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Ancient Desert Dwellers: The Hohokam

Have you hiked to the Dixie Mine and seen the petroglyphs? Have you heard people talk about an ancient ball court near the Verde River? Who were the ancient people who lived here and how did they live?

This area was inhabited by the Hohokam people from 300 to 1500 CE, but cultural precursors may have been here since 300 BCE.

Our modern knowledge of their lives in the lower Verde Valley dates to 1861 when Charles Poston reported “the remains of three large Indian villages just above the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers.” At that time, a heated battle pitted Tucson against Prescott for gaining the permanent seat of government for the new Arizona territory. This area adjacent to Fountain Hills, Fort McDowell, and the Verdes, which was referred to as Azatlan, was proposed as a neutral location, but Prescott won the bid.

Hohokam

The earliest Hohokam were nomadic, following the streams and natural food sources. By 300 CE, they had built canals to irrigate crops of squash, corn, and beans. These crops supplemented their hunting and gathering lifestyle, allowing them to become more sedentary. This gave them time to start making pottery by about 500 CE.

In 1991, part of the Azatlan site just north of Rio Verde was excavated. Archaeologists found five seasonal activity places, two “farmsteads” with dwelling sites, one of which had three pithouses clustered around a courtyard in the Hohokam style. Excavations also revealed roasting pits, cremation burials, tool manufacturing, and pottery sherds. A Hohokam ball court was also discovered nearby.

On Shea Boulevard, from the Fountain Hills-Scottsdale border to the area south of Mayo Clinic, a metate quarry was identified. A metate (pronounced meh-tah-tay) is the lower unit of a two-part grinding stone. The handheld stone, called a mano, was used to grind corn, jojoba, mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, and other seeds that required processing before eating.

As the stones rubbed together to grind the food, little bits of rock would break off and mix into the meal. Over time, these little stones eroded their teeth. Archaeologists uncovered skeletal remains identified to be about 20-years-old but had the worn teeth of a modern 70-year-old. This resulted in a shorter lifespan.

The peak population in this area reached several thousand people around 900-1100 CE. By 1500, they had mostly disappeared, possibly due to the Great Drought at the end of the 13th century. The later occupants, the Pima and Tohono O’odham (Papago) are thought to be direct descendants of the Hohokam.

You can learn more about the Hohokam at the River of Time Museum when it reopens. ROTMuseum.com.

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