picture of cover

Hohokam Indians of the
Tucson Basin

By Linda M. Gregonis & Karl J. Reinhard

Chapter 2

The Hohokam Lifeway

Hunting and Gathering
Craft Production
House Building
Village Organization
Hohokam Trade
Ritual and Ceremony
Hohokam Influence on the Southwest

To reconstruct the lifeway of the Hohokam, different kinds of information were used. Knowledge of architectural features and material remains came from excavations of villages in the Tucson Basin and elsewhere in the Hohokam area. Professor Emil Haury, longtime researcher in Hohokam archaeology, provided insights into the use of objects and features found at those sites. To reconstruct the Hohokam's daily achvities and social structure, ethnographic accounts of the Pima and Papago cultures were used. The Pimas and Papagos are believed to be descendants of the Hohokam and historically shared a similar lifestyle with their predecessors. Finally, the fragments of information were bound together by our imaginations to recreate the lifeway of the Tucson Basin Hohokam.


Hohokam villagers grew cotton and corn, as well as several types of beans and squash. In the Gila and Salt River valleys, the Indians built a complex system of canals, to lead water from the rivers to their fields above the floodplain. In contrast, the Tucson Basin people practiced floodwater farming; that is, they planted crops in the floodplains of the rivers which flooded their banks after major storms. The rivers at that time were shallow, meandering streams; they were not deeply entrenched as they are now. The Indians probably also dug short irrigation ditches, to direct water to crops grown on the floodplain. In parts of the basin where floodplains were not available, the Hohokam farmed at the mouths of arroyos. They also built rock terraces and check dams on hill slopes and in washes to catch rainfall runoff. The Indian's only agricultural tools were sharp, wooden digging sticks and handheld hoes made from thin rock slabs. They may also have used broken pieces of pottery as hand shovels.

Like other North American Indians, the Hohokam probably planted their crops in a series of small earth mounds. Corn, beans, squash, and cotton could all be planted in the same mound, so that each plant provided the others with nutrients and weed protection. Planted in March after the last winter frost, crops were ready to be harvested in July. Villagers prepared much of their harvest for use during winter and spring.

Corn was a mainstay in the Hohokam diet. Although the Indians roasted and ate corn on the cob during harvest season, they dried and ground most of the corn into flour before use. The villagers may have made corn flour into dumplings and bread, thickened stews with it, or dropped a handful into a jar of water to make a nourishing drink.

The Hohokam ground the kernels of corn with stone tools called manos and metates. The Indians made metates from large rocks. They shaped the rocks into thick slabs or troughs, with a slightly roughened grinding surface that held kernels of corn in place during grinding. The mano, which was held in the hand, was made from a smaller stone, also slightly roughened. In using the tools, the Indians ground the rough surfaces down; consequently, they ate small bits of rock with every meal. As a result, the teeth of most adult Hohokam were worn smooth.

Other staples in the Hohokam diet were beans and squash. Dried or parched after shelling, beans were added to stews or boiled by themselves. Squash could have been used in several ways-the blossoms boiled, the seeds parched, or strips of the fruit dried for use in winter.

Cotton was used for both food and clothing. Seeds of the plant were parched, ground, and formed into cakes. Cotton fiber was spun into yarn and then woven into ponchos, shirts, and belts. Finished clothing and bundles of yarn may have been traded by the Hohokam to other Indians in the Southwest.

In addition to cultivated plants, the Hohokam harvested weeds that grew in their fields. Among the weeds gathered for greens and seeds were pigweed, sunflower, and tansy mustard.

Hunting and Gathering

Desert plants used by the Hohokam

The Tucson Basin Hohokam constantly supplemented their agricultural diet with native foods. In drought years, the Indians depended heavily on wild plants and animals. The Hohokam collected mesquite beans from the trees that grew along the river banks. Villagers stored the bean pods in baskets and jars or mashed them into flour, using a mortar and pestle. This important resource could have been made into broths, stews, and breads.

The villagers also collected foods in the desert foothills, as do the Pimas and Papagos today. In June, July, and August, they gathered fruits of the saguaro, cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. When collecting cactus fruits then, as now, groups of people camped in the cactus groves. They ate, dried, and cooked the plants at the camps. The Hohokam probably prepared cactus in much the same way as the Pimas and Papagos do. After removing the needles, cholla buds and prickly pear pads were baked slowly in pits. Cholla buds were also boiled. The Hohokam cooked down saguaro fruit into syrup and made cakes from the dried seed. The Indians probably made wine from the syrup. Other cactus fruits that were not eaten raw were dried and stored. The Indians returned to their villages only with those products that were to be saved for later use.

The Hohokam went on gathering expeditions to the mountains. There, they harvested agave crowns, acorns, manzanita berries, and other small fruits. The Indians roasted the agave crowns in pits to make a succulent meal. Berries and acorns collected in the mountains may have been used later as additives in otherwise bland stews and breads.

The Hohokam supplemented their primarily plant-food diet with meat. They had no domestic animals except the dog, so most meat was obtained by hunting. Deer and rabbit were the most important meat sources, but the Indians also killed and ate mountain sheep, antelope, and rodents, including mice and ground squirrels. Dove, quail, duck, and geese were among the birds hunted, and Indians who lived along larger rivers also ate fish. Not particular in their culinary habits, the Hohokam also added tortoises, lizards, and snakes to their diet.

Villagers hunted larger animals with bows and arrows. Birds, mice, lizards, and snakes could have been trapped or shot with arrows. During certain seasons, Indians conducted communal rabbit hunts. They drove rabbits and other small animals into nets strung across drainages.

Hohokam Rabbit Hunt

Groups of people, walking slowly in a line towards the net, beat the bushes and shouted, to crowd the animals before them. Such a drive could have yielded enough food for a whole village during the late winter starvation time, when little of the stored plant foods remained.

Preparation of an animal for eating depended on the size and type of creature killed. Small animals, such as lizards, mice, and ground squirrels, could be eaten raw or could be spitted and cooked without gutting. The Indians skinned and gutted larger animals at the site of the kill, using sharp flakes of rock as knives. In a few seconds, the sharp fragments were knocked from a larger rock and were ready to use. When one flake became dull, it was discarded and another was made. After returning to the village, meat was portioned for roasting by using heavy stone choppers to cut joints and tendons. The meat could also be cut into strips with knife-like flakes and dried in the sun.

Native plants and animals were not used solely for food by the Hohokam. Materials for houses, ramadas, clothing, containers, ritual paraphernalia, and tools also came from the rivers, deserts, and mountains. The Hohokam were completely dependent on their immediate environment for all the necessities of life.


The Indians made simple clothing from animal skins and plant fibers. Villagers wore breechcloths and aprons. In winter, they wore buckskin shirts, cloth ponchos, and blankets. For foot protection, sandals were worn. On festive occasions they donned headdresses, turbans, headbands, belts and kilts.

The Hohokam made cordage (yarn) from cotton, milkweed, yucca, and agave fiber for weaving and sewing. To use yucca and agave, the Indians cut the leaves with a thin, saw-like stone blade. Then, using a heavy rock scraper, they stripped the flesh from the leaves, baring the fiber. Masses of fiber were twisted on a spindle whorl or rolled between hand and thigh to create long strings. Cordage was woven into fabric on looms or braided by hand and sewn. Villagers integrated color and design into the resulting fabrics by varying the weave, painting, or dyeing the cordage.

For needles, the villagers used the spike ends of yucca and agave leaves, leaving the attached stringy fiber as thread. Or, they fabricated needles from bone slivers or the long needles of barrel cactus. They also used bone awls in weaving and leather working.

Animal skins were made into clothing. Tanned deerskins made fine shirts and sandals. To use rabbit and other small animal furs, Indians cut the prepared skins into narrow strips and attached the strips end-to-end. Then, using one or two of the long strings of fur, they twined the strips around a plant-fiber cordage base. The fur and cordage strings were then made into blankets. Woolen clothing was unknown in the Southwest until the 1600s, when the Spanish brought domestic sheep into the region.

The Hohokam also adorned themselves with jewelry. They wore bracelets, rings, earrings, necklaces, and nose plugs. Jewelry was made from seashells, semi-precious stones, pieces of pottery, and bone. The Hohokam probably painted themselves as well.

picture of jewelry

Jewelry worn by Hohokam men and women included items made from stone. At the top left is a mica pendant and below it are two turguoise beads and an argillite nose plug. In the center are turquoise pendants and pieces of inlay. At bottom right is a green serpentine bead.

Craft Production

Villagers made pottery by mixing clay, found in deposits along arroyos, with sand collected in washes. To prepare the clay, potters first ground it on metates. Then it was moistened and set aside to age for a few days. Next, the sand was sifted through basketry sifters to remove unwanted particles. Finally, potters mixed the sand and clay with water, to form a workable substance.

A potter formed each vessel from a molded clay base by adding coil upon coil of clay. She smoothed the coils together and shaped the pot with the use of a wooden paddle and stone tool called an anvil. After shaping the vessel, the potter may have decorated it with red paint made from crushed iron pigments. Iron pigments, such as hematite and limonite, could be found in local deposits or were obtained through trade. The designs were painted on pots with brushes made from yucca leaves or grass stems. Many pots were left unpainted.

Designs and decorative styles changed subtly through time, but decoration of Hohokam pottery was usually free-flowing and dynamic. Hatchured drawings of snakes, chevrons, and scrolls, as well as negative designs of lizards and other animals, characterized early pottery in the Tucson area. Other designs were added to these early types. Interlocking scrolls, triangles, zigzag and squiggly lines, circles, and frets were combined on vessels in hundreds of different ways. The final outcome of the decoration depended on the potter's ability to visualize a combination of designs and apply them to a vessel.

pieces of pottery design

Hohokam potters painted many different designs on their pottery.

All Hohokam pottery was baked in open, wood fires. The Indians did not have kilns. Because of the uneven temperatures of an open fire, pottery was sometimes unintentionally blackened or overheated in places. The most skilled potters could either avoid the blackening and burning or were able to turn the resulting marks on the vessels into patterns. Sometimes vessels were intentionally blackened or smudged, usually on the interior of bowls. After firing, Tucson Basin pottery was usually brown or had red designs on a light brown to black background.

Pottery had many uses. In addition to making pots for cooking, serving, and storage, the Hohokam made ladles, scoops, figurines, and spindle whorls. Even after a pot broke, its pieces were still useful. Gaming pieces, pottery scrapers, scoops, and ornaments were some of the items made from broken pottery.

pieces of pottery design

Baskets similar to these were made by the Hohokam

When lightweight, durable vessels were needed, the Hohokam made baskets. Villagers collected the fibrous leaves of yucca, cattail, and beargrass to weave into various shapes. Parts of the long, black, seed pods of Devil's Claw were woven into the baskets as decoration.

In preparation for weaving, the leaves and seed pods were soaked in water and repeatedly split to form thin strips. A weaver then coiled strips around each other, stitching the coils together with a separate leaf strip. The Hohokam also made plaited baskets by weaving flat strips of material over and under one another to form a pattern. These plaited baskets were more flexible but less durable than coiled baskets. Wicker baskets were rarely made by the Hohokam.

The resulting containers, in various shapes, served many purposes. Cooks used basket trays to parch corn and prepare foods. Coiled jars and plaited bags were used for gathering and storing foods. Loosely woven pieces were used for sifting corn meal and other materials. The Indians also made plaited sleeping mats.

Perhaps one or two people in a village were trained in jewelry making, and skilled workers probably traded their products with other villages. Some craftsmen made ornaments from shells. Bracelets were made from large bivalve shells. The worker ground the top of each shell on a piece of sandstone until a small hole was worn. Then, using a chisel-like instrument, the hole was slowly enlarged to the desired size. Finally, the artisan used a stone reamer, a cylindrical object with a groove around one end, to smooth the inside of the bracelet. Bracelets were often carved and sometimes painted. Rings were made in a similar manner.

Indians created necklaces and earrings from shell beads and pendants. Sometimes, to make a bead or pendant, a craftsman simply drilled a hole through a whole shell. Other pieces were more elaborate. Pendants made from assorted fragments of shell were carved into triangles, discs, circles, and life forms such as frogs, birds, and horned toads. The Hohokam often drilled holes in broken bracelets and used them as pendants.

Craftsmen made delicate, disc-shaped beads by drilling a hole through a piece of shell with a cactus needle and using sand as an abrasive. Then the bead was roughly shaped by chipping. After assembling a string of the rough beads, the craftsman rolled the string on a grooved stone until the desired size was obtained. Beads and pendants were then strung together in whatever pattern suited the maker or wearer.

Hohokam craftsmen discovered how to decorate shell by etching. They were the only culture in the Americas to use the process, and they developed it several centuries before Europeans began to etch objects. To etch shell, the artisan put pitch or lac on a shell in a desired design. Then the shell was dipped into a weak acid made from fermented cactus juice. When the shell was removed from the acid, the uncovered portions were slightly eaten away, leaving the pitch-covered portion in relief. After removing the pitch, artisans sometimes painted the raised portions of the shell.

Illustration of Process for Making a Shell Bracelet (24K)

The Hohokam also made jewelry from minerals such as turquoise, steatite, argillite, and mica. The stones were worked in much the same way as shell. Artisans also carved incense burners, slate palettes, and other special items from other types of stone. Craftsmen may have specialized in making arrowheads, manos, and metates.

House Building

To shelter themselves, the Hohokam built simple brush-and dirt-covered pit houses. Building a pit house was a major task. Each house consisted of one rectangular, square, or oval room, with an entryway extending from one of the house's long walls. Shape and size of the pit house depended on the preferences and space needs of the builders.

To build a house, Indians first dug a pit, one to two feet deep. The pit allowed the house to stay cool in summer and warm in winter. Digging the pit for the house was a chore in the hard caliche soil of the Tucson Basin, because the Hohokam had only digging sticks, sherd scoops, and baskets with which to loosen and remove the earth.

Next, the pit house framework was built. The Indians dug postholes in several places inside the house and placed heavy mesquite or pine posts in them to support the roof. They dug a row of postholes around the house to support a framework for the outer walls. Cottonwood and willow posts may have been used for this framework. They then built the roof by placing beams across the major supports. Beams were covered by a network of saguaro and ocotillo ribs, and the whole roof was covered with brush.

Hohokam Pit House

This cutaway drawing of a Hohokam pit house shows the different materials used in its construction. The inner support posts are covered with brush, and the brush is plastered over with mud and dirt. The small feature near the entryway is the clay-lined hearth.

The walls were also covered with brush or bundles of arrow weed and reeds. Finally, builders covered the whole structure with mud plaster and dirt. This type of brush and dirt covering is called wattle and daub. The outside of the completed structure looked like a small earthen mound, with an extension for the entryway, and blended well with the surrounding countryside.

In the interior, a smooth floor of mud plaster was laid. A small, circular, clay, fire hearth was built into the floor just inside the entryway. Sometimes a storage pit was dug into the floor. The pit was not lined with plaster, as the hard caliche soil made it almost impervious to water.

House furnishings were sparse. People slept on woven mats, laid directly on the floor, or on low sleeping platforms. Cooking and eating pots, large storage baskets, awls, arrows, and grinding tools were kept on the floor or on a platform, and light objects, such as baskets, were hung from walls and posts. Storage pots and various tools stood along house walls.

Village Organization

Houses were used for sleeping, storage, and protection during bad weather. The Hohokam spent most of their time out-of-doors, tending to their crops, collecting native plants, and hunting. They manufactured and repaired tools, and prepared and cooked food, in the shade provided by ramadas. Built of sturdy posts and covered with saguaro ribs and brush, the ramada was the center of a Hohokam family's living area. Other features near their houses and ramadas included granaries, storage rooms, and roasting pits.

The Hohokam considered open space an important factor in village living. Each living area was separated from others by work spaces, cemeteries or unused, open desert. When a family grew too large for its area, part of the group established another residence some distance away. Sometimes families would abandon one area to allow a long-lived-in, dirty space to become clean again through exposure to the elements. After a time, the Hohokam sometimes reinhabited the abandoned areas of the village.

picture of small area of village

One or two families shared village space. In back of the two pit houses is a storeroom and attached ramada. A sheltered work area is at the lower left.

Within a given village, the people were probably all related to one another. They shared working spaces and cemetery plots between their living areas. A leader may have organized the settlement into work forces to tend irrigation ditches and harvest crops. Individuals got together for hunting and gathering expeditions.

We can imagine how the Hohokam from different villages socialized. People often met for informal talk or barter. Members from several settlements may have traveled together on expeditions to the Hohokam heartland or the Gulf of California. Secular and religious leaders organized intervillage ceremonies and celebrations. Some of the ceremonies revolved around ball courts. Villagers traveled from all over the basin to visit the villages along the Santa Cruz River that had ball courts. No one village or group of villages seemed to dominate others in the Tucson Basin.

Hohokam Trade

A common Hohokam design painted on pottery depicts a walking figure with a hiking staff, carrying a bundle on his back. This figure is often referred to as the "burden basket carrier" and may be a trader. Since earliest times, the Hohokam were active traders. They received goods from western New Mexico, most of Arizona, and the coasts of California and Mexico, as well as from the more advanced cultures of west-central Mexico.

The Hohokam placed a high value on shell jewelry. We can imagine a trading trip to the Gulf of California or the California coast to procure unworked shell. A trading party would reach the gulf after walking more than 150 miles, carrying pottery, cloth, and other products to barter for shells. Indians living along the Gulf Coast probably met them to trade shells collected from the gulf throughout the year, in anticipation of the traders' arrival. Some of the shells, gathered from living shellfish, were much valued by the Hohokam for their color. After bartering with the Gulf Coast dwellers, the traders also gathered bleached and polished shells from the beaches. Experienced members of the party probably instructed those on their first expedition on how to select the proper shells to make pendants, bracelets, and beads. But the traders may not have always traveled to the coasts to collect shell. Some trade probably took place between the Hohokam and "middle men" who belonged to other cultural groups to the south and west of Hohokam territory.

Except for shell trade, the Hohokam's most important contact was with west-central Mexico, the probable origin of the Hohokam culture. Copper bells, polished plaques of iron pyrite, parrots, and macaws were obtainable there. Parrots and macaws were traded live into the Hohokam area, and the Indians probably used the birds' bright feathers in ceremonies. Copper bells, which resemble small sleigh bells, were sewn onto kilts or other clothing, or strung with beads to make necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. Iron pyrite plaques were stone discs, covered on one side with a mosaic of iron pyrite pieces. As with macaws, parrots, and copper bells, the plaques were probably used in ceremonies.

Illustration of Macaw and Copper Bell (33K)

Stones prized for jewelry were also traded to the Hohokam. Among the stones traded were turquoise, serpentine, and argillite. Argillite and serpentine came from the Mogollon Rim region of Arizona. Turquoise may have come from southeastern Arizona or as far away as the Mohave Basin in California.

In addition to the other trade goods, the Tucson Basin Hohokam received pottery from the Hohokam heartland, the Mogollon people of Arizona and New Mexico, and the people of northern Sonora. Occasionally a pottery piece was brought in from western Mexico. We do not really know what the Hohokam traded in exchange for these goods. They may have traded finished jewelry, pottery, woven cotton fabrics, and food.

Ritual and Ceremony

The Hohokam had a rich ceremonial life, incorporating many ideas imported from Mesoamerica. In Mesoamerica a ball game played in depressed, rock-lined courts had ritual significance. This ball game and accompanying ritual spread north and was adopted by the Hohokam. They built oblong courts, usually large, mud plastered depressions resembling small football fields, to accommodate their version of the sport. The first Hohokam ball courts were built by A.D. 700. To honor ball players, Hohokam artisans sometimes made figurines with small shield pads on shin or shoulder.

Illustration of Hohokam Ball Court (21K)

At the same time that ball courts were introduced, platform mounds similar to those in Mesoamerica were built in the Hohokam heartland. These mounds were used in large rituals or celebrations that may have included dancing, since dancers were frequently painted on pottery vessels. Villagers participating in rituals wore elaborate headdresses, probably made of feathers, and may have painted their bodies with yellow, red, and purple mineral pigments and charcoal.

Cremation of the dead was widely practiced and probably involved ritualized activities. After a person died, the body was dressed, adorned with jewelry, and perhaps purified with incense. A crematory pit was filled with wood and a platform was built on top. After the body was laid on the platform, wood was piled on top of it and the whole thing was ignited. When the fire reached its highest point, a stone palette may have been placed on the pyre. A lead carbonate previously ground onto the palette would oxidize, creating a display of color.

When the fire died down, the remaining fragments of bone were gathered together and placed into a pottery vessel. The vessel was taken to a village cemetery and set in a pit. Personal possessions were put with the vessel, and ceremonial objects, such as burned, broken palettes or figurines, were placed next to or in the pit, perhaps as a blessing. Finally, the pit was filled with earth. Ritual objects such as incense burners, pyrite plaques, figurines, and palettes were smashed and burned, and then left in caches at the cemetery. Relatives may have visited the cemetery periodically, to commemorate the dead.

The use of plaques, figurines, incense burners, and the tradition of sacrificing material objects with the dead were, like so many other Hohokam traits, Mesoamerican in origin. Incense burners were carved from stone or molded of clay. They were decorated with relief carvings of snakes, dancers, or horned lizards. Palettes varied in form from simple slabs of rock to ornately carved plates ornamented with snakes, birds, or horned lizards. The objects were usually made of slate or schist. Figurines made of fire-hardened clay occurred in many forms, but most were small, peg-legged objects with mask-like faces. Many were female and may have been fertility figures. Others may have been household gods or good-luck fetishes. Figurines of animals could have been hunting charms or toys.

Hohokam Influence on the Southwest

In 300 B.C., when the Hohokam moved north into Arizona from Mexico, the cultures of Mesoamerica were advanced in comparison with the hunters and gatherers then living in the Southwest. Consequently, the Hohokam brought with them some aspects of the higher civilizations of Mesoamerica. Because they maintained connections with Mesoamerican civilizations through the centuries, the Hohokam made social, religious, and artistic advances that were a bit ahead of their neighbors, the Patayan to the west, the Anasazi to the north, and the Mogollon to the east.

The Hohokam arrived in Arizona with the knowledge of pottery manufacture and canal irrigation. These technological skills enabled them to establish agricultural fields in the desert and store the produce of the fields during the winter. By A.D. 1200, the Hohokam had built hundreds of miles of canals in the Phoenix area alone.

Although Southwestern Indians had grown corn for a thousand years in the desert before the arrival of the Hohokam, they had never taken up full-time agriculture. The Hohokam dependence on farming gradually influenced some surrounding people to give up seminomadic hunting and gathering.

Mesoamerican contact before A.D. 1 inspired the Hohokam to develop techniques for carving shell and stone and for making turquoise mosaics. As a result of that inspiration, by A.D. 500, the Hohokam had become masters of ornate bone, stone, and shell carving. At first, the Mogollon and Anasazi found it easier to obtain shell and stone jewelry through Hohokam traders, but, later artisans of the two cultures began making jewelry on their own. The Anasazi mined their own turquoise and eventually produced the finest turquoise jewelry in the Southwest. They also became interested in other goods from Mexico, and, after trading through the Hohokam for a period of time, established trade directly with the civilizations of Mexico.

Illustration of Hohokam Ritual Items (20K)

Copyright © 1979. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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