Native Peoples of North America

Agricultural Societies In Pre-European Times

Southwestern U.S. and Northwestern Mexico


Mogollon | Anasazi | Hohokam

   Long ago when all the animals talked like people, Turkey overheard a boy begging his sister for food. "What does your little brother want?" he asked the girl. "He's hungry, but we have nothing to eat," she said.
   When Turkey heard this, he shook himself all over. Many kinds of fruits &wild food dropped out of his body, and the brother &sister ate these up. Turkey shook himself again, and a variety of corn that is very large dropped out of his feathers. He shook himself a third time, and yellow corn dropped out. And when he shook himself for the fourth time, white corn dropped out.
   Bear came over, and Turkey told him, "I'm helping to feed my sister &my brother, over there." Bear said, "You can shake only four times to make food come out of you, but I have every kind of food on me, from my feet to my head."

    - White Mountain Apache Legend


In the Mogollon highlands of what is now the southwestern part of the U.S., horticultural traditions began to emerge from Archaic beginnings several thousands of years ago. People were dependent on raised crops for a significant part of their diet, though wild plants and small game animals were also important. Then sometime between A.D. 200 - 700 pottery and agricultural crops arrived from Mexico, greatly enhancing the already rich native American heritage and giving rise to several major cultural traditions, each occupying a distinctive ecological niche, and each developing differentially partly because of differing environmental conditions. Although basically agricultural, these societies also gathered the seeds, fruits, nuts, roots, and/or leaves of many wild plant species, as well as hunting small to medium sized game animals.Map showing geographical distribution of Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon

While these three are considered the highwater marks of native American cultural development in the arid North American desert west, they are not the only ones. At least two other cultural traditions also flowered in this region:

The geographical extents of all these traditions often overlapped in real-time, with some communities occasionally participating simultaneously in two different cultural traditions. At other times, the overlap was the result of one tradition contracting and an adjacent one expanding into the abandoned area. The map at right shows the maximum extent of each tradition. Please keep in mind that these five traditions did not reach their maximum extent simultaneously. Also, several of these traditions (Anasazi, Mogollon, Patayan) had shrunk in geographical extent while others had perhaps disappeared (Hohokam, Fremont) by the time the Spanish arrived in the late 16th - early 17th centuries.

Displays distinctive architectural &pottery styles that were widely used within relatively small geographical areas.

ANASAZIPicture of Mesa Verde
The high desert of the Colorado Plateau, a region characterized by high mesas and deep canyons with springs &streams (that are often dry except for spring runoff and storms), has been home to native Americans for thousands of years. For most of history, the region was occupied by archaic foragers. Then around two thousand years ago horticulture (in the form of maize &squash) & villages of pit houses began to appear in the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, & Colorado, signalling the beginning of the Anasazi tradition. Because the people of this time did not use or make pottery but relied on an extensive inventory of baskets they are called "Basketmaker." Then between A.D. 700 & 1000 people added pottery to their material culture inventory as well as abandoning their pithouses in favor of very distinctive multiroom apartment complexes, ushering in the so-called "Pueblo" period. The photo at the left is of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, Colorado. It is the largest cliff dwelling in the United States, containing more than 200 rooms and nearly two dozen kivas (semisubterranean religious structures). It was built by the Anasazi between 600 AD and 1300 AD.

Evolutionary Development
Traditionally divide Anasazi history into two large periods, "Basketmaker" &"Pueblo." The former develops out of an archaic base, adding to the archaic peoples cultural inventory a wide variety of new elements including agriculture, permanent houses, careful burial, and long-term living in one spot.

Today, the descendants of the Anasazi live at various Puebloan communities in Arizona and New Mexico, such as Hope, Zia, Taos, and others.

Key Features

The key to understanding how the Anasazi (as well as the Hohokam &Mogollon) were able to develop a rich culture in difficult environmental settings lies in how they managed WATER. As farmers on mesas &in the desert they were superbly ingenious in saving water. Their farms were more like gardens, small patches of land located wherever there was water:

The scorching Sonoran desert of central &southern Arizona was the homeland of the Hohokam. There they became accomplished desert-dwelling farmers who built hundreds of miles of irrigation canals, erected substantial earthen platform mounds, &carried on a thriving trade with distant central Mexican civilizations. There is little agreement with regard to Hohokam history prior to A.D. 600. Hohokam roots run far back into the archaic period, but the actual orgins are debated. At one time, archaeologists believed that certain defining traits of the Hohokam were of Mexican origin &that the Hohokam represented a colonial intrusion from Mexico. However, since the 1970s this view has fallen into disfavor with archaeologists now prefering a more complex interpretation involving in-place evolution from a local, nonagricultural base, along with trade &ceremonial interaction with cultures in Mexico. (For a more detailed look at the evolution from Archaic gatherers &hunters into the agricultural Hohokam look at A Symposium on the Late Archaic to Hohokam Transition in Southern Arizona).

Some researchers believe the Hohokam tradition began as early as 300 B.C., while others feel this is much too early a date and propose a start date as late as A.D. 300 or even 500. Whenever it started, it reached its characteristic pattern of ball courts, extensive canal irrigation systems, earthen platform mounds, copper bells, etc. after A.D. 800.

Evolutionary Development
Archaeologists recognize &name five developmental periods in Hohokam history:

Key Traits
Four of the most outstanding characteristics of the Hohokam are their ballcourts, stepped earthen platform mounds, use of canal irrigation, and their impressive artistry in acid-etching shell. The first three are believed to be imports from Mexico, while acid-etching may have been indigenous to the Hohokam. Because the ballcourts &earthen platform mounds are found together in central communities, archaeologists suggest that these larger communties controlled nearby smaller communities and the irrigation canals that served them all, which in turn suggests a chiefdom level of sociopolitical organization for the Hohokam.

Maize, beans, squash, and peppers (chiles) were dietary staples for the Hohokam, but mesquite beans and the fruit of the saguaro &cholla cacti were also important. Hohokam farmers used canal irrigation to extract two crops annually:

Crops were planted in late February and harvested in late June - early July, then the fields were planted a second time in late July - early August and harvest in late October - early November. In between the first harvest and the second planting, the people went into the surrounding countryside to harvest wild plant foods, including the desireable saguaro fruit. Then in late September to early October, mesquite beans were harvested.

Settlement Patterns
Archaeologists recognize four basic settlement types: villages, hamlets, farmsteads, and field houses:

Hohokam pit houseBefore A.D. 1300 homes within a village tended to be distributed somewhat randomly with people living in rectangular pithouses built of wattle-and -daub (i.e., framework covered with mats and grass, followed by a covering of mud) with roofs of either thatch (for sloped roofs) or mud (for flat roofs). After A.D. 1300 pithouses were no longer built. Instead , people began living in dried mud houses built entirely above ground. One of the best examples of this type of village is the Great House at Casa Grande. Some Hohokam villages were enclosed in by walls (perhaps as a result of influences coming from the Salado tradition).

For an excellent web site with tons of information on Southwestern Archaeology, take a look at Southwestern Archaeology. At the bottom of the list, you will find each of the Four Corners states represented with detailed information and images on each of the cultures discussed above.

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Page last updated 14 October 2002.