What is now Southern Arizona has been continuously inhabited and farmed for 4,000 years, with some archaeologists estimating that it’s been even longer. One of the most well-known eras of the extensive Pre-Columbian history of the region is the Hohokam Era, which spanned from 550 to 1450 A.D.
Professors-Emeritus of Anthropology at The University of Arizona, Drs. Suzanne and Paul Fish, have conducted extensive research since the 1980s on the Hohokam civilization in what is now the Marana area. Their research reveals that the Tortolita Fan in present-day Marana is dotted with the remains of various Hohokam villages, houses, ceremonial areas, and other ruins. These provide valuable insight about the Hohokam culture, and a look into Marana’s past.
Dr. Suzanne Fish with an agave plant of the same species as those grown by the Hohokam people.
One of the most important aspects of the Hohokam civilization and their culture was the use of the agave plant. The plant was roasted for food, cut into strips and used for weaving fibers, and distilled into spirit beverages. Archaeologists estimate that as many as 100,000 agave plants were cultivated in the Tortolita Fan during the Hohokam era. Often, the location of a Hohokam-era settlement can be identified by the remnants of an agave roasting pit. These pits were shared by multiple families, and were important communal gathering spaces. Through the work of Drs. Suzanne and Paul Fish, some descendants of these ancient agaves have been preserved, and cultivated using ancient farming techniques. The Hohokam people grew the agaves in rock piles, which increased moisture retention, and protected the young plants from competition by other plants, or from being eaten by animals. They also built dams of sorts out of rocks, to help divert and retain water, and to control erosion.
Left: The agave plants of the species Agave murpheyi (the same as was grown by the Hohokam people) in the Tortolita Fan, demonstrating the rock pile cultivation technique. Right: Faint traces of primitive dams and earthworks in the Tortolita Fan, which were used to retain and control water flow for agriculture. Remnants of anicent rock piles used for growing agaves are also visible.
Live The Region's Ancient Heritage
Today, the strong ties the agave plant has to the Sonoran Desert’s (in Southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico alike) culture are celebrated annually at the Agave Heritage Festival. The festival consists of four days of tastings, guided tours of both ancient and modern agave preparation sites, demonstrations, workshops, lectures, and artistic performances related to agave culture and honoring how the agave plant has helped shape the culture of the region, from prehistory to modern-day. The Agave Heritage Festival is the best way to fully immerse yourself in this tie-back to the region’s ancient history.
How You Can Still See Hohokam-Era Archaeological Sites
Despite the Hohokam peoples’ extensive presence and many settlements and structures throughout the Marana area, few structural elements of these settlements remain. This is primarily due to the construction technique of the Hohokam peoples, with adobe walls and roofs made of saguaro ribs, built on stone foundations. Although some of the foundations remain, the majority of the structures have deteriorated over time due to exposure. However, there are a few remaining sites that have been preserved, that you can visit!
Los Morteros Conservation Area
Located just south of the El Rio Preserve in the Continental Ranch area, Los Morteros is a well-preserved village site. The site contains remnants of a trincheras irrigation system with terraces cut into the hillside, a ballcourt where a variant of the Mesoamerican Ball Game was played, and mortar-grinding holes in the volcanic rock, which were used to grind mesquite pods. The site was used as a camp by Juan Bautista de Anza on his expedition from Sonora to California, and was later used as a stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Route.
Mortar holes in the volcanic rock at Los Morteros, the site's namesake.
A myriad of ancient petroglyphs, from both the Hohokam era and before, are present throughout Marana and the surrounding areas. One of the most well-known and most-photographed is Signal Hill, located in Saguaro National Park West. The site features over 200 petroglyphs, and is accessed via a short trail from the Signal Hill Picnic Area.
The Signal Hill Petroglyph, located in Saguaro National Park West.
Another popular area for viewing petroglyphs is just off of Picture Rocks Road. The site dates back approximately 1,000 years. It’s accessed behind the Redemptorist Renewal Center, via a short trail which leads down to the wash and behind the large rock face that contains the petroglyphs. Please be sure to check in at the Visitor's Center at Redemptorist Renewal Center.
Part of the Picture Rocks Petroglyph Site.
On the other side of Marana, in the Tortolita Mountains, are sites that predate other two by thousands of years. Near the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, and the Wild Burro Trail System, are petroglyphs that archaeologists estimate date back 8,000 years.
A hiker pauses to photograph the ancient petroglyphs on the Wild Burro Trail.
Solstice and Equinox Tours
Many of the Hohokam-era archaeological sites are oriented and were placed in a way to interact with the sun and moon, as calendars of sorts to track significant astronomical events throughout the year. Such important dates include the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, and the Winter and Summer Solstices. During the two equinoxes and two solstices each year, the Old Pueblo Archaeology Center offers guided tours of the Los Morteros Site, and the Picture Rocks Petroglyph Site. You can see the interactions the light has with the petroglyphs at the exact moment of the solstice or equinox, under the expert guidance of an archaeologist who specializes in the study of Hohokam peoples, cultures, and sites.