They raised mighty mud-brick cities, and built a trade empire spanning the Southwest. Meet Arizona’s desert lords.
The people had been walking in the desert for many days. When they’d departed from northern Mexico on their great northward migration, they’d been more than a hundred strong – men, women and children, well-practiced at surviving in this merciless land.
These people knew how to drink water from cacti, how to trap the mice and lizards that scurried among the rocks, and how to find shady places to sleep through the brutal midday heat.
But this miserable life was very different from the one they’d left behind.
They were exiles – though we have no idea why they were cast out, or from where.
Like all fleeing refugees, they must have carried stories of the paradise they’d left behind: memories of a lost Eden or Atlantis whose name is long-vanished in the mists of prehistory.
Wherever this paradise lay, it must have been a wealthy, well-connected place, because the refugees carried precious valuables from faraway lands – gleaming seashells from the Pacific seacoast; turquoise ingots from the Rocky Mountains; fine wine distilled from saguaro cacti; colorful pet parrots from the tropical South.
Their lost Eden must also have been a fertile land, because they carried seeds; enough to grow vast fields of corn, squash and beans. They were clearly accustomed to a comfortable life in clean, well-furnished houses, because that’s the life they’d soon rebuild in this harsh desert.
Along with these memories, treasures and practical skills, the refugees brought a foreign language, unrelated to any in their new land – as well as new gods, songs, dances and rituals utterly alien to this northern desert.
They were searching for a place to start anew.
After many weeks of walking in the desert’s shimmering heat, the people came to a fast-flowing river, with low banks and sprawling flatlands on both sides. Here, they decided, was a good place to begin their work.
The people worked together to quickly build a small village of dugout houses, protected from the sun with strong roofs of mud and branches. They dug neat latrine pits outside town.
And for the next hundred days, every able-bodied man labored to dig a great canal, which carried torrents of river water out onto the flatlands, where the women planted the seeds they’d carried across the wasteland.
There on the riverbanks, they resurrected the culture they remembered – one piece at a time.
In their new riverside village, known today as Snaketown, Arizona, the people carved delicate shell bracelets, crafted intricate turquoise jewelry, sculpted their distinctive red-and-black pottery, and harvested saguaro cactus to make their favorite wine.
They kept their village pristinely clean, sweeping their dirt yards diligently, and dumping their waste in pits outside town. They continued to breed their beloved parrots, and to raise pet dogs.
After a few years (around 300 BCE), the village had grown into a small town. The people were no longer miserable refugees. They were thriving in this irrigated landscape they’d created. In fact, some families began to move downstream to start new villages of their own.
As the latrine pits outside town filled up, the people covered them with clay, which baked to rock hardness in the desert sun.
It wasn’t long before these clay mounds began to serve a new purpose. The people flattened off the tops and constructed small shrines atop the platforms. There, at special times of the year, they burned sweet incense in beautifully carved censers, and chanted hymns whose words are long forgotten.
The Arizona desert was becoming a land of pyramids, one garbage dump at a time.
These ritual sites also served a highly practical purpose. Every town’s survival depended on organized irrigation and annual crop cycles – and disputes over water rights could quickly turn deadly. (In fact, the world’s first recorded war was fought over rights to river water, between two Sumerian city-states.)
As in Egypt and Sumer, ancient Arizona’s seasonal religious gatherings brought people from all villages together, to share sacred wine, to compete in inter-city sports – Snaketown had an outdoor ball court the size of a football field – and to dance the dances and sing the songs they all knew by heart.
As the newcomers expanded eastward across Arizona, these gatherings served to cement the community’s ritual and emotional bonds, to sustain cultural identity across every town and village, to reward cooperation and sharing – in short, to unite the people as a full-fledged regional civilization.
Like every expanding civilization, these people would soon bump up against other great powers.
By 700 CE, the people’s civilization had spread throughout the Salt and Gila river basins, spanning most of Central Arizona. To the southeast, the pyramid-builders encountered a group known today as the Salado culture – also an established nation of farmers, who eagerly swapped ideas and techniques with their western neighbors.
From their Salado allies, Snaketown’s people learned to build bigger mud-brick houses, temples, and walls; and to cultivate new crops, including amaranth and cotton. The Salado, in turn, learned better irrigation techniques, along with new tricks for achieving bigger crop yields.
Trade brought wealth – and the pyramid-builders entered a great golden age.
In Snaketown, clay pyramids were raised to new heights; their elevated shrines replaced with towering mud-brick temple complexes, not unlike the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia.
Like Sumerian temples, these complexes likely served as storage and distribution points for grain and other crops – which tightened the temples’ control over all areas of life.
By 1000 CE, the people were constructing great clay platforms in the desert, equidistant between the largest cities , to serve as dedicated gathering points for seasonal rituals. The temples atop these platforms served as homes for a priestly class who assembled vast hoards of jewelry and other luxury goods.
In the cities, the builders raised enormous mud-brick palaces, fortified with thick clay walls. It’s not entirely clear who lived in these compounds – perhaps priestly families, or wealthy merchants, or war-leaders – but whoever these patricians were, they obviously lived a privileged life, secluded from the common people on the streets.
At its peak, Snaketown bore more than a passing resemblance to Sumerian cities like Uruk and Ur.
Strolling along one of the city’s clean-swept avenues, you’d have heard the calling of merchants, hawking fine shell bracelets and brightly colored woven garments. Amid the honeycomb of mud-brick houses, dogs barked and parrots squawked, accompanies by the squeals of children and the singing of entertainers.
In the market, you might catch a glimpse of Salado traders, bartering in their strange tongue. Merchants from lands far to the south would call out, beckoning you to examine their finely painted pottery. You might even pass a caravan newly arrived from faraway California, unloading sacks of turquoise and mother-of-pearl.
Gazing upward, you’d see the towering mud-brick temples in the distance, and perhaps catch a faint whiff of earthy incense. Beyond, the clay walls of manor-houses cast shadows across the street. If you looked carefully, you might catch a glimpse of the city’s elite reclining atop their flat roofs, sipping wine beneath woven sunshades.
But of course, this cultural flowering could not last forever.
By 1150 CE, the people had been dwelling in Arizona’s river valleys for more than a thousand years – their ancient refugee status no more than a distant memory. They were the undisputed lords of this place now; wealthy beyond dreams; drawing water from canals so ancient that they’d become part of the landscape, like earth and stone.
What tales did they tell about their long-lost homeland? We do not know, because the people did not write. Like all great civilizations, they must have believed they carried a divine pedigree; a holy mandate from the gods themselves, to rule this land and preserve the ancient ways.
But the ancient ways were failing. The population had grown beyond the land’s ability to sustain them, and people began to starve. For years, the streets must have echoed with the sounds of riot and despair, as people pleaded with the temple to distribute grain it did not have.
The climate struck an even harsher blow around 1275 CE. A drought swept the land – and all across Arizona, sprawling fields of crops shriveled and died.
About two generations later, around 1325 CE, the climate turned warmer, melting mountaintop snow that drowned the low-lying river valleys in torrents of floodwater.
Surely, the people must have believed the apocalypse was upon them.
Many would have hurried to the temples to make desperate prayers and sacrifices – while mad prophets roamed the streets, howling messages of doom, pleading with the wealthy and powerful to repent of their sins. The aristocrats retreated into their enclaves, fortifying their temples and palaces against their own people.
By the mid-1300s CE, the great cities had fallen into anarchy, and the common people fled to the desert, to live the same life their refugee ancestors had endured, more than 1,500 years earlier – to drink water from cacti, to trap mice and lizards for food, and to hide from the merciless sun.
This is a story as old as time itself – a pattern that played out among the Amazigh and the Kushites; among Sumerians and Sasanians and dozens of other empires whose greatest successes (like those of tragic Greek heroes) contained the seeds of their ultimate downfalls.
As strange as it may seem to us today, when ancient cities could no longer sustain their people, the people simply… left.
By 1450, all of Arizona’s great ancient cities had been abandoned.
Out in the desert, no one had the time or resources to craft fine jewelry, to raise exotic birds, or to trade with merchants from distant lands. The great pyramids and temples crumbled slowly to dust.
As decades passed, some of the people’s descendants began to move back into the ruins. These people called themselves the Akimel O’odham – and like Europeans of the early Middle Ages, they lived in the shadows of ancient colossi whose names were long-forgotten.
When the Spanish arrived in Arizona in the 1500s, they found only windswept vestiges of these ancient cities; collapsing mud-brick houses and crumbling walls in the parched desert. Unable to believe that the O’odham had built these structures, they demanded to know what the ruins were.
“They’re hu-hu-kem,” said the local people: “all used up.”
“Hohokam” was the name the Spanish recorded from that conversation, and – pathetic as it may be – that’s the name still used to describe these great builders, whose own name for their civilization is forever lost to us.
But archaeologists agree that the O’odham are direct descendants of the Hohokam people.
Against all odds, several groups of O’odham people are still thriving today, living throughout Central and Southern Arizona, speaking a language directly related to that of their city-dwelling ancestors.
Aside from that language, and a few carefully preserved songs and dances, the O’odham remember only faint fragments of their ancestors’ urban life. Even now, ancient Hohokam civilization is still very poorly understood – especially in comparison with other river-centric civilizations like Sumer and Egypt.
Archaeologists have slim evidence to go on when it comes to reconstructing the pantheon of Hohokam gods, or the rituals they performed at their temples, or the banquets thrown at their manor-houses – or any area of their life that isn’t directly attested by hard material evidence.
Perhaps most tantalizingly of all, we still don’t know where they came from.
In the absence of clear contextual evidence, the Hohokam people seem – like the Sumerians – to appear out of the blue; a full-fledged agricultural society that almost instantly transformed their landscape, raised mighty cities from the mud, and culturally captivated every society they encountered.
But unlike the Sumerians, the Hohokam people were not treasured by the new empires who conquered their lands. Over the next few centuries, Arizona was invaded by wave after wave of alien peoples – the Europeans – who scarcely acknowledged the existence of their mighty predecessors.
The land has been ruled by invaders ever since.
What new civilizations might have risen in the river valleys of Arizona, if European hordes hadn’t swept over the land? How might those successor states have enshrined the legacy of their predecessors? We’ll never know.
But to this day, O’odham people still nod respectfully when they pass by the ruined cities of their ancestors.
As long as they live, they’ll never forget the empire.