Valley had aggregated at only a half-dozen large communities of up to perhaps 2,000 people. Above-ground adobe architecture appeared for the first time. Although corn was still the primary agricultural crop, large rock-pile fields, associated with cultivation of agave - for food and fiber - have been found in both the northern and southern portions of the Tucson Valley.

Platform mounds - elevated platforms supported by dirt fill - were also constructed at a number of Tucson Valley villages in this period. Archaeologists agree that the Hohokam used these mounds for religious ceremonies and rituals, but perhaps also for trade, irrigation control, food and goods dispersal or social activities. Most importantly, people lived in structures atop the mounds, suggesting an elevated status and the beginning of a social hierarchy.

The Hohokam culture was productive and successful without a managing bureaucracy. It had no written language or state-level government.

Remains of major Hohokam villages have been found along the Santa Cruz River at what are now known as Marana, downtown Tucson and southern Tucson, and along the Rillito River at Fort Lowell.

By A.D. 1450, the Hohokam had largely disappeared, leaving very little archaeological evidence for how or why they vanished. Scholars speculate that extended 13th-century droughts, disastrous 14th-century floods or political instability could have been contributing factors. Others think that deadly new diseases, introduced into central Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, spread rapidly along trade routes to deal a devastating blow to the Hohokam.

Later people

There is no clear transition between the Hohokam culture and the people who greeted Italian-born Spanish Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Kino, who first visited south-central Arizona in the early 1690s.

The Papago (now called Tohono O'odham), or "Desert People," lived in the desert west of Tucson. The Pima (now called Akimel O'odham), or "River People," lived along the Salt, Gila and Santa Cruz rivers. A group of Piman natives called Sobaipuris lived in the valleys of the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers. These Native American groups had similar languages and believed in a common origin, according to shared oral traditions.

All of the native groups farmed and foraged for food when crops were poor. They used precious desert water and the rivers to irrigate their crops and raised corn, beans, calabashes (gourds), melons and cotton.

In A.D. 1694, while traveling northward through the Santa Cruz Valley, Father Kino found a Sobaipuri village called Schookson (later called Tucson by the Spanish) on the west side of the Santa Cruz River at the foot of Sentinel Peak, commonly known as "A" Mountain.

Tucson's age of Spanish missionaries had begun.

About this series

This is the second of a six-part series on the history of Tucson. Author Bob Ring aimed to capture the "what," "when" and "how" of the major events that shaped Tucson's development.

You can read the first part at azstarnet.com/bobring online.

Here's the series schedule.

• Part 1: Tucson's first residents: Hunter-gatherers to farmers

• Today, Part 2: The Hohokam and later people

• Part 3: Spanish missionaries

• Part 4: The Spanish/Mexican presidio

• Part 5: Tucson in U.S. territory

• Part 6: Tucson in the state of Arizona

E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com Thanks to Henry D. Wallace, senior research archaeologist at Desert Archaeology Inc., for answering my questions and reading and commenting on this article. Sources: "Arizona: A History" (Thomas E. Sheridan, 2012); "Cultural History of the Tucson Basin" (J. Homer Thiel and Michael W. Diehl, 2004); "The Hohokam Indians of the Tucson Basin" (Linda M. Gregonis and Karl Reinhard, 1979); "The Hohokam Millennium" (Suzanne K. Fish and Paul R. Fish, 2008); "Islands in the Desert: A History of the Uplands of Southeastern Arizona" (John P. Wilson, 1995); "A Thousand Years of Irrigation in Tucson" (Jonathan B. Mabry and Homer Thiel, 1995).

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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