Hohokam: Casa Grande Ruins National Historic Site

In the centre of this photo is the Great House of the Hohokam Nation.

When we have stayed in Arizona the last few years we have been or on the edge of there territory of the Hohokam Nation. They are the descendants of the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People (“Ancestral People’).

Our visit at Casa Grande Ruins National Historic Site, which is just a few miles from where we stayed in the San Tan Valley,  started with a short film that explained the site to us in simple and graphic terms. It showed great respect for the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People . After that we went on a guided walk/talk led by volunteer Mark Houser.  Mr. Houser was a very knowledgeable, interesting and enthusiastic volunteer. We enjoyed listening to him very much.

When Spanish missionaries arrived in the American Southwest in 1694, before Europeans had seen much in the eastern part of what is now the United States, they asked who were the people who had built this structure that you can see in the photo above underneath the modern canopy built to protect it from the elements.  The Native Americans who were present at the time of first contact with the Spanish answered that these were their ancestors and they ought to be called Huhugham.  Sadly, this word was mistranslated, as so often happened, to Hohokam (ho ho KAHM).  Today archaeologists use the term Hohokam to refer to a cultural period. The name Hohokam means “all used up” or “those who have gone before.”

According to one archaeologist the Ancestral People were the “First Masters of the American Desert.” I like that term. It gives them the respect they deserve. They did in fact learn to live and even thrive in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert for more than a thousand years.  They built brush-covered houses in pits that at first were loosely arranged. Later they built more organized villages around courtyards.

The Hohokam learned to live in harmony with the desert. They harvested the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert, including  saguaro fruit, mesquite beans, mule deer, rabbits, turtles and fish among others.

The climate in the region was hot and dry with very few all-year water sources and very sparse rainfall, so the desert provided very challenging conditions for permanent settlement. That was a challenge that the Hohokam were up for during their 1,000 years of occupation here. They grew crops that could withstand the harsh conditions. That included crops such as corn that matured fast enough that the plants were not exposed to the elements for too long. Some of their crops could be grown twice per year. They also planted beans, squash, tobacco, cotton, and agave. In their fields they also encouraged the growth of several local wild plants such as amaranth.

In addition to farming, the Ancestral People also gathered food, medicine, and building materials from the surrounding wilderness. They collected wood, fruit, buds, and seed from plants such as Palo verde, mesquite, ocotillo, ironwood, creosote, Bursage, and saltbush among others. They even ate saguaro, cholla, hedgehog, and prickly pear cactus.

Small animals such as rabbits, mule deer, and bighorn sheep were hunted for food. They found fish in the rivers as well as waterfowl and turtles. The lush riverside Cottonwoods and willow provided materials for baskets and ropes, while they used reeds for straws, spindles, blowguns, and flutes.

The Hohokam culture is thought to have begun at about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. a couple of thousand years after the Ancestral arrived in the area.  During this period of time the Hohokam began local agriculture and it is for this that they became most famous–justifiably famous I might add. They established villages with pit houses, storage pits, grading tools, baskets, and pottery. The Hohokam were the descendants of hunter-gatherers who had lived in Arizona for several thousands of years. They also drew from the Mesoamerican civilization. It is fairly clear that by about 300 CE (Common Era) the Ancestral People lived in permanent settlements along the Salt and Gila Rivers both of which ran permanently during this time before dam construction.

From about 300 A.D. to 775 A.D. the Hohokam improved their agricultural system and began cotton production. During this time they started large communities.  These contained lodges and plazas. They produced clay figurines, Plain Ware, Red Ware, Red-on-Buff decorated pottery, and began construction of their famous canals that became the marvels of North America. That canal system in time became the most elaborate and well engineered in all of North America if not the world.  The Ancestral People had cooperated to build and manage a vast canal system that diverted waters from the rivers to irrigate their croplands.  Because these croplands were located in land that was lower than the surrounding rivers the canals were started about 17 miles away to divert water by gravity flow. Where there were croplands without nearby rivers, they diverted storm run-off or tapped groundwater.

The canals were amazing. First of all, they were constructed entirely by human labor without any draft animals. The ground was true hard pan that made digging very difficult. The slope of canals was 2 ft. for 1 mile. That is a very gentle slope, but it is more than enough to lead the water to where they wanted it. The canals were also surprisingly large. They were about as tall as a man.

As a result of this technology, the Hohokam were able to establish  very sophisticated agriculture. They farmed the area for about a thousand years. At its height the canals irrigated 1,900 acres of land. The canals stretched for 220 miles in this area alone. What amazed me was that these Ancestral People were extremely successful farmers. They produced higher yields than modern farmers with modern equipment and techniques. Modern Hohokam farmers see people as their main resource. They were smart farmers.

Following their ancestral heritage, they became what they call “scientists of our environment.”  Like other nations in the Americas they used and continue to use meteorological principles to establish planting, harvesting, ceremonial cycles and they developed complex water storage and delivery systems.

I was also astonished to learn that there is evidence that the ancestral people were about 2-3 inches taller than the Europeans who arrived in the 17th century. That meant they were better fed than the Europeans who came here to civilize them! Perhaps the ancestral people ought to have civilized the Europeans! After all, the period of 300 to 1450 A.D. was the period of the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe.

Ancestral farmers saw water as their most precious resource (after people). As a result ancestral farmers farmed diverse crops. Modern farmers plant monocultural crops. Ancestral farmers often planted what they called “The Three Sisters” on one hill.  That meant that they planted corn, beans, and squash. Each crop helped the others by providing shade, shelter, or nutrients.

Ancestral farmers concentrated on conserving water. They were not labour efficient, because to them labor was cheap. Water was expensive. As a result they were very efficient with water, their most critical resource. Modern farmers employ elaborate modern equipment that mechanizes the work and conserves human energy, thus conserving or minimizing their primary resource. They use massive water systems to bring in massive amounts of water to the desert. As a result they are inefficient with water and very efficient with human labor. Modern farmers could learn a lot from ancestral farmers and vice versa.

From 775 to 975 A.D. the Hohokam expanded their territory and their canal system. During this time they established an elaborate trading network. Villages were established along natural trade routes between the people of what we now call California, the Great Plains, the Colorado Plateau, and northern Mexico.

Successful farming led to successful trade. In the American Southwest the people produced enough cotton, beans, and corn for the entire area of what we now call the United States. They traded these products across North America.

As well they developed high artistic achievement. Because of the success of their agricultural system, they had time to devote to artistic achievement and they used that time for that purpose. The Hohokam loved beautiful things and created them and traded for them. Platform mounds and ball courts were developed as well during this time.

The Hohokam traded mainly pottery and jewelry for a wide variety of items that others collected or produced. Shells from the Gulf of California were common. With people from Mexico they traded for macaws, mirrors, copper bells, and other items.

Oval pits have been unearthed on Hohokam sites that suggest they were used for ballcourts for games such as those played by Aztecs. Smaller ballcourts have been found near Flagstaff and Wupatki and this suggests that the area of influence of the Ancestral Peoples was quite large.

From 975 to 1150 A.D. the Hohokam abandoned many of their smaller ancestral sites in favor of larger sites like Casa Grande. As well the ball court system ended, but new above ground structures were built instead to replace them. This is when the Classic of Hohokam culture began.

The period of greatest achievementby the Hohokam was from 1150 to 1300 A.D. Their canal system reached its greatest extent during this time. There were probably 3,000 miles of canals in the Southwest. As well, during this time platform mounds and compounds dominated their architectural style. This was a period of outstanding achievement.

As a result of their sophisticate farming techniques, during this time this part of the American Southwest supported a high density of people. Estimates vary from 100,000 people to 1,000,000 people. I was shocked at these numbers.

From 1300 to 1400 A.D. the Hohokam continued to develop large irrigation based communities, with great houses like we saw before us, and other structures on top of platform mounds like we also saw before us today. The Great House in Casa Grande, the ruins of which we saw today, was built about 1350. This Great House as well as other Great Houses in other villages that were sited along large canals played a major role in the irrigation community.  They were likely not used as residences, since there is little evidence of things like hearths. They were likely administrative and ceremonial centres instead.

This is another case of the surprising civilization created by Indigenous people of the Americas.

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