Tohono O'odham (Papago) woman wearing a basket tray headpiece, photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1907.
Tohono O’odham (Papago) woman wearing a basket tray headpiece, photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1907.

Human beings have lived in this region in the heart of the Sonoran Desert for more than 13,000 years and, according to Julian Hayden, there is evidence that they had been here more than 30,000 years ago. In the beginning, they were nomads who hunted, gathered, fished, used salt, shells, and obsidian. The first settlers lived in caves, in sleeping circles that consisted of a circular figure made up of stones and branches, and in log huts, some partially underground. They cracked rocks to use as tools, used obsidian to make knives, and utilized basalt rocks to make metates (grinding stones) and “hands” (smooth hand-held stones), rotating mortars, and mills to grind, but they also made holes in large rocky surfaces where they ground various types of seeds.

They were hunters who arrived from Asia through the Bering Strait and followed mega fauna such as mastodon and mammoth. Experts at using the spear, they then developed the use of bows, arrows and the atlatl (a spear-throwing lever). They utilized fire, but had not yet developed the use of metal.

Several cultures thrived here in the era before the use of ceramics: the Malpaís, then the San Dieguito, followed by the Amargosa phase 1, and later the Amargosa phase 2, the latter flourishing in the California and Nevada deserts. Researchers agree that during this era there was better weather and humans had greater access to freshwater bodies. In the El Pinacate area, during the months of the winter thaw, the Colorado River reached the area now known as Adair Bay and the Sonoyta River surrounded the Santa Clara Mountain.

‘Mosquito’ Bill from the Cocopah tribe.
‘Mosquito’ Bill from the Cocopah tribe.

From 9,500 to 1,800 years ago, climate changed in such a way that there were great transformations and displacements in the geographical position of plants. Later, other prehistoric cultures called “Ancestral Pueblos” rose towards the north and east of this arid region, where they used adobe to build their towns. They are known as the Anasazi, Patayan, Hohokam and Mogollón cultures.

Crop irrigation canals date back 3,200 years. Although agriculture was present long before, it’s doubtless that contact with Mesoamerican tribes had to do with these Ancestral Pueblos’ perfected agricultural techniques. Turquoise, which was valued by Mesoamerican cultures, came almost entirely from Arizona and New Mexico. The ancestral ball game popular throughout Mesoamerica was introduced during the Mogollón culture in Paquimé.

The use of ceramics began 2,800 years ago and diversified according to the different regions. The ceramics of the Hohokam were simple red and brown toned ceramics with some variations in the designs. The Patayan showed “Stucco” finishes (plaster) and curved edges. People of the Trincheras culture used purplish colors and polychromatic designs. The Anasazi and Mogollón ceramics were brown and red, and artisans used patterns with traditional symbols to recount their stories. It’s very difficult to classify cultures based on their ceramics because these cultures all traded among themselves, married outside of their own tribe, changed locations, or migrated. The Hohokam, Anasazi and Mogollón, as well as the Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Zuni, Sobaipuris, Pima, and other tribes in the region had a complex network of linguistic and cultural ties.

Two big events disturbed the lifestyle of the region’s inhabitants. The first was a series of changes in weather patterns brought on by floods and droughts. Between 1381 and 1384 a great flood destroyed the irrigation system of the Río Salado and was followed by a ten-year cycle of drought and extreme drought until 1600. The other event that disturbed the lifestyle of the region’s residents in the heart of the Sonoran Desert was the arrival of the first Europeans in 1540. These newcomers introduced new technologies, new languages, a new social structure, a new culture, and new crops, livestock, and diseases. The colonizers tried to distinguish and identify the people they encountered. Explorers, soldiers, missionaries and others put together different groups they thought shared a common territory, language, physical characteristics, and a similar culture: the Papago de la Arena or Areneños with the people from the El Pinacate and the Cabeza Prieta region. The Papago to the east of the Sonoyta River and Organ Pipe with those of the Colorado River—the Cocopah, Pai-Pai, and Yuma. The Maricopa were thrown together with groups in the Gila River, and the Pima with groups that were further inland in Sonora. For various reasons, neither the names nor the territories assigned by the Europeans had a social or geographical basis, as they varied according to families, leaders, lineages, dialects or languages, not to mention the fact that there were also land exchanges and, although unusual, a few battles and banishments.

Jose Citto was a Tohono O'odham (Pápago) in Arizona, c. 1913. (Unknown author).
Jose Citto was a Tohono O’odham (Pápago) in Arizona, c. 1913. (Unknown author).

The modern languages of the Yuma cultures such as the Cocopah, Quechan, Pai-Pai and others descend from the Patayan culture. The modern languages Pima, Tohono O’odham, Hia C’ed O’odham, Akimel O’odham, and Sobaipuris descend from the Hohokam language.

After the US-Mexico War in 1848, much of the land became part of the United States and many tribes were forced into much smaller areas. This is why little by little they lost access to traditional resources and ancestral sites and adopted the economy and culture of either Mexico or the United States.