Hohokam Platform Mounts

About 2,000 years ago, in what has seemed to some people the inhospitable desert of Central Arizona, Indian people developed a farming culture which utilized extensive irrigation systems. As farmers they raised corn (maize), tepary beans, grain amaranth, agave, and little barley. This ancient culture, called Hohokam by archaeologists, is considered ancestral to the O’odham peoples.

Hohokam history is generally divided into two major periods: Preclassic (from about 200 to 1150 CE) and Classic (from about 1150 to 1450 CE). The Preclassic Period is characterized by clusters of small villages along the canal systems and the construction of ball courts.

Sometime after 1100 CE, the Hohokam ball courts seemed to be less important and the people began constructing platform mounds. These platform mounds took on greater importance and between 1250 and 1350 they grew dramatically in size. During this time, the platform mounds would be composed of thousands of cubic feet of fill. The construction of these mounds required community labor on a massive scale. Some archaeologists have calculated that construction of the larger mounds may have required 50,000 person-hours.

Most of the platform mounds—more than 120 have been identified—were constructed in the Phoenix Basin. The mounds were often built within an adobe compound and some of them are over 3.5 meters (12 feet) high. On top of the mounds there were as many as 30 rooms.

While the ball courts of the early period were open and seemed to encourage spectators, the platform mounds have limited access. This seems to suggest a major change in Hohokam social organization. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book Elixer: A History of Water and Humankind, writes:  “It is as if Hohokam society became more hierarchical, with only a few individuals having access to the precincts within the enclosures.”

The construction of the platform mounds seems to suggest a change from a relatively egalitarian society to a more stratified society, a society in which an elite group was setting itself apart from other people. The platform mounds seem to be associated with elite activities.

The shift from ball courts to platform mounds suggests that there was a change in religion, in the nature of the Hohokam’s relationships with the supernatural. While the ball courts were built into the ground, the platform mounds seem to reach for the sky. Brian Fagan writes:  “It was as if a few members of society elevated themselves in both material and spiritual terms above everyone else, whereas in earlier times the relationship between the living and the ancestors, with the underworld where humans originated, had been more important. Now, perhaps, the close spiritual relationships were between a few individuals with unusual powers and the water deities of the supernatural realm.”

After 1400, many of the Hohokam towns were abandoned. This may be due to a combination of environmental factors (including the build-up of salt in the soil from irrigation) and civil warfare. According to Gregory Schaaf, the director of the Center for Indigenous Arts and Culture, in his book Ancient Ancestors of the Southwest:  “Pima oral history tradition describes how elite Hohokam leaders became oppressive and locals drove them back to the south, as part of a liberation movement.”

At the beginning of this decline, the population of the Phoenix basin is estimated at 40-50,000. During the next 200 years, it will drop to 5,000.


Ancient America: Adena

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About 3,000 years ago, the Indian people living in the Ohio River valley in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky began building burial mounds. Archaeologists would later call these people Adena and define this cultural tradition by its burial mounds, its public structures, and the development of long-distance trade. The Adena people often built their mounds in prominent places. Archaeologists feel that their mounds served as important landmarks for nearby dispersed populations.

Adena Mounta 1

Adena sites include large earthworks in which ridges of earth are thrown up in circles, squares, pentagons, and sometimes irregular shapes. These can be as large as 328 feet in diameter. One of the most characteristic Adena earthworks is the sacred circle or sacred enclosure. While most of these enclosures are circular, they were also constructed  in square, rectangular, elliptical, crescentic, panduriform, or hexagonal forms.

The most famous Adena mound is the Serpent Mound located on Brush Creek near Peebles, Ohio. While the distance from the snake’s head to its tail is about 800 feet, the curving snake itself is 1,300 linear feet. The earthwork forming this effigy was more than four feet high and about 20 feet in width. The mouth of the snake is wide open. Within the mouth is an oval-shaped object. The snake’s tail is wound into a triple coil. Some people feel that the object in the snake’s mouth represents the sun, since there is a Native American legend that the sun was once swallowed by a snake.

The Adena mounds contain many graves and the Adena seem to have had an almost obsessive preoccupation with honoring the dead. Adena people intentionally built their burial mounds away from their residences and at the boundaries of neighboring communities. They would return to the same mounds year after year to bury their dead and to pay homage to their ancestors.

Adena Mound 2

The Adena people built circular houses which ranged from 18 to 60 feet in diameter. The posts for the house walls were angled outward so that water did pool at the base of the walls. The roofs were cone-shaped and covered with bark. In many cases, the central portion of the house would be left without a roof forming an open central courtyard.

Adena material culture includes stone and bone tools, copper beads, and distinctive tubular pipes. They also carved stone tablets with intricate zoomorphic designs or curvilinear designs which were buried with the dead. The carvings were done in deep relief. These tablets were usually 4 or 5 inches by 3 or 4 inches and about a half inch think. Traces of pigment have been found on some of these stones: they may have been used to stamp designs upon some flat surface, perhaps bark cloth or deerskin. Some archaeologists have suggested that the designs stamped on skin could have been used as outlines for tattoos.

The Adena people also fashioned bracelets from copper. The bracelets were usually made from a nearly circular rod which was then bent into an elliptical form with its free ends nearly touching. The bracelets were made from a single nugget of native copper. To make the bracelet, the copper nugget was hammered into a thin sheet and then rolled into a cylinder. This cylinder was then bent to form the bracelet. In addition to copper bracelets, the Adena people also made copper rings in a similar fashion.

Adena people used the fine-grained siltstone which is found in the area for making pipes. Siltstone was an excellent material for making pipes since it was easily drilled and carved. It also had a nice sheen when polished. They made both tubular pipes and platform pipes. The platform pipes often have a sculpture, usually an animal, at one end.

While the Adena people hunted a variety of game animals, they also gathered and cultivated a number of plants including sunflower, marsh elder, goosefoot, maygrass, pigweed, squash, and barley.

Adena people had cranial deformation caused by the use of the cradleboard during infancy. On the average, Adena males were 5’6″ tall and the females were 5’2 ½” tall

Archaeologists have documented more than 500 Adena sites in a geographic area from Ohio to the Atlantic coast. About 200 BCE, the Hopewell culture began to replace the Adena culture.