It may shock you to find that Arizona’s Sonoran desert is home to the largest prehistoric canal system in the Americas.  It might be tough to imagine a flourishing civilization in the middle of the desert before air conditioning and swimming pools, but it happened! Centuries before Arizona became a state, Phoenix was inhabited by the Hohokam. The Hohokam thrived in the Phoenix valley from the beginning of the 1st century CE to the middle of the 15th century. Living in a hot desert with little rain fall was difficult, so the Hohokam had to harness water from the Salt River to make life possible in such a harsh environment. The 500 miles of canals that irrigated 11,000 acres were dug with sticks and stones and were perfectly laid out over the landscape to achieve a downhill drop. This amazing engineering allowed the Hohokam to farm such staple foods as corn, beans, and squash. Life for the Hohokam largely focused around agriculture and required work from the entire community to construct, maintain, and repair the canal systems. The archaeological site, Pueblo Grande likely supported about 1,000 residents at its peak in the classical period from 1150 CE to 1450. To sustain such a large population, a lot of food and water was needed.  Believe it or not, some of the canals excavated were 15 feet deep and 45 feet wide!  You can imagine that the amount of work that went into the construction of these canals without modern machinery was enormous. However, it was such a great idea that in the late 1800’s modern inhabitants decided to construct new canals to direct water to the city of Phoenix nearly on top of the prehistoric ones. The modern canals of the Central Arizona Project are 336 miles making the Hohokam’s 500 miles even more impressive. Today, many of these spectacular ancient sites can still be visited in the Phoenix area allowing us to marvel at the accomplishments of the prehistoric desert dwellers.

Prehistoric Desert Canals_Image 1

Learn more unbelievable facts at “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!®” now through May 4 at Arizona Science Center!


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