An exhibit on the mysteries of the Hohokam


This illustration depicts what a Hohokam village might have looked like in its heyday.

A special exhibit at the Anasazi Heritage Center called “Pieces of the Puzzle: New Perspectives on the Hohokam” allows visitors to travel back in time to an ancient culture that flourished between 450 A.D. and 1450 A.D.

The Hohokam occupied what is now central and southern Arizona, and are known for their impressive irrigation works, mysterious ball courts and unique pottery and jewelry skills.

Little was known about this ancient Southwest culture, as much of it was buried beneath the pavement and urbanization of the Phoenix Basin, the population center of the Hohokam. But since more intense study began in the 1980s, a fascinating story has emerged, including a link to the Anasazi (now known as the Ancestral Puebloans) of the Four Corners.

“We thought we would offer something new and different for visitors in this ex- hibit,” explained museum specialist Dave Kill. “The Hohokam are different from the Ancestral Puebloans in that they have a Mesoamerican influence from Mexico. Now more recent studies show a tie to the pre-historic tribes of the Four Corners.”

The Hohokam thrived agriculturally, taking advantage of a year-round growing season, in contrast to the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde, who battled frost and winter conditions for part of the year, and relied more on hunting and gathering.

Before modern dams, the Hohokam were master irrigators and expert canalbuilders, watering 25,000 acres of farmland in the Salt and Gila River valleys.

“There were 1,000 miles of prehistoric irrigation canals used to water crops, and it was a real regular supply so they could farm year round,” Kill said. “Their irrigation system was the most complex in North America until the 1800s.”

Some stretches of the original canals are still used today within the Gila River Indian Community, south of Phoenix.

Hohokam culture differed in many ways from the northern Ancestral Puebloans, in particular with pottery manufacturing. Hohokam pottery is formed by the anvil and paddle method. A stone is held inside a piece of clay and a wooden paddle is used on the outside to beat and press the clay into the rounded shape of a bowl or vessel.

Ancestral Puebloans used the coil and pinch method in which coils of clay are stacked in a circle, then pinched together.

It is this difference in pottery that recently allowed archaeologists to solve a mystery that links the Four Corners cultures with the Hohokam. Why was coiled, Kayentastyle pottery showing up at Hohokam sites near Phoenix area? Was it being traded, or copied?

To solve the puzzle, archaeologists used the science of petrography to identify minerals in the pottery, and were able to prove the pots were not traded from the north, but made with the clays of the Phoenix Basin.

Since research shows pottery-makers stick with methods learned at an early age, the archaeologists theorize the native peoples of the Four Corners emigrated south to the Hohokam territory and brought their pottery technique with them.


This map depicts the areas that were inhabited by different ancestral peoples centuries ago. The Hohokam occupied what is now southern and central Arizona and were contemporaries of the Puebloan and Fremont cultures.

“So it shows that the northern Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures were contemporaries of the Hohokam,” Kill said. “They were flourishing simultaneously for a few hundred years and assimilating into each others cultures.”

Another distinctive Hohokam cultural trait is the prevalence of ball courts, a Mesoamerican influence not associated with the Ancestral Puebloans. Some 200 ball courts have been documented within the Hohokam territory in Arizona, dating between 700 A.D. and 900 A.D. The courts were sunken with plastered flat floors and had raised berms that could hold up to 700 spectators. How the game was played is not known, but archaeologists say there was heavy competition between villages and much gambling and feasting before events.

The small balls were made with plant material and are very rare; just three have been found in North America. Ancient Mexico tribes had similar ball courts, a tradition dating to 1200 B.C., but they added elevated “goals” carved from stone.

During their zenith, the Hohokam culture numbered around 40,000, but why they disappeared by the 1400s when they had lived in the region so successfully for centuries is still a mystery.

Flooding, environmental degradation, calcification of canals and fields, and population dispersal are all thought to play a role, Kill said. Stress from drought also was a likely problem. Tree-ring data shows that after 1100 the area suffered from less rainfall and became much drier.

It is thought that the Tohono O’odham and Pima tribes in southern Arizona are the closest descendants of the Hohokam. Their translation of the word is “all used up” or “something that is all gone.”

Their artifacts and stories live on in this special exhibit. On display are beautiful examples of red-on-buff pottery with signature red wavy lines, bird motifs and embedded sparkling mica. Vibrant murals bring to life the massive, communal-style adobe architecture and highlight the daily farming life of this innovative culture. The Hohokam carved shells, traded from Pacific Coast tribes, into intricate bracelets and pendants, and they seem to have a special affinity for frogs.

“We’re still here and we are still the same,” says Luci Tapahonso, a Hohokam descendant. “These are our memories and stories, too powerful for things as new as cement and asphalt to destroy.”

The special exhibit will be on display until Oct. 31. It is on loan from the Center for Desert Archaeology, with artifacts from the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix and the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. Admission at the Anasazi Heritage Center, located three miles west of Dolores on Highway 184, is free until March 1.

From February 2012.