The Hohokam evidently had multiple ways of tracking the movement of the sun to determine the solstices and equinoxes. For a farming people, these solar events would have been important, as they would mark changes in day length and seasonal rainfall. In buildings and rock formations, deliberate placement of holes proves the Hohokam to have been able observers of the sun, while their rock art preserves what appear to be not only the sun/moon but also stars.
But the Hohokam were latecomers among the prehistoric people who recorded what they saw in the heavens. A new analysis of Paleolithic and Neolithic cave art indicates that people watched the stars closely enough to identify constellations and represent them in animal form.
At Arroyo Hondo Pueblo, a fourteenth-century archaeological site southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico, researchers have found evidence of domesticated turkeys and speculate that these "may be why the excavations didn't find many canid [i.e., dog] bone specimens." Dogs perhaps weren't man's best friend at this prehistoric village, "due to the risk these animals might pose to turkeys." At other locations, though, domesticated dogs may have assisted in hunting or could even have been used as food, at least during times of starvation. Some may have served as beasts of burden.
In the Hohokam area, dog skeletons have been found, some buried along with people. Dogs also have been immortalized in art. At one village in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, many ceramic representations of dogs have been recovered from excavations. Dogs appear in rock art, too.
The Hohokam are known to have had macaws, but how did they acquire these tropical parrots? They certainly would have been able to trade for the feathers and live birds: shells from the Pacific Ocean, copper bells from deep in Mexico, even bison hides from the Great Plains made their way to Hohokam country in the central Arizona desert.
Long-distance trade has long been assumed to have been the means by which macaws entered the American Southwest. But Mimbres pottery found in southwestern New Mexico depicts young macaws, too young to survive the grueling hike from the fledglings' natural habitat far to the south. And indeed, recent DNA analysis of macaw bones from northwestern and southwestern New Mexico indicates that two separate cultures—Ancestral Puebloan (who used to be called Anasazi) in the north and Mogollon in the south—both acquired their macaws from a single breeding population.
Bones of several hundred macaws have been found farther south, in Paquimé, Mexico. But the ones in New Mexico date to the Chacoan era, AD 850–1150, significantly predating Paquimé, which did not become prominent until 100 years or so after Chaco culture collapsed. So where was this aviary where macaws were bred?
Its location has not yet been established. Maybe it was in one of the Hohokam communities. I would like to think my Watermasters had something to do with importing this beautiful bird into the Southwest and enshrining it in Puebloan art and culture.
The prehistoric Puebloan people to the northeast of the Hohokam area utilized turquoise, or "skystone," as a pigment. Crushed and mixed with other materials, it became a permanent paint. The Hohokam certainly had turquoise, because they made jewelry from it. They also had stone palettes for mixing pigments, as well as "paint pots" for storing either the raw minerals or the paint mixtures.
Ancient Mayans had another blue pigment material: the rare lapis lazuli, which yielded a deeper blue hue than turquoise. Did the Hohokam have access to this stone? There appear to be no sources in central Arizona, but they would have been able to trade with people in California or Colorado to attain lapis lazuli, as they did for saltwater shells.
Pueblo Grande Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
I can take a virtual tour of Pueblo Grande when I want to remind myself about the Hohokam village that is the setting for volume 2 (and one of the settings for volume 3) in my upcoming Tales of the Watermasters series.
During the fourteenth century AD, when this platform mound was at its greatest, it stood about 12 feet high (up to 21 feet once the structures built on top of it are factored in!) and measured about 170 feet east-west by 320 feet north-south—just a little smaller than an NFL football field. The bases of some of these structures at Pueblo Grande Cultural Park have been stabilized and show the outlines of the rooms, though unfortunately they don't give a sense of the imposing height of the original edifice.
At the foot of the platform mound was a compound surrounded by an adobe-and-rock wall more than 3 feet thick and nearly 9 feet high. What remains even now dwarfs visitors to the site. The walls of the compound were coated with caliche plaster, which would have functioned like whitewash, not only protecting the adobe but also smoothing the wall surface so that it likely shone under the desert sun.
Archaeologists have determined that the platform mound had a long history of ritual use, as indicated by horns from desert bighorn deposited by the Hohokam circa AD 900 and a smaller circular mound built before AD 1175. Several periods of abandonment, restoration, and expansion occurred before the final major construction, which might have coincided with the drought that struck the entire Southwest circa AD 1275.
During the same general period, polychrome ceramics and other new material goods appeared, suggesting either trade with new groups or evidence of large-scale population movements, and the Hohokam began to wall off their food storehouses, family and household areas, and public and ritual zones. They seem to have gone from a people comfortable and confident in their homeland to being suspicious of others but at the same time reliant on outsiders.
What caused these major cultural shifts? Archaeologists, Euro-American explorers, and others amazed by what the Hohokam built and created have speculated about the possible causes of the changes and, indeed, the eventual downfall of this magnificent and long-lived civilization. My own speculations take the form of a series of novels ... fictionalized archaeology or prehistoric fiction, as some call it.
The events and characters found in my Watermasters series may never have existed, but the essential truths of the Watermasters' existence in the Arizona desert surely would have. Who must those people have been? What would their lives have been like? How do their experiences—and their eventual disappearance—relate to our modern culture wars?
To find out, look for Swallowing the Sun, coming out soon in installments as an e-book and later this year in print.
In a land where cholla (fondly known as "jumping cactus") abounds, experienced hikers advise newcomers to carry a comb to safely flick away the spiny segments, which can penetrate even sturdy boots. Feet also suffer the insults of sharp rocks and blast-furnace heat. But how did the Hohokam and other early desert dwellers protect their feet? Archaeologist Stephen E. Nash has been looking into the matter of shoes.
Not everyone died before the age of 30 in cultures like the Hohokam, even though infant mortality was higher than in modern industrial nations, young men tended to die from violence or accidents, and young women faced risks from childbirth. But those who managed to survive their first three decades had a good chance of living to 70 or so. Archaeologist Christine Cave has an insightful explanation of how this could be so, based on her research into what she calls the "invisible elderly."
Those who did survive may have been treasured for their wisdom. In any case, that's how I prefer to think my Watermasters treated their elderly. Older people play important roles in all my books, as repositories of history and myth.
I rely on a lot of archaeological research in writing my books. I'll take something like the following bit of information about the Hohokam:
"[T]he command area group—that is, farmers along a distribution canal who must coordinate and cooperate to irrigate using the same canal . . . was the primary level of organization and one that dealt directly with farmers. It was the task group that worked cooperatively to construct, maintain, and repair the common distribution canal. Ethnographic case studies also suggest that a task group maintained the section of the main canal in its area and, in situations such as repairing a headgate, the group worked as a unit. This was also the level in which water was allocated to individual farmers and required labor contributions were tracked."
[Source: Archaeology Southwest ASW 21(4), "Hohokam Archaeology of the Phoenix Basin."]
Then I imagine how these task groups would actually work with real people, and I let various characters play in my head for a while until scenes and plots start to coalesce.
There were hundreds of miles of these canals in the Phoenix area long before the first Europeans stepped foot in the valley. Many of them were so well engineered that modern canals follow the same course.
The Hohokam, Mimbres, and Ancestral Puebloans once occupied the present-day American Southwest. What happened to these three peoples, and should their fate serve as an object lesson for us today?
I had my mother teach me to read when I was four, and I've never stopped. Now I can play with words all day long... it's the best job in the world.
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