The Hohokam lived in what is now Phoenix, Arizona from about 1 A.D. to around 1450 A.D., when they suddenly vanished. They were primarily farmers and grew agave, barley, several different types of beans, cactus, corn, cotton, herbs, pumpkin, tobacco, and squash.
Using primitive tools, the Hohokam constructed over 1,000 miles of canals to irrigate the dry desert. The extensive network diverted water from the Salt River and Gila River to many farms scattered across the valley. The canals were as deep as 20 feet, as wide as 50 feet, and as long as 20 miles. This was an amazing engineering feat and demonstrates the genious of these people. Small sections of the canals can still be found at the Park of the Canals in Mesa and Pueblo Grande Archaeology Park in Phoenix.
The Salt River Valley had many small Hohokam communities scattered across it. Some of their buildings were quite large, such as the Big House in what is today Coolidge, Arizona. This structure has four stories and measures 60 feet by 40 feet and 35 feet tall. The Hohokam built three of these "big houses" (the other two were in what is now Phoenix), but only the one in Coolidge remains. No one is sure exactly what these pre-Columbian high-rises were for, but there is evidence that one purpose was astronomical observations.
The Hohokam also built sizeable platform mounds. The largest platform mound, constructed at Pueblo Grande, was the size of a football field and about 25 feet tall. These raised structures overlooked major canals and also had some astronomical functions. Over 50 platform mounds were found in the Salt River Valley.
Windows and doorways on the big houses and the platform mounds were used to track the changing seasons. A room on top of the Pueblo Grande platform mound was used to mark the summer solstice sunrise and a room on top of the Mesa Grande platform mound was used to mark the winter solstice sunrise. The Big House in Coolidge has circular windows that align with the solstices and equinoxes.
|Doorway, Pueblo Grande - Phoenix, Arizona|
Most Hohokam lived in small pit houses. These one-room structures were oval shaped, had sheltered entrances, and were covered with mud and adobe. Groups of these homes faced inward towards a common courtyard.
Between 1150 A.D. and 1450 A.D., the Hohokam constructed a large number of coursed-adobe houses. These were also built in groups and with common courtyards, but adobe walls surrounded the structures, essentially creating apartment complexes. Many of these complexes were two stories tall.
|Pueblo Grande Site - Phoenix, Arizona|
Most communities had an oval ballcourt and the larger settlements had as many as five of them. Over 200 Hohokam ballcourts have been identified in southern and central Arizona. While it is uncertain what the Hohokam played in these ballcourts, a game comparable to racketball was a common sport in southwestern North America at that time and was played in ballcourts similar to what the Hohokam built. Many stone balls and one rubber ball have been found in Hohokam excavation sites. The ballcourts were used from about 750 A.D. until about 1200 A.D., when the Hohokam apparently abandoned the sport.
|Ruins At Pueblo Grande - Phoenix, Arizona|
The two largest communities, Snaketown near what is today Queen Creek on the Gila River Indian Reservation and Grewe-Casa Grande in what is now Coolidge, may have had several thousand residents each. Two other large communities, Pueblo Grande in what is now Phoenix and Mesa Grande in what is now Mesa, may have had 1,000 residents each. At the height of the Hohokam civilization, the population of the Salt River Valley was over 40,000.
|Pueblo Grande - Phoenix, Arizona|
The Hohokam are credited with being the first culture to use acid etching, using fermented cactus juice to create designs on sea shells. They imported shells from what is now western Mexico and southern California and crafted them into fine jewelry, including bracelets, necklaces and rings. Jewelry was commonly worn by Hohokam—including men, women, and children—and often the deceased were burried with their jewelry. The Hohokam also exported jewelry to neighboring cultures.
Stone jewelry and stone figurines of humans, dogs, sheep and deer were also manufactured.
In addition, the Hohokam made baskets, ceramics, musical instruments—flutes, rasps, rattles, and whistles—textiles and tools. Hohokam pottery is well regarded for its quality and artistry. Textiles manufactured from cotton included blankets, cloths, hats, kilts, shirts and skirts. There is evidence that the Hohokam used a complex weaving technique, and a large number of wooden spindles and stone whorls have been found. Belts, ropes and sandals were made from agave fibers while mats were made from reeds.
|Hohokam Ruins, Pueblo Grande - Phoenix, Arizona|
|Cactus In Front Of Hohokam Wall - Phoenix, Arizona|
Sometime around 1450 A.D. the Hohokam disappeared. Nobody is sure exactly why they left or where they went. A popular theory is that a series of devastating floods destroyed important sections of the canal system, followed by a severe drought that lasted for many years. This would have forced the Hohokam, who were heavily dependent on agriculture, to abandon the Salt River Valley and neighboring Gila River Valley in search of a more forgiving land.
|Hohokam Rooms, Pueblo Grande - Phoenix, Arizona|
The Hohokam vanished, but they left a lasting legacy. The irrigation canal system that they built would provide the inspiration for—and, in a few cases, the infrastructure for—a new settlement that would grow into a massive city.