The People Who Vanished


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This presentation describes a startling discovery about the Hohokam, the prehistoric inhabitants of the area known today as Phoenix, Arizona, in the southwest of the United States.

A narrative script explaining the visuals can be found in the speaker notes.

"The People Who Vanished" was a design fiction workshop run by Stuart Candy (@futuryst) and Jake Dunagan (@dunagan23) for Emerge, an event held at Arizona State University, 1-3 March 2012.

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  • STUART: Hi, I'm Stuart Candy, this is Jake Dunagan. Together we've been producing experiential scenarios -- immersions in possible worlds, similar to design fiction -- for five or six years now. For Emerge, we wanted our workshop group's interests and creativity to drive the process, and it did. So, they are the ones who will tell you about it as well. The result was quite an amazing discovery. But before I invite our first speaker David up here, I want to note the only fixed point in our group's exploration this weekend. That was the point of departure, the history of this place.
  • The name Phoenix was adopted in the 19 th century, in symbolic acknowledgement of the fact that the city is built on the ruins of another civilisation, a people known as the Hohokam.
  • The Phoenix, of course, was a firebird in Greek mythology that burns up its own nest, and itself, every 500 years or so, giving way to a rebirth.
  • DAVID: I’m David Therrien, I’m a performance artist, and I grew up here in Phoenix.
  • This is a 1922 map of the Phoenix area, also known as the Valley of the Sun. From about the year zero to 1400, the Hohokam lived here. This was a unique and sophisticated desert culture responsible for an elaborate 500-mile canal system dug by hand, irrigating 110,000 acres to support a peak population of somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people.
  • And this is the same area, with urban sprawl added, Modern day Phoenix is about four million people, and it’s built directly on top of the old Hohokam stamping grounds. That landmark in the middle is Tempe Butte.
  • Just to orient ourselves, you can see Tempe Butte from right outside this hall here on the ASU campus. It’s also known as “’A’ Mountain”. I used to run cross country up there as a kid in high school. There are Hohokam petroglyphs up there on the top, although I never paid much attention to them.
  • On Thursday, our workshop was joined by Dr Jerry Howard, Curator of Anthropology at the Arizona Museum of Natural History, who provided an overview of the prehistory of this area. He made the point that “The Hohokam remains are under the lawns and streets of Phoenix.” For someone who has lived in the area as long as I have, this is a startling realisation.
  • Zooming in a little more from that map of prehistoric landmarks overlaid on a contemporary satellite image, you can see two of the most famous Hohokam archaeological sites -- Pueblo Grande to the west, and Mesa Grande to the East: where we are now is right in between them, just south of Tempe Butte. Part of what makes this place fascinating is to recognise that we built this city on top of one of the largest prehistoric settlements in North America.
  • The Hohokam were a sophisticated people who lived in walled houses…
  • … and at its peak, much of this society’s activity appeared to revolve around a system of hundreds of ball courts. We don’t know the rules of the game they played, but we do know that it wasn’t just a sport. It served as the basis for an elaborate ritual and system of trade that knitted parts of the community together.
  • The Hohokam are known for their red-on-buff pottery. But theirs was an oral culture, so they left behind no writings. They speak to us today primarily through their engineering; their canals are their language.
  • Here’s what we mean about the scale of the canal system. This is a closer zoom in on the map we saw a minute ago. (There’s Tempe Butte in the lower left hand corner.) Each square on the overlaid map is a square mile. This was a preindustrial culture so the canals represent tens if not hundreds of thousands of man-hours of hard labour.
  • This one is about 17 feet deep.
  • And this is how some of the canals look today…
  • Perhaps not all that impressive, after six centuries of erosion. But these were very significant constructions – they would comfortably have fit three pickup trucks side by side. They were engineered with incredible precision, maintaining an even gradient and water velocity over great distances.
  • In fact the Hohokam canal system remains as the basis…
  • … for some canals still operational in Phoenix to this day.
  • Now, the part of the Hohokam story that’s most fascinating is the end. Their civilisation collapsed, and no one quite knows why. This is a question that archaeologists debate endlessly. Because in about 1400, well before the first European explorers set foot on the continent, the Hohokam vanished. Even their name, “Hohokam”, is not what they called themselves: we don’t know what they called themselves. This is an O'odham word which means “The People Who Vanished”.
  • From about 1070, the signs of social and environmental stress begin to mount.
  • A community based on open, participatory ball-court ceremonies gives way to platform mounds, walled compounds and exclusion. Trade slowed down. The urban population jumped dramatically, Diets narrowed and the bone evidence shows women were anaemic and more likely to die in childbirth.
  • Tree ring evidence around 1200 shows unpredictable water supplies. Some years there was flood, other years drought. Irrigation projects moved further upstream (towards the east here) as people attempted to secure privileged access to the water supply.
  • The last canal the Hohokam built was “Number Fourteen”, next to “Pueblo Ultimo”. It seems that by then, perhaps the art of digging these canals was beginning to break down. There are seemingly less functional elements, like these three protrusions on the north side. The design is oddly angular, and unlike earlier parts of the irrigation system, in this case there is an overall incongruity with the contours of the landscape. This anomaly is clearly important to understanding why the Hohokam were ultimately unable to sustain their civilisation. So, our workshop split into groups to focus in on this question more deeply. One of the breakout groups came up with an approach that led us all down a completely unexpected path. Julie? JULIE: I’m Julie Rada, a graduate student at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts here at ASU. So the idea came up that a construction so strangely different from the others may have had a purpose that was less about its function, and more about its symbolism. One of our group members, Mike, suggested that we extract the basic outline of this canal…
  • … .and use Google Goggles to do a visual search…
  • … and use pattern recognition to see whether anything like this pattern would show up in other Mesoamerican cultures.
  • What we found was… quite an eye-opener.
  • The first result was an image from the Harappan civilisation in the Indus Valley, which is in modern-day Pakistan. (You can see the relevant pattern just above the animal figure.) These people existed from around 3300 BCE to 1900 BCE.
  • The same search…
  • … turned up this glyph from the Ancient Pueblo people, or Anasazi, who lived in the present-day Four Corners region of the United States -- which includes Northern Arizona.
  • But the find that made our hair stand on end was this next one…
  • A pot from the Hohokam people themselves, dated to within 30 years before they disappear from the archaeological record.
  • We realised that we had stumbled on something absolutely incredible. Finding the pattern in these other contexts confirmed that not only was the shape of Canal Fourteen a deliberate symbol of some kind, but it was showing up in completely unrelated cultures.
  • This image is from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.
  • And this is from the famous Nazca geoglyphs in southern Peru. This is an aerial photograph, and the symbol we see here is around 2000 feet across.
  • Further investigation showed a common thread across these very different civilisations, in different parts of the world, across great spans of time. The Harappan civilisation, in the Indian subcontinent, vanished around 1500 BCE, it is thought due to drought and a decline in trade. The Nazca of Peru were gone by the year 800, due to widespread flooding, made worse by trees cut down to farm cotton and corn. The Polynesian peoples of Easter Island experienced a population collapse for various reasons by the 18 th Century. And the Anasazi, in Arizona’s own Chaco Canyon, went away around the year 1300, due to drought. Exactly why the Hohokam vanished, by about 1400, is unknown. But in every case, the evidence shows that this distinctive symbol has appeared among them, no more than a generation before the end, as if an omen of imminent change.
  • It is about half a millennium since the Hohokam. And this Phoenix has risen faster, flown higher, and grown larger than anyone could have imagined.
  • TYLER: My name is Tyler Eglen, and I’m also a grad student at the Herberger Institute. So, just after we’d been joining these dots together yesterday afternoon, I had to leave our workshop to go across campus to the for a rehearsal of Immerge, a performance you’ll be able to see tonight over at the ASU Art Museum.
  • So I turned the corner to get to the Nelson Fine Arts Center, our venue for this evening… And I couldn’t believe my eyes. Do you see it? I rushed back to the workshop to tell everyone else what I had found, and Gordon Knox -- the Director of the Museum -- was there. He told us, and this is a true story, that the building was designed in 1989 by Antoine Predock, who cited as inspiration for its design, Mayan, Anasazi, Egyptian, and extraterrestrial motifs! Found it yet?
  • The People Who Vanished

    1. 1. The People Who Vanished
    2. 2. “The only thing new in the world is the history you dont know” Harry Truman
    3. 3. Pew Site compound, Mesa
    4. 4. Snaketown Ballcourt
    5. 5. Headgate area
    6. 6. Phoenix canals:1930
    7. 7. `
    8. 8. “Fiction has to be plausible. Reality doesn’t.” Stewart Brand
    9. 9. ‘The People Who Vanished’ were: Carlo Altamirano Gordon Knox Michael Baran Oscar Lopez Rachel Bowditch Blakely McConnell Stuart Candy Julie Rada Chris Danowski Matt Ragan Jake Dunagan Reed Riner Tyler Eglen Joya Scott Erik Fisher D.A. Therrien Paul Higgins Trish Yasolsky Bobby Zokaites Special thanks: David Abbott, SHESC, ASU Tain Barzo Joel GarreauJerry Howard, Arizona Museum of Natural History Cynthia Selin