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The Hohokam Indians

The Hohokam inhabited the Tucson Basin from about 300 to 1400 A.D. These people lived successfully in the desert, even without the technology of today's society. Using only the natural materials from their immediate surroundings, the Hohokam were able to meet all of their survival needs.

For shelter, they built "pit houses" by digging a pit one to two feet deep and as big around as the builder wanted with most ten to twelve feet across. Although digging was difficult in the hard caliche soil of the Tucson Basin, the Hohokam used various tools including rocks, sticks, and clay scoops.

Poles from the trunks of cottonwood, mesquite, or willow were set in the ground around the edges of the pit with a few in the middle. Beams were placed across the major supports of the roof and covered with Saguaro ribs and ocotillo ribs. These served as the frame for the house. Brush from creosote bushes was piled up around the posts and over the top. When finished, the pit house was about four feet above ground. To complete the construction process, the brush was plastered over with mud and dirt. The interior floor was covered with mud plaster, and a fire hearth was dug into the floor just inside the door. This design allowed the house to stay relatively cool in the summer and warm in the winter.


Agriculture played a major role in Hohokam life. They grew crops of corn, beans, and squash along the Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers taking advantage of the rich soils occurring there. Small irrigation canals were built to channel the river water to their crops. These canals were dug by hand and could have been 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide. The amount of work it would have taken to keep these waterways clear of sediment, brush and debris must have been overwhelming. On the bajada they used check dams to retain water from rain runoff. The dams were constructed in an area where the water would run down a slope of ground to be caught by the dam and then used to irrigate the crops. Many of these dams are still visible in the vicinity of the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center.

The Hohokam also used the desert to its full potential by gathering available foods that grew wild around them. When the fruit of the prickly pear and saguaro were ripe, the women would set out to their temporary camps close to the fruit. Because saguaro's reach up to 50 feet in height, the Hohokam would use a long cross-shaped picking stick made from the ribs of dead saguaro to pluck the ripe fruit from the cactus. The fruit would usually split when it hit the ground, revealing its scarlet pulp mixed with black seeds. If the fruit didn't split, the pickers would use the stem as a knife to cut around the fruit and split it open. The fruit was boiled down into a cherry red juice used for syrup. The cooked pulp was made into jam and some was dried on racks to make a concoction similar to fruit leather. The black seeds were dried and then made into cakes.

Another important food source for the Hohokam were the beans of the mesquite tree. Mesquite beans were collected and ground with a stone mortar and pestle called a metate. The mesquite flour was used for broths, breads, and stews.

However, the Hohokam were not completely dependent on crops or gathering -- they also hunted. Hunting allowed the Hohokam to supplement their diet with rabbit, deer, and sometimes bighorn sheep, antelope, rodents and birds.

Daily Life

Cooking and daily chores were done for the most part outside of the house in a ramada. They also used the ramada as a communal gathering place and slept under it in warmer weather. When the weather was colder, the people would sleep on woven mats inside their houses. They also hung their baskets and lightweight supplies from the walls of their houses.

When their work was finished they had time for other activities, especially games and art. They expressed themselves by making clay pots, baskets and jewelry. Shells, nose plugs, and stone beads were some of the jewelry worn by the Hohokam.

Shells, which were probably traded with the Indians of Mexico, were fashioned into necklaces, bracelets, and rings. They etched the shells with fermented saguaro juice which acted like an acid on the parts of the shell that had not been coated with wax or pitch.

Great craftspeople, the Hohokam featured frogs, birds, snakes and human forms in their carvings. They could carve cups and trays out of solid rock. The finished products were traded with other Indian tribes or kept for personal use.

End of a Culture

The Hohokam prospered in the Tucson Basin until approximately 1350 AD when they began to decline. Among the speculations for this decline, the most common explanations include famine, climate change, warfare, or disease.

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