Spur Cross Conservation Area near Cave Creek, Arizona is known not only for wild flowers galore in spring, a diversity of hiking trails, a beautiful creek flowing through the area, but also for a rich archeological and historical heritage. There are about 100 archeological sites left by an ancient people, Hohokam Indians, who inhabited this area from 700 A. D. to 1200 A. D. There were 13 of us, curious about the mysterious Hohokam culture, who gathered at the ranger station at Spur Cross early in the morning for a Hohokam Ruins hike. Our hike was led by Ranger Kevin, who took us to two archeological sites and told us a lot about the Hohokam and their ways of life, which was different from the Hohokam who lived along the rivers.
The Hohokam lived in Arizona, northern Mexico, and southeastern New Mexico from about 450 A.D. to 1450 A.D. They lived along the Salt and Gila Rivers of Central Arizona, the San Pedro and Santa Cruz Rivers of Southern Arizona and the Verde, New, and Agua Fria Rivers in the North. The Hohokam Indians are known as the first native people in North America to build an extensive and sophisticated irrigating system of canals. They were sedentary farmers, who survived in the harsh climate of Arizona. They planted and grew crops of corn, squash, and beans.
The Hohokam produced beautiful pottery. It was typically buff color with red painted ornaments of geometric design or bands of floral motifs. Scientists also found figurines of humans and animals made of fired clay. The Hohokam cremated their dead. They traded with Indians, who lived in Mexico, and with tribes from the Gulf of California. Scientists discovered jewelry made of sea shells from the Pacific coast, turquoise necklaces, copper bells and macaw feathers from Mexico. They also found ceramic pots and mirrors, made of fool’s gold, from Mesoamerica.
The Hohokam built ball courts, which they used for games, and platform mounds that looked like the stone pyramids built by the Incas in Central Mexico. Building and maintaining an irrigation system and growing crops required lots of work. The typical village in the Salt River and the Gila River areas contained more than one hundred residents. The Hohokam’s system of canals in the Salt River Valley was able to sustain a population from 50,000 to 80,000 people between 1100 A.D. and 1450 A.D.
The word Hohokam is an English version of the O’odham word “huhugam” which means “the people, who disappeared.” Nobody knows why Hohokam disappeared. Some scientists consider that a series of major floods, which destroyed their irrigation system, was the reason. Others think that their fields were contaminated by salt build up and they could not grow any crops. Still others blame intertribal conflicts and wars. Scientists have evidence of a large migration from the Four Corners area to the south in the 1200s A.D. due to a major draught, but the southwest was abandoned by the Hohokam by the mid 15 century. However, Akimel (Pima) O’odham, Tohono (Papago) O’odham, and Maricopa Indians, who are considered the Hohokam decedents, live in Arizona now. Our guide told us that there is no scientific proof of that because the Indians of these tribes refuse to take DNA tests.
We started to hike Tortuga trail, crossed the creek, and hiked up the hill for a while. The trail was lined with blooming Ocotillo. It’s thin and prickly; wire like branches, covered with soft, tiny green leaves and tussled with fluffy orange flowers, were reaching to the blue sky, like the hands of a shaman in a prayer for rain.
At some point, known only by the ranger, he left the main trail and led us along a barely seen trail. There, in the middle of the desert, among a thick overgrowth of shrubs, cacti, and yellow marigold flowers, surrounded by saguaros and ocotillo we stumbled upon a Hohokam house or more likely what was left of it. It was rectangular and about 15 feet wide and 20 feet long. What was left of the walls was about 1 to 2 feet high and built of large rocks. The walls were about 1 to 2 feet thick with an entrance gap in one of them. It was one of the several adjacent houses, which formed a compound around a central plaza. It use to be part of a lively village, comprised of a few compounds, with each compound housing an extended family.
The people of the village hunted deer and rabbits. They ground corn and agave seeds on metate (a flat stone for grinding seeds and corn) with a help of mano (handheld stone, used in grinding). They cooked their meal on a fireplace, which was laid next to the wall of their house. They gathered around a fire in the central plaza or courtyard, cooked meals and shared them with their extended family. Children played in the safety of the central plaza. Prayers and ceremonial dances were performed by a tribal shaman around the fire.
Now these houses are piles of rocks, covered with moss. The Hohokam of the Spur Cross area did not do farming because the terrain was not good for working fields and planting crops. Archeologists assumed that they stole crops from Hohokam, who lived in the valleys of the Salt River and the Gila River. Farmers could not tolerate constant stealing and retaliated with violence.
Initially, the Spur Cross Hohokam lived close to the creek. Later they moved to higher ground to protect themselves and their families. There were also fortresses built on the top of mesas and mountains. The fortress, built on the top of Elephant Mountain, is an example of a defensive structure. This fortress can be seen far away and is part of a chain of fortresses stretching from the Salt River Valley to the Bradshaw Mountains in the vicinity of Prescott. The Hohokam could send a warning signal about approaching enemies by lighting a fire. The smoke can be seen from the neighboring fortresses.
Ranger Kevin also told us that feathers of macaw and sea shell ornaments were found in the area, which indicates trading ties with tribes from Mexico and the Gulf of California. He told us that petroglyphs are not easy to find. They are mostly hidden, possibly because the constant threat of attack made Hohokam hide their dwellings.
Before we moved to the second site, Ranger Kevin pointed out the nest of a cactus wren, built on the top of a teddy bear cholla. Then, we took a barely visible trail on the other side of Tortuga trail. The trail to the site meandered between ocotillo and other cacti.
When we reached the second site, the last person in our group exclaimed: “A rattlesnake!” She almost stepped on the snake which everybody in the group had passed by. The snake coiled behind a rock and perfectly blended with the brown color of the desert soil.
At the second site, our guide showed us a metate and other rocks, used as hammers and grinding stones. He also pointed out a few sherds of broken pottery with a buff color. Kevin also told us that he found a few arrowheads on this site. The site contained a few adjacent houses with a large courtyard in the middle. The color of the rocks of one house was different. The rocks had a pink hue, which was not native to the Spur Cross area. Ranger Kevin thought that the pink house was possibly a place for worship and had a special purpose and significance. The Hohokam carried the rocks from a distant quarry a few miles away.
The Hohokam abandoned the area after 1200 A.D. and it’s a mystery why and where they went.
On our way back we caught up with a baby tortoise, which clumsily climbed on one side of Tortuga trail. As a final surprise there was another diamondback rattlesnake, which was warming up on the main trail, oblivious to humans. People surrounded her and she lazily crawled into shrubs annoyed by excessive attention.
I really enjoyed this hike and found it quite informative.
Ancient Ruins and Rock Art of the Southwest. David Grant Noble. Fourth Edition. Taylor Trade Publishing