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Know the West

Phoenix Falling?

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


The helicopter came in like revelation itself, a gash of white light hitting the desert, and a terrible bellow of rotors. Heart pounding, waking straight out of sleep, I took a second to get my bearings. I was in my sleeping bag under a scrawny palo verde tree, not enough cover to hide me from a Phoenix police helicopter scouring the dry mountainside for criminals and indigents. I held tight and waited for the light to find me. Before it did, the helicopter suddenly withdrew, like a claw yanked back into the sky. I sat up and watched it veer across the incandescent grid of the city, a brilliant tapestry of light rolled out to every horizon.

I was not in the wilderness, not even on its edge. I was in the middle of Phoenix, camped illegally on Lookout Mountain, part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, hemmed on all sides by streaming freeways and traffic lights. I watched the helicopter as long as I could, until it was swallowed by the city.

The dark mountains of Phoenix have always attracted me. At night, they seem like a sanctuary. Suspended over the baritone rumble of the city, I found better sleep here, even with the helicopters, than in a motel on scratchy sheets. Beyond comfort, though, Lookout Mountain gave me a vantage on the city, a place where I could see an entire lay of urban ancestry.

In high school, I used to climb these mountains, my Friday nights spent bedazzled by the lights below. That was more than 20 years ago, and since then the population of greater Phoenix has more than doubled to nearly 4 million residents, its lights now saturating the sky, blotting out all but the brightest stars. The sight used to be awe-inspiring, and now it is almost terrifying.

Growing faster than any other population center in the nation, Phoenix is balanced on an environmental tightrope. Thirty new skyscrapers are proposed for downtown alone, while metastatic sprawl carves up surrounding desert. At the moment, there is a robust water supply — for greater Phoenix alone — but the city’s water-wealth has created a growing inequity in the state. Even while Phoenix has become Arizona’s solitary Green Zone, depending almost entirely on water imported from mountain reservoirs and the Colorado River, it is having its own problems, whole pieces of land subsiding into falling water tables. Phoenix seems either on the verge of unparalleled success or catastrophic failure. At this point, it might be hard to tell the difference between the two.

This is not the first time unchecked growth has filled the Valley of the Sun. If you lift the rug of Phoenix, buried directly below you will find the remains of an ancient city, a Neolithic version of Phoenix. The first communities appeared in the low basin of the Salt River 3,000 years ago, as shown by remains recently discovered under the new Phoenix Convention Center. From there, prehistoric settlements took an escalating course of empire, filling the basin to overflowing. They sprawled all the way south to Tucson, while satellite communities appeared even north of Flagstaff. They grew until they were no longer able to sustain themselves. Then, their civilization fell.

They are known as the Hohokam, a Pima word meaning “all used up.” The doubled first syllable accentuates the sentiment, telling of a people that completely burned itself out. When Anglo settlers arrived shortly after the American Civil War, they found a desert studded with grand adobe ruins, vestiges of an inexplicable culture. They called their new settlement Phoenix, imagining themselves rising from the ashes of a lost city.

Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I looked across Phoenix and it seemed resplendent, unassailable. My eye moved along seamless corridors of light where the once lonely towns of Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Goodyear converged, absorbed into a greater municipality. Curiously, these lights define the same settlement patterns archaeologists have found among Hohokam communities. The two cities overlap as if made for each other.

The original Anglo settlers began digging canals in the mid-1800s, and wherever they dug they unearthed the remains of Hohokam canals below. For the next 150 years, engineers planned new canals throughout this growing city, and nearly each one follows an original Hohokam grid, as if pouring water back into an ancient hydraulic empire, bringing a ghost to life. New and old waterways follow the same gradients, the same courses. The Hohokam built nearly a thousand miles of canals and laterals, quenching fields of cotton, corn, pumpkins, amaranth and beans. They filled basins for domestic water at innumerable villages and town sites. Modern Phoenix followed suit, becoming a cotton-growing mecca, a city of water in the heart of the desert. Communities sprang up in the same places that Hohokam settlements once stood. Even the saline content of modern Phoenix’s water matches the chemical signature of Hohokam water just before the fall. The two cities lie along a similar environmental trajectory, and they may face a similar end.

When archaeologists study the Hohokam, they see a civilization that finally collapsed under the weight of drought, overpopulation, and ensuing social disarray. When they look at Phoenix, they see potential for the same.

Tom Wright, a local contract archaeologist, told me, “The Hohokam kept extending their canal systems farther and farther from the river. You tend to find their later sites under present-day Chandler or out in Goodyear. They kept increasing from the valley outward. The irrigation canals were the system that fed growth. Water was the lifeblood that flowed through these communities.

“Now the lifeblood is traffic. The city grows along patterns of freeways. Water doesn’t seem to count any more. We take it for granted. But whether people know it or not, like the Hohokam, we are an irrigation society living on imported water, and we’re outstripping our resources. Sound familiar?”

Wright is not a melancholy doomsayer. Like many of his colleagues in the city, he is merely a connoisseur of the way civilizations rise and fall. He knows the signs to watch for.

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.”

According to Leonard’s timeline, the fall probably means an eventual leveling-off of growth, and a subsequent decline. It could happen tomorrow, or centuries from now. It does not mean sudden chaos in the streets, store windows smashed out. But Leonard, in his gritty, cynical voice, does not deny the possibility.

“This is the biggest civilization here so far, the most globally connected,” he said. After another drag off his cigarette, he reminded me, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”


What could the fall look like? First, you have to look at the rise. For more than four centuries, the Hohokam were at their prime, living in a grand oasis. The Salt River flowed out of the highlands of eastern Arizona, supplying reliable water to the Phoenix Basin. Only once or twice in most people’s lifetimes would there have been a noteworthy flood or drought. Canals and settlements stretched toward the horizons.

Then came the change. Donald Graybill, a researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has been piecing together the flow record of the Salt River through tree rings and layers of water deposit. He found that at the onset of the Hohokam Classic Period, around A.D. 1190 — that is, less than 1,000 years ago — weather became erratic, and the Salt River started flooding and dwindling at twice its previous rate, blowing out canals and then leaving them dry. These flood and drought events were clustered, hitting farmers year after year. Mortality rates immediately began rising.

It wasn’t just the Salt River that had trouble. All of the Southwest fell prey. The cultural landscape of the Southwest mobilized. Migrants looked for new beginnings wherever they could, displacing outlying communities, forcing masses of people into the Phoenix Basin. Populations swiftly doubled at some Hohokam sites. They all needed to be fed, and more important, they all needed water.

While migrants poured in, communities reorganized, now gathering around newly built platforms, planks of land about 10 feet tall, upon which walled-in, multistory architecture was erected. The first gated communities appeared. People were shoring themselves up, as if building castles.

Archaeologists have looked at where pottery was being made and shipped and found that people no longer traded with specialists, as they once had. Instead of relying on a centuries-old intra-Phoenix exchange network, people began making their own pottery, isolating themselves. The famously artistic tradition of red-on-buff ceramics ended, overwhelmed by an influx of polychrome styles more representative of migrant populations. Meanwhile, new canals were being built higher in the drainage area, depriving downstream users of what little water was available.

Disease and malnutrition spread. At first, women and children took much of the brunt, but men ultimately perished at the same increased rate. Excavations of burials at the largest settlement in the city, now near today’s airport, revealed that during this period 66 out of every thousand people died each year. (Between eight and nine out of every 1,000 U.S. residents die each year, according to government statistics.)

At a dig site in downtown Tempe, a suburb surrounded by Phoenix, 176 burials were recently unearthed from beneath a parking lot. One was a 15-year-old girl with osteoporosis and scoliosis, her ribs painfully deformed, spine bending like a river. Her burial had been richly furnished with goods dating to the Hohokam decline.

Originally, archaeologists thought they would just go in for a cursory check, quickly giving the OK to start construction on a new transit center. Eight months later, they are still on their hands and knees, scraping up two acres of Hohokam rooms and buildings.

Eric Cox, leader of the dig, walked me through his site while traffic rumbled past; ruins stood ankle-high around us, chopped down by centuries of wear and progress. Cox was trying to close the excavation and make way for a new light-rail station, but his crews kept finding more burials, and by law they had to dig until all were accounted for.

During the drought, Cox said, the Hohokam were burying people under rooms and beneath courtyards, some stacked on top of each other to accommodate the number of bodies. Infant mortality rates had doubled.

“In this area we had mostly women and infants,” Cox said, raising his voice as one passenger jet after the next climbed over his head. “We had a lot of young women. One was actually buried with a neonatal skull; looked like she possibly had a miscarriage, and it killed them both. This house over here, we had a female buried with two infants, and another infant buried in the floor after this place was abandoned, and another two just north of it.”

The last Hohokam settlements were abandoned some time in the 15th century, and these were merely shanties that had been built within the ruins of 14th century compounds. The final collapse involved a few people struggling to survive; everyone else had left, searching for homes elsewhere in the Southwest.

Like many archaeologists, Cox talks about Hohokam settlement and modern Phoenix in the same breath. Looking across his dig site, an upended graveyard of women and children, he said, “I think we’re going to carrying capacity, and then basically we’re going bust. I look around at everything we’re building, and all the people moving in. I don’t see how we can sustain it.”

As I left Cox’s site, I passed banners flying from a construction fence around the dig. The banners were printed with environmental propaganda, a soothing font on a palo verde-green background designed to calm the nerves of those driving by at reckless speeds.

“think, build and live sustainably,” one banner read.

“the future looks green…” read another.

These messages had no capital letters, as if to magnify their understatement, seeming to read:

A new transportation center is going in, serving as a light rail and bus station for the city’s new transit system. The station will be Tempe’s first truly “green” government building, the first one in the state with a desert garden installed as a roof. Bonnie Richardson, the architect who spearheaded this project, told me getting a green building approved in this city is a warlike negotiation. The building will use gray water. It will be made primarily of local materials. Natural lighting will be used so that in many parts of the building electric lights will not be needed. Richardson had to fight for all of it.

“My engineers want to throw out the water recycling system,” Richardson complained. “They tell me it’s not cost-effective. Of course it’s not. Water is too cheap out here.”

Even though Richardson sounds embattled, her voice is bright with optimism. She thinks the tide can be turned, the city saved, even as she accuses its citizenry and planners of being mostly shortsighted.

Incredulously, Richardson asked, “Do you realize new buildings are rarely designed to last more than 20 years?”

Her new building will last 80 years. But none of it will be constructed until the final Hohokam floor has been excavated from the site.

“I am glad that archaeologists are getting what they need before we go in,” Richardson said. “They have a sense of time most people don’t. I can’t get anyone else to talk about anything longer than a two-year time span.”


I felt a little more cheery after talking with Bonnie Richardson. Maybe green buildings will spring up everywhere, like Hohokam platform mounds did in the final centuries. Maybe new Phoenicians will start using water intelligently and organize themselves into a multi-ethnic desert utopia.

What is the likelihood of such a future? For the nuts and bolts of urban progress, I spoke with Don Stapley, Phoenix real estate broker, Maricopa County supervisor, and Republican.

“I think we’re ahead of the curve,” Stapley said, his voice intelligent and coaching. “We’re fragile because we’re a desert. But we have tremendous weather and diverse job opportunities. Today we are a technology center, and we have booming biotechnology. We’re graduating thousands of engineers. We have phenomenal water projects. All you have to do is fly by helicopter and look out. We’ve got more canals than rivers through any other American city, a labyrinth of laterals and ditches.”

Stapley has reason to wave the Phoenix flag. His family has lived in the basin since the 1870s, since the very birth of the city. He’s got a major street named after his family, and a paper trail of fame and endowment following him generation by generation. His great grandfather held the sole hardware supply contract for the construction of the Roosevelt Dam along the Salt River, a dam that secured Phoenix’s water future.

I asked Stapley about the city’s artificial waterways, noting that they are often built right on top of Hohokam canals, as if involuntarily mirroring the past.

“Do you think we might face the same future?” I asked.

“No,” Stapley answered. “Unlike the Hohokam civilization that preceded us, I believe the foundation our modern city is built upon is less susceptible to natural cycles of boom and bust. We have some of the most progressive groundwater regulations in the world. We recharge every drop. In addition, our forebears Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater brought about the largest irrigation system ever built when they brought Colorado River water through the Central Arizona Project.

“The Hohokam achieved amazing feats for their time, but I think we are far ahead of them.”


How far ahead are we, really? The Hohokam lasted 1,500 years. The city of Phoenix did not get its true, populous foothold until after the 1960s, when air conditioning became widely available. We have about 1,450 years to go.

Charlie Ester doesn’t see the water supply, or Western civilization for that matter, lasting nearly so long. Ester is a hydrologist working for the Salt River Project, one of two suppliers of water to the city. He and his colleagues watch the high country snowpack and make their calculations, deciding when Phoenix will turn from one reservoir to the next, turning on groundwater pumps to augment the surface supply, then turning them off to conserve aquifers.

“There is no civilization without water,” Ester explained from behind his desk at SRP headquarters in Phoenix. “If it does not rain every year, and reservoirs go dry, and there is nothing to pump, we’re moving.”

From Ester’s vantage, the current supply looks both good and bad. There is plenty of water for Phoenix now, but how long will it last?

Ester laid out the Phoenix situation for me, and it sounded similar to the environmental shift that heralded the end of the Hohokam. “Up until the 1990s, the worst drought we’d seen lasted seven years. So, we happily went along planning for seven-year droughts. We have storage-planning diagrams based solely on seven years,” he said. “The current drought began in 1995, so 2002 was year number seven, and we were thinking it was going to end soon. Then, 2003 was dry, 2004 was dry. We got to 2006, and it was as dry as 2002. This could last 20, 30 more years. It’s been a real eye-opener for us at SRP.

“We may not have as robust a water supply as we thought we did.”

No need to run for the nearest exit, should you happen to live in Phoenix. Ester is merely thinking in an archaeological time frame. Looking at it optimistically, he sees another few hundred years of water and prosperity. Looking at it the other way, well, he wouldn’t want to project his opinion.

“The tendency is to think we’ve got it right this time, that it’s never going to happen to us,” Ester said. “But you know it is going to happen. It has to. History will repeat itself.”

I came out to the edge of the sprawl, the west end of Phoenix, to watch history repeating itself. New subdivisions are pressing through the towns of Goodyear and Avondale. Their brown-roofed homes will cost from $200,000 to $1 million or so. Field by field, archaeologists are working the front line of this advance. I caught up with them at 107th Street, on their way to 108th.

In a dusty lot, I shook the firm hands of four dirt workers. Their leader was Cory Breternitz, president of Soil Systems Incorporated, one of the leading archaeological firms in the city.

We wandered about this eleventh-hour site, looking into holes and trenches, stepping over stone tools and shattered ceramic vessels not yet collected. We stopped at a collection of blackened ovals scooped from the ground behind what had been a cluster of dwellings. Breternitz told me these ashen pits once served as crematoriums.

“This was a cotton field in historic times,” Breternitz said, explaining layers of occupation since the Hohokam. “You can actually see plow scars cutting through Hohokam features. And then it was an operating dairy with 1,500 cows up until a year ago. People living on a rural family homestead never saw this coming. They thought they would be here forever.” He peered east, beyond the dig, where huge American flags loomed over marching rows of new houses.

“The brown roofs are coming,” Breternitz said.

As we stood around the cremation pits, I asked these four archaeologists what will happen to Phoenix. As if playing a parlor game, they bantered about the different ways civilization could fall. One spoke of a hypothetical economic downturn, a depression enfeebling the vulnerable infrastructure of Phoenix.

Another archaeologist mentioned that Phoenix has always been a transient city, that many people live here for only three or four years before moving on. Populations may simply diminish if this becomes an unattractive place to live, sapping the city of vitality.

Human viruses and hormones are being unintentionally pumped back into the city’s groundwater, steadily poisoning deep, ancient aquifers. Global warming promises deeper droughts, which could short Phoenix on the water that makes it so appealing to begin with. You name it, these men had answers. With every excavation, they had been honing their imaginations, fitting us into the doomed shoes of the Hohokam.

“And who will live here after the fall?” I asked.

A man in a worn work shirt said, “Cockroaches,” and then he laughed, but in a nervous way.


In the frail light of dusk, I walked up the stump of a butte in the middle of Tempe. An archaeologist showed me the way to the top, the city rumbling below. We were beneath the final approach to Sky Harbor International Airport, passenger jets coming in low, streetlights reflected in their silver underbellies.

The archaeologist was Tom Wright, a middle-aged man who has lived in Phoenix for 50 years. He is an old-fashioned digger, working for a small company, keeping his excavation tools ready in a bucket. He took me from one fractured rock face to another, pointing out bits of rock art that had not been gouged by graffiti or blown clean off the butte by dynamite. There were spirals, circles, and some rudimentary animal figures, typical Hohokam work.

Soon it was too dark to see any more petroglyphs. Wright and I found a place to sit beside each other on a bouldery summit, looking down on the oval roofs of modern sports arenas belonging to Arizona State University. The city was just beginning to blossom into horizons of electric light.

Wright told me that he has been fascinated with growth here. He first lived in Tempe when it was a lone town, 24,000 people at the outskirts of Phoenix. Now it is approaching a quarter million, and it is folded deep inside the greater metropolis.

“Is it going to last?” I asked him, the question I must ask of every archaeologist.

“How long, is the question,” Wright replied.

“The Hohokam were a hydraulic society, and so are we,” he explained. “We depend on the presence of water, the storage of water, the transport of water, and as long as the water is there and can serve our needs, we’re fine. But if the water is not falling on the watershed, or if our needs start to outstrip what is available, that’s a problem.”

It does not take an archaeologist to make such a deduction. However, it does take an archaeologist to see what that deduction might mean in the deep time of this city.

“With the Hohokam, you can see the change,” he said. “They went from a large number of small villages to a small number of large villages. You have growing social complexity, but you also have greater and greater dependence on resources that are existing in smaller and smaller areas. They lost their diversity of resources. They lost flexibility.”

“How long do we have?” I pressed.

Wright laughed, but did not answer my question. He could not. There is not yet an answer, just speculation.

“When it does finally happen, whenever that is, what do you think the end will look like?” I asked.

Peering across dazzling fields of light, Wright said, “Like this.”

I looked out to what he was seeing, freeways streaming like arteries, and it looked like the city was on fire, the great bird of Phoenix burning once again. I thought he must be right. At a certain point, the rise must be indistinguishable from the fall, cycles of death and rebirth too tightly interwoven to pick apart.

It was the same so many centuries ago, one arc skyrocketing while the other plummeted; populations mounting while water dwindled. Some archaeologists look at the 14th century, right before the ancient city was deserted, as a time of Hohokam fragmentation and decay. Others look at the same data and see rejuvenation, the building of corporate centers more impressive than anything the Hohokam ever made before.

We now appear to be at a similar juncture. The balancing act may continue for centuries, or the city may topple tomorrow. Archaeologists are not foolish enough to give an exact date, but they are lifting warning flags. They are looking to the future and into the past, and they see the story of Phoenix repeating itself.


Craig Childs is author of several books including The Secret Knowledge of Water, The Desert Cries, and, most recently, House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest.