The Ruins at Casa Grande
Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
"The ascendance over men's minds of the ruins of the stupendous past,
the past of history, legend, and myth,
at once factual and fantastic, is half-mystical in basis.
The intoxication is not the romantic melancholy
engendered by broken towers and moldered stones.
It is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean
where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams;
it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs."
I have my life long been fascinated by the past. Whether a stack of newspapers from World War II America or a stunning Mayan temple in Mexico, history speaks to me in a way nothing else does. Today was our first completely free day since coming to Arizona and we set out early to do some exploring. Our first stop was a set of ruins, the last remnants of a culture of native Americans that thrived for about 1,150 years before fading from history around 1400 CE.
The site is located outside of Coolidge, Arizona, about 20 miles from the city of Casa Grande. It consists of the remains of what are likely residential structures surrounding a massive structure that the Spaniards called "Casa Grande," or Big House.
The civilization responsible for this impressive construction were the last of the hunter-gatherers that settled in the Gila River Valley around 300 CE. Their specialty was agriculture, an amazing undertaking in the Sonoran Desert. To bring water to their crops, they hand-dug some 220 miles of canals. The culture, originally called "Hohokam" and now referred to as "Ancestral Sonoran Desert Peoples," thrived for over 1,100 years before fading away around 1400. The cause for the collapse and dispersion vary -- some say a breakdown of civil authority or internal or external conflict. But the likeliest explanation is that they were victims of their own success. At their height, some 2,000 souls lived in the communities along the canals. It is highly possible that the population increased beyond the land's ability to support. This is partially supported by the thought that the civilization Balkanized -- broke into smaller groups. It is surmised that this culture were the forebears of the Pima and Tohono O'odham cultures.
How they turned a desert into a garden
Places like this are a testament to the human spirit. To drive through the modern Sonoran landscape, especially on a 106 degree June day, it is hard to imagine anyone looking at this place and making a home out of it. There is little to no water (annual rainfall is less than 10 inches), the soil is largely sand, and the only thing that seems to grow out here is sagebrush, with does so enthusiastically. Yet, as one drives along, there are great patches of vivid green amid the ocher desert, fields where a variety of crops are grown, like cotton, corn and a few others. The level of technology available to the 21st century farmer would seem like magic to someone of an earlier time. The achievements of the Hohokam culture, impressive enough, become even more spectacular when it is considered that everything they built was done so by hand, using very simple tools made out of sticks and rock. What patience they must have had to labor in the desert under that merciless sunshine and heat for months on end, doing what had to be done, not just to survive, but to flourish.
The structures that remain were built out of a material called Caliche, a naturally occurring soil common in the Sonoran Desert. It is rich in calcium carbonate and can bind gravel, sand, clay, and rocks into a kind of cement. Indeed, Caliche is a common component of modern concrete. The structures were built up in layers, laying down the Caliche, waiting for it to dry, and then adding additional layers. The Big House is reinforced with wood, but even so is an impressive engineering achievement, even today. That these structures have lasted over a thousand years is a testament to the skill and brains of the builders.
Like nearly all agricultural societies, these people paid close attention to the cosmos. There are holes cut in the structure through which sunlight passes at sunset on the solstices. From the height of our lofty achievements today, it is easy to be dismissive of ancient peoples. But there were no sky maps or, really, calendars available to them when this enterprise started. They simply worked if all out using only the tools of observation and intellect. If we take the time to educate ourselves on cultures like this one, we can then fully appreciate what they did, and how they did it.
Standing in places like this one, I can try to sense what happened here. But I can never fully appreciate the difficulty of the human struggle that went on here. I can, however, honor their achievements and mourn the inevitable conditions that caused it to break down.
There are lessons to be learned from this place; lessons that desperately need to be taught to the modern age. They are speaking to us even now across the centuries. We only need to listen.