Friday, June 22, 2012

The People Who Went Before

Archaeologists still argue and speculate about Stonehenge, about Druids and the purpose of this great stone structure. We know some things about it - like the solstice alignments - but very little about the people who built it and used it.

The Aztecs, Mayans and Egyptians also built amazing structures, but they left us clues as to what their purpose was by having a written or pictorial language. But what about the places like Stonehenge that don't leave any clue?  All we can do is make educated guesses.

Casa Grande. The holes at the top line up with
summer and winter solstice
So think about a different people who built amazing structures, which include solstice alignments and incredible irrigation systems, who then just disappeared. They changed their social habits dramatically and then, without any obvious reason, completely abandoned their communities. They disappeared. They melted into the landscape and their complex society and everything they knew was left behind to crumble.

Who were these people? Who built a society that we can trace back to the beginning of the last millennium, and then in the mid 15th century just ceased to be?

The Hohokam. Native American peoples. They were farmers who built strong houses, huge platform complexes, ball parks, and a canal system that in many places is still used today, nearly a thousand years later. They were successful enough to create 'leisure time' - theirs was more than a subsistence living.

What an enigma! When I think of Native Americans in a historical context, I have to admit that Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Wigwams, teepees - nomadic people; or the corn-growing Virginians who made the mistake of welcoming the British.

Reproduction Hohokam house

Just to add a bit of context, whilst the Hohokam were first building their communities, the British were being invaded by the Romans. When the Hohokam 'disappeared' in around 1450 AD, Henry VIII was on the throne and dismantling the monasteries.

When I went to Arizona this time, my friend and I visited just two of the many prehistoric Hohokam sites - Pueblo Grande and Casa Grande.  The heat was incredible - the desert sun bouncing off the sandy coloured structures. The sense of history was there, but it was 'captured', with neat paths, concrete reinforcement and air-conditioned displays that talked of a people that we really know very little about.

I was captivated. Here, in Casa Grande, was a Native American Stonehenge! In some ways we know more about the Hohokam than we do about the builders of our ancient stone monument (though built for what may be different reasons), because their society surrounded the structures and the archaeological evidence has endured. Their houses, their burial grounds, their sporting arenas and their rubbish, their 'trash heaps' were still there.

Ball park. I wonder what games they played?

The deserts is quite good at preserving things in some ways. The Arizona desert is especially good as it is, as any Arizonan will tell you, 'a dry heat'. So until you want to build in the desert, nothing is touched. But they do want to build in the desert, and from Pueblo Grande (which is within Phoenix) you can feel the nearness of Sky Harbour airport. If you look towards the Papago hills, where a huge glass building stands now, once stood another Casa Grande. There is a wealth of history beneath the skyscrapers and freeways of Phoenix. Thankfully, these days they do archaeological excavation and record whatever may be found before erecting another huge, concrete and glass monstrosity.

Any human remains that are found are returned to the Native American people to re-bury. There is no DNA testing, no putting in a museum and displaying of ancestors. The history of the Native American people belongs to the Native American people. We are very lucky to have a glimpse into this history through the Hohokam and wonder at the coincidence of European influence in the Americas and the dissipation of this once successful civilisation.

Photographs: Mine. (C)
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