Old school paper:
Environmental Adaptation By The Hohokam
The Sonoran Desert is a land of harsh extremes, yet today, as well as in the past, people
have called this place home. The Hohokam laid the foundation for future settlement and
thrived due their ability to manipulate their environment. These environmental
manipulations had positive and negative consequences.
The people who lived in what is now Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora
Mexico, are known as the Hohokam. In post European contact, various groups called the
region home, such as the Pima, Maricopa and Tohono O'odham. None of the Hohokam
successors equaled them in geographic extent, population density, complexity of political
organization, size of settlements or complexity of social structure (Fish 270) There is
much debate as to how much the Hohokam influenced later groups such as the Pima.
Today, two major cities are in the Hohokam area; Tucson, Arizona and Phoenix, Arizona.
The latter is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. In the past one
hundred years, various explosions in population and growth have occurred. In the next
hundred, similar growth would not be unlikely. Thus, due to the success of the Hohokam
in thriving in a harsh environment, which more and more people are now calling home, it
would be practical, if not necessary to study their methods for modern day use, or to
avoid certain bad practices. This rational clearly shows that such a study has
consequences far beyond entertainment.
The Hohokam lived in the Sonoran desert. Hot weather deserts are found on earth
usually between 15 and 45 degrees north and south of the equator, due to a number of
factors including air pressure and low winds. Two factors which affect life in the desert
the most are the intense heat and low moisture. Cactus, for example, have adapted to this
climate by reducing surface area, slow growth and conserving water. Despite the
inhospitable climate, many plants such as Ocotillo, Creosote, Saguaro, Organ Pipe
Cactus, Cholla Cactus and Prickly Pear Cactus cover the landscape. Organ Pipe Cactus
and Saguros, grow in very particular environments within the Sonoran Desert. The
Sonoran Desert is one of the four American deserts (Cohn 84). Above all rainfall and
water is the limiting factor for plants and animals (Cohn 84). Animals in the Sonoran
desert include the desert mule deer, black tailed jackrabbit, desert cottontail, Gila monster
and desert tortoise.
The Hohokam lived in large oval or quadrangle floor plan dwellings (Ezell 62).
They created pottery, a hallmark of settled society. The specific ceramics they made were
red on buff ceramics (Ezell 64). They were also known for their paddle and anvil pottery
(Bohrer 413). Their pottery included human and animal figures often but rarely plant
forms (Zaslow 75). They built ball courts and flat top mounds, similar to those in
Mesoamerica with the earliest phase being about 300 BC. This monumental architecture
was similar but not nearly as large or extensive as seen in Mesoamerica. Their burial
practices were cremation, while later the Pima practiced inhumation, demonstrating one
of many breaks between the earlier Hohokam culture and the later Pima (Ezell 63). The
Hohokam were agriculturalists and grew corn, beans, squash and agave as mainstays of
their diet. In places, various cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia sp.) were also harvested and
this might have indicated hard times due to the difficulty in harvesting such cactus.
Saguaro, especially the fruits, were used for food as well. Many settlements were based
around reliable Saguaro patches. Agave was made into fiber and they grew cotton.
Tobacco was grown for ritual consumption as well as daily use (Winter). Some of the
most famous archaeology sites from the Hohokam homeland are Casa Grande, south of
modern day Phoenix and North of Tucson, Snaketown, and various sites in the Salt River
and Gila River valley.
The Hohokam adapted to their environment in several crucial ways allowing them
to survive and thrive in the desert. The Salt and Gila rivers were highly important for the
survival of the Hohokam groups in the region (Fish 270). Water, overall was the most
important factor in survival. If plenty of water was available, than corn, squash and other
plants could be grown despite drought, excessive temperatures or cold.
One of the most crucial adaptations was the development of canals. The Hohokam
developed these canals as early as 300 BC. They were used most extensively from AD
550 – AD 1450 (Dart 63). One of the main reasons these canals were important, was
because the region is prone to terrible droughts, experiencing 18 droughts, an average of
one every fifty-five years for 900 years (Bowers 429) Today, Phoenix has canals as it did
in the past. In the early 1900’s the ancient canals were still intact in many places.
Explosive development over the next 100 years destroyed many of them. Still, many of
the modern day canals are built on the same system that the Hohokam developed (Dart
63). These canals were most likely controlled by an elite (Motsinger 89). They were
maintained and built upon over the centuries and were vital to the success of the
Hohokam in several regions, especially the Gila and Salt river area and in Snaketown.
Efficient handling of water in arid region was one of the main accomplishments of the
Hohokam, making them more advanced than other groups (Ezell 62). The fact that they
were built at all indicates some level of organization, as the construction would not be a
pleasant job in the heat. The many signs of elites in the region, such as monumental
architecture, canals, agricultural surplus and roads point to the highly developed society
required to flourish in the desert.
Agriculture was also key to the Hohokam. The Hopi to the north practice dry corn
growing but this not possible in the Sonoran desert. Because of this, the Hohokam created
irrigation systems. These irrigation systems are a separate development from canals
(Ezell 62). The fact that the Hohokam engaged in extensive irrigation allowed large scale
agriculture otherwise impossible in an arid landscape. This led to the population of the
Phoenix basin in the late prehistoric to approach 40,000-100,000 (Fish 273). It was one of
the most densely settled areas in North America, despite being one of the least promising
to begin with. One advantage to the region, however, is that it has two growing seasons,
as long as sufficient water is available. This allowed for large surpluses to feed a large
Another impact the Hohokam made to their environment was the construction of
roads. In the Snaketown area, the total road system was probably approximately 140 km
long (Motsinger 89). The Hohokam were highly connected with a broad region. They
received shell from the Sea of Cortez and they had an extensive shell trade and shell
decoration culture (Mitchell 27). Peoples in the Chaco region also constructed roads, so
The Hohokam were not the only people group in the Southwest to construct roads. The
roads could be classified as trails in some respects, less developed than the Incan road
system, yet, they are still visible today, especially when viewed from the air. Their
purpose was transportation, economic ties and sociopolitical connection. The roads were
controlled by a sociopolitical hierarchy, the same power structure which could summon
the construction and the controlling of the canals (Motsinger 89). These roads would have
lightly disturbed the immediate vegetation, but would not have altered the landscape in as
drastic a way as large scale farming. Although, the larger scale the roads, the more
erosion could be a danger. Finally, the Hohokam used controlled burning to their
advantage as well.
Due to the abilities of the Hohokam, large scale settlement was possible. Many
Hohokam sites exhibit deep sedentism indicating permanent settlement for centuries (Hill
689). In the largest of these sites, the Hohokam constructed monumental architecture.
The main form of monumental architecture was ball courts, roads and platform mounds
An important aspect of the topic of environmental change is not only the nature of
the people in the region, but how they react and manipulate the plants of the area. Plants
play in integral part in the protection, or destruction of an environment. For example, an
invasive species can harm an entire ecosystem. A nitrogen fixing plant, like many
legumes, can help the environment. A larger plant can provide shade for a smaller one,
and so on. Also, some plant’s benefit from human interaction and many are hurt as a
result. Plants of the desert have adapted to drought conditions and can last many years
without water. (Dubrovsky) The plants Chenopod, Amaranth and Spiderling (Fish 274)
also may have played a role in the agriculture of the region. They grew as weeds in the
corn fields, yet could be used to supplement the diet. These weeds were more local and
not as dependent on farming as corn, beans and squash. It is likely they were more
difficult to process and used as food.
Many other tactics were used by the Hohokam to survive in an arid environment.
Prickly pear cactus was planted and grown on the perimeter of a field or in a fallow field
to protect the soil (Fish 274). This is even sometimes done in modern farms today. Piles
of rock, ever abundant in the Sonoran desert, could serve as mulch to retain moisture and
contribute nutrients to the soil (Fish 278).
The Hohokam faced many threats from their environment and impacts from their
lifestyle. Their canals, irrigation, roads, monumental architecture were built and had
consequences, as did having a large scale population.
One major threat to the Hohokam agricultural way of life was “progressive soil
exhaustion” (Fish 272). Eventually, such soil depletion events could and sometimes did
lead to abandonment. This is another factor which ultimately probably led to the
Hohokam’s disappearance. The irrigation channels were effective in protecting against
progressive soil exhaustion by carrying large amounts of sediment to the fields. This was
also taken out of the canals during periodic cleanings. Floods were and still are today, a
major issue in most desert environments including the Sonoran. Flooding was such an
issue for the Hohokam it probably contributed to their eventual disappearance (Hill 690).
When rain suddenly falls hard on a dry soil, it has a difficult time being absorbed and will
cause catastrophic flash flooding. In canyons, sudden flash floods can sweep away people
without warning. Before their ultimate downfall, the Hohokam took advantage of the
terrible storms which briefly cause soil to be mixed and moved. They diverted strategic
storm flows into their canals and irrigation ditches (Fish 272). This greatly enriched the
soils in their agricultural fields and turned a highly negative event into a positive one.
Still it had its consequences, such as erosion. This can arise from many factors other than
floods. Similarly, desertification is a constant threat in a dry, arid area such as the
Sonoran. Even still, salinification is another major issue that the Hohokam largely
avoided for several hundred years. In Arizona today, salinification is an issue and has
negative consequences on crops, land and water supply. When water or soil becomes too
saline, almost all life suffers. Humans can intake too much sodium leading to high blood
pressure, or can experience dehydration due to a sodium imbalance. In plants, certain
plants can be severely affected, and die off, while certain invasive species which thrive in
salty soil invade. This further displaces the plants which currently live in a region,
creating an imbalance in the ecosystem. If the Hohokam experienced any salinification, it
likely was a factor in there disappearance and downfall.
The Sonoran Desert varies considerably from location to location (Cohn 84).
Certain plants and animals exist in one area and yet not in another. The altitude is one of
the biggest factors in determining rainfall, temperature and flora. The higher up one goes,
the cooler the climate, the more precipitation, and the more trees are found like Pinyon,
Juniper and Oak trees. Adaptations had to be made in order to live in these various
environments, such as warmer clothing, or a more open style home in the low elevation
sites, for improved ventilation and cooling.
The El-Nino Southern Oscillation affects the Sonoran desert every 2-7 years
(Bowers 422). This is yet another challenge facing the inhabitants of the region. It is
likely the Hohokam could somewhat anticipate the various drought or highly moist
events that came in a cyclical fashion. Most areas in the Hohokam lands did not have
large permanent rivers as did the people of the Gila River and Salt River area. Outside the
Phoenix Basin, such as the Tucson Basin, communities linked by political ties and trade
across varying landscape to provide mutual strength (Fish 275). These social and political
ties were vital in making sure that various areas did not die of starvation or dehydration in
extremely scarce times. This kind of linking for protection is seen all over the world.
Another example across the world, is the Kula Ring, which creates ties across islands,
and benefits small islands with virtually no resources.
A final issue in facing the desert, is warming trends. The Sonoran desert has and is
warming (Cohn 85). One evidence of this is the recent arrival of the Javelina not seen
before the 1700’s. As the desert becomes hotter and water becomes scarcer, more and
more pressure will be put upon the inhabits. When temperatures become hotter, even on
average by only a slight amount, the results can change ecosystems, especially fragile
ones. This is not necessarily the direct result of people of southern Arizona, but could be
a worldwide event.
By the late 1400’s the Hohokam disappeared in the Archaeological record. (Hill
689) The Pima people largely replaced them. How much of the Hohokam culture and
way of life remained is vigorously debated and unsettled. The Pima were not local people
but from the Colorado River area near modern day Yuma. Today, the Archaeology in this
region is unrelenting (Bayman 70). As Phoenix and Tucson grow, further study is certain.
It will be important to learn from the ways the Hohokam adapted to their environment,
for the benefit of the future.
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