Pre-Columbian history in Arizona
All throughout Arizona are vestiges of ancient societies that built fortified towns, traded with the civilizations of Mexico and Central America, and learned to farm in the seemingly inhospitable environment. Museums do a good job of showcasing Arizona’s complex history, but don’t limit your exploring to air-conditioned galleries. Pre-Columbian history abounds outdoors as well, and here’s where to look.
1100 W Ruins Dr, Coolidge, AZ 85128, USA
Don’t go looking for Casa Grande, the national monument of pre-Columbian ruins, in Casa Grande, the sprawling exurb of a town about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. You have to drive about 20 miles away to the small town of Coolidge to find the site. This may not be the most scenic stretch of desert, it must be said, but the destination is worth the detour. The Hohokam culture built this complex of dwellings and irrigation canals—one of many—late in their tenure here. Erected in the 1300s, this particular site was abandoned by the mid-1400s—the end of perhaps a thousand years of irrigated agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. The network of villages and canals continue to fascinate archaeologists and urban planners. The “big house” (Casa Grande was named by the first Spanish explorers in the area) stands about four stories tall. In the 1930s, the current shelter was built to protect it from further erosion. (Look carefully: you might catch a glimpse of the resident horned owls.) The timbers needed for construction came from the mountains about 50 miles away; at the time there were no pack animals, and thus no wheeled vehicles in this desert—makes you think... The surrounding ballgame-courts show influence from Mesoamerica. Desert civilization in North America is often thought of as a recent phenomenon—take the 20th-century explosions of Las Vegas, Phoenix, etc. Dig deeper, and get off the interstate. The past is not remote, and this is an easy day trip from Tucson.
Hohokam Road, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
Just beyond the western edge of Tucson, you’ll find these Hohokam petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park. No one knows precisely when they were carved into the rocks, but Hohokam settlements in the Sonoran desert date back almost two thousand years. We went on a short hike among the saguaro to end up on this hilltop with this pre-Columbian art—not your typical suburban stroll.
Payson, AZ, AZ, USA
Petroglyphs are always worth a stop. About 40 minutes north of Globe, on US 60/AZ 77, as the highway winds down through its hairpin curves to the bottom of the Salt River Canyon, stop at ‘Hieroglyphic Point.’ (It’ll be on your left.) This pull-off overlooking the river divides the San Carlos Apache Nation to the south from the White Mountain Apaches to the north. Keep your eyes open for the darker boulders strewn about: they’re covered with pre-columbian petroglyphs dating to centuries before the Apache ever called this area home...
3 Walnut Canyon Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, USA
A ten-mile drive from downtown Flagstaff will take you back about a thousand years if you take a quick hike down into Walnut Canyon National Monument. From about 1150 AD to the early 1300’s, this meandering section of forested canyon was home to a thriving village of cliff-dwellers, part of the Sinagua culture. A series of steep stone steps leads down from the visitor center to the dwellings. The area is often snowy in winter; blanketed in white, it’s a striking contrast to most people’s mental images of Arizona. Coming from Flagstaff’s Victorian downtown, these ancient ruins are a testament to the complex layers of human settlement in the Southwest. The Sinagua culture is thought to have eventually merged with the modern Hopi people to the northeast.