The People we call the Hohokam (meaning "all used up" in the O'odham language) built miles of irrigation canals supporting hundreds of large and small villages in the Sonoran Desert. Though there is controversy over their beginnings, most believe the Hohokam were an indigenous people descending from Late Archaic hunters and gatherers. They took up farming, practicing simple irrigation techniques, started producing baskets and plain pottery, stone & flint tools. The Hohokam mostly populated the Phoenix and Tucson Basins, but can be found as far North as Camp Verde and Flagstaff, East to Safford, and South into Northern Mexico.
During the early part of the Pioneer Period, the Hohokam built small villages of large pit houses and made pottery that included plain ware, polished redware, and clay human and animal figurines. It is believed that the pottery making technique may have started in Mesoamerica-Mexico and moved northward.
Then the Hohokam started producing painted pottery, worked turquoise, and made distinctive arrowheads and axes. They grew cotton and expanded trade routes into Mexico and all the way to the Pacific Coast where they traded for shell. Their settlements were arranged around open plazas with houses scattered over large areas. During the Snaketown Phase of the late Pioneer and early Colonial Periods, the Hohokam craftspeople began to make a unique painted pottery known as Snaketown Red-on-Buff. They painted this pottery with a light tan slip and decorated it with animal, human, and geometric designs. About this same time, the large scale irrigation canals started to appear. An estimated one thousand miles of canals watered twenty-five thousand acres of farmland in the Salt and Gila River Valleys.
The Tucson Basin Hohokam farmed along the rivers and slopes of local mountain chains. Some canal irrigation along the Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers served the larger settlements. Though the Phoenix and Tucson Basin Hohokam maintained strong connections, the Tucson Hohokam had fewer large settlements and a more disperse population.
As the Colonial Period progressed, decorated palettes, stone bowls, and censers for incense burning became more elaborate. Then around 900 years ago, the Hohokam left Snaketown and other ancestral villages and built many new settlements. They built more and larger platform mounds, designed above ground adobe houses, enclosed by walls, instead of the wattle-and-daub pit houses. This is known as the Classic Period of the Northern Hohokam. As the Classic Period continued, they crafted much less of their Red-on-Buff pottery in favor of a highly polished Redware. After 1300, multi-storied houses such as Casa Grande and Pueblo Grande rose on platform mounds.
Villages were left either gradually or hastily burned, and canal systems destroyed. Populations decreased, possibly due to malnutrition. The people returned to a simpler, less complex way of life, went back to living in pit houses, farming on a smaller scale and returned to hunting and gathering.
The Hohokam culture disappeared sometime after A.D. 1450, possibly becoming the Tohono O'oatum of today. Their legacy survives in the articles of daily living left behind. It is the painted pottery that we turn to learn more about Hohokam timelines. The painted pottery styles transformed over time in color, form, motif, layout, vessel size, and quantity produced.