Valley of the Hohokam Part I – Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects probably the most-famous ruins of the Hohokam Culture in Arizona.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument protects probably the most-famous ruins of the Hohokam Culture, just south of Phoenix, Arizona.  The National Park Service added the roof to protect the “Great House” from further erosion and decay.


Many people think of the Phoenix, Arizona metopolitan area as a place that only became habitable to human beings after the invention of air conditioning in the early 20th Century.   In truth, however, there is a story of human habitation in the valley of the Salt and Gila Rivers that stretches back more than 2,000 years.

The National Park Service manages two National Monuments in this area that preserves the legacy of the first settlers here, a people that archeologists call the Hohokam.   Other than that, however, that is where the similarities end, as the two national monuments could not be more different.  Casa Grande Ruins National Monument showcases excavated ruins from the period just before European contact that have been attracting visitors for hundreds of years.  By contrast, the ruins at Hohokam Pima National Monument  ruins date from a much earlier period of settlement, have been reburied for their own protection,  and the whole area remains completely closed to the public – but more on that in Part II.

The word Hohokom is actually a mistransliteration of the O’odham word  Huhugam, which is generally translated as “those who are gone” or “those who have come before.”  In the bookstore of Casa Grande Ruins, they helpfully sell copies of the Fall 2009 special issue of Archeology Southwest, which was dedicated to topics relating to Casa Grande Ruins.   This issue contained a helpful essay by Barnaby V. Lewis, one of the tribal elders of the Gila River Indian Community.  He describes the word Huhugam as more accurately meaning “those who have perished,” specifically in reference to those from whom one is descended.  This speaks to the connection that the O’odhom people, of which the Gila River Indian Community is one of four Federally-recognized tribal governments, feel to the people archeologists call the Hohokam, and who lived in the prehistoric communities that are now Hohokam Pima and Casa Grande Ruins National Monuments.

In many respects, the Hohokam are part of a much broader group of American Indians called the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi. The legacy of the Ancestral Puebloans are preserved in prehistoric pueblos all around the southwestern United States, most famously at Mesa Verde National Park.  The word Anasazi comes from the Navajo language, and is a word which can be translated as “ancestors of our enemies.”  Thus, the National Park Service prefers to use the more-cumbersome phrase Ancestral Puebloans to refer to these people, although many archeologists still use the term Anasazi.

Its worth remembering that the American Indians did not live in nation-states as we know them today, but rather in individual communities connected to other communities by things like a shared language, religious beliefs, cultural traditions, trading relationships, and ways of life.  Archeologists thus choose words like Hohokam or Mogollon (used for certain pueblo-dwelling prehistoric peoples in New Mexico) or Anasazi to try and describe some of the meaningful differences between peoples in different places, even though there were rarely bright-line differences separating one from the other.  Thus, archeologists will often disagree about where and how to draw the lines.  In fact, some scholars use the term oasisamerica to be inclusive of all of the pueblo-dwelling peoples of the arid southwestern United States, including the  Ancestral Puebloans of the Four Corners area, the Hohokam of Arizona, and the Mogollon of New Mexico, among others.  Although I must admit that I rarely see the term oasisamerica used by the National Park Service, it certainly is one that makes sense.  As one travels through the national park sites of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah the similarities are unmistakable.  These were clearly all peoples who had some sort of contact with each other, and who shared similarities in their way of life with each other, and in how they adapted to pre-European Contact life in the deserts of the American Southwest.


The "Great House" at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just part of a larger pueblo complex.  Photo from 2008.
The “Great House” at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just part of a larger pueblo complex. Photo from 2008.

The pueblo at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was just one of numerous American Indian pubelos located in the valleys of the Salt and Gila Rivers in Central Arizona.   The Hohokom people who lived here constructed an extensive network of canals to grow crops in the desert, and they thrived in these valleys for hundreds of years.  No doubt these canals surely also helped link together their communities with one another, and those linkages may have been what made the settlement at Casa Grande Ruins so important.

Archeologists date the “Great House” at Casa Grande Ruins to around the year 1350.  The structure is four stories high, and contains 11 total rooms.  According to archeologists, there may well have been other “great houses” at other pueblos in central Arizona, although this has not been proven.  If so, its possible that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins survived because it was built a little sturdier or a little more robustly than the others. On the other hand, it just may have been lucky.   Or indeed, it is possible that it was unique.  Whatever the reason, the helpful guidebook to Casa Grande Ruins from the Western National Parks Association contains this description of the Great House from archeologist Cosmos Mindeleff, who surveyed the well-known site for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1890: “it is found easily by anyone looking for it.”   Indeed, there is no question that it rises startlingly above the nearly-flat desert landscape that surrounds it.

Of course, another important reason that Great House at Casa Grande Ruins has also survived to the present-day is thanks to the now more than 100-years worth of efforts to preserve and protect it.  Just two years after the above quote from Cosmos Mindeleff, President Benjamin Harrison set aside the Great House and 480 surrounding acres as an archeological preserve.  This prescient act of preservation in 1892 came nearly 25 years before the establishment of the National Park Service, and nearly 15 years before the Antiquities Act of 1906 would formally give Presidents the authority to set aside national monuments as protected areas on Federal lands.  In this way, just 20 years after Yellowstone became the United States’ (and the world’s) first national park, Casa Grande Ruins became this country’ first archeological preserve.

The Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was also used to make astronomical observations.
The Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was also used to make astronomical observations, including the hole at upper left which aligned with the moon every 18.5 years!


Archeologists still debate what the ultimate purpose of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was.  Clearly, the building was important to them.  Five different kinds of wood were used in its construction, including ponderosa pine and white fir.  That sort of timber could only have been obtained from mountains at least 50 miles away!  Moreover, the building also contains openings that carry astronomical significance.    Various openings align with the sun on the summer solstice and on the equinoxes.   Perhaps most fascinating to me, however, is that there is one opening aligned with the setting moon once every 18.5 years!   Considering that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins is believed by archeologists to only have been actively used for about 50-75 years (although the surrounding pueblo was inhabited for much longer than that), such alignment strikes me as being truly remarkable.

Putting the pieces together its clear that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins was important.   It was bigger than any other structure in the village, was built with imported timbers, and was constructed with great care to align with the heavens.  Its easy to imagine that it provided some sort of religious or political center, possibly connected to the system of canals that was so vital to linking together these desert communities with that most-previous of all commodoties – water.  Beyond that, with now written records left to us by these people, it is hard to say.

On our visit to Casa Grande Ruins, we first spent about 30 minutes going through the exhibits in the visitor center.   The visitor center includes exhibits on the history of the place, what life would have been like for the Hohokom people who lived here, and a few artificats from the archeological excavations here.  A door out the back of the visitor center takes you to the Great House and the surrounding pueblo ruins.

After spending another 30-or-so minutes walking around the vicinity of the Great House, however, it is important not to overlook that another section of this park is open to the public on the far side of the visitor center parking lot.  There is a very short paved trail there that takes you to what many archeologists believe was a ball court.  The American Indian ball game originated among the predecessor civilizations of the Mayas and Aztecs in southern Mexico and central America.   If the ball game was played here in Arizona, it would indicate a cultural connection spanning nearly a thousand miles!

The Great House is not the only remarkable structure at Casa Grande Ruins, this depression in the ground is believed by most archeologists to be a "ball court" - the prehistoric equivalent of a sports arena.
The Great House is not the only remarkable structure at Casa Grande Ruins, this depression in the ground is believed by most archeologists to be a “ball court” – the prehistoric equivalent of a sports arena.

Visiting the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins today requires a bit of imagination.  If it was used for the mesoamerican ball gamearcheologists calcualte that the court could have accomodated some 500 spectators.  This would be truly remarkable when you consider that the entire settlement at Casa Grande Ruins probably only had around 1,500 residents at its peak.  Its possible to imagine people coming from surrounding pueblos on the system of irrigation canals coming to what we now call Casa Grande Ruins for important ball game matches.

It should be noted, however, that not all archeologists agree with this interpretation.  Moreover, the oral tradition of the Akimei O’odoham (Pima) people, is that these places were  in fact used for ceremonial dances.  There is also evidence from the “ball courts” at nearby pueblos that they were used for ceremonial feasting, based on the large number of hornos, or clay ovens, found near the “ball courts.”

My guess is that as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.  I suspect that the construction of ball courts in the pueblos of the Hohokam people almost certainly resulted from cultural contact across the Mexican desert.   On the other hand, it seems likely to me that across such great distances the actual ball game itself really didn’t take hold.  Thus, as fun as it would be to imagine the champion of a Hohokom division playing the champion of an Aztec division in a World Series of mesoamerican ball game – that almost surely did not happen.  Nevertheless, it seems quite possible that the structure itself was imported, and was then adapted into the culture of the Hohokam people.  Perhaps for games, perhaps for dancing, or perhaps even both.

Interestingly, the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins was likely built around the year 1050.   Its actually possible that, whatever its purpose, the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins was one of the last ball courts built by the Hohokom, as by the year 1100, no more ball courts were being constructed anywhere by the Hohokom.   Something had shifted or changed in the Hohokom culture, and the use of the ball court was fading in to history.  Indeed,  it is worth noting that the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins would not be constructed until some 200 years later.

Thus, even though today we visit the Great House and the ball court at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and see them almost side-by-side with each other, the two structures actually represent centuries of habitation here by the Hohokam people.

In Part II of the Valley of the Hohokam Trip Report, I’ll delve a bit further into the history and present of the Hohokom people as I write about the experience of visiting Hohokam Pima National Monument, which preserves a settlement whose significance in many ways predates that of Casa Grande Ruins.

A parting shot of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, including the historic National Park Service sign.
A parting shot of the Great House at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, including the historic National Park Service sign.



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