Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated
Hohokam is a Pima word meaning "those who vanished."
Roger Lidman, director of the Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park, in front of Hohokam ruins.
But when comparing the old and new civilizations of this region, the fact that the Hohokam disappeared is not the most interesting thing about them. The facts about the previous Valley occupants most pertinent to the current ones are these:
They lived in the Phoenix area for more than 1,000 years. They maintained one of the largest permanent settlements in New World prehistory north of the Aztecs. They used the most sophisticated water-management techniques north of the Incas. And what drove them away wasn't a long drought.
The Hohokam survived at least three extensive New World droughts.
During one period of low rainfall that researchers call the Great Drought of 1275-1300, Native Americans fled their pueblos in what is now New Mexico and Colorado -- and some are believed to have moved to more stable Hohokam settlements in central Arizona.
The Hohokam had experience in managing, or often merely trying to manage, the abundant water supply of the Salt and Gila rivers. Their culture is thought to have evolved from indigenous residents of the region in the first few centuries of the Common Era.
Modern Phoenix is inextricably connected to the Hohokam, as Arizona schoolchildren learn. The city's founding father is John William "Jack" Swilling, a "former Confederate soldier and deserter, Union Army freighter and scout, Arizona prospector, farmer and speculator," wrote Bradford Luckingham in his 1989 book, Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis.
Swilling was an alcoholic and drug addict who "died a pauper in a Yuma jail while awaiting trial for highway robbery," writes Luckingham. But "no one made an effort toward restoring the agricultural splendor of the Hohokam until Swilling made his appearance [in 1867]."
The Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park, 4619 East Washington Street, is one of the few Hohokam sites in the Valley that doesn't lie under asphalt and houses. The ruins there were once part of a settlement that existed in the Phoenix area for more than 1,000 years.
The original township of modern Phoenix is about a mile west of Pueblo Grande, says the park's director, Roger Lidman.
Impressive, remarkable, and amazing are adjectives that Lidman uses to describe the water-management feats of the Hohokam. The canal system probably began when someone gazing at the wide Salt River thought, "What if I dig a little bit of a ditch?" Lidman says.
By the early first millennium, the hardworking natives, using wood, stone tools, basketry, and muscle, had dug hundreds of miles of canals.
The Phoenix area has an abundance of water, compared to many other regions in the American West, which made the settlement location ideal.
The Gila River runs west through southern Arizona and bumps north into the West Valley, where it meets the Salt River. The Salt, in turn, comes from the White Mountains in eastern Arizona before feeding the Gila. The Verde River flows south from Yavapai County before meeting the Salt, and the Agua Fria River flows south to meet the Gila.
Much of the area is a floodplain that's great for crops.
Productive land and multiple river sources have graced the area with more water and potential farmland than in other arid regions, including the Mohave Desert. That's why Phoenix supported a population of 20,000 to 50,000 for centuries, unlike the sites of modern cities in what are now New Mexico, Southern California, and Nevada, Lidman says.
In what is now modern Los Angeles, for example, conditions weren't right for settlements as large as the Hohokam's. Much of the water in L.A. flowed from steep grades in the mountains into the ocean, making it less capable of supporting large Native American farming communities, Lidman says.
Drought was a problem for the Hohokam, who couldn't store the Valley's water for drier years, as is done now. But even worse were floods. Too much water would blow out the head gates of the canals, requiring extensive re-digging. At the same time, the economic success of the area meant more people lived in the Valley toward the end of the Hohokam era, putting more pressure on the system because of an abundance of farms and the increased need for water-delivering canals.
Even with more people to help dig, the Hohokam civilization collapsed. In roughly 1450, long before the arrival of Spanish explorers, who named the Salt River in the late 1600s, the last Hohokam canal project stopped. They just gave up.
Nothing about the environment had changed dramatically compared to the experiences of the previous 1,000 years. It was the Hohokam who had changed. Astronomical predictions were very important to them, Lidman notes: "Maybe the people lost faith" that farming in the Valley was worth the effort.
The canals sat in disrepair for centuries before Swilling showed up and saw their potential. Within a year, pioneers had corn, barley, and wheat growing on land irrigated from the reborn waterways.
The conclusion is inescapable that the Hohokam could have stayed, if only they'd wanted to.
Arizona is littered with ghost towns from the 1800s, helping prove that when people no longer see a need for a town, it dies.
What the Hohokam teach modern Phoenicians about the future, then, is that the greatest sustainability challenge for this area isn't its environment -- it's whether there's the desire to live here.
And there's no question that desire to live in metro Phoenix still burgeons.