Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The agriculture-based Hohokam adapted to a challenging desert environment, utilizing an innovative hydroagricultural economy. Their successful, productive economy allowed for a rich cultural apparatus, including sophisticated ceramics, stonework, and shell jewelry, in addition to features that mirror a Mexican stimulus: ball courts and pyramid mounds.

Summary of Event

The Hohokam were an agriculture-based people who successfully adapted to a desert environment not suited for food cultivation. Agriculture;Hohokam There exists no consensus among current archaeologists regarding Hohokam origins or the chronological sequence of development. Some scholars have suggested that the Hohokam were migrants from the south. In this model, the migrants displaced an earlier indigenous culture in the southwestern desert. Other fieldworkers interpret the Hohokam as being indigenous, and their roots are traced to an archaic hunting and gathering tradition that evolved into a sedentary agricultural society. [kw]Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest (8th-15th centuries) [kw]Desert Southwest, Hohokam Adapt to the (8th-15th centuries) [kw]Southwest, Hohokam Adapt to the Desert (8th-15th centuries) Hohokam North America;8th-15th cent.: Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest[0510] Agriculture;8th-15th cent.: Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest[0510] Architecture;8th-15th cent.: Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest[0510] Cultural and intellectual history;8th-15th cent.: Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest[0510] Science and technology;8th-15th cent.: Hohokam Adapt to the Desert Southwest[0510]

Pioneering archaeological work on the Hohokam began in 1888 when Frank Hamilton Cushing excavated at the Los Muertos and Los Guanacos sites in the Salt River Valley. In 1891, Cosmos Mindeleff worked at Casa Grande, a large Hohokam dwelling near the Gila River. A number of archaeologists, including J. W. Fewkes and Frederick Hodge, excavated numerous sites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in an attempt to understand spatial distribution and cultural traits. Work at the large pueblo of Snaketown Snaketown on the Gila River by Harold Gladwin and Emil Haury, among others, began in 1934, with excavations continuing into the mid-1960’. In the twentieth century, archaeologists focused on varied aspects of Hohokam society and culture, including canal irrigation, ceramics manufacture, settlement pattern, chronology, and the diffusion of cultural traits from Mesoamerica, as well as the institutional framework of Hohokam society, which remains poorly understood.

Although debate persists over the chronological sequence, a general framework suggests that the Hohokam were farming in the river valleys by 300 b.c.e. By 300 c.e., significant changes were discernible in the cultural apparatus, which included sunken ball courts and earthen platform mounds. The large canal systems, essential for a successful agricultural rather than hunter-gatherer life, were well established by 700. Irrigation;Hohokam Between 1250 and 1450 Hohokam occupation was greatly restricted, and it ultimately led to the abandonment of sites. In some cases, sites such as Snaketown were abandoned by 1200.

The Hohokam inhabited an area of about 45,000 square miles (120,000 square kilometers). Much of this region, including the Sonoran Desert, exhibits variability in elevation, hydrology, and vegetation. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, and annual rainfall for much of the region is often less than 30 centimeters (12 inches).

Within this region a great variety of flora and fauna supplemented an agricultural economy. Remains of prickly pear cactus, little barley grass, amaranth, and tansy mustard, among numerous other plants, have been recovered from Hohokam archaeological sites. Fauna that were hunted, trapped, and collected included rabbits, rodents, deer, and reptiles.

The primary subsistence strategies of the Hohokam, however, were agricultural and were linked to an irrigation technology. Among the crops produced, maize was the most important. Maize production began about 300 b.c.e. at the large community of Snaketown. Drought-resistant strains were probably developed and planted over a great period of time. Cotton was produced for its consumable seeds as well as for its fibers, which Hohokam weavers made into cloth. Beans of various types were cultivated, and varieties of domesticated squash were probably an important cultigen. However, very little evidence exists that attests to the cultivation of native plants. Also, domesticated livestock were unknown.

Canalization allowed for agriculture. By ensuring harvests in an environment prone to drought, the significant amount of labor required for food-gathering tasks could be channeled into producing a sophisticated material culture.

Hohokam waterworks channeled water from the rivers to individual fields. Canals could be quite extensive: Several near what is now Phoenix, Arizona, were 10 miles (16 kilometers) in length. Some canals exceeded 30 miles (50 kilometers) in length and crisscrossed the desert floor. Smaller branches directed water to individual fields. Canal gates that functioned to open and close off the flow of water were probably designed from woven grass mats. By 1200, Hohokam waterworks were very complex; some canals were up to 30 feet (9 meters) wide and 10 feet (3 meters) deep. Earthen dams on rivers directed water into the canals, and canal walls were occasionally lined with a clay mixture to prevent leakage. Construction incorporated a slight grade to facilitate water flow: The main canal at Snaketown dropped slightly more than 5 feet per mile (1 meter per kilometer).

Domestic architecture consisted of pit houses, the primary domestic form through much of the Hohokam sequence. Houses averaged about 27 square yards (23 square meters) in area and were about 1 foot (about one-third of a meter) deep. Poles were set in the ground and supported the roof, which was constructed of reeds or grass. Walls were designed from rush or reeds and slanted inward. A covering of earth completed the dwelling. Late in the Hohokam sequence (post-1300), large multistoried buildings such as Casa Grande Casa Grande were constructed. Casa Grande, about 60 miles(about 37 kilometers) from Phoenix, Arizona, measured about 40 by 60 feet (about 12 by 18 meters). The adobe walls were 4 feet (slightly more than 1 meter) thick at ground level.

The Hohokam funerary complex centered around cremation. After a body was burned, ashes and bones were gathered and buried in a ceramic vessel. There is little evidence from funerary practices to infer evolving status or social rank.

Villages of the period around 600 were small, probably never exceeding two hundred individuals. Snaketown may have held a maximum population of two thousand people by the end of the period (twelfth century). Hohokam architecture included raised earthen platforms and ball courts. One platform at Snaketown measured 26 yards long by 21 yards wide and nearly 3 yards high (29 meters long by 23 meters wide and about 3 meters high). Presumably community-wide ceremonial activities occurred atop these low earthen mounds. Ball courts Ball courts and games;Hohokam were sunken with raised walls. These were oval depressions constructed in the ground about 55 yards long (about 50 meters) with sloping walls about 3.5 to 5.5 yards high (about 3 to 5 meters) on each side. The presence of ball courts has led archaeologists to suggest cultural diffusion from Mexico. The Mesoamerican ball game, or a variant, may have been played in these courts.

Ceramic technology included a number of different decorative patterns and motifs such as plain red ware, red on gray, and red on buff. Vessel shapes included animal and human effigy forms, plates, jars, and bowls of different sizes. Pottery;Hohokam

Hohokam stonework was extraordinarily sophisticated. Examples included effigy forms, a range of animals and birds, tools, metates (grinding stones) used in food processing, polished stone vessels, and stone palettes.

The Hohokam shell industry produced exquisite items and demonstrated a high level of specialization. Bracelets, rings, necklaces, and acid-etched shell were produced from a variety of shell species, most of which came from the Gulf of California.


In fifteen hundred years of residency in the Sonoran Desert and river valleys, the Hohokam achieved a remarkable adaptation to a difficult if not unfriendly environment. Their agricultural engineering skills permitted the creation of a delicate and sophisticated material culture. The reality of their engineering achievements becomes increasingly remarkable when compared to other preindustrial cultures, especially as the Hohokam lacked the wheel, draft animals, and metals such as bronze or iron.

The Hohokam most likely were products of significant amounts of cultural diffusion from central and northern Mexico over a great period of time. The demand for exotic bird plumage, the plant complex, ear spools, effigy vessels, copper bells, and artistic motifs, in addition to civic architecture, suggests powerful southern contacts. However, the centralized political administration that was necessary for various projects utilizing controlled labor in Mexico appears not to be a feature of Hohokam society. Family units and loosely coordinated groups of farmers could have provided the necessary labor for the construction and maintenance of the great waterworks systems. No evidence exists for a developed bureaucratic class among the Hohokam. This fact makes the Hohokam achievement even more unique.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abbott, David R. Ceramics and Community Organization Among the Hohokam. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000. Discusses the chemistry of Hohokam ceramics, the canal system, social and cultural organization, and more. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crown, Patricia L., and W. James Judge, eds. Chaco and Hohokam: Prehistoric Regional Systems in the American Southwest. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, 1991. An exhaustive analysis of Hohokam archaeology. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyel, David E., Suzanne K. Fish, and Paul R. Fish, eds. The Hohokam Village Revisited. Glenwood Springs, Colo.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000. Topics include the origins, chronology, village structure, demography, and regional diversity of Hohokam culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fish, Paul R. “The Hohokam.” In Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory, edited by Linda S. Cordell and George J. Gumerman. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. A survey article synthesizing information on the Hohokam from a number of perspectives. Includes bibliographies and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haury, Emil W. The Hohokam, Desert Farmers and Craftsmen: Excavations at Snaketown, 1964-1965. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976. An indispensable study of the Hohokam that analyzes the Snaketown excavations. Includes appendixes and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGuire, Randall H., and Michael B. Schiffer, eds. Hohokam and Patayan: Prehistory of Southwestern Arizona. New York: Academic Press, 1982. A multifaceted study dealing with the natural environment, archaeological history, theory, and issues of chronology. Includes appendixes and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, Berniece. “The Art and Achievements of the Hohokam.” Arts and Activities 126, no. 5 (2000): 42-43. Discusses the history of Hohokam arts.

Categories: History