The Original Tucson: A 4,000-year Agrarian History
Tucson is one of the longest continuously occupied places in the United States. More than 4,000 years ago, the first inhabitants settled near the base of today’s “A” Mountain (Sentinel Peak), lived in small pithouses, and grew crops of maize in the Santa Cruz River floodplain. Irrigation canals in the floodplain have been dated to 3,500 years ago.
Although the adoption of agriculture is often described as a “revolution” in the way humans make a living, the evidence from Tucson indicates that change was more gradual. For example, several kinds of small, fired-clay items were produced between 2,000 B.C. and A.D. 50, but production of ceramic containers did not begin until after A.D. 50. At that time, large jars began to be used for food storage instead of the deep earthen pits that were so common previously.
The Hohokam Culture thrived for at least a millennium—about A.D. 450 to 1450. These people farmed corn, beans, squash, and cotton in the Santa Cruz floodplain and many of its tributaries. When Father Kino visited the Tucson area in 1694, he was greatly impressed with the fields he saw at San Xavier del Bac, and commented that they could support a population the size of Mexico City. By the mid-1700s, European missionaries living in the region had introduced wheat and barley to the agrarian mix.
Recent research in anticipation of development projects and Tucson’s Rio Nuevo Project has provided a wealth of new information about Tucson’s 4,000-year agrarian history.