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A Fuzzy Glimpse at a World Past

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Published: June 16th 2017

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Slapping mud in 2′ piles and grinding mesquite pods for flour won’t pass for fun in any culture, but it meant survival for the Hohokam (Ho-ho-KAHM) Indians.

Ruins of Casa Grande, or Great House, are still in really good condition considering they’ve been exposed to brutal wind, torrential rains and the unrelenting sun for 700 years. They say it is the largest prehistoric structure ever built in North America.

It wasn’t built of adobe bricks. It wasn’t even built of adobe. The soil here is called caliche, a concrete-like mixture of sand, clay, and calcium carbonate (limestone) and it dries as hard as concrete.

They “palmed” the mud into courses about 2′ thick, let it dry, then slapped some more up there, building this thing 4 stories high, 60′ long and 40′ wide. Walls face the cardinal points of the compass; there’s a window high up on the western wall that pinpoints light at a specific spot during summer solstice; others that line up sun and moon at other times of the year.

Completed in 1350 AD at pretty much the end of their civilization, they’d already been in the desert southwest for a thousand years.

Standing amongst the remains of a

ruined village from a past world, you really get a sense of how minuscule our lives are by comparison. We live for a nanosecond and are gone and all that’s left is a pile of mud to mark the passing.

These people built irrigation systems a thousand years ago that are the basis for today’s southwest agriculture. The Gila river drains all of southern Arizona and they had such an extensive system of canals from it they could bring water from high in the mountains so it could flow down towards their fields planted on mesas above the village. You realize what a feat this must have been when you see how FLAT this country is and how far away the mountains are.

Now there are dams on the Gila that remove ALL the water from the river and divert it into canals so the river bed below is completely dry. Of course, when they did that, all the Mesquite trees died. Died. Their roots run 75′ deep and they died.

In the beginning of the 20th century the water table here in the Phoenix/Tuscon area was 15-20′ deep; now in some places it’s over 700′ deep.

But when the Hohokam grew their

crops here there was water–sometimes too much. Towards the latter part of the 1400’s the spring floods wiped out their canals and they had to start over. Eventually they just gave up.

Now cotton is grown in these fields. Acres and acres of cotton. We stopped and picked some because growing up in the northwest, I’d never seen a cotton plant. Cotton came in t shirts and stuff.

But back to the Hohokam–in their prime they also built oval shaped ball courts with short steep sides–presumably so the balls could bounce off the walls and back onto the court. Only I don’t think they’d play well today as it’s thought they probably sacrificed the losers to the gods.

Or the supposed ball courts had nothing to do with sports and archaeologists are making it all up, because really, these people left no written record.

Vandalism, weather, souvenir hunting, graffiti–it was headed for oblivion until 1892 when President Harrison declared it and one square mile of Arizona territory surrounding it, the first prehistoric and cultural preserve in the United States.

In 1903 a tin roof shelter was built over it. This was replaced in 1932 with the present steel structure, however, the original roof

was intact as late as 1762.

It’s not grand in the style of the pyramids or the Taj, but it’s fitting for this unforgiving land that a place of mystery and wonder is simply piled mud.


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