From Academic Kids

Hohokam is the name of one of the four major prehistoric archaeological traditions of the American Southwest. Archaeologist Harold S. Gladwin applied the name, meaning "those who have vanished", to the remains he excavated in the Lower Gila Valley. The Hohokam may be the ancestors of the modern Pima and Tohono O'odham peoples in Southern Arizona, though the link cannot yet be proven archaeologically.



The Hohokam tradition is believed to have been centered around the middle Gila River and lower Salt River drainage areas, and extended into the southern Sonoran Desert in what are now Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua. They built extensive irrigation canals without the benefit of modern engineering or equipment. There is evidence the Hohokam cultivated varieties of cotton, tobacco, agave, maize, beans and squash, as well as harvesting native plants. Their reliance on an agricultural system based on canals, vital in their less than hospitable desert climate, may have led to their apparent lack of participation in warfare. They also had far-reaching trade routes with ancient mesoamerican cultures to the south, and show cultural influences from these southerners as well. Finds and features from settlements, such as Snaketown, include ball courts, platform mounds and some mesoamerican decorative elements on pottery.

Settlements in the Hohokam tradition were rancheria-style; near arable land, with several buildings clustered together. Each large, square house had slightly excavated floors and was usually no more than one room until very late in the Hohokam sequence.

The Hohokam cremated their dead, placing the cremains in shallow graves, sometimes in pottery containers. The bones and containers were buried with various amounts of grave goods, including jewelry and pottery objects. Hohokam pottery used refined local clay and minerals. Functional pieces were formed using coils and then thinned and shaped through the paddle and anvil technique. Decorations were applied in a red slip, using red iron as a pigment. Decorations could be either geometric or reflect local animal forms. All pottery was pit fired using dung or wood as fuel, and showed a buff color when finished.

Hohokam archaeological sequence

This archaeological sequence is applied specifically to the Hohokam core area which is the Gila-Salt basin near Phoenix, Arizona. Outside this region, local phase arrangements are used to more closely adjust to regional differences, often caused by communities association with their Anasazi (Ancient Pueblo) and Mogollon neighbors.

Pioneer Period (AD 200-775): living as simple farmers raising corn and beans, these early Hohokam founded a series of small villages along the middle Gila River. The communities were located near good arable land with access to river water for irrigation. Wells, usually less than 10 feet deep, were dug for domestic water supplies. Early Hohokam homes were constructed of branches bent in a semi-circular fashion and then covered with twigs, reeds and heavily applied mud.
Crop and agricultural skill increased between AD 300 and AD 500 when the Hohokam acquired a new group of cultivated plants, presumably from trade with peoples in Modern Mexico. These included cotton, tepary, sieva and jack beans, cushaw and warty squash and pig weed. Evidence of other trade networks include shells from the Gulf of California. Seeds and grains were prepared on stone manos and metates. Pioneer pottery was and unembellished brown, and was used for storage, cooking and as containers for cremated remains. Materials produced for ritual use included fired clay human and animal figures and incense burners.
Colonial Period (AD 775-975): growth is the major characteristic of the Colonial period. Villages grew larger, with some evidence of social stratification in larger homes and more ornate grave goods. Mexican influence increased. In larger communities, the first Hohokam ball courts were constructed and served as focal points for games and ceremonies. Pottery was embellished by the addition of a iron stained slip, which produced a distinctive red-on-buff ware.
Sedentary Period (AD 975-1150): further population increase brought significant changes during this period. Irrigation canals and structures became larger and required more maintenance. More land came under cultivation. House design evolved into post reinforced pit houses, covered with caliche adobe. Rancheria-like villages grew up around common courtyards, with evidence of increased communal activity. Large common ovens were used to cook bread and meats.
Crafts were dramatically refined. By about AD 1000, the Hohokam are credited with being the first culture to master acid etching. Artisans produced jewelry from shell, stone and bone and began to carve stone figures. Cotton textile work flourished. This growth brought a need for increased organization and, perhaps, authority. There appears to be an elite class as well as an apparent increase in social stature for the craftsman. Platform mounds similar to those in central Mexico appear. They may be associated with an upper class and have some religious function. Trade items from the Mexican heartland included copper bells, mosaics, stone mirrors and ornate birds like macaws.
Classic Period (AD 1150-1400/1450):
Soho Phase (AD 1150-1300): a modest decrease in overall population and an apparent outside threat led to more centralized Hohokam communities. The agricultural based rancherias declined in number, and medium and large communities became increasingly dense structures with walls around their perimeters. Irrigation system had fewer canals servicing the fields, but they were larger and longer. Villages seem to have reorganized on a regional basis, with those controlling water access having greater authority. Great House structures, such as the one preserved at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, are found in larger communities. These stone or adobe buildings had up to four stories, and were probably used by the managerial or religious class. They may have also been constructed to align with astronomical observations. Trade with Mexico appears to have declined, but an increased number trade goods arrived from Pueblo peoples in the north and the east.
Civano Phase (AD 1300-1400/1450): Between A.D. 1350 and 1450, the Hohokam tradition loses coherence and many settlements are abandoned. It appears nature robbed them of their ability to produce enough food and other resources to preserve large communities. Access to dependable irrigation water became ever more difficult. Several years of major river flooding were followed by longer periods of low water. Canals were restructured further upstream to capture a greater percentage of the rivers flow. These communal efforts required increasing levels of centralization and political control. Around AD 1355, more episodes of catastrophic flooding occurred, apparently leading to the collapse of centralized authority.
Between 1355 and 1450, the Hohokam abandoned large central settlements and centralized water systems. It appears that small groups moved into the desert or traveled to more dependable streams in the wider region. Those that remained along the Gila River founded much smaller villages. These villages were inhabited by Piman-speaking tribes when the Spanish entered the region at the end of the seventeenth century.

Cultural divisions

Cultural labels such as Hohokam, Anasazi or Mogollon are used by archaeologists to define cultural differences among prehistoric peoples. It is important to note that culture names and divisions are assigned by individuals separated from the actual cultures by both time and space. This means that cultural divisions are by nature arbitrary, and are based solely on data available at the time of analysis and publication. They are subject to change, not only on the basis of new information and discoveries, but also as attitudes and perspectives change within the scientific community. It cannot be assumed that an archaeological division corresponds to a particular language group or to a political entity such as a tribe.

When making use of modern cultural divisions in the Southwest, it is important to understand three specific limitations in the current conventions:

  • Archaeological research focuses on physical remains, the items left behind during people’s activities. Scientists are able to examine fragments of pottery vessels, human remains, stone tools or evidence left from the construction of buildings. However, many other aspects of the culture of prehistoric peoples are not tangible. Languages spoken by these people and their beliefs and behavior are difficult to decipher from the physical materials. Cultural divisions are tools of the modern scientist, and so should not be considered similar to divisions or relationships the ancient residents may have recognized. Modern cultures in this region, many of whom claim some of these ancient people as ancestors, contain a striking range of diversity in lifestyles, language and religious belief. This suggests the ancient people were also more diverse than their material remains may suggest.
  • The modern term “style” has a bearing on how material items such as pottery or architecture can be interpreted. Within a people, different ways to accomplish the same goal can be adopted by subsets of the larger group. For example, in modern Western cultures, there are alternative styles of clothing that characterized older and younger generations. Some cultural differences may be based on linear traditions, on teaching from one generation or “school” to another. Varieties in style may define arbitrary groups within a culture, perhaps identifying social status, gender, clan or guild affiliation, religious belief or cultural alliances. Variations may also simply reflect the different resources available in given time or area.
  • Designating culture groups, such as the Hohokam, tends to create an image of group territories separated by clear-cut boundaries, like modern nation states. These simply did not exist. Prehistoric people traded, worshiped and collaborated most often with other nearby groups. Cultural differences should therefore be understood as “clinal,” "increasing gradually as the distance separating groups also increases." (Plog, p. 72.) Departures from the expected pattern may occur because of unidentified social or political situations or because of geographic barriers. In the Southwest, mountain ranges, rivers and most obviously, the Grand Canyon can be significant barriers for human communities, likely reducing the frequency of contact with other groups. Current opinion holds that the closer cultural similarity between the Mogollon and Anasazi and their greater differences from the Hohokam is due to both the geography and the variety of climate zones in the Southwest.



  • Plog, Stephen. Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest. Thames and Hudson, London, England, 1997. ISBN 0-500-27939-X.

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