Southwestern American Indians are well known for their rich and complex religious systems. Archaeological data suggest that prehistoric cultures such as the Hohokam probably also had an elaborate belief system, which was expressed in their public architecture (ballcourts, platform mounds and big houses discussed above), material culture (palettes, censers, and pottery motifs), mortuary practices, and rock art. Hohokam ideological beliefs and practices set their culture apart in some respects from other prehistoric groups. Hohokam ideology probably was influenced by cultures from Mesoamerica, as well as by other neighboring Southwestern cultures.
Archaeologist David Wilcox has identified a Hohokam-Mexican exchange route called the Tepiman Connection, a series of geographic areas joined by related Uto-Aztecan languages. This facilitated the flow of ideas as well as trade between the Hohokam and cultures in Mexico.
Wilcox has also proposed that some Hohokam priests may have made journeys to western Mexico to apprentice themselves with the well-developed religious organizations there. Upon completion of their training, they brought back Mexican artifacts, as well as ideas, as symbols of their new status.
Archaeologists argue that patterned distinctions documented in the study of a culture's mortuary or burial practices are a direct reflection on the living population. These patterns may represent differences in social status within the group as well as the culture's world view or cosmology. Among other things, archaeologists look at how the body was prepared before burial, whether the body was cremated or inhumated, the position in which it was placed in the grave, artifacts or offerings placed with the body, and where it was located within the larger context of the site. The study of mortuary practices at Pueblo Grande, through the excavation of over 1,000 burials, has led to some interesting conclusions about the people who once lived there.
The Hohokam people at Pueblo Grande and elsewhere used two different mortuary practices to care for bodies upon their death. Like present day American society, the Hohokam both cremated and buried (inhumated) their dead. Also, like many societies around the world, past and present, the Hohokam often placed funerary items such as pottery, jewelry, and other possessions with their dead and most likely performed ceremonial death rituals and rites of passage.
The Hohokam used the cremation burial method predominantly during the Pioneer through Sedentary periods (A.D. 1- 1150), but also to a lesser extent in the Classic period (A.D. 1150-1450). Because cremation is a destructive process, it is difficult to know with certainty the physical characteristics of the Hohokam people during most of their early cultural history. What has been learned comes from the few inhumations dating to the Sedentary period (ca. A.D. 900-1150).
Over 300 cremation burials have been recovered from Pueblo Grande excavations. After cremation in a large crematorium pit, the burned remains of a deceased Hohokam individual were gathered and placed in a ceramic jar or bowl, then buried in a small pit or trench. Occasionally, an inverted bowl or large pottery sherd was placed over the top of the vessel and acted as a cover. In a few cases, more than one vessel containing cremated bones are found together in clusters, inside the same pit.
Tabular schist or slate palettes were sometimes placed with cremation vessels in Hohokam sites. These palettes are rectangular in shape, thin, very flat, and exhibit decorations along the outside border. The inner area of the palette generally consists of a rectangular depression.
Analysis of palettes has led archaeologists to argue that during the cremation ceremony, a substance may have been burned in the recessed section of the palette. Lead deposits, probably from the mineral galena, are sometimes found on the palettes and may have given off a bright blue-red fire when burned. It has been suggested that the fire from the palette was symbolic of the doorway leading into the underworld. Palettes appear to have also served other functions. Some show evidence of striations and contain the residues of pigments. These palettes may have been used in the processing of paints.
During the Classic period, Hohokam burial practices changed from predominantly cremating their dead to inhumation, which is the method of burying a body in a grave after death. The practice of cremation continued, but to a lesser extent when compared with earlier periods. This change in burial practices may suggest a change in cultural ideology due to internal changes or external influences. It also may indicate the presence of different ethnic groups living among the Hohokam, or an unwillingness to expend valuable fuel on death rites.
The Hohokam buried their dead in shallow pits dug into the hard desert soil or in softer trash mounds. The exact nature in which a body was interred may have had ceremonial or religious significance for the Hohokam. Upon burial, bodies predominantly were placed in one of two positions, the extended supine position (lying on the back), or on the side in the flexed or fetal position with knees pulled up toward the chest. Heads were commonly faced to the east, toward the rising sun.
At Pueblo Grande, over 700 inhumation burials have been excavated. These inhumations consisted predominantly of the extended supine type, but included a variety of other body positions such as bundle, flexed, sitting, and extended prone (lying face down). Ten inhumation burials have been excavated from the Pueblo Grande platform mound and compound but, interestingly, those burials did not receive more grave goods than burials located elsewhere within the village. Most burials at Pueblo Grande are oriented on an east-west axis with the person's head facing toward the northeast to southeast horizon, possibly indicating the season of interment, but other directions are represented as well.
Most inhumation graves at Pueblo Grande are sub-rectangular shaped, but there were also a small number of oval and circular grave pits. The sub-rectangular pits were of three types: (1) straight-sided, (2) with one or two benches, and (3) niche graves with the body sometimes placed in the niche. The bench burial types often were covered with wood (e.g., saguaro ribs) or brush.
The Hohokam placed many kinds of funerary objects with their dead, for both sexes and for all ages. At Pueblo Grande, evidence has been found of clothing or burial wraps on or around the body. Ceramic pots often surround the body and may have contained offerings of food and water or other perishable material. Shell rings, bracelets, and shell and turquoise necklaces adorned the body. In some burials, the person's head was painted with red, blue-green, or yellow colors.
Other funerary items include bone hairpins and awls, projectile points, quartz crystals, spindle whorls, and various minerals. Some individuals appear to have been buried with the tools of their trade.
A burial northeast of the Pueblo Grande platform mound contained unusual funerary objects, suggesting that the individual, a male, was a priest or shaman. Among the various objects placed in the benched grave were three quartz crystals, several shell ornaments, five ceramic vessels, bone hairpins and awls, an obsidian projectile point, four golden eagle wings, and three wings and a lower leg of a raven. Eagles and ravens are considered very sacred birds by many modern Southwestern American Indians. One of the shell ornaments in this burial was shaped into a lizard design, perhaps representing membership in a particular social or religious group.
Studies of inhumation skeletal remains have revealed much information about the Hohokam in the Classic period which was not available for earlier periods. For example, the average Hohokam male was about 5 feet 5 inches (1.7 m) tall, and the average female was about 5 feet 1 inch (1.5 m). It has also been determined that individuals had a life expectancy of around 40 years or less and infant mortality rates were high. Hohokam skeletal remains indicate that they suffered from some of the same health problems as modern people: dental cavities, arthritis, urinary bladder stones, iron deficiency, and general malnutrition.
Archaeological excavations have revealed that the Hohokam established formal cemeteries within their villages. Occasionally, burials were interred under house floors. The cemeteries are usually located near pithouse clusters or residential compounds, suggesting that the cemeteries were for interring individuals who had once lived in those residential areas. More than a dozen cemeteries have been found at Pueblo Grande.