To understand the Hohokam, one must understand the desert setting in which they lived, which was a challenging and some-times difficult world. However, the lengthy adaptation to the Sonoran Desert by the Hohokam and their Archaic ancestors demonstrates that people could make a successful living in this arid yet productive environment. The village of Pueblo Grande is a monument to the accomplishments of the Hohokam people and how they lived in balance with the Sonoran Desert.
The Sonoran Desert is vast, measuring 100,000 square miles (259,000 sq. km), and is one of four major deserts in North America. Other deserts are the Great Basin in Nevada, the Mojave in California, and the Chihuahua in Mexico. Despite its harsh climate and relative scarcity of permanent water sources, the Sonoran Desert of south-central Arizona and northern Mexico is one of the richest deserts of the world in terms of density and diversity of native plants and animals. Data gathered by scientists indicate that the Hohokam lived in a natural environment that was essentially the same as the Sonoran Desert appears today.
Rainfall in the Sonoran Desert is bi-modal (occurring in both winter and summer) and averages less than 15 inches (38 cm) per year, with some areas such as Gila Bend receiving less than 6 inches (15 cm). In the Salt and Gila River valleys, the heartland of the Hohokam, the historic annual average rainfall is about 7.5 inches (19 cm). Temperatures in the Sonoran Desert vary from below freezing in winter to above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees C) during the summer.
Topographically, the Arizona Upland portion of the Sonoran Desert ranges from 700 feet (213 m) to over 3,000 feet (914 m) above sea level. This landscape includes rugged mountains that generally are oriented in a northwest-southeast direction. Rivers that flow out of the mountains cut broad valleys through the hard desert soils. From these river valleys, the desert floor slopes upward and turns into rolling hills which become steeper as they near the mountains. These elevation differences provided for a rich diversity of plants and animals that were available to the Hohokam.
More than 3,500 species of plants grow in the Sonoran Desert, but its vegetation is best known for its tall saguaro cacti, some reaching 50 feet (15 m) in height. Mixed with the saguaro are mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde trees. Vast arrays of other desert plants include creosote, jojoba, cholla, prickly pear, ocotillo, barrel cacti, hedgehog cacti, agave, sotol, and yucca. In the higher elevations of the mountains grow juniper, oak and pine trees.
Hundreds of animal species live in the Sonoran Desert. Reptiles include several species of lizards, tortoises, and a wide variety of poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes. Throughout the desert are many types of rodents, including mice, rats, squirrels, jackrabbits, and cottontail rabbits.
Muskrat and beaver live in the rivers and streams. Larger mammals include mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep. Predators consist of bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, fox, badgers, and bobcats, as well as hawks and eagles. Birds include quail, doves, and many species of waterfowl.
The Sonoran Desert is crossed by several rivers such as the Salt, Gila, Verde, San Pedro and Santa Cruz, which in pre-historic times flowed year round and created lush green tracts of land winding through the desert. These wide ribbons of flowing water supported many types of riverine plants and animals. In prehistoric times, before the major rivers were dammed, there was also an abundant supply of several species of fish.
It was along these rivers that the Hohokam settled down into agricultural villages around the beginning of the Common or Christian era (A.D. 1). One of these villages was the site of Pueblo Grande. Over several centuries, Pueblo Grande would become one of the most important Hohokam villages along the Salt River.