Written by Dr. Charles F. Gritzner, Distinguished Professor of Geography (ret.), South Dakota State University.

The following essay, reprinted with permission, is based upon a term paper written in the late 1950s when I was a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in geography and anthropology at LSU.  My interest in the Hohokam stemmed from having lived in Mesa, Arizona where we were surrounded by remnant irrigation canals, ubiquitous potshards, and some building remnants left by the culture.

I read the paper at the annual conference of the Society for American Archaeology in 1965.  Following the conclusion of the session in which the paper was presented, three very upset archaeologists approached me and threatened to “destroy [me] professionally” if I ever presented this idea again, orally or as a publication.  Clearly, they and their department did not agree with my conclusion!  In the belief that my hypothesis had merit, I was fortunate to have the paper published in the Newsletter of the New England Antiquities Research Association.  It is that text that appears here as an idea, rather than as a typical research publication with numerous citations (the newsletter editor did not want citations or accompanying visuals).

Moving fast forward more than a half century, it appears that we have the same disrespect for science and disparate views as is occurring today with, for example, the climate change issue.  Science thrives on open minds, open discussion, and open data.  Clearly, this is not a belief shared by all scientists today or in the past.  And this is extremely sad; it does not speak well of contemporary scientific research or an alarming number of scientists.


[This paper first appeared in the Newsletter of the New England Antiquities Research Association, 4:3 (September 1969), pp. 69-72; my thanks to the NEARA for initially publishing the paper in 1969 and for allowing it to reappear in this format.]


Charles F. Gritzner

The science of geography seeks to explain the occurrence and distribution of phenomena on the earth’s surface.  While confining their efforts to the long-defined and well-established methodology of geography, geographers in search of meaning can—in fact must—often turn to segments of reality generally considered to be the domain of other disciplines.  This paper represents an attempt to employ the geographic method to a question primarily archaeological in nature, in an attempt to provide new insight into the possible origin of Hohokam culture.

The hearth of Hohokam Culture, as identified by contemporary archaeologists, was centered in the alluvial valleys of the Salt and Gila rivers of central Arizona.  From ca. 700 A.D. to 1400 A.D., the Hohokam exhibited a level of cultural attainment which was, in many respects, unparalleled north of the Aztec, Maya, and pre-Inca centers of Latin America and was largely exotic when contrasted with neighboring cultures in the United States and northern Mexico.  The most significant Hohokam cultural development was the construction of a canalized irrigation system and concomitant hydraulic society that has been described as being “. . .the greatest irrigation achievement of ancient man in America and possibly the world.”

Archaeological research to date has provided few satisfactory answers adequately explaining the time and place of Hohokam Culture origin.  Initial estimates of developmental Hohokam Culture placed the incipient stage at, or shortly before, the time of Christ.  During the past several decades, however, this figure has been progressively advanced.  Harold S. Gladwin, after thirty years’ study in Arizona and the Southwest, concluded that a distinct complex of culture traits associated with the Hohokam appeared spontaneously and, in many respects, full-blown in horizons dated to ca. 700 A.D.  This conclusion has been reached by others during the past decade.  The earlier error placing the culture origin at the beginning of the Christian era, stemmed from two major factors:

(1) The difficulty in distinguishing between Gila – Salt River people and those of the widespread Pueblo Culture of the Colorado Plateau, and

(2) The failure to recognize an entirely different, non-irrigating, autochthonous culture inhabiting the region prior to 700 A.D.

The emergence of a unique, completely exotic, composite of culture traits within a brief time span infers one, or a combination, of several things:

(1) The spontaneous and independent invention, by an indigenous people, of an entire complex of culture traits, some of which were without precedent on the North American continent.  Had this occurred at the magnitude indicated by the archaeological record, it would be unparalleled in the annals of human history.

(2) The migration and settlement within the region of Central Arizona of a foreign culture already possessing the well-established trait complex recognized in situ as Hohokam.

(3) A rapid diffusion of culture traits into the region with concomitant acceptance and implementation by the indigenous population.

In view of the available evidence, it must be concluded that the culture identified with the Hohokam had its origin outside the region of its recognized development.  Speculation as to the point of origin has been one of the primary concerns of many Southwestern archaeologists for several decades.  Gladwin, after thirty years [of study] concluded that the origin had to be in
“. . .Mexico or even farther south.”  Carl Sauer, after studying Hohokam sites in Arizona and Sonora, stated, “It is not doubted that the beginnings [of Hohokam culture] were introduced from the south.”  Dr. H. M. Wormington, Ann Johnson, Emil Haury, Albert Shroeder, and others have pointed southward to a somewhat vague region of cultural origin in Mexico.

Yet archaeologists have found it difficult, if not impossible, to support these hypotheses of Hohokam Culture origin in Mexico or Central America.  No archaeological evidence does as much as hint of a possible route of passage or cultural hearth.  Though some traits, such as ball courts, rubber balls, truncated pyramids, art motifs, and some pottery forms—to name but a few—certainly diffused northward into the Southwestern United States through time and found acceptance among the Hohokam, attempts to match elements of Hohokam Culture with other known Meso-American trait complexes have not been fully satisfactory.

In searching for a cultural environment that was similar to that of the Hohokam in ca. 700 A.D., we must look as far south as the arid to semi-arid coastal regions of Ecuador and Peru.  A list of traits common to the two regions and not found elsewhere in a complex (or for some, found elsewhere at all) include:

(1) Red-on-buff, oxidized pottery.

(2) Wattle-and-daub construction of dwellings with four or five roof supports.  So much skill was required to erect these (Hohokam) houses that they certainly must not represent the people’s first attempt at housebuilding, and there was undoubtedly an earlier phase for which local evidence has not yet been found.

(3) Shell ornaments, both carved and etched.  (Note:  It defies imagination that an inland, desert culture, would develop a technique as involved as shell etching).

(4) Weaving with the use of the spindle whorl.

(5) Mirrors inlaid with iron pyrites crystals.

(6) Serpent deity as expressed in stone and shell work and on pottery design.

(7) Reed boats (balsas).  The remnants of several reed balsas, similar to those of Lake Titicaca and Easter Island, were excavated near Tempe, Arizona.

(8) Preoccupation with zoomorphic designs on pottery and rock carvings.  Hohokam pottery was commonly decorated with zoomorphic patterns.  From ca. 700 A.D. (“Colonial Period”) on, there was a gradual trend toward depicting local fauna (quail, horned toads, mountain goats, scorpions, etc.).  Initially, however, designs depicted forms of fauna not found in Arizona or [elsewhere] in the Southwest.  The green turtle (?) and pelican (and other “fish birds”) appear widely in early Hohokam pottery.  Fish designs are also very common.

(9) Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus).  During the 8th century, the lima bean was found only in the Peruvian-Ecuadorian coastal area, several non-contiguous peninsular regions of the Pacific Coast of Middle America, and the Hohokam region of Arizona.

(10) Irrigation.  Over 300 miles of canals have been traced by Mr. Frank Midvale, of Mesa, Arizona [others estimates are as high as 700 miles].  A specialized hydraulic technology and unified social order are implied.  Irrigation of the type and magnitude of that practiced by the Hohokam was found only among the Indians of the northern Andes and adjacent coastal plains of Ecuador and Peru during the time in question.  It apparently had no North American or Old World peer in quality and complexity at that time in history.

Figure 1 (Source).   Turney map of Hohokam canals as recognized in 1929.

(11) Terracing (trincheras).  There is still some question as to the time and cultural origin of the trincheras found in southern Arizona and northern Sonora.  They seem to have been constructed for purposes other than agriculture, the practice limited to this area and the South American region in question.

(12) Pyramidal temple mounds.

[Archaeologist] Betty Meggars has stated that “The coincidence of a complex of similar traits generally tips the balance in favor of assuming some connection on the ground that independent invention, in two or more places, of several unique traits without functional association is beyond the limits of reasonable probability.”  To the twelve traits listed above, a number of other similarities can be added though many have broader distribution than the two regions considered here.

In view of the cultural evidence presented, I do not hesitate to suggest a hearth area of what became identified as Hohokam Culture in coastal southern Ecuador and/or coastal Peru.  Furthermore, a consideration of technological and social conditions among the South American coastal tribes at the time in question can provide answers as to the motivation and means of an emigration of a population great enough to introduce the cultural change that appears so rapidly among the Hohokam during the early part of the 8th century.

Figure 2.  Proposed route of migration from coastal Peru and/or Ecuador to southern Arizona.

Motivation can be explained through the extreme social unrest, intertribal conflict, and the accompanying breakdown of the irrigation or hydraulic society that took place along the Pacific Coast of northern South America during the late years of the 7th century.  Such conditions have, throughout the history of mankind, influenced the migration of people in search of a more favorable social climate.  In searching for the means and route of migration, we need but consider the advanced navigational capabilities of the coastal tribes of that time.

A migration by water would account for several here-to-for unanswered questions:

(1) the presence of isolated, previously unaccounted for culture pockets along the Central American and Mexican Pacific Coasts (with traits similar to those of Ecuador/Peru and the Hohokam;

(2) the lack of archaeological evidence supporting a possible land route; and

(3) the rapid emergence of a unique and highly evolved culture in central Arizona in ca. 700 A.D.

Both legend and evidence tend to support the sea migration hypothesis.  It is well established that several coastal South American tribes ventured considerable distances by sea, as well as along the Pacific Coast of the Americas.  Many studies, notably those by Prof. Robert C. West, Michael Coe, Chester Chard, and Clinton Edwards, have documented coastal navigation for purposes of trade.  Their studies are substantiated by the distribution of artifacts from South America found along discontinuous coastal regions of Middle America.  Vessels were large rafts constructed of light balsa wood.  They were rigged for sailing or rowing and could carry as many as 50-60 individuals with food and water necessary for a long voyage.  It is interesting to note that the Seri Indians of coastal Sonora (as well as several other coastal tribes farther south) have legends and cave drawings of people visiting and/or passing their region in ships.  Furthermore, a study of the coastal margin extending from central Ecuador to the southwestern United States shows the valleys of the lower Colorado, Salt, and Gila rivers to offer the only similar environment with constant stream flow.

The hypothesis presented here in no way attempts to close the door on the question of Hohokam Culture origin.  I strongly believe that in view of the evidence available in support of a South American origin, and the apparent paucity of evidence unearthed by archaeologists in support of a cultural antecedent anywhere in North America, the door has been opened to further study outside the confines of this continent.  In view of the evidence, and our increasing awareness of the magnitude of early travel by sea, I am confident that future archaeological, linguistic, and blood-type studies will bear out the thesis of a Hohokam Culture link, whether by the diffusion of cultural traits or the actual migration of peoples, with the coastal margin of Ecuador and northern Peru.


Unfortunately, during the 1960s my research interests moved on to other topics and I never again seriously pursued the Hohokam question.  At the time, I hoped eventually to travel to Peru and Ecuador and visit museums in attempt to better understand possible cultural links between these coastal hydraulic civilizations and the southern Arizona tradition.  Although I have been to both countries several times, it was in a capacity that did not afford time for such visits.

Over the ensuing years, I have attempted to at least keep abreast of key developments in regard to Hohokam culture history.  Based upon my own research and subsequent information from various sources, I continue to believe that my hypothesis has merit.  Interestingly enough, after the paper was presented I received two letters from very well-known American archaeologists.  Both of them, in essence, indicated that they were quite certain I was correct, but questioned  how in the world I dared suggest such a theory which was totally counter to the hypotheses of the so-called experts in the field (at the time as it pertained to Hohokam research).

Hohokam Migration Theory, Academic Bullying