Phoenix Falling?

Will Phoenix continue to boom … or bust entirely? The answer may lie in the ancient Hohokam city buried beneath.

  • Phoenix now and then

  • A Hohokam dwelling from Neolithic times, now preserved in the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument outside Phoenix

  • Phoenix today

  • A map shows how modern canals follow the contours of ancient ones

  • Archaeologist Emil Haury stands in an excavated Hohokam canal at the Snaketown site near Phoenix, circa 1964

  • An archaeologist unearths the remains of an ancient Hohokam structure that was discovered when the old Phoenix Civic Plaza was demolished

  • Charlie Ester, a hydrologist with the Salt River Project, on one of the canals that carries Phoenix’s lifeblood

  • Cory Breternitz, president of Soil Systems Inc., on a dig near Phoenix

  • Archaeologist Tom Wright looks at Hohokam drawings on rocks above what’s now Tempe, Arizona


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When archaeologists hint that the end is near, it is important to remember they are working in millennial timescales. Government officials and businesspeople cheer every time Phoenix has yet one more season of record-breaking prosperity; archaeologists eye our downfall from centuries away. Some say Phoenix has 300 years to go, some guess it’s more like 50. Either way, they agree the end of this luminous city is inevitable.

After the Hohokam civilization dwindled and fell in the 15th century A.D., unattended adobe buildings crumbled. All that remained when Anglo settlers arrived were lone-standing walls and half-rooms. A thin layer of arid, buff-colored dust covered everything on the ground. Now, many Hohokam remains tend to lie a mere six inches below the city surface. When you park your car and step out, there is a good chance you are walking across meticulously arranged burials or cremations, or the sunken field of a pre-Columbian ballcourt.

Until recently, most modern construction in the city was shallow, with simple foundation slabs; there were few basements. But development has been going deeper, with underground parking and taller buildings that require substantial foundations, so much more of the Hohokam is coming to light. At the same time, more stringent laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, require thorough archaeological inventories whenever someone digs. Skeletons and ancient cremation vessels are now being excavated, catalogued, and handed over to desert tribes, the O’odham and the Akimel, that bury them again on their reservations.

More has been learned about the Hohokam over the past several years than in the previous several decades. As Phoenix witnesses exponential growth, archaeologists are being sent out in droves to examine proposed construction sites and collect artifacts. Fantastic maps have been prepared, illustrating a Hohokam city more widespread and complex than previously thought.

The Hohokam picture we now see is a marketplace spread over a broad desert valley ruled for 1,500 years by Stone Age farmers. Reddish adobe buildings were clustered into innumerable courtyard communities. Busy trade routes stretched north to Colorado and south into Mexico, while local goods were produced on an industrial level, different parts of the city specializing in their own manufacture. Large water containers came from the base of South Mountain, kitchenware from the north shores of the Salt River, and richly painted pottery from settlements a day’s walk to the south.

I spoke with Todd Bostwick, head archaeologist for the city of Phoenix, and he explained that the Hohokam landscape was expertly mapped for the manipulation of water. They were farming every spot of land they could dampen. Bostwick recognizes an abundance of water symbols in Hohokam iconography, waterbirds painted on vessels, seashells carved into frogs. He believes that water was the crux of Hohokam sacredness and livelihood.

“The main difference between us and them,” Bostwick said, “is that they were constrained by principles of gravity. We brought pumps.” He thought about it, and added that we can also build massive dams for storage. I asked Bostwick if these pumps and dams would be enough to keep our own civilization from falling the way the Hohokam fell. He smiled, shrewd eyes probing from behind his glasses. “I’m the city archaeologist,” Bostwick said. “It’s a delicate matter. I don’t think I should speak to that.”


I went into the field, figuring I would get answers about Phoenix’s past — and future — from archaeologists digging in the dirt with their wood-handled trowels. They were working salvage archaeology, clearing the way for oncoming development. I found none who believes our newly formed desert civilization will last. Many say our tailspin has already begun.

“Personally, I’m terrified,” Banks Leonard, a bearded archaeologist wearing a dirty T-shirt and digging up artifacts in west Phoenix for a prestigious archaeology firm, told me.

Smoking a cigarette out of the corner of his mouth, Leonard named various catastrophes in the making, a litany of worldwide emergencies. He sees a future of global warming; imperial American warfare; internal, national conflict over water; and general environmental degradation. He believes Phoenix will be one of the early dominos that will fall in a larger arena of collapse.

Like many of his colleagues, Leonard sees modern Phoenix as fragile, its economy and infrastructure booming out of control, demanding more water all the time. At the moment, the city has ample surplus, but with drought deepening and demand increasing, the projected future supply is in question.

At the same time, migrants are pouring into the city at an unprecedented rate, arriving from the Midwest, Canada, Central America. Though greater Phoenix is nearly 80 percent English-speaking white, pockets of ethnicity are growing rapidly. There are places in the city nearly identical to urban Mexico, with colorful tiendas lining the blocks, Latin polkas and raggaeton booming from radios.

Based on study of the oldest languages now spoken in the Southwest, there appear to have been seven different tongues in Phoenix during the Hohokam reign. To get a sense of what languages are spoken here now, I talked with Betsy Brandt, a linguist at Arizona State University. “We have a quarter of a million recent immigrants who speak Spanish. About 50 percent of urban Indians speak Navajo,” Brandt said. “We now have a lot of workers from India and Pakistan, and just recently a major influx of refugees from Africa, from Kenya, Somalia, from central African countries, North African countries.” In the suburb of Tempe alone, 92 different languages are spoken as primary home languages, Brandt said.

All of this has an uncanny resemblance to the Hohokam situation: incoming migrants from distant ethnicities, urban sprawl, pressure on a once-abundant water supply, and growing drought.

At his dig site, Leonard said, “They built to the carrying capacity of the land, and then they tumbled. We just don’t know the carrying capacity of the land with the technology we have now. You know what I think? I think we’re there.

“I think it’s just about time for the fall.”