While the pyramids of Egypt, some dating back to 4,000 B.C., get credit for being one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, other builders were busy working their own architectural marvels at Hohokam sites in Arizona.
To celebrate Arizona Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month, the Amerind Foundation orchestrated a five-day Hohokam World Tour event that covered nearly a dozen locations along the Gila, Salt, and Santa Cruz River valleys to explore survival tactics among the ancients.
If you think farming in a hot, dry desert—not the bib overall and tractor brand of today’s agriculture—but the one-seed-at-a-time kind practiced by long-ago cultivators, you’ll get a picture of both early agriculture and architecture found at one of the tour stops, the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
The edifice, a four-story-tall, 60-foot-long marvel built out of tightly-packed caliche-rich mud, is the largest known structure of the ancestral desert peoples constructed about 800 years ago. The original inhabitants called it Hottai-ki. The first European to see the building named it Casa Grande or Great House.
“While it’s a triumph of engineering and a living monument to history, it’s not just a building to us but a place with spiritual connection,” said tour advisor Angela Garcia-Lewis, a member of the Gila River Indian Community. “The ruins are featured in traditional stories and songs of our culture as a sacred place and whether it was 800 years ago, or eight years ago, or even 800 years in the future, it should still be here because it has ties to the surrounding mountains and the river.”
The nearby Gila River, which no longer flows since a dam was built in the 1920s, was once the lifeblood of area hunters and gatherers that archaeologists believe inhabited the land some 7,500 years ago. “The people may have been primitive, but they had the magic of the human mind to channel river flow to water their crops,” to quote the site’s video orientation. “Crude irrigation ditches, monumental works of both labor and engineering dug by hand with sticks, evolved into the largest, most complex, and most technically-engineered of all prehistoric canal systems in North America.”
Water in this harsh environment attracted people who built homes and planted crops to feed themselves. “This was a very large village, hundreds of families, and everyone lived in pit houses,” explained tour guide and archaeologist Douglas Craig. “There could have been 5,000 to 6,000 houses over a couple of square miles, lived in for a couple of decades, then another house built on top of it.”
“This was an aggregated community of people from different kinship groups who lived together for awhile and then went their separate ways some 700 years ago,” according to Alycia Hayes, cultural preservationist and exhibits specialist with the National Park Service. “In 1892, the site was designated as the first archaeological preserve in the United States. Now our challenge is to preserve it, conserving the resource for future generations—not an easy job when you’re up against the desert’s intense sun, gusty winds, and monsoon rains.”
In the late 1800s, stagecoach travelers frequently removed artifacts and pieces of the walls until the site’s first caretaker arrived in 1901 to serve as an armed custodian who fenced out cattle and watched visitors more closely.
The distinctively modern-looking roof that protects the Casa Grande was built in 1932. To further preserve the site, an adjacent ball court, an oval bowl-shaped 50-foot by 100-foot depression used as a focal point for games and ceremonies, can now only be viewed from a fenced-off observation deck.