Monday, April 13, 2009

The Hohokam

What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?
Here in Phoenix, we have a great legacy to follow: the Hohokam Culture that occupied the region for about 1450 years, between about 1 A.D. and 1450 A.D. Previous to the Hohokam, hunter gatherer cultures roamed the area for over 12,000 years. The Hohokam were the first to settle down, create permanent structures and grow food to supplement what they harvested from the desert. Mesquite bean pods were as much of a staple as the corns, beans and squash that they grew.

The most amazing aspect of Hohokam culture that sets them apart from other indiginous cultures of North America is the extensive network of canals that were built to sustain agriculture in the area. A map of this network is illustrated on a wall at the Pueblo Grande Museum in downtown Phoenix, a mind-blowing mural to contemplate. Today, many of the canals in the Phoenix Metro area follow the same general pathway as the Hohokam canals.

Both the Salt River and the Gila River were major sources of water feeding the canal system, which archaeologists estimate at over 1,000 miles of canals delivering water to more than 100,000 acres of farmland. The size of the main canals ranged from over 50 feet wide and over 20 feet deep, to smaller lateral canals just a few feet wide and two feet deep. All of these were dug with hand tools. The soil excavated to form canals was used to build the earthen buildings they lived in, as well as the berms that reinforce the waterways.

This splendid engineering system allowed for a thriving culture that grew to between 40-50,000 people at its zenith. Today, the population of the Phoenix metro area is estimated at over 4 million (2008 census). However, we by no means grow all of our own food within that same area, even though we have extended our canal system quite magnificently (see related post on April 10th). What little has been grown in the area over the past 100 years has mainly been limited to cattle and citrus, two of the five "C's" that once created the foundation of the local economy. The other three are copper, climate and cotton. While we still retain the hot, dry climate, the cotton, citrus and cattle industries have largely been replaced by housing and malls. (I'm not sure about the status of the copper mines.)

The Hohokam Culture collapsed around 1450 A.D. The reasons why are still debated in archaeological circles: drought, overuse of resources, social dysfunction, and disease are several possible contributing factors.

The contemporary industrial culture has been in the area for about 100 years. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, just realistic, but I doubt we will make it for as long as the Hohokam did if we don't dramatically change the way we live.

The information on the Hohokam Cultue that I've summarized here comes from a book published in 2000 by archaeologists John Andrews and Todd Botstwick called Desert Farmers at the River's Edge: The Hohokam and Pueblo Grande.

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