Who Were the Ancient Hohokam

Visit the ancient Hohokam ruins at Pueblo Grande Museum and Archeological Park

Hohokam History

The Hohokam (pronounced ho-ho-KHAM) were sedentary desert dwellers who farmed the Gila River and Salt River Valleys from the time period A.D. 1-1450. Hohokam is a Akimel O’odham or Pima word which means “those who have gone” or “all used up”. The Hohokam had a complex society and lived in thriving villages in south central Arizona and northern Mexico. They traded goods with other cultures, were hunters and gatherers, built canals and irrigated farmlands and had impressive cultural accomplishments in architecture, rock art and crafts.


Hohokam Village

It is not specifically known where the Hohokam originated from, but many archaeologists argue that the Hohokam arose from local hunting and gathering cultures who lived in the desert southwest of North America since B.C. 7000. They occupied a vast territory in the Sonoran desert including as far north as Prescott, AZ west to Yuma, AZ east to Apache Junction, AZ and south to the modern day Mexican border. Dozens of villages were built by the Hohokam in the Salt River valley or modern day Phoenix. Furthermore, more than 20,000 Hohokam inhabited the region during the classic period (A.D. 1150-1450).



The Hohokam diet consisted of plants and meats collected through farming arid land, hunting, fishing and gathering. The edible plants consisted of corn, beans and squash (the tree sisters). As well as amaranth (native flour), gourds, tobacco, cotton, agave, devils claw, little barley grass and harvested wild plants. Furthermore, the meat the Hohokam ate included rabbit, deer, fish and desert tortoise.

Canals and Irrigation

The Hohokam used an extensive network of hand dug canals to deliver water to irrigate desert fields. Over 1,000 miles of canals were dug. The longest canal known was over 20 miles long and the largest canals were 10 feet deep by 30 feet wide. Two different types of canals were built, u-shaped and v-shaped. U-shaped canals had greater width and allowed water to flow at a slower rate. V-shaped canals were smaller in width and much deeper in depth, which allowed water to flow at a much greater speed. Weirs made of tree branches and brush, were used to block off and direct water flow at designated points in the canals. Many modern day canals are located in the same place as prehistoric Hohokam canals.


Through the years, the Hohokam lived in different types of houses including pit houses, compound houses, big houses and platform mounds. Pit houses were built as early as A.D. 450 and were dug 1 foot into the ground. Made from wood and cactus ribs, then covered with mud and adobe, they maintained warmer temperatures in the winter and cooler temperatures in the summer. Pit houses were single room dwellings, activities were done outside and people slept inside. Animals were kept outside and a very small pile of hot coals were placed on the floor center to keep the room warm winter.

Compound houses were built from A.D. 1150-1450 and housed families. They were made of caliche and mud stacked blocks, with stones at the base of the walls for support. The roof was made of woody cactus ribs and mesquite or palo verde beams supported the woody roof.

Big houses were built from A.D. 1150-1450 and were similar to compound houses, but were larger, had two stories and were possibly used for ceremonies and astrology. Platform mounds built from A.D. 1150-1450, were large rectangular mounds that evolved into a style with walls built of caliche rocks and adobe mortar. Researchers have hypothesized that Hohokam platform mounds were tied to the organization and operation of the canal systems or as ceremonial temples or living space (Andrew and Bostwick 2000).

The Ball Court

The Hohokam constructed ball courts from A.D. 750-1200 and the idea likely came from culture in Meso America. A ball court was an oval or bowl shaped depression, approximately 80-115 feet in length by 50 feet wide. Berms surrounded the ball courts and the floor was covered in caliche. Games were played with round balls and covered in animal hide. Ball courts possibly represented a passageway between the upper and lower spiritual worlds or were a form of celebration, entertainment, religious/spiritual activity or used as a trade site.

Trade Network

The Hohokam traded for goods such as raw materials and finished products by using their cotton, surplus crops and jewelry. There trade network reached from Mexico to Utah and from the Pacific coast to New Mexico and into the Great Plains. It is also likely that the Hohokam had far reaching trade routes with ancient Meso American cultures to the south. Meso America is an ancient culture area between Mexico and Honduras, where pre-Columbian societies flourished.



Red-on-buff bowl (courtesy of Pueblo Grande Museum)

Ceramics and Pottery
 The Hohokam produced three types of ceramics including: plain ware, red ware and red-on-buff pottery. They made bowls, jars, pitchers, spindle whorl, effigies and figurines made from clay, sand, crushed rock and water. A paddle and anvil manufacturing technique and coil method was used to make products. Designs on ceramics include: geomorphic, zoomorphic (animal) and anthropomorphic (human) images. Zoomorphic designs include: dogs (the only domesticated animal kept by the Hohokam), sheep, deer, birds, snakes and lizards. Other images portrayed on pottery include: water, sun, wind, farming and mountains. Pottery was pit fired using wood or dung as fuel and it showed a buff color when finished. Other products that the Hohokam produced with skill include: textiles (clothing), basketry and jewelry made from shell, stone and bones.

Tools and Instruments

The Hohokam did not fashion metal tools, so they relied mostly on stone materials to make tools. Early Hohokam tools were some of the most beautiful ever made in the southwest. Tools made include: projectile points (arrowheads), knives, scrapers, drills, axes, mortars, pestles, clubs, hoes, hammers, manos, metates and musical instruments. The Hohokam made some limited types of tools from wood (digging paddles) and bone (flutes and whistles).

Rock Art:   Pictographs & Petroglyphs
The Hohokam left ancient images placed on stone called rock art. Hohokam rock art consists mostly of petroglyphs, which are made by pecking or scratching at the surface of rock creating an image or design by exposing the lighter-colored rock underneath. Occasionally the Hohokam painted designs on rocks, which are called pictographs (Bostwick 1998).

South Mountain Park / Preserve located in south Phoenix, AZ is home to a couple thousand Hohokam petroglyphs. The Hohokam placed these petroglyphs on rock outcroppings and rock formations of importance to them. Furthermore, the top four rock art designs found in South Mountain Park / Preserve are: anthropomorphs, various circles, quadrupeds and snakes (Bostwick 2002).

Between A.D. 1355-1450 the Hohokam abandoned large centralized settlements and water systems. Small groups of people moved into the desert and those that stayed behind in the Gila and Salt River valleys were in smaller villages. Then in A.D. 1450 the Hohokam culture vanishes from the Sonoran desert, leaving behind remnants and artifacts of a once great society. Some possible reasons for the collapse of the Hohokam culture are: soil salinization, disease, floods, droughts, climate change, warfare and internal strife. When Spanish explorers arrived in the southwest in A.D. 1539, they encountered Piman-speaking people the Akimel O’odham. The Akimel O’odham (Pima) natives claim to be the descendents of the Hohokam.

Hohokam Timeline
A.D. 1 Hohokam culture begins
A.D. 50 Irrigation canals built
A.D. 500 Use of bow and arrow and atlatl
A.D. 750 Ball courts built and trade networking increased
A.D. 1000 Red-on-buff pottery production increased
A.D. 1450 Hohokam society vanishes
A.D. 1539 Spanish explorers arrive

Hohokam Eras
A.D. 1-750 Pioneer Period – Small villages and simple farms, pottery begins.

A.D. 750-900 Colonial Period – Villages grew larger and first ball courts appear.

A.D. 900-1150 Sedentary Period – Further population growth, structures grew larger.

A.D. 1150-1450 Classic Period – A time of more growth and change, small groups move
to desert and Hohokam culture vanishes.

Works Cited
Andrew, John P. and Bostwick, Todd W. Desert Farmers at the Rivers Edge The Hohokam and Pueblo Grande. Phoenix: City of Phoenix, 2000.

Bostwick, Todd W. Landscape of the Spirits: Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.

Bostwick, Todd W. Pueblo Grande Museum, Profiles No. 18, Hohokam Rock Art: Ancient Images Left in Stone. Phoenix: Pueblo Grande Museum, 1998.

Bostwick, Todd W. Pueblo Grande Museum, Profiles No. 14, Pueblo Grande National Historic Landmark. Phoenix: Pueblo Grande Museum, 1994.

Hohokam Indian Page. 1998. 7 Dec. 1998 <http://carbon.cudenver.edu/stc-link/hohokam/Hohokam.html

Olson, Justin. The Hohokam Legacy. Phoenix: City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, 2007.

Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park. 2007. 1 Nov. 2007 Visit the Pueblo Grande Museum

Wikipedia. 2007. 6 Nov. 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hohokam

Information compiled by: Tony Dobbs City of Phoenix Park Ranger II, December 2007