Ancient Hohokam ruins in downtown Phoenix

Pueblo Grande is an ancient ruin in the middle of Phoenix and just a short drive from the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn. The Hohokam people settled at Pueblo Grande around AD 450 and lived in the area for over 1000 years and then left. What happened to the Hohokam? Why did they leave? My brother Mark and I visited the site and walked along the interpretive trail which travels around the remains of the prehistoric Hohokam’s platform mound, ball court, and reconstructed homes to try and answer those questions.

Pueblo Grande received only 7 inches of rain annually. The story of how the Hohokam transformed their harsh environment is the story of civil engineering on a grand scale. Using just sticks and baskets, the Hohokam designed, built and maintained a network of canals, some ten miles long. A map at the site showed us the extent of their engineering. The 1,000 to 2,500 people who lived here grew cotton, corn, beans and squash on over 10,000 acres of land. That seems like a remarkable area of cultivation to me!

The reason for the demise of the Hohokam is unclear. Unlike other abandoned ruins where drought was thought to be the reason for leaving, it’s theorized the reason the Hohokam left Pueblo Grande was flooding. But there is another explanation. The nearby Pima Indians claim that they were responsible for the Hohokam’s demise. According to Pima legend, Pueblo Grande was the last Hohokam stronghold in the Salt and Gila River valleys to resist their onslaught. In a fierce battle, the Pima’s hero, Elder Brother, killed the Hohokam’s chief and the conquest was complete. The Pima word Hohokam means, “those that have perished.”

While Pueblo Grande fell into ruin, the Hohokam canals were so well designed and built that early settlers used them to irrigate their own farms and ranches. According the local utility company, Salt River Project, many of the canals SRP uses today were originally built by the Hohokam. Today, the SRP canals that surround Pueblo Grande are the legacy of the Hohokam.

Mark and I walked slowly around Pueblo Grande in the warm spring sunshine. Miller's Room was named after Dr. Joshua Miller, President of Arizona Antiquarian Association, who conducted the first excavation of Pueblo Grande in 1901. The site was donated to the City of Phoenix in 1924. Phoenix became the first city in the nation to hire a City Archaeologist.

We continued walking around the site. Archaeologists believe this room functioned as a calendar for the ancient Hohokam people. For two days only - the summer and winter solstice - a shaft of light aligns with these two doorways and signals the midpoint of the solar annual cycle. Archaeologists also noted that the doors align with the natural rock formation know as "Hole in the Rock," identified in the photo with the red arrow. That’s the namesake of the lounge at the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn! 

On the northeast corner Mark and I could clearly see the construction of the Pueblo Grande platform mound. The platform is the size of a football field and 25 feet tall. The platform was filled with ¾ of a million cubic feet of fill. What was the reason for spending so much energy building this structure? There are 50 platform mounds like Pueblo Grande in Arizona, nearly half in the Salt River valley, and those are spaced evenly, three miles apart along the ancient canals. Were they used for food storage? Religious or spiritual purposes? Perhaps future archeologists will be able to answer those questions.

We examined the Hohokam ball court. There are over 200 ball courts in the Southwest, but this one here at Pueblo Grande is one of the few that have been excavated. The ball game was probably played with a rounded stone or ball made of resin. Mark speculated that the space might have also been used for ceremonies or to greet important visitors. Perhaps the two uses were combined - the game and then a kind of half-time show like at today’s National Football League games. Ball games were played from South America to Canada and this common experience must have helped ancient cultures relate to one another, just as World Cup soccer or the Olympics do for us today.

My brother stood in a replica of an ancient Hohokam home called a Pit House. The wooden frame was covered with a thick layer of adobe. Mark could stand up inside the house because the height of the structure was exaggerated due to modern building codes. Still, no matter what height, the thick walls of the Pit House would have helped the Hohokam to remain cool in hot weather and warm in winter with just a small fire warm. Life must have been pleasant for the Hohokam.

Today, efficient dams hold-back and divert the Salt River for drinking, industry and agriculture, so that the river bed is almost always dusty-dry, but when the Hohokam lived here the river ran year-round. The Hohokam built the largest network of canals in prehistoric America. Reeds at river’s edge provided fibers for domestic use and fish, and the abundant wildlife supplemented their crops. Life was good – good enough for the Hohokam civilization to last twice as long as the Roman Empire in Western Europe. While today’s Pueblo Grande is a hot and barren patch of dirt in the middle of a cacophony of trains, planes, trucks and cars, to the Hohokam, for a millennium, this must have been the Garden of Eden.

For directions and more information about Pueblo Grande, click here and select Native American Ruins from the Attractions drop-down list.

Story and photos by Bret Wirta with information provided at the Pueblo Grande site by the City of Phoenix.