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.


Hohokam Ball Courts

In the desert area of Arizona, an area now occupied by the greater Phoenix metro area, Indian people were farming corn, beans, squash, and cotton more than 2,500 years ago. Called Hohokam by archaeologists, these people developed a system of irrigation that carried water for many miles to their productive fields which yielded two harvests per year.

In the Phoenix Basin, the Hohokam brought some 70,000 acres under cultivation with their elaborate networks of irrigation canals. Along the canals were interdependent villages whose residents shared the work of constructing, maintaining, and managing the canals. In the larger communities there were basin-like structures which archaeologists have identified as ball courts.

Balls courts were an important part of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras), such as the Maya. In Mesoamerica, the ball game which was played on these courts was often a ceremonial event which tied different communities together.

At about 600 CE the archaeological data shows the contact between the Hohokam and the civilizations of Mexico intensified. This marks the beginning of what archaeologists call the Colonial Period. Imports from the civilizations in Mexico at this time include cast copper bells, macaws (which are valued for their feathers), and mirrors made from bits of iron pyrite. Hohokam communities built ball courts between 700 and 1100 C.E.

While the Mesoamerican ball courts were generally built out of stone, in the Arizona desert the Hohokam built theirs by digging into the desert and piling the soil up on either side. Some of the ball courts were 250 feet (76 meters) in length and 90 feet (27 meters) in width. In some instances they were dug up to 9 feet (nearly 3 meters) into the subsoil.

With regard to the nature of the ball game, archaeologist Brian Fagan in his book Elixer: A History of Water and Humankind, writes:  “Quite what form the ball game itself took remains a mystery, but there is no question that it originated in Mexico, where commoners played a version of the contest that required each side to cast a rubber ball back and forth without touching the ground.”

Archaeologists have uncovered rubber balls similar to those used in Mesoamerica at sites in the Southwest. Historical records from Mesoamerica indicate that the ball games were generally the culmination of a period of feasting, trading, and social activities. Thus archaeologists feel that something similar was happening among the Hohokam. Some feel that the ball games were a way of integrating the various interdependent villages with tournaments between teams from different villages.

Some archaeologists feel that the ball games were associated with trading days or trading fairs. Artisans from many different Hohokam communities could come together for a single trading event in which a great variety of goods would be available. Writing in the journal American Antiquity, David Abbott, Alexa Smith, and Emiliano Gallaga write:  “We can imagine Hohokam potters in the middle Gila River valley packing up loads of their wares, walking one or two days to ballcourt events in the lower Salt River valley, while eager buyers anticipated these merchants’ arrival.”

There is some indication that some Hohokam villages specialized in producing some materials. For example, the Hohokam had a site north of Phoenix for the specialized production of manos and metates from a kind of quartz-basalt known as New River andesite. The manos and metates manufactured here were then traded to Hohokam villages and hamlets in other areas. The ball games would have provided a good opportunity for this type of trade.

At the Hohokam sites, archaeologists have observed that the ball courts were oriented in various directions. This seems to suggest that the different ball courts may have been used to celebrate different events in a ceremonial calendar.

The Hohokam managed to create large public works, such as their canal systems and ball courts, but there is no evidence of any ruling elites. The ball game may have integrated the communities, brought together for feasting, dancing, trade, and sport and in so doing reduced the need for social coercion and a ruling class. In 1100, however, they stopped building the ball courts and began building mounds, suggesting a change in their social and religious organization.


Ancient America: Hohokam

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More than 2,500 years ago, American Indians brought agricultural prosperity to the Arizona desert with the construction of complex irrigation systems. About 425 BCE these Indians, the ancestors of today’s O’odham nations who are often called Hohokam by archaeologists, began construction of the city of Skoaquik which means the “place of snakes.” Archaeologists call this place Snaketown.

For more than 12 centuries the Hohokam prospered peacefully in the Arizona desert. In the Hohokam communities of Casa Grande and Pueblo de los Muertos, irrigation systems brought water to the agricultural fields from the river which was six miles away. These hand-dug canals were often ten feet deep and up to fifty feet wide. In order to prevent water loss through seepage, the Hohokam plastered the sides of the canals. These large canals fed hundreds of small ditches that brought water to thousands of acres of croplands.  

In the Salt River Valley, the area currently occupied by the city of Phoenix, the Hohokam constructed more than 500 miles of fairly complex canal systems. These well-designed irrigation systems allowed the Hohokam to produce two harvests each year.

Hohokam agriculture included corn, beans, squash, agave, cotton, and tobacco. The Hohokam wove their cotton into textiles which were often used as a trade item. The Hohokam traded with the Indian nations of California as well as with those in Mexico. They also traded with adjacent Southwestern civilizations, such as the Hohokam and Mogollon.

The Hohokam towns and villages were often constructed at regular intervals along their main canals. In the Hohokam towns, such as Snaketown, most of the dwellings were built by digging a shallow pit about a foot below the surface of the desert. Vertical posts were then placed in the bottom of the pit to support slanting side poles which were covered with clay.  

The Hohokam built some of their houses using adobe which is formed by piling up stiff mud by hand. Some of the structures, such as those at Casa Grande, rise to a height of four stories. In some of the upper rooms, there are openings which are aligned to show the positions of the sun (solstices) and there are other openings to record lunar cycles. Like other agricultural people, the Hohokam used astronomy to be able to tell the coming of the seasons and thus to plant at the right times.

At about 600 CE the contact between the Hohokam and the civilizations of Mexico intensified. During this time, the Hohokam houses became much larger and many artifacts became “mass produced”. During this time, Snaketown grew to cover nearly 400 acres.

One of the interesting features of Hohokam towns is the ball court. Similar to the ball courts found in Mexico, the ball courts have floors excavated about 20 inches below the desert floor with soil piled up on either side. There were two basic sizes of ball courts: one which was about 50 by 80 feet and one which was about 110 by 200 feet.

The game was played with a rubbery ball which players tried to knock through rings on the walls with their hips, knees, or elbows. Players were not allowed to throw or kick the ball. The game was a microcosm of the cosmos which symbolized spiritual beings trying to make the world more harmonious for humans.

Hohokam towns also had platform mounds. At Snaketown, the mound is about 50 feet across and only 3 feet high. The mound, made from clean desert soil, served as a platform for ceremonial dances and religious rituals. Over 50 Hohokam villages had large, earthen platform mounds at the center of the villages. These towns were probably religious and/or civic centers.

Like other agricultural people in North America, the Hohokam made pottery. Originally, the first settlers of Snaketown made a plain, thin-walled ware from clay coils which were pounded into shape with a flat paddle.

About 1000 CE, the Hohokam began producing etched artifacts. The artists first created a design of pitch on a sea shell obtained in trade with the tribes on the Gulf of California. It was then soaked in an acid from fermented cactus juice. The artifact was then removed from the acid, the pitch scraped off, and the result was an etched design.

Unlike other Indian people in the Southwest, the Hohokam cremated their dead. Items which were placed in the grave – such as pottery – were ritually killed by breaking them.

Sometime between 1100 and 1200 CE Snaketown ceased functioning as a village. But this doesn’t mean that the Hohokam people mysteriously vanished. The people continued to live in smaller villages along the river and continued to water their fields with irrigation ditches. The decline was created by two environmental factors: (1) a flash flood on the Salt River destroyed their diversion weir and carved the river lower, and (2) the agricultural land around the villages became saline from the irrigation and crop production fell.

Around 1300, people related to the Pueblos in New Mexico – called Salado by the archaeologists – crossed the mountains and moved into the valley. This was not a violent invasion, but a peaceful melding of the two cultures which resulted in the construction of the four-story pueblo at Casa Grande.

Today the ancestors of the Hohokam continue to live in Arizona. They are known as the O’odham.


Anasazi map