Hohokam culture

The Hohokam communities developed in southern and central Arizona, and in the northern part of the Mexican state of Sonora starting in 450 AD and lasting until about 1500 AD, immediately before the arrival of the Spaniards. The main regions where we find evidence of the largest population centers of the Hohokam culture include the Phoenix and Tucson basins and Papaguería (southwestern Arizona and the northwestern state of Sonora), as well as Tonto region in central-eastern Arizona.

The Hohokam also built irrigation canals and settled in these areas. For centuries Hohokam people managed to build and maintain an impressive network of irrigation canals extending up to twenty and thirty kilometers from the main rivers to supply water to farmlands. The irrigation canal system is the largest known in pre-Hispanic America north of Peru. The Hohokam economy was based primarily on intensive agriculture which, thanks to artificial irrigation and the construction and maintenance of a canal irrigation network, could be scaled up and applied in the semiarid and desert areas of central and southern Arizona (mostly the Sonoran Desert). Agriculture was based primarily on the cultivation of corn, as well as squash and beans, agave, cotton and amaranth, tobacco, and wild potatoes, as well as a type of barley independently domesticated by the Hohokam societies. Additional nutrition came from foraging for wild plants including the fruits and flowers of the Saguaro cactus, other cacti and opuntia, mesquite, cholla plants, and other fruits and nuts from shrubs and small trees, as well as hunting hares, deer, and mountain sheep. Their economy was also based on the extensive trade, including the areas of Mesoamerica, Gulf of California, and the Great Plains.

Ballcourts are one of the most characteristic elements of Hohokam architecture, and we now know of over 200 from at least 160 sites throughout the Hohokam area. According to many researchers, Hohokam ballcourts are an indicator of direct cultural interactions with Mesoamerica. Their dimensions ranged from 15 × 25 meters to 30 × 60 meters; they were dug to a depth of about 2.5–2.7 meters at maximum. Ballcourts were located within large Hohokam sites that were usually settlement centers for microregions. The northernmost courts associated with the Hohokam culture lie in the upper part of the Verde River valley, about 200 kilometers north of today’s city of Phoenix, and near the city of Flagstaff.

Ballcourts may have been used for some version of a ball game that is supported by finds of models of such ballcourts populated by figures of players with a ball and spectators sitting in banks or ridges above the surface of the court. Other interpretations suggest these structures may been used for ritual ceremonies and dances, based on, among others, similarities to historically known designated dance places called wiikita, among the Tohono O’Odham. They also may have functioned as marketplaces for trading, possibly with Aztec merchants/spies called pochteca.

Regardless of their function, ballcourts are an example of public architecture. Platform mounds were another public structure, at least partially related to religious beliefs and rituals. Around 1200 AD, larger-scale platform mounds—sometimes as high as five or six meters, often with several terraced levels—were erected in the Phoenix Basin and later in other Hohokam areas. Houses ranging from one to as many as thirty in number were built on top of the mounds and differed in size and probably in function. Probably only elites were living on these mounds. Currently about 120 large platform mounds have been recorded from nearly 100 sites.

The construction and maintenance of irrigation canals, ballcourts, and platform mounds during the Preclassic and Classic periods required the manpower and engagement of many people, meaning they must have relied on some type of power structure to organize and control the labor required to achieve such accomplishments.

Typical Hohokam pottery is called Red-on-Buff pottery (red on a buff, brown or sometimes gray background) and it were used at least for a time in parallel with Red-on-Brown pottery. This style included fired clay figurines and effigy—zoomorphic and anthropomorphic—pottery. Motifs include geometric designs as well as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic images, but also groups of dancers holding hands and a highly characteristic motif of a man with a basket on his back held by a headband and holding a cane. Bird motifs also appear in the iconography of Hohokam pottery including birds attacking or eating a snake, and are also found on pendants and other jewelry made of shells.

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