Infrastructure and Tribal Resistance to Catastrophe: How the Hohokam Survived

The Hohokam irrigated and sustained their crops in desert conditions using a system of canals — the most sophisticated system north of Peru. (Photo by Connie Darby, courtesy of Desert Archaeology, Inc.)

The Hohokam survived in a desert environment for over a millennium thanks to an advanced canal system

Infrastructure is one convenient measuring stick by which we judge societies. The ancient Romans, for instance, get a lot of good press for the durability of their roads, bridges and aqueducts. A particular Native American society in present-day Arizona had an infrastructure success story of its own. The Hohokam, a Tribal people who inhabited the Phoenix basin along the Gila and Salt Rivers for over 1,400 years, irrigated and sustained their crops in desert conditions using a system of canals. But these were no ordinary canals — the Hohokam’s network of waterways was the most sophisticated system north of Peru.

A recent study of archaeological evidence has shed new light on the canals. Examining patterns of sediment in two canals near the Salt River, researchers were able to identify three major floods that did significant damage. For the Hohokam, the canals were everything — without irrigation, there would be no crops in the arid desert; without crops, the people might starve. Archaeologists found evidence that the Hohokam responded to each flood as a community, teaming together to repair the canals and get their society functioning again.

The community model of disaster recovery among Indigenous peoples attracted notice after a tsunami struck American Samoa in 2009. Researchers studying the event noted that Indigenous Samoans snapped into action using a pre-existing and age-old hierarchy. The pulenu’u (village mayors) sounded the alarm as the tsunami approached, saving perhaps hundreds of lives; in the aftermath, the matai (leaders) organized squads of aumaga (young men) for rescue and cleanup work. The aualuma (village women) provided first aid and food to victims, while aigas (extended family) provided additional support with shelter and food. “Communities like this have strong traditions that may not fit into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) model but they are still highly effective,” said Andrew Rumbach, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who authored a study of the event.

But back to those Hohokam canals. Infrastructure can be its own worst enemy, in that the better it is, the more people will depend upon it. Better roads encourage a culture of driving, and high-speed Internet keeps us logged on longer than frustratingly slow dial-up. Furthermore, any infrastructure that improves life is bound to raise population — a system that distributes clean water to everyone in the village will increase the infant survival rates and longevity. The benefits of infrastructure are the very things that end up putting more strain on it, at the same time the users are becoming more and more dependent upon it. It can all lead to a precarious situation, with a system that is both overworked and more vital to its users’ survival than ever. 

Evidence suggests that such was the case with the Hohokam canals when the third and most damaging major flood hit, sometime before 1400. Population was high, the canals were overextended to meet farming demands, and the communal response system that had worked in the past was disrupted. After the flood, the canals weren’t extensively repaired, and the people paid the price. Population dropped, and by 1450, the Hohokam society was disintegrating. Today the Hohokam are no more, though their descendants live on in the Pima and Tohono O’odham people.

The lesson from the Hohokam canals? Don’t try to skate by on an outdated or overworked system. Upgrade, strengthen and expand your infrastructure as needed, over time. It takes discipline (and funding), but if a natural disaster strikes, having an up-to-date infrastructure could be the difference between disruption and catastrophe.