What you’re looking at, right here, is an ancient irrigation canal just north of downtown Tempe, Arizona. That’s right! And, it’s far from the only one in the Salt River Valley.
It is believed that the Hohokam entered the region sometime around 300 B.C. They went on to build an extensive network of over five-hundred miles of irrigation canals, starting at the Salt River and the Gila River, where they would typically build a large main ditch, then, like a reverse-root system, a number of canals, each smaller than the other, would carry water to their fields and along the banks of their villages. Some canals may have been as small as a foot across. These prehistoric waterways supported no less than 30,000 people—maybe twice that, according to some estimates—and many thousands of acres
This incredible innovation is what made life in the unforgiving Arizona desert possible. The Hohokam were farmers, and grew beans, squash, corn, agave, and even cotton, which became a preferred export crop. Trade extended far north to the Anasazi, and east to the Mogollon, but it even reached the Pacific coast, and down into Mexico. Their agricultural technology influenced other cultures of their time, such as the Sinaqua.
The largests of these canals reached as far as twelve miles long, and some as deep as fifteen feet! All this is made more impressive when you consider they accomplished all this through wooden digging sticks and baskets, to move literal tons of dirt. Communities became linked, not just in the physical sense of the canals, but also in the cooperation of their management. For reasons unknown, the Hohokam would leave the valley by 1450 A.D., abandoning their canals and what seemed to be a prosperous society. Although falling into disrepair, mormon pioneers would build upon their work, constructing their first major canal, using an already dug-out Hohokam canal.
All but a few of the ancient waterways are now gone—having been leveled over to build modern society and almost entirely forgotten.
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