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From: Encyclopedia of American History: Three Worlds Meet, Beginnings to 1607, Revised Edition, vol. I.

The Hohokam, a Native American people, practiced irrigation-based farming in the deserts of Arizona for centuries before disappearing in the first half of the 15th century.

The Hohokam were already gone when Spanish conquistadores entered the region in the 16th century, and neighboring peoples do not agree on who they were or what happened to them. As a result, many aspects of Hohokam history are controversial, and scholars have developed a variety of theories to explain their origin, describe their culture, and account for their disappearance.

The Hohokam adapted to an arid climate. The hot, dry deserts of southern Arizona usually receive less than 10 inches of rainfall per year, making farming difficult. As a result, the Hohokam tended to settle near rivers, which could provide the most reliable source of water for crops. Hohokam settlements existed along the Salt, Gila, Verde, Santa Cruz, and Agua Fria Rivers. The Hohokam are most famous for their elaborate canal systems, some of which were enormous. In the valley of the Salt River, which runs through modern-day Phoenix, the Hohokam built up to 350 miles of main canals, with perhaps 1,000 miles of smaller canals. Despite their successful canal systems, the Hohokam did not rely solely on farming. They also gathered wild plants and hunted game to supplement their diet.

The origin of the Hohokam is unknown. The earliest traces of the Hohokam date to about 500 B.C. Archaeologists disagree about whether the ancestors of the Hohokam migrated north from Mesoamerica or whether the Hohokam, although affected by Mesoamerican developments, were indigenous to the area. In either case, the Hohokam probably first acquired various crops, including corn, beans, and squash, from Mesoamerica. Hohokam sites also include ceramic figurines, ornamental earspools, copper bells, platform mounds, and ball courts, all of which could also be found in Mesoamerica. Whatever the origins of the Hohokam, the similarities between their culture and Mesoamerican societies have led scholars to the consensus that the Hohokam can be described as "a northern frontier Mesoamerican society."

Hohokam culture changed over time. The archaeologist Emil Haury suggested four main stages of Hohokam development: the Pioneer (300 B.C. to A.D. 550), Colonial (550 to 900), Sedentary (900 to 1100), and Classic (1100 to 1450). During the Pioneer period the Hohokam lived in large square or rectangular houses. Even in this early period, the Hohokam grew corn, beans, and cotton in irrigated fields. They produced pottery, ceramic figurines, and shell ornaments. They also cremated their dead. In the Colonial period, the Hohokam expanded into new territories. Hohokam settlements appeared farther north, near modern-day Flagstaff and Prescott, and also farther east and west. In this period the Hohokam first constructed ball courts and platform mounds, which probably had religious or ceremonial significance. Hohokam arts and crafts also suggested Mesoamerican influence. The Hohokam of the Colonial period also produced highly decorated objects of stone and shell as well as mosaic plaques. During the Sedentary period, few major changes took place. The boundaries of Hohokam territory remained more or less stable, and artwork became less flamboyant and original. During this epoch they constructed additional platform mounds. The Classic period was a time of great change. Many Hohokam settlements outside the core area of the Salt and Gila River basins were abandoned. The Hohokam began to build houses with solid clay walls and later built large multistory buildings resembling pueblo architecture. The purpose of these "Great Houses" is unknown. Some of these changes may have resulted from contact with a people known as the Salado, but archaeologists disagree about whether the Salado invaded Hohokam territory, moved into it peacefully, or simply influenced their neighbors.

Much about the Hohokam remains unknown. Population estimates, for example, vary widely. Some archaeologists have suggested that only 12,000 people lived in the Salt River valley, the center of Hohokam culture, while others argue that at least 50,000 people lived there. The total population of the Hohokam territory is unknown. Nothing is known about Hohokam government or political authority. Some scholars have suggested that only a powerful central authority could have provided the labor necessary to build and maintain such large canal systems, but other scholars disagree.

What accounts for the disappearance of the Hohokam? Scholars have proposed a variety of theories, including earthquakes, internal dissent, a failure of leadership, and invasion by outsiders. More widely accepted theories focus on environmental issues. The Hohokam may have been affected by a series of droughts that made farming more difficult. Irrigation without adequate drainage might have led to a build-up of salts and minerals in the land, making it unusable. Floods could have overwhelmed their canal system, making it unworkable. Although the disappearance of the Hohokam remains a mystery, scholars have suggested that their descendants might be either the Akimel O'odham (Pima) or the Tohono O'odham (Papago) peoples of southern Arizona.


Paul R. Fish, "The Hohokam: 1,000 Years of Prehistory in the Sonoran Desert," in Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory, ed. Linda S. Cordell and George J. Gumerman (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989);

George J. Gumerman and Emil W. Haury, "Prehistory: Hohokam," in Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, gen. ed., vol. 9, Southwest, vol. ed. Alfonso Ortiz (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983), 75–90;

Randall H. McGuire and Michael B. Schiffer, eds., Hohokam and Patayan: Prehistory of Southwestern Arizona (New York: Academic Press, 1982);

J. Jefferson Reid and David E. Doyel, eds. Emil W. Haury's Prehistory of the American Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992).

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Robinson, Martha K. "Hohokam." In Mancall, Peter C., and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Three Worlds Meet, Beginnings to 1607, Revised Edition (Volume I). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHI176&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 3, 2016).

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