Category Archives: Arizona

Decline of Hohokam

 

The remnants of the Great House at Casa Grande

For reasons that are subject to debate, during the period of 1400 to 1500 A.D. large community centers  of the Hohokam were abandoned, as were many canals. The people did not die out, they moved instead to smaller villages. They adapted to some changed conditions in other words. What really interests me is why this occurred. It is one of the genuine mysteries of North American archaeology. I believe it has continuing important significance for our modern societies. There are lessons for us to learn here. Will we learn them?

When Spanish missionaries arrived at the end of the 17thcentury they found only an empty shell of the once flourishing village of Casa Grande (as the Spanish called it). Over the next two centuries, many visitors visited the site and damaged it over and over again.  In the late 1800s scientists pressed for its formal protection and in 1892 Casa Grande Ruins National Monument became America’s first archaeological reserve. To this day, the Great House keeps the secrets of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert within its protected walls.

At one time 2,000 people lived in Casa Grande and it had the most extensive canal system in North America, if not the world. It required an amazing amount of human labor and engineering to create the Great House, the remnants of which we saw in the park.

The main building material was caliche (cu-LEE-chee), a concrete like mixture of sand, clay, and calcium carbonate (limestone). It took 3,000 tons of caliche to build the Great House.

Caliche mud (water was added to the caliche) was layered to form walls that were about 4 ft. thick at the base, tapering toward the top. Hundreds of juniper, and fir trees were carried or floated down the Gila River to the village. Timbers were anchored in the wall for ceiling and floor supports.

Caliche is found as hard pan in most areas at depths of 6 inches to 2 feet. It is hard like concrete. I often saw it on my hikes in San Tan Mountain Regional Park, about 10minutes from where we lived for the winter.  It can be softened in water, however, and that is why the ancestral people created mud with the addition of water to the caliche. That was stacked on to the buildings and then allowed to dry to a very hard material.

How civilized were the Hohokam? There is no evidence that the ancestral people invented the wheel. Since they had no draft animals, and since usually the rivers did not flow to their agricultural lands, they had to carry all of their building materials.

Since 3,000 tons (6 million pounds) of materials were needed for the construction of the Great House, that meant that 100,000 bags each with about 60 pounds of mud had to be carried up to the Great House.

The Great House consisted of a 4-storey structure on a mound of about 4 feet. The mound was used for the same reason that judges sit on a high bench and preachers stand above the congregation at their pulpit. It is a sign of prestige to be high up. The Administrators of the region likely wanted to be seen to possess authority. The first floor of the Great House consisted of a mound or platform. It was there solely for purposes of building it up so it looked more impressive.

The second floor contained 5 rooms as did the 3rdfloor. The 4thfloor consisted of just one room.  As a result timbers from the mountain trees had to be brought in by hand. It is likely that the ancestral people subcontracted the job by trading for such materials. 640 logs were needed for the Great House construction. The timbers came from about 50-75 miles away. Arduous hauling was needed to get them to the site.

The roof was made by spreading saguaro ribs across the beams with reeds covering them, and then topped with a final layer of caliche mud. Despite centuries of weathering and neglect the Great House remnants still stand testifying to the nature of the society of Ancestral People. In recent years the canopy was built to protect the Great House. The doors of the Great House were quite small, not because the people were so small, but to keep out warm air.

Like so many Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Hohokam were careful to align their structures with celestial bodies. They did that, I think, to connect to the large world “out there.” The Great House at Case Grande was carefully aligned with the sun. But that was not all. In fact 17 different astronomical observations could be made from the house.  First of all, the house was carefully aligned between North and South.

There was also a round hole “window” that once each year lined up perfectly with the sun on the day of the summer solstice. Another rectangular hole carefully marked the spring and fall equinoxes. As well one square window lined up with the Lunar Standstill that occurred every 18.6 years. No one is sure exactly why these alignments were produced, but they do show the sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that the Ancestral People had.

These odd alignments are all part of the mystery about the purpose behind the Great House.  It took an astonishing amount of human labor to create the house, but it was abandoned within about 75 years, even though the Ancestral People inhabited the area for more than 1,000 years. According to Rose Houk,

“Modern archeologists have observed such an alignment of the sun through a “window” in an upper room of Casa Grande, marking the summer solstice. They have suggested that the “great house” may have been used as an astronomical observatory, one of several ideas about this enigmatic, imposing structure that stands out in the desert of central Arizona. Others have seen the four-story building as a fort, a granary, or a silo.  Whatever the truth, the Casa Grande’s significance was recognized early on when it became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892.”

A steel and concrete canopy was built in 1932 to protect the Great House from the elements.

As I mentioned the great puzzle is why were these magnificent structures and elaborate towns abandoned in favor of smaller communities after about 1450 A.D.?  Some have speculated that some catastrophe caused the people to leave. There is evidence that the area experienced significant floods between 1300 and 1450.  Those were followed by intense periods of drought.

Archeologists use multiple kinds of evidence to answer such questions, or at least shed some light on the questions posed. As a result they have been studying salt discharge on the Salt and Gila rivers, as well as the increasing soil salinity, diseases, and evidence of malnutrition. It is likely that environmental conditions changed and the Hohokam people do what all smart people do, they adapted to changed conditions. That is how people survive.

The evidence does show that the extreme flooding deepened the Gila River Channel making it more difficult for canals to carry water to fields where water levels were low. Part of the canal system was abandoned while other parts were extended miles upstream to maintain proper water flows. Around 1350 A.D., the time of the Great House, a combination of factors may have triggered a breakdown of Hohokam society and undermined their leadership.

It is probable that as a result of all of these factors, the survivors of the floods and droughts abandoned large sites like Casa Grande in favor of smaller settlements along the Gila River. Today’s O’odham people (as they are now called) believe that they are the descendants of the Hohokam people. As a result, Hohokam society never disappeared it just adapted and changed to a lifestyle that was better suited to the changed conditions. This change was likely to one more similar to their ancestors. They changed to a simpler life. Perhaps that is what we will be compelled to do.Yet as so often is the case the abandonment was likely triggered at least in part by environmental factors. Often people over do it and the land can no longer sustain the people. This has happened countless times in the Americas. To me it looks like it is happening again, but this time on a much grander scale. Large parts of the world and vast numbers of species are being degraded by human activities. This lesson seems so hard for Homo sapiens to grasp. Why is that?

Connection between Hopi and Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest

I am still thinking about civilization and whether or Europeans who arrived in the Americas had a monopoly on it, as many of them thought, and as many of their descendants still think.

A few years ago some good friends of ours lived on a Hopi Reservation for about a year. They invited us down to visit but I am sorry to say we did not go.  That was a big mistake. We could have learned a lot. The Hopi, like so many Indigenous peoples of North America have a lot to teach us. Chris and I went on our own a couple of years ago, but frankly learned very little.

I did learn a bit about Hopi culture from watching a television series this winter on PBS called Native America.

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned how Chaco in northern New Mexico was connected with the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest. Now I want to mention that the Hopi, many of whom now live in Northern Arizona, make pilgrimages to Chaco in northern New Mexico because they want to maintain their connection to places like Yupköyvi (Chaco in the Hopi language). As a result, there may be a connection to the ancient ceremonies of the Hopi back in Chaco and they are in turn connected too with the Amazon Rainforest To the Indigenous people, the Americas was a small world.

Chaco was built in northeast New Mexico between 900 and 1150 and it covered an area roughly the size of modern San Francisco. That is a pretty big city. And of course at that time people had no buses to get around as they do in San Francisco.

There were 12 great houses in the center of Chaco. They were 5 stories high and contained up to 800 rooms. “These were the biggest buildings in what will be the United States until the 1800s.” They also built cave like gathering places throughout the city. At one time they were covered but those roofs have long since collapsed. They are called kivas. The Hopis still use them in Arizona for special ceremonies conducted by men and women.

1,000-year old Kivasare very important to the Hopi. The rituals inside kivas centered on rainmaking, healing, hunting, all to ensure the continuation of life.” All of these were vitally important to the Hopi people. They often smoked pipes as part of the ceremonies. Like Indigenous people of the Canadian prairies, smoking, to the Hopis is a form of prayer. They meditate while smoking. They pray for rain, long life and abundance. Not that different from Christian prayers when you think of it. People pray to get stuff. But Leigh Kuwandwisiwma, a Hopi, said it is more than that. “We pray to the environment,” he says. And they are part of that environment. “We take the time to contemplate the power around us, the bird world, the reptilian world, the animal world, the insect world, are all part of who we are the Hopi People,” he says. It is a very different attitude to nature.

To Pueblo people of the American Southwest and Hopi people some of their modern corn is also sacred. It is their life-blood. Offering it to earth is a sacred offering. As the smoke carries prayers to the winds Leigh sprinkled cornmeal into the fire and it rose as part of the smoke. “It is a ritual that connects the Hopi to their origin story.”

Many North American Native people believe that they emerged from the earth. I accept these stories with respect. I do not accept them as literal reports of what happened, any more than I accept the story of Noah’s ark carrying two of all species on earth in his ark as a literal rendering of what happened. For example, I don’t think there were 2 blue whales on that ark, or 2 mammoths or 2 tigers. The story of Noah’s ark, like the creation stories of North American Native people are important however. They speak a profound truth. It is just not a literal truth. Sometimes those stories are difficult to interpret.  That does not mean we should discard them. That just means we should work harder to interpret them.

“Many Native American people share a belief that they emerged from the earth. Hopi and ‘Pueblo traditions say that the place of emergence is beneath America’s best known natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. 5 million people visit each year, they come to connect with its natural beauty, but Pueblo people have an even deeper connection. This is their birth place.”

I like that story. Imagine emerging from the Grand Canyon. That would be pretty spectacular. It certainly does not seem any less civilized than the creation story in the Bible.

More Birds of Arizona

I love these birds because they are willing to pose proudly.  When you find one they are very easy to photograph.

These photos are actually from previous years in Arizona.  This year I photographed this species before the glorious male plumage shown here. Good looking males should be allowed to show off!

A couple of years ago such a heron was a frequent visitor at our neighbour’s house. This bird was spotted near the Phoenix zoo.

I can’t get enough of these wonderful birds. This one was photographed at one of our favourite places–Usery Park in Mesa Arizona.

A lot of people don’t like grackles, but we should be careful about applying human standard to birds. Often their standards are better than ours.

Another of those wonderful wrens. These are much bigger than “our” wrens back home.

This vulture is common in Manitoba as well.  They look so beautiful in the air. On the ground not so much

Barn Owls and Gray Hawks

 

 

We saw these owls a couple of years ago. Owls may lay up to 14 eggs during years of rodent abundance, but fail to breed when rodent populations crash. Eggs are laid at intervals and incubation begins with the first egg, thus the hatchlings differ in size and the number raised to fledging depends on the food supply. Owls are smart. Like so many animals that are not given the credit they deserve. 

Usually only the female incubates and the male brings food to her; both sexes feed the young. Incubation is relatively long, being 32-34 days in the Barn Owl. Owls reach maturity at one year.

 

Gray Hawks are not found anywhere in North America other than Arizona or southern Texas

 

These are magnificent birds and we were privileged to see them flying free  in the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.

Harris Hawk

 

I claim to be a flower child, but the truth is I love birds too. We stopped at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson on our way home this year.  I try to go there every year.  They have a show nearly every day where you can see raptors in flight. Free flight they  call it. It is truly amazing to see them flying and perching so close. These photos however are from previous years. I like them better.

These birds are imprinted on their handlers but are free to fly away. Sometimes they do exactly that. Usually they come back because after living with humans who deliver food to them every day they realize they have it pretty good in the Museum so they come back. The “Museum” by the way is mainly outdoors so they are not captive in the sense of being in cages.

This hawk prefers thorn scrubs for its habitat. Like many hawks the female is larger than the male. The likely reason for this adaptation is that in this way they don’t compete as much for prey.

These are one of the few birds that cooperate in groups. As a result they hunt together. This is what we saw at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.  Cooperation is a very helpful technique in deserts where one Harris Hawk might chase a rabbit into some scrub and then flushes it out so others in the group can capture and kill it. This is the only hawk to hunt cooperatively. They also cooperate in the raising of the young, again, the only hawk species to do this. Nature is not just about competition. Cooperation is important too.

This hawk is rare in Manitoba. I have not seen it here but it is fairly common in the American south.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saguaro National Park

 

Our last day in Arizona was spent at Saguaro National Park, which was created to save the iconic Saguaro Cactus from extinction. So far so good

Hedgehog cactuses are also gloriously in abundance in the park.

 

This part of the park is located at the east end of Tucson. The day before we spent at the west branch of the park.

I love the hedgehog cactus when they bloom.

When the yellow brittlebush wild flowers are in bloom the desert comes alive with beauty.

 

I don’t know if there is a better place to see the majestic saguaro cactus that grows no where else other than the Sonoran Desert.

We drove on an 8 miles self-guided drive around the park.

Some of the rock formations were beautiful too.

I never get enough of the lovely pink flowers of the Hedgehog  cactus.

Birds of Sonoran Desert Part 2

This hummingbird was a lifer for me. That means I had never seen it before. Though is was in an aviary at Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. The word museum is really misplaced.  Most of what can be found there is outside. These birds flew freely, made nests and did what birds do, but they were confined to this aviary.

This is one of the more colourful hummingbirds with its iridescent breast feathers and bright red bill. I kindly posed for me.

This stunning male hummingbird pose very close to me. In fact I took a large number of photos that appeared to be out of focus. I could not understand why, until I realized I was too close to it and had to step back a bit.

Another stunning bird that i had never seen before. This was a good day.

I think this is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. About 15 years ago I saw one near Mitchell.  It is a fairly rare visitor to Manitoba. This was a great day for a bird brain brain like me.

Birds of Sonoran Desert Part 1

I am a flower guy, but actually enjoy birds about as much as flowers.  I find most things in nature interesting. This common bird of the Sonoran Desert has a beautiful melodic song.

 

This duck is very common and were it not for that I think the male would be more appreciated for his outstanding handsomeness.  Sort of like human I suppose.

I found this mother sitting on her eggs in my neighbour’s yard

This spectacular male was very illusive and this was the best shot I got of  him. With such beauty you would think he would want to show it off more.

 

Sometimes common names are not very helpful. He is called the ring-necked duck but it is the bill around hi s bill that is prominent. That makes it hard for a fledgling birder like me.

Cactuses in Bloom

 

This has been a strange year in the American Southwest.  In January and February there was a lot rain (by Sonoran Desert Standards) and it was also very cool by those same standards. Of course in the world of wild flowers there is no such thing as “normal.”

The entire time we were there this year I worried that the cactuses would not bloom before we left.

That almost happened. They only started to bloom the last week of March just before we left. If I come back next year I must stay until mid April.

 

From this prickly pear cactus you can see the large number of buds. I would love to see a prickly pear cactus filled with blooms.

 

I think this is a pincushion cactus but am not sure.  As a result of the cool weather we did not see many cactuses in bloom. But what we missed in quantity we gained I think in quality.

 

I think the cactuses we saw were stellar.

 

 

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: A Place for Flowers

 

We went to Boyce Thompson Arboretum in search of cactuses in bloom. In that respect we were disappointed. Only 1 cactus in bloom. But it was a great day. When you don’t get what you want you look for something else. We found lovely wild flowers.

 

Desert Hyancinth

These are also called Bluedicks but they really aren’t blue or Dicks.

Desert Globemallow

This is one of the most common wild flowers in the Sonoran Desert and comes in many colours: orange like this one, or lavender, or white, or reddish-maroon, pink, or red. All are lovely

Desert Marigold  are often found along road sides. I like that when flowers make it easy to find them.

Lupines are also very common. I particularly like to see them mingling with yellow flowers.

Apricot Blossoms

I thought these were absolutely lovely. I hope you agree.

 

There are a number of different types of Verbena in Arizona and I am not sure what type this was. Does it matter? It was a pretty good day for flower photography as the skies were lightly overcast and wind was modest. Non-existent wind would have been better of course.

These are a mysterious (to me at least) flower that I am still trying to identify. I am not sure if it was a native wild flower or an escapee.  Tell me if you know what it is. I was smitten by its beauty.