picture of cover

Hohokam Indians of the
Tucson Basin

By Linda M. Gregonis & Karl J. Reinhard

Chapter 1

The Hohokam World

Predecessors of the Hohokam
The Hohokam
The Tucson Basin

Map of the Tucson Basin    Low-resolution (24K)     Hi-resolution (65K)

Centuries before Europeans first saw the Tucson Basin, a group of Indians with a distinctive way of life had settled there. Known today as the Hohokam (ho-ho-kam), these people built villages close to streams in order to farm the region's rich bottomlands. They lived in the basin from about A.D. 300 to 1500. The Tucson Basin villagers were part of the larger Hohokam world, whose inhabitants lived in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. They ably adapted themselves to the desert environment by farming along drainages and hunting and gathering in the desert and mountains.

Predecessors of the Hohokam

The Hohokam were not the first to live in the Tucson Basin. During the Ice Age, people migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait into Alaska. These "Paleo-Indians" followed herds of big game into North America. By 9500 B.C., bands of hunters wandered into southern Arizona, where they found a desert grassland. Mammoths that thrived in the grassland were hunted by the Indians. Hunters trapped mammoths along streams and lakes and killed them with spears. The carcasses of the ponderous beasts were butchered on the spot and the meat was cooked nearby. Although best known for their mammoth hunting, the Paleo-Indians ate other types of animals including bison. They also collected and ate plant foods.

As the climate warmed and dried after the end of the Ice Age, mammoths and associated animals such as horses and camels began to disappear from North America. To the Indians, the change was gradual. They found fewer mammoths each year, so they supplemented their diet with a variety of plant foods and smaller game. Groups of Indians discovered the nutritive value of weed and grass seeds, ground to flour on flat rocks and made into gruels and breads.

The use of grinding slabs marks the beginning of the Desert Archaic tradition. In the Tucson area, the Desert Archaic tradition lasted from 7000 B.C. to about A.D. 300. During that time, small bands of people moved around the basin gathering plants. They lived primarily in the open, but probably also built temporary shelters. Summer found them in the foothills, collecting foods such as cactus fruits and mesquite beans. Acorns, pine nuts, and other foods from the higher mountains were gathered in the fall. Although hunting took place the year-round it was especially important in the winter and spring months when plant foods were scarce. The Archaic people established camps at each collection point, to which they returned year after year.

Late in the Archaic Period, corn was introduced into the region from Mexico. People planted the crop near camps with permanent water sources. After planting, the hunter-gatherers moved on to gather wild foods, returning only to harvest the ripened crop. They treated the cultivated food as one more native plant to be gathered.

The Hohokam

Phases of the Tucson Basin (17K)

Phases of the Tucson Basin

About 300 B.C., the Hohokam, an agricultural group, migrated from Mexico into southern Arizona and settled in villages along the Salt and Gila rivers. As their population grew, they began settling areas around the Gila-Salt heartland. At about A.D. 200, a few Hohokam families apparently moved to the Tucson Basin and built their homes along the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers. These early villagers introduced a new lifeway into the area.

The Archaic people, living in small scattered camps in the basin, gradually absorbed the new lifeway. The adopted the Hohokam "ranchería" style of living, where people occupied widely separated house groups within a village. They began making pottery and digging ditches to water the newly arrived Hohokam varieties of corn, beans, squash, and cotton. These Tucson Basin Hohokam were soon trading for seashells, copying from the Hohokam heartland, and using such typical goods as carved stone bowls and clay human figurines. However, they also retained, in part, the seasonal hunting and gathering of their Archaic predecessors. About half of their food was cultivated in fields, and the rest was collected by villagers who maintained seasonal camps in the mountains and foothills.

After A.D. 1100, influence from the heartland Hohokam began to dwindle, and cultural ties were strengthened with the Mogollon people to the north and east, resulting in a blend of Hohokam and Mogollon traits in the Tucson Basin. Around A.D. 1250, villagers began building adobe-walled houses, and Hohokam potters innovated new designs and created a pottery style that was widely copied by groups around the Tucson Basin. By 1350, some people had moved into a few large communities composed of abovegound, apartment-like dwellings, but the population as a whole seems to have declined. The reasons for these cultural changes are not clear, but environmental deterioration (perhaps including droughts) and changes in social organization brought about by the collapse of major cultures in Mesoamerica have both been suggested as possible causes.

By 1500, the Tucson Basin Indians had resumed to living in scattered, Hohokam-like rancherías. These people, known today as the Pimas and Papagos, were encountered by the Spanish in the 1600s, when they first entered the Tucson Basin.

The Tucson Basin Indians were a small part of the total Hohokam occupation of southern Arizona. This occupation extended from Gila Bend on the west to Globe on the east, and from the north near Flagstaff to near the Arizona-Mexico border in the south. The Gila and Salt River valleys remained the heartland of the Hohokam culture through time. As in the Tucson Basin, the culture of the Hohokam in areas outside the heartland varied in small ways. However, each had in common a sedentary lifestyle, a dependence on agriculture, and a unique ceremonial and trading system.

The Tucson Basin

Map of Hohokam Occupation in Arizona

Map of Hohokam Occupation in Arizona

The lifeway of the Tucson Basin Hohokam was molded by the local environment as the Indians took advantage of the area's rich natural setting. The Tucson Basin lies near the eastern edge of the Basin and Range Province of the Sonoran Desert. This area is characterized by low, discontinuous mountain ranges jutting up from the flat desert plain. The narrow mountain ranges are widely spaced and generally run north to south. Between the mountains are areas where sediment has collected from eroding mountain slopes to form shallow basins. Intermittent rivers flow along the basin floors.

The Tucson Basin is enclosed by five mountains ranges. The Tucsons and Sierritas form the western and southern boundaries, and the Santa Catalina, Rincon, and Santa Rita mountains make up the northern, eastern, and southern boundaries. The Tucsons and Sierritas are typical low Basin and Range Province mountains, formed by volcanism and the fracturing of the earth's surface layers. The Catalinas, Rincons, and Santa Ritas, however, are high, massive, eroded remnants of underground intrusions of grantic rock. Their pine-covered summits receive twenty to twenty-five inches of rainfall annually, three times the average for the Sonoran Desert. Rainfall in the Tucson Basin is also high in comparison to the major portion of the desert-eleven inches annually in contrast to seven. Before the expansion of Tucson and the overuse of ground water, the precipitation maintained a high water table and a healthy natural environment.

Prehistorically, parts of the basin looked quite different than they do today. By destroying plant cover on the slopes, overgrazing and construction in modern times have damaged some of the foothill areas. Instead of being trapped by vegetation and sinking into the ground, rainwater now tends to run down the hills, contributing to arroyo-cutting and causing flooding.

Although now the local streams flow only occasionally and are entrenched in deep channels, this has not always been the case. As recently as the late 1800s, the streams flowed on the surface and, by means of ditches, provided water to irrigate crops grown in the flood-plain. Reports of the Tucson Basin written between A.D. 1700 and 1870 mention that the rivers flowed year-round, that cottonwood and mesquite grew along their banks, and that, in some places, beavers built their dams.

Even today, the Tucson Basin is rich in plant and animal life. The variety of plants ranges from desert grasses and scrub trees to piñon and ponderosa pine forests on the mountain sides, and from cacti on the desert floor to cottonwood and willow along the streams. The varied vegetation supports an equally varied animal life, from desert reptiles and rodents to deer and mountain sheep.

The Sonoran Desert is easily farmed when water is available. Precipitation comes in two distinct wet seasons, late winter and midsummer, providing good conditions for agriculture. Another factor making the desert suitable for farming is a long growing season, about 250 days. Up to the late 1800s, the permanently flowing streams provided enough water for canal irrigation. At present, by pumping underground water, many crops can still be grown in the desert.

picture of desert

A variety of useful plants available to the Hohokam can be found on the desert floor and lower slopes of the mountains. In the foreground are prickly pear and barrel cactus. The large, tree-like cactus on the left is a saguaro. To the right of the saguaro are palo verde trees and cholla cactus.

In large part, the topography and environment of the Tucson Basin determined where and how the Hohokam lived. Villages were built next to the permanent streams and springs that ringed the basin, and villagers ventured into the dry center of the basin only on hunting and collecting expeditions. Where saguaro and mesquite groves grew the thickest, the Hohokam established camps that they returned to each year to harvest fruits and seeds. The diversity of topography and natural resources in the Tucson Basin allowed the Indians efficiently to combine hunting and gathering with agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle.

Copyright © 1979.The Arizona Board of Regents.

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The University of Arizona Press, 3/2/97 2:03PM