The Hohokam, who inhabited the dry Sonoran desert of southern Arizona, were more or less ignored, even though they had by far the most advanced canal irrigation system in the New World.
Now, the spotlight is on the Hohokam, with results that reveal a very large, multiethnic network that may have spread all the way to the Southern California coast, according to the work of research archaeologist Steven Shackley at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Shackley's research on obsidian sources and projectile points confirms that Hohokam peoples managed a large, integrated economic area that covered most of Arizona, from the Colorado River to New Mexico and from Flagstaff to the Mexican border. Moreover, related groups may even have moved into Southern California carrying aspects of the distinctive Hohokam culture into the Imperial Valley and the San Diego area.
This theory of Hohokam culture, which Shackley will present this spring at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in New Orleans, thoroughly mixes up the story of Native American roots. It gives many contemporary Native American Southwest groups a claim to Hohokam ancestry, now claimed by Arizona's Pima and Tohono O'Odham peoples.
"Contrary to common belief, the archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Hohokam were a diverse multiethnic and multilingual society that is mirrored in the current Native American composition of all of south, central and western Arizona," said Shackley.
Shackley said that by their classic period (1150-1350 AD), the Hohokam comprised the most advanced culture in the Southwest.
They transmuted thousands of square miles of hot, dry desert into farmland with water carried through hundreds of miles of canals.
They built villages of thousands of people, with platform mounds and great-houses at the center where the elites lived. The most impressive of these was the walled, multistory adobe structure at Casa Grande, the remnants of which still beckon visitors at this site between Phoenix and Tucson.
They traveled hundreds of miles by foot for trade in obsidian and marine shells.
Their trade and kin networks spread over at least 50,000 square miles of desert and perhaps into California and Baja California, forming a cohesive cultural unit that crossed ethnic and linguistic boundaries, according to Shackley's research.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, the Hohokam maintained this ethnically diverse economic region with little sign of warfare anywhere in the archaeological record.
"We can't find any evidence of warfare in the skeletal remains anywhere in the Hohokam region for 600 years (700-1300 AD)", said Shackley.
This evidence departs from the record of the Anasazi whose culture fell into warfare and violence in the 13th century, probably, in part, as a result of a 23-year drought that devastated their food production.
Shackley's belief that this desert region of Arizona - home to several significantly different linguistic groups - comprised an integrated Hohokam culture area is based partially on studies of the sources of obsidian used to make stone tools. With laboratory analysis, he has precisely pinpointed the source of thousands of pieces of raw obsidian and projectile points found in Hohokam sites.
These "little black rocks in the desert," as Shackley calls them, confirm that the Hohokam community covered most of Arizona, as ceramic and projectile point styles had suggested. At the same time, there was local variation in style under the Hohokam umbrella, suggesting a heterogeneous society.
Shackley's thesis that the Hohokam includes the Patayan culture group that extended into Imperial Valley in Southern California is based on the style of projectile points and ceramics and other material remains. No obsidian apparently was traded across the Colorado River.
But he said that the material remains of prehistoric Patayan people from Lake Cahuilla sites in Imperial Valley and sites further west in the San Diego/Tijuana region strongly point to Hohokam origin. Ceramics, burial practices, rock art, tools and origin stories are all similar to Hohokam. But most important are the projectile point forms, said Shackley.
"From the Colorado Desert to the California coast, projectile points are virtually indistinguishable from the collections at the core Hohokam sites of Snaketown and the Gila Bend area," he said.
What does this mean for descendants of this ancient society?
"It means that the Hohokam were more heterogeneous than we realized," said Shackley. " Linguistically, the Pima (in Arizona) and the Yuman (in Western Arizona and California) are as different as English and Basque. But archaeologists are coming to see them all as probable descendants of the Hohokam."