This brief overview traces the origins, settlement, subsistence patterns and salient features of prehistoric humankind in the vicinity of Saguaro National Monument, Arizona. The first section covers the period from the earliest known human presence until the time of European contact.
It is generally accepted that the New World was first populated at least 12,000 to 15,000 years ago by prehistoric hunters from Asia who had gradually, over millennia, moved across Beringia, the land bridge that joined Siberia and Alaska during the last or Wisconsin period of glaciation. By about 9500 B.C., Paleoindian groups were present in the Southwest and in the Tucson Basin, hunting Pleistocene megafauna and gathering wild foods. While these early hunters utilized sophisticated hunting tools and a diversity of stone items for butchering game, and for processing hides and a variety of hunted and gathered subsistence items, their highly mobile lifestyle left only a few traces on the landscape.  Isolated occurrences of the leaf-shaped, bifacially flaked, fluted spear points known as Clovis points (named for the type site in New Mexico), have been found in the Tucson Basin area and within the boundaries of the Rincon Mountain unit of Saguaro National Monument. 
Around 8000 B.C., warmer, drier environmental conditions in the Southwest led to major changes in flora, which in turn contributed to the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna. Archaic period groups who followed the Paleoindians in time in the western Southwest came to depend upon modern species of game and wild plant foods. The shift from migratory megafauna to smaller game, along with the intensive use of wild plant foods, marks the end of the Paleoindian period and the beginning of the Archaic period, circa 8000 B.C. 
Tool assemblages of Archaic period groups were characterized by projectile points for hunting, ground stone milling implements, basketry, and simple stone chopping, scraping and cutting tools. The emphasis of this tool kit seems to have been on both hunting and gathering and processing of wild foodstuffs. 
As populations increased during the Archaic, settlements became larger and more permanent in nature, and were highly dependent upon the local availability of water and subsistence items. Archaic sites in the Tucson Basin include large base camps, and small specialized activity areas and quarries. Isolated finds of distinctive projectile points, percussion flaked tools, basin metates, and handstones also provide evidence of Archaic occupations, and suggest diversified usage of the area's scattered resources. Archaic sites within the national monument are clustered along the major drainage systems of the Rincon Mountain Unit. 
About 1500 B.C., the introduction and adoption of corn or maize, a cultigen that evolved from wild teosinte in the area that is now Mexico, is no doubt the most significant event of the Archaic period. The corn, however, was treated as a minor part of Archaic subsistence and was only harvested in low yields. It took the intensive agricultural practices of the Hohokam in the next time period for corn to flourish. 
As early as 300 B.C., groups now known as the Hohokam were living in the Gila and Salt River Valleys, and by A.D. 100 they were present in the Tucson Basin, along the Santa Cruz River. (The name Hohokam is Piman for the ancientsthose who have vanished and perished. The Hohokam in this area appear to have developed from local Archaic groups. In the Tucson Basin, remains in the form of chipped, grinding stones, cooking hearths, pithouses and storage pits constitute some of the evidence suggesting cultural continuity rather than a hiatus between the preagricultural foraging of the Late Archaic period and the ceramic period of the Hohokam.
The Hohokam appear to have been influenced by people or ideas from Mexico, perhaps accounting for the development of maize agriculture, canal irrigation, and potterynot to mention ball courts and platform mounds. The early Hohokam settlement pattern consisted of clusters of houses within communities known as rancheriasfixed agricultural settlements in which the houses were scattered as much as a half mile apart. 
In the main, the Hohokam trait complex consisted of "a sedentary lifestyle, a dependence on agriculture, and a unique ceremonial and trading system."  The Hohokam raised corn, beans, squash, and cottonthe seeds of the latter for food and the fiber for yarn. In the Tucson area, there was widespread dependence on dry farming techniques. This dry farming involved the control of rain water with features such as rock terraces or checkdams to make the most of the limited rainfall.
The Hohokam made quite an array of pottery and human effigies; the distinctive pottery featured geometric designs, scroll work, and animal designs. They built semisubterranean houses of wattle and daub with adjacent ramades, maintained shallow pits for obtaining pottery clay, and constructed platform mounds for ceremonial purposes. The Hohokam in the Tucson Basin traded with related groups in the Gila and Salt River valleys. The Hohokam served as major shell traders, and apparently undertook expeditions to the Gulf of California to acquire the seashells.
One of the technical achievements unique to the Hohokam was the decorative acid etching of shells using sour fruit juice from the saguaro cactus. Shell jewelry, clay censors for burning incense, mirrors of iron pyrites, effigy figurines, and decorated pottery all point to a culture rich in creative ideas. In contrast to other southwestern groups who practiced inhumation, the Hohokam cremated the dead. 
Hohokam populations had spread throughout the Basin by A.D. 700, including along eastern tributaries into the areas at the base of the Rincon and Santa Catalina Mountains. Large and small Hohokam agricultural villages can be found in what is now the eastern or Rincon Mountain Unit of Saguaro National Monument. Floodplain farming was practiced along with dry farming techniques. The rocky areas adjacent to the Tucson Mountains, where the Tucson Mountain Unit of the national monument is located, are not conducive to agriculture and apparently for this reason the Hohokam established no large permanent settlements there. However, both temporary campsites and rock art sites have been found. These temporary camps may be associated with the picking of saguaro fruit, which ripens in June and early July. 
Within the area of the national monument's Rincon Mountain Unit, the primary occupation period of the Hohokam extended from A.D. 700 to 1300. The course of Hohokam development in the eastern Tucson Basin from A.D. 1100 saw a growing association with Mogollon groups to the north and east that resulted in adoption of some Mogollon traits such as corrugated pottery. By A.D. 1250 Hohokam villagers had begun building adobe-walled houses. A century or so later, relatively large communities with aboveground apartment-like dwellings were common. Yet by A.D. 1450, "the Hohokam culture as a whole had disappeared."  The collapse of the Hohokam culture could have been the result of soil deterioration and salt concentration caused by irrigation or, perhaps, a hostile group invaded the Hohokam region. We just do not know.
By A. D. 1500, scattered villages with a lot of space between households, similar to the earlier Hohokam rancheria settlement pattern, reappear. The inhabitants of these villages, known today as the Tohono O'odham (Papago) peoples, were encountered in the seventeenth century by the Spanish upon entering the Tucson Basin.  Although connections between the modern Indians and the Hohokam is often assumed, there is no proof at this time. 
Last Updated: 23-Jun-2005