Kashyapa A.S. Yapa


A startled jackrabbit jumped from its sagebrush hideout and bounced over cobbles toward a mesquite grove further away.  A band of flycatchers sprang out of the saltbush nearby and flew away chirping their complaints aloud.  A dune lizard poked his head around a big boulder and lashed his tongue out at the intruders for disturbing his slumber.  Acknowledging our error, we tiptoed forward, while tuning our ears to the silence of the barren landscape. 

John Andrews, our guide, broke the silence, “Can you imagine how placid this site would have been only 600 years ago, with water running full, rustling the grassy banks of these two canals?” 
“What canals?”
“You are standing on the bank of one,” said John pointing to the little ridge where we stood.  “The other is beyond the next ridge.” 

A Hohokam canal

Only then I noticed the long trough right in front of me, some fifteen feet wide and eight deep.  About ten yards away, a similar depression marred the otherwise flat ground.  All right, they don’t look like natural washes, but since you see so much construction around, they could as well be just another set of ditches.  Wait…  Didn’t he say 600 years ago?  Bulldozers didn’t exist then!

“Well, the people we call Hohokam were building these canals since the time of Christ.  And, the only tool we know they had is a digging stick” John seemed to have read my mind.  “Imagine the effort they put into their agricultural infrastructure –we have traced more than 300 miles of main canals, like these, only in the lower Salt River valley!”

The two troughs branched-off from the old Salt River channel and ran 300 yards towards the rail tracks now blocking their path.  Their knowledge of surveying amazed me: two large canals, beginning at the same point, but serving different areas, should be built with different bed slopes –not an easy task in this vast, flat terrain.

The refreshing morning breeze drifted my mind into the past.  Dozens of canoes, large and small, graciously meander along the canals, their guiding poles bowing rhythmically to greet the passers-by.  A boy squat by the house at the turn-off of a secondary canal, his fishing pole bowing deep to reciprocate the greetings.  In the fields, tall stalks of corn, laden with fat ears, also wave with the wind.  The desert has turned green here, the foliage of beans and squash covering every inch of land between feeder canals.  A woman dips her big clay pot into a canal and tiptoes among her plants feeding them the precious liquid.  “The Hohokam made the desert bloom,” John brought me back to reality.

A modern canal

Under the hot, dry Arizona sun, I can barely dig a foot deep pit in a day for my compost pile.  Building so many large canals, then the smaller distribution canals, and leveling the fields for irrigation, not to speak of the required periodic maintenance…  That already needed a battalion of dedicated workers.  Yet, canals weren’t the only things the Hohokam built.

These canals formed an integral part of a major Hohokam settlement, called Pueblo Grande, now partially restored and preserved as a Phoenix cultural park.  The central piece of attraction at the park, though, is a 20-foot tall platform mound, covering an area the size of a football field.  

Platform mound at Pueblo Grande

John made me imagine a traveler in 1150 AD, when Pueblo Grande was a bustling city, walking past the Tempe Buttes and down the Salt River.  Lying straight ahead of him, rising from the desert valley against the silhouettes of White Tank Mountains, this monumental ceremonial center would call on the weary traveler immediately.  Coming closer, he would see a massive stone and clay masonry wall, taller than him.  “But, where is the entrance?”  There is none!  The Hohokam kept the access to the compound restricted, probably permitting only their invitees for certain religious activities performed inside. 

If he were allowed in, he would see a beehive!  In the Northwest corner, groups of women busily preparing food for the festivities, squatting by many outdoor hearths.  Inside the big adjacent room, a religious ceremony continued, with the large crowd spilling over to the courtyards.  Some workers constantly brought out food and other items from the storage rooms in the back.  He would notice that some other rooms have no doorways at all.  He may only wonder what goes on inside because he would hear nothing, the walls being so thick!  The religious elite had their residential compounds in here too.  Some, a couple of stories tall.  One special room had a Juniper roof!  Must be the high priest’s.  But the excesses were rare because here, unlike in other communities, the elite led humble lives.

By 1400 AD, Pueblo Grande was in decline.  Yet, even today, the massive compound wall stands proud.  You can go up a ramp and into the compound to inspect a few rooms on public display.  Why, you wonder, they don’t dig up all the rooms and restore them for the public to admire?  Archaeologists have learned a lesson.  Once the roof structures decomposed, the adobe walls could not stand much longer the beating wind and the lashing rain.  But the desert blessed the pyramid with a protective cover of blowing dust.  So, to preserve a part of the structure for future generations, instead of asking the taxpayers to foot the bill for another multi-million-dollar stadium-roof, the archaeologists simply covered their excavations with the same dirt.

At one corner of the Cultural Park, a large ball court invites you to an indoor soccer game.  A half wall of piled up earth rings the 70 feet long and 30 feet wide oval sunken floor of the court.  In this truly public activity area, people would gather around or sit on the boundary wall and watch selected players pushing a flat disc (“ball”) past one another.

Ball court at Pueblo Grande

According to John, these ball games have a long history, especially south of the border.  They formed an important link between the human beings and the universe.  The players represented the deities, struggling to control the universe through rain, thunder and fire, and the outcome of their struggle affected the fertility of the Earth, hence the survival of the man.

The modern building at the entrance, the museum, welcomes you to the park seven days a week.  It houses many artifacts, recovered not only from Pueblo Grande archaeological site, but also from other locations around Phoenix area, and tells the story of the Hohokam.  A documentary film first sets your mind in the time of Hohokam, whence you can easily appreciate the use of each artifact.  At one end of the museum, the Kids’ Corner teaches them how the Hohokam made good use of everything that you find in a desert.

Unfortunately you cannot visit the site of old canals, called the Park of Four Waters, during a routine visit.  Currently, guided tours take you to the site only once a month (from October to April), on the last Saturday.  Though located just a skip and a jump from the museum, the curators haven’t figured out a safe, unsupervised passage across the rail tracks to get to the canal site.

Irrigation canals in Salt River valley

And you would think that there exist other localities around Phoenix where you can admire a stretch of these snaking engineering marvels of the Hohokam.  “Not a single site other than this is open to the public!” disclosed John, while contemplating the museum relief map, where a maze of blue canals meander through hundreds of brown cubes (pueblos) covering the entire valley of Phoenix.  “Well,” sighed John, “most of the rest have been bulldozed!” 

18th January 2000.

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