What the Ancestors Ate

Recreating prehistoric food in Baja Arizona from hidden stories in ancient fragments.

September 5, 2015

FeaturesIssue 14: September/October 2015

Left to right: goosefoot, lamb’s quarters, or huauzontle (Chenopodium berlandieri), nutritious seeds, stems, and leaves; domesticated amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus), nutritious seeds and leaves, an Aztec staple food also used in ritual; tansy mustard (Descurainia pinnata), edible seeds with a mustardy tang; Palmer’s amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), a wild weed with nutritious seeds, stems, and leaves.

“Now Indian children make a game of searching for bits of clay that were once somebody’s bowl or mug or cooking pot or dipper. Their parents look at what they find and tell them, ‘Remember—treat that with respect. It is so old.’ They say every piece of clay is a piece of someone’s life.”

—Byrd Baylor,
When Clay Sings

Here, take a look at this.” Suzanne Fish bent down and picked up what looked like a small, flat stone. She handed it to me to pass around the small group of people standing on the summit of Tumamoc Hill. We were listening as Suzanne and Paul Fish, her husband and a fellow archaeologist, led a tour of this historic landmark and archaeological site in Tucson. The object was of a nondescript brown color, quite weathered—yet light flashed from tiny bits of mica on its surface as I turned it over in my hand. “It’s a fragment of an old pot,” I volunteered.

“Exactly,” she said. “A plainware sherd, from Early Ceramic times before they painted pottery. Between 500 and 700 A.D., there was a prehistoric village up here built by the early Hohokam people. Once this sherd was kitchenware, then trash, now an artifact. These artifacts are common, yet each contains a story that contributes to a larger story—a narrative—that will always be incomplete.”


Allen Denoyer’s archaeological site photos documenting the broken pot with the burned squash seeds as he uncovered them. Courtesy of Desert Archaeology, Inc.

Suzanne explained that prehistoric potters used materials close at hand, so sherds found at a site are usually locally made. But Tumamoc sherds are made of clay and sand from sites all over the Tucson valley, many visible from the hill’s apex.

paul-mirocha_what-the-ancestors-ate_edible-baja-arizona_06“So people from different prehistoric villages carried pots up this steep slope?” someone asked.

“Apparently,” said Suzanne. “But we’ll never know exactly why.”

“What was in those pots?” someone else asked.

“Perhaps food, drink, or provisions for special events,” Suzanne said.

“So maybe those ancient villagers all met to party up here,” offered a listener, generating laughter.

“That’s as good a conjecture as any,” Paul said, as Suzanne carefully replaced the sherd. “The Hohokam couldn’t grow much food here; there was no water. Yet they labored hard to build these rock terraces, trincheras, on the hillside around us, indicating social organization and shared beliefs. But to know the reason for sure, we’d have to interview the sherds themselves.”

The preserved remains of seeds, stems, and rinds from domesticated squash have been found in caves in southern Mexico dating back at least to 8000 B.C., older than the earliest evidence for cultivated maize and far older than beans. One theory suggests that wild gourds filled an essential function for thousands of years—as containers for food and liquids. These inedible gourd fruits may have also been eaten after being painstakingly processed to remove their bitter taste. Eventually domestication selected out the bitterness and increased the size of seeds and pulp. (From left to right) Wild cushaw squash seeds, Cucurbita argyrosperma; domesticated squash seeds, Cucurbita pepo; Tohono O’odham ha:l squash seeds, Cucurbita argyrosperma.

We stood under an empty sky in warming air, clutching water bottles. Below us to the east was downtown, beyond it the vast valley. To the southwest, Baboquivari Peak, the sacred mountain of the modern Tohono O’odham, who historians believe are related to the Hohokam. We don’t know to what degree this relationship is genetic, but the Tohono O’odham see themselves as the Hohokam’s descendants, and their culture does retain many aspects of the Hohokam culture—including food traditions.

“We know that around 400 to 500 B.C., when people started living up here, significant changes were happening,” said Paul. “We see humans shaping their environment, like with these trincheras—and the irrigation canals down near the Santa Cruz River, probably the first in North America. After many thousands of years, mobile foragers were settling into villages, farming with these canals. Farming allowed the Hohokam to flourish but also made them more dependent on rain.”

We’d parked our cars that morning near a large circle of rocks marking a “big house,” a community or ceremonial structure excavated on this summit in the ’90s and then reburied. And before construction of a road and radio towers on this summit, there’d been evidence of an ancient plaza.

I began to think there was more to this than ancient people just filling their bellies. The anthropologist Ruth Underhill wrote in the 1930s that O’odham religion was fundamentally based on food, because survival depended on “bringing down the clouds” that watered crops. Native peoples’ ceremonies throughout the Southwest and Mexico lasted for days, and both visitors and participants had to be fed. I’d also read about “competitive feasting,” an archeological term describing when people from different villages gathered to eat together, and I imagined that this hilltop was a place for that gathering, and a sanctuary for the accompanying rituals.

These people wrote nothing down, preferring an oral passage of knowledge. Fittingly, the name we give the Hohokam, from the O’odham word huhugam—“those who are gone”—omits more than it explains. Yet these people were still people essentially like us. How did they explain the world? What did they value? Why did they live on this dry mountain, exposed to summer heat and monsoon storms—and did they appreciate this beautiful 360-degree view like I do?

Everyone eats. It’s physical and intimate, yet universal. Could I reconstruct a prehistoric recipe? Could I taste something as the ancients had?

The clues had been in those pots … or pots like them. I decided to try to unravel this mystery.


Tepary beans are often found in ancient Hohokam sites in southern Arizona. This quintessential desert food has been known to yield a crop from a single monsoon soaking. The wild, creeping ancestor of modern beans has small, rock-hard seeds that were scattered from the pods as they ripened. Domestication created a more manageable bushy plant, producing larger seeds with softer skins, which stayed in the pods for easier harvesting. (From left to right) Wild tepary beans, Phaseolus acutifolius; O’odham Sacaton brown tepary beans, P. acutifolius; O’odham Sacaton white tepary beans, P. acutifolius.

I went to see another archaeologist, Allen Denoyer, at the Oro Valley Farmers’ Market at Steam Pump Ranch. He runs the Hands-On Archaeology program, which replicates everyday objects from the past to learn how ancient people may have used them.

That day he’d just finished a demonstration for onlookers, reproducing an ancient Clovis dart that could’ve been made 12,000 years ago to kill huge mammals like mammoths. Arranged nearby were other “primitive technology” replicas that no longer looked primitive to me.

Denoyer is an “ancient-technologies specialist” at Archaeology Southwest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring and protecting historical sites and educating the public about them. He and his collaborators had recently built a pit house to help learn how people lived thousands of years ago. Summer monsoons had washed away parts of its adobe covering, which provided a scientific opportunity to learn how the original builders had kept up on home repairs. As an experiment, they even planned to burn it down to see how easily it would catch fire. But as it turned out, there was a different pit house that had already burned that was of more interest to me in learning about the Hohokam’s food plants.

A few years before, Denoyer told me, he’d been on a dig to document a site where a deep storm drain was going under a city road. If old remains are discovered in such circumstances, he explained, laws require archeological investigations before development. At this site, once workers were about hip-deep to the curb, they started to uncover prehistoric houses from 1,200 years ago.

One of these houses had burned and collapsed, flattening and burying a set of pots that had been arranged on the house’s plastered floor. The fire’s intense heat had carbonized—thus preserved—those pots’ contents. He thought one black mass looked like squash seeds, one looked like wild amaranth seeds. Another pot apparently held corn and beans.

Plant remains are very hard to find preserved unless burned—Denoyer had hit archaeological gold.

But in order to know for sure what the plants were, they had to be sent to the lab for analysis.


A Changing Kernel: The sequence of maize (or corn) specimens shown here is a visualization of the diversification that resulted following domestication of maize from its wild ancestor, teosinte, in southern Mexico, around 9,000 years ago. Through human selection, maize evolved larger cobs and more rows of larger kernels, and early flint and popcorn kernels evolved to include additional softer kernel types such as flour, dent, and sweet corn. These kernel types offer culinary diversity and, along with kernel color, have traits considered very important by modern Native Americans. All the maize varieties pictured here are modern, except for the grey silhouette of the early small cob maize found in archaeological sites in the Tucson Basin, which is primarily known from burned and damaged cob fragments. (Maize samples courtesy of Native Seeds/SEARCH)

So I went straight to the analyzers—James Heidke, a research ceramicist, and Michael Diehl, a paleobotanical specialist—at the offices of Desert Archaeology. On their table was Exhibit A: Denoyer’s photograph of the arrangement of broken pottery on the floor of his famous pit house, as he’d uncovered it. It was like a crime scene photo.

“What do you think people were cooking there?” I asked.

“There was a pot with squash seeds that was probably used for storage, since the seeds were unprocessed,” said Heidke. As Diehl and Heidke explained, the ancients were pretty diligent about getting the grittier bits of plant remains out of their food. The few times archaeologists had found a burned, intact pot, it almost always contained clean seeds, without bracts (a kind of leaf) or pods.

“Seems like a lot of work,” I said. Diehl conceded—food preparation had been complex, he said. Those people thought deeply about their food’s origins.

“We have a list of plants identified here,” Diehl continued. “A mixture of shelled corn, squash, beans, goosefoot (of the genus Chenopodium) or amaranth, seeds from several wild grasses, and tansy mustard—a weed related to London rocket, a European invader. These people must’ve liked tansy mustard’s taste—more of it’s found in digs around Tucson than elsewhere.”

I’d seen that weed—London rocket—taking over my yard.

“Last but not least,” said Diehl, “we found wild tobacco remains.”

The Hohokam, I learned, smoked tobacco ritually to make cloud shapes as they prayed for the rain that made their food possible. I decided to consider that plant part of the recipe forming in my head.

Heidke determined that there were three pots in Denoyer’s photo, all smashed together, two in the category of vessels used for “cooking, storage, or water cooling.”

The other was a large serving platter. Deihl guessed that the Hohokam’s communal eating had been like people eating Ethiopian food—many gathered around the same pot, maybe grabbing bits of food with their fingers, little tortillas, or broken sherds from another pot.

Diehl added, “This is where Jim and I cooperate on narratives. But we try to stick to the facts. There are so many narratives to choose from—they aren’t science; they’re literature.”

With that, these men passed me on to the project manager on Denoyer’s dig, Michael Lindeman. “His job is to write the narrative,” Diehl told me. “If there is one.”


I imagine a stewpot,” Lindeman said, sitting across a different table at Desert Archaeology. “I relate Hohokam cooking to my grandparents’ cooking. Like the Hohokam, my grandparents grew most of what they ate, and their stews mostly contained vegetables.”

“Allen thought Hohokam food must have been bland,” I offered. “Chiles were common in Mesoamerica, and wild chiltepines grew locally—but the Hohokam apparently weren’t interested.”

“I didn’t find my grandparents’ food bland,” Lindeman said. “Although I did often ask for more meat. Maybe the Hohokam were vegetable connoisseurs—maybe they didn’t want to add anything to the taste of the crops themselves, which were nutritionally complete. But they still flavored their food with meat. Most of the animal bones we find at Hohokam sites are from rabbits—probably invaders caught in the fields. Killing something like a deer would be a chance for a community feast.”

Lindeman didn’t know why anyone might have burned a house down with food inside. “But since those remains at the site are incredibly consistent with what we find everywhere in southern Arizona, we can make statements about trends during those times.”

What were those trends? Well, Lindeman explained, the slow domestication of crops like corn from ancient Mesoamerica allowed human populations to increase far beyond those of their own hunter-gatherer ancestors. The Hohokam built canals to water their crops, yet for this very reason, they were living beyond the natural capacity of the land, and some years crops failed entirely due to drought or floods. That’s why farmers kept the old, reliable wild plants—like wild-grass seeds, saguaro fruit, and mesquite beans—in their diet: as a safety net that helped them get through scarcity.

It was genius. The resulting food surplus allowed Hohokam culture to prosper and spread over the desert of Baja Arizona—at least for a good, long run.

“Then what?” I asked.

“The Hohokam eventually disappeared from the archaeological record.”

But their food traditions didn’t disappear.


Tohono O’odham people have inherited their predecessors’ intimacy with the Sonoran Desert—dwelling in the same climate, living and farming on the same land, using the same resources. And I knew oral traditions had a long memory. To find out what remained, I wanted to speak with a living Tohono O’odham cook.

I asked Phyllis Valenzuela, events coordinator and resident “traditional-foods chef” at the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Co-op Farm, to explain how she sees her tribe’s connection to the Hohokam through the two peoples’ traditional cuisine. As it happens, not only is she familiar with most of the foods found in Denoyer’s pit house, she also uses them in her own cooking.

And as with the Hohokam, she said, food was central to the Tohono O’odham culture as an intense labor of love. Traditional cooks in her tribe “don’t really use spices,” she said, because they prefer not to let other flavors interfere with those of the savory plants they work so hard to harvest and prepare. Plants grown at home taste infinitely better than anything store-bought, so why mask their taste with spices?

But, Valenzuela said, a few extra flavors were allowed. Meat was one of them: Her tribe still hunts animals mainly for their meat’s ability to flavor food. But when they did hunt larger animals, it was for a feast.

Just as Lindeman was speculating, I thought.

“It’s like chicken,” she said—like the broth or bouillon we use in soup. Valenzuela hadn’t heard of tansy mustard, but her people do use its modern cousin, London rocket, to give dishes a mustardy tang.

Finally, Valenzuela said, she uses just a bit of salt in her dishes. She agreed that the Hohokam probably did, too, “If they had it from their salt pilgrimage to the Sea of Cortez.”

Right there at the farm, the tribe grows many of the crops the Hohokam grew: squash, corn, tepary beans. And Valenzuela knows amaranth—also found in that pit house—as “wild spinach.”

“To this day, at home I still have my grandmother’s metate,” she said, “and I still use it.”

So these food traditions lasted thousands of years—somehow linking the Hohokam and the Tohono O’odham, mostly through memory, I thought. But orally passed traditions had probably been reinforced, enduring millennia, through the necessity that comes from living—and eating—in the harsh yet bountiful Sonoran Desert. Geography is destiny. Geography is cuisine.

At sunset, I’m walking alone along a trinchera on Tumamoc. As electric lights start appearing down in the valley like tiny jewels, I imagine a time when there were only campfires visible, all along the Santa Cruz River.

Near my feet I notice a pot sherd. I leave it alone—I learned from Valenzuela that Tohono O’odham tribal members don’t disturb such relics; they’re sacred and must be blessed first. The stories are so easily lost, I think, while the things last forever. Yet someone might still remember fragments.

paul-mirocha_what-the-ancestors-ate_edible-baja-arizona_08What stories will archaeologists—if there are any, 1,000 years from now—infer about us 21st-century people? Will they catalog old digital-media storage units that nobody knows how to read anymore, wondering what our belongings can tell them about our society? Asking themselves, What did those ancient Americans think about? What was important to them? Why did they make so many models of cars? Would they catalog Styrofoam cups and do dissertations on our food packaging?

Only time will tell, and it doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

pepo squashTohono O’odham Bosol

We don’t have any actual Hohokam recipes. Maybe the ancients didn’t think in terms of recipes. But we do have many from the current residents of the area, the Tohono O’odham. Phyllis Valenzuela of the San Xavier Co-op Farm shared one of her own recipes, whose ingredients were all available to the Hohokam. (Except one—wheat, which the Spanish brought to southern Arizona. We like to think of wheat berries as a modern version of the Hohokam’s wild-grass seeds.)

San Xavier Co-op Farm’s Bosol
Print Recipe
This vegetarian dish will please any dinner party crowd.
20 people
20 people
San Xavier Co-op Farm’s Bosol
Print Recipe
This vegetarian dish will please any dinner party crowd.
20 people
20 people
Servings: people
  1. Combine ingredients in a large pot at a rolling boil for 4 hours.
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A good source of traditional O’odham recipes that are written down is the book From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions, co-authored by Mary Votto Pagan-elli and the late Tohono O’odham elder Frances Manuel after seven years of work with more than 30 other elders (Tohono O’odham Community Action, 2010).

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