American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Hohokam Culture

The Hohokam occupied an ecologically and geologically diverse environment that extended from the low desert country of northern Sonora and southern Arizona northward up to the Mogollon Rim escarpment and onto the Colorado Plateau's southwestern edge. Rainfall in this region averages only around seven to ten inches per year. Hohokam culture flourished from the first millennium to approximately 1450. Archaeologists divide the Hohokam culture into four major periods. The first, called the Pioneer phase, extends from 300 to 550 CE; the Colonial era runs from 550 to 900; the Sedentary phase goes from 900 to 1100, with the final stage of Hohokam culture, termed the Classic, spanning the years from 1100 through 1450. The origin of the Hohokam culture is uncertain. Some archaeologists argue that the Hohokam were immigrants from Mesoamerica, while others theorize that the culture developed from local hunting and gathering groups who lived in the Sonoran Desert since 7000 BCE.

During the Pioneer phase, Hohokam people settled in small villages near the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers. Their settlements consisted of small clusters of wattle-and-daub pithouses arranged around a common plaza with spaces set aside for work sites and for cemeteries. In the work areas they processed food, produced well made plain clay bowls and jars and manufactured tools. The cemeteries were used for the interment of human remains and also for cremation.

To survive in the harsh desert, the Hohokam developed the most advanced canal irrigation system in the Americas. They built dams of brush and logs to divert water from nearby rivers into irrigation canals. Using log-and-brush headgates, they were able to direct the flow of water into networks of distribution ditches to fields or to village cisterns and reservoirs. Within a 1,400-year period they built over 1,000 miles of canals using wedge-shaped stone hoes, stone axes, and wooden tools. They irrigated thousands of acres of farmland on which they grew maize, lima and tepary beans, squash, tobacco, cotton, barley, and amaranth.

During the Colonial phase, villages increased in size, extensive trade networks developed, and the Hohokam culture spread beyond the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers. The people improved their farming and irrigation techniques, and canals were cut deeper to minimize surface evaporation. The plain pottery of the Pioneer phase was replaced by buff pottery with red designs. Cremation became the standard mortuary practice; the ashes of the deceased were gathered, placed into a ceramic jar, and then buried in a small pit.

In the Sedentary phase, villages continued to increase in size, and platform mounds dominated the landscape. The largest platform mounds were located at the head of major canal systems and were spaced approximately every three miles along the canals. Many researchers believe that the mounds were tied to the organization and operation of the canal systems. Artisans made far more elaborate redon-buff pottery, and stone and clay figurines appear. Mortuary practices began to change, as cremation became less common and inhumation became the preferred custom.

Another interesting feature of the Hohokam culture appearing in the Sedentary period is the ball court. The oval bowl-shaped courts varied in size, averaging 80 to 115 feet long and 30 to 50 feet wide. The playing surface was smoothed caliche and surrounded by a nine-foot-high embankment. Unfortunately, the exact nature of the game played in the courts is not known.

During the Classic period, some villages disappeared while others increased in size. The people continued to build pithouses but they also constructed multistoried adobe surface structures, called big houses. The bottom floor was a platform mound with three to four additional stories built on top. There were several rooms on each floor, and the interior rooms were covered with a fine white plaster. Some of the walls were etched with depictions of humans, animals, or lightning, which possibly had religious or ceremonial significance. The purpose of the big houses is unclear. Some researchers argue that the structures served as astronomical observatories while others believe they served as watchtowers for defensive purposes.

Artisans continued to make red-on-buff pottery and to develop redware polished ceramics in a variety of shapes and sizes. Toward the end of the Classic period, the people ceased building ball courts and the quality of their pottery diminished. By 1450 the Hohokam abandoned their villages. Hypotheses regarding the disappearance of the Hohokam include soil salinization, disease, warfare, floods, droughts, and climatic changes.

Joyce Ann Kievit

Further Reading
Andrews, John P., and Todd W. Bostwick. 2000. Desert Farmers at the River's Edge: The Hohokam and Pueblo Grande. Phoenix, AZ: City of Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department.; Gumerman, George J., ed. 1995. Exploring the Hohokam: Prehistoric Desert Peoples of the American Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

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