Catalina State Park – Tucson, AZ
A lot of times I like to hike alone since I’m a serious dawdler and want to take my time and go at my own pace. But I’m really glad I did this Ranger-led hike while camping at Catalina State Park since I know I ended up learning a lot more than I would have on my own just from reading the signs.
But to start with the sign:
“This trail is the entrance to almost 1,500 years of history. For nearly 800 years, the residents of an ancient Hohokam village regularly traveled this steep trail. Sometimes they strained to carry bountiful harvests of corn and beans from the floodplain to the village on the ridge above. Several times each day, water had to be carried in clay jars from the now dry arroyo. On other occasions, it was the hunger that followed poor harvests that made the climb difficult.
In the middle of the 1800’s, Mexican rancher Francisco Romero built a house on the ridge and lived there for a brief period. Romero and his cattle were often the targets of Apache raids.
Archaeologists have explored only a small portion of the Hohokam village, now known as Romero Ruin, and performed only a limited reconstruction. As a result, each visitor is responsible for seeing what the ruin can reveal about the past. Try to see through the eyes of an archaeologist, and imagine what clues may be hidden beneath a subtle rise or depression in the ground.”
Now meet Jonathan McCabe, the Park Naturalist for 25 years, who helped make dry facts come to life for the group. I was really impressed that someone could do something all that time and still maintain such a high level of enthusiasm. You can tell he really loves what all his job entails and is happy to share his love of the history of this area.
It’s only a short .75 mile loop, but there is incline and some steps involved… 78 to be exact. I only know that because he engaged the kids in the group, asking them to count the steps on the way up.
While the signs can be informative, he added details and personal perspectives that definitely gave a deeper understanding of what we were seeing. I appreciated how he pointed out that although the ruin is named for the Mexican rancher who lived here for a brief time, he would also give us the chance to learn more about the much earlier residents, the Hohokam inhabitants who lived here for hundreds of years.
Brittanica explains, “Hohokam culture, prehistoric North American Indians who lived approximately from ad 200 to 1400 in the semiarid region of present-day central and southern Arizona, largely along the Gila and Salt rivers. The term Hohokam is said to be Pima for “those who have vanished.”
Jonathan said they lived here about 1,000 years ago and it looks like they lived here 1,000 years, but that they disappeared in the 1400s for unknown reasons.
Tree freak that I am, I really appreciated him pointing out this 200 old Black Walnut tree – a rarity for this area. You can almost see the spirits in the trees, can’t you? (Don’t you nay-sayers say anything to me about lens flare!) 🙂
He also pointed out the only place on the hike where you could get off the trail so you can get a little closer to this old guy. Although it’s impossible to tell exactly how old it is, estimates are that they don’t start putting out arms until they’re 50-75 years old. When arms are added to arms, that could put him at 200+ years old. I thought it was interesting to learn that in the first couple of years, the saguaro are vulnerable to sunburn (seemingly a design flaw in a desert plant). But if a “nurse tree” is nearby, that protects the saguaro until eventually it overgrows it and takes enough of the nutrients that the nurse tree dies. Ah, Mother Nature is a trip sometimes…
Arriving at the actual Romero Ruin, he said the whole family (4-5 people) lived within the confines of this pretty small space. That to me would be bad enough, but not only would the Apache keep stealing his cattle, Romero was also wounded by arrows several times, so he finally decided it wasn’t worth it and moved to Tucson.
From Romero Ruin – Cultural History: “The historic structures at the Romero Ruin are the remains of a ranch built by Francisco Romero in the mid-to late-1800s. Although it is reported that Romero built the wall enclosing his living structures as protection against Apache raiders, it is likely that he just improved upon the existing Hohokam compound wall. In addition, Romero probably robbed cobbles from the Hohokam structures to build his house.”
The Romero Ruin was a lot easier to identify than coming across these rocks much lower to the ground.
Excerpt from The Prehistoric Walled Village:
Some time after A.D. 1150, the Hohokam constructed a large enclosing wall of earth and rock. In 1990, archaeologists exposed a portion of the wall immediately in front of you. The fallen rocks make it possible to estimate that the wall once stood five feet or more in height. The Hohokam may have intended the wall to provide privacy and define the boundaries of the social group which lived inside. A concern for defense may have been another motivation. After A.D. 1150, hilltops and steep slopes were increasingly used and walls became important elements of many villages. A rough estimate is that fewer than 100 people lived within the walled village… and probably peaked several hundred years before the wall was built, when as many as 300 people may have lived atop this ridge.”
He definitely pointed out things I would have missed, thinking it was just another piece of rock or something.
Jonathan also brings artifacts to share that help tell the stories of the ancient inhabitants, but reminds us we need to be mindful of our part in preserving the important sites here by staying on the trail, not climbing on the walls and leaving all pottery and other artifacts exactly where they are so others may discover them as well.
But I really liked how I could actually touch and hold these little pieces of pottery history in my hand as he passed them around telling about how they were used by their makers.
Here he’s demonstrating the use of grinding stones. One side effect I hadn’t thought of is how this practice inevitably caused little pieces of stone getting mixed in with the grain. Obviously that’s hard on the teeth, so tooth infection was a frequent cause of death, contributing to a pretty low life expectancy, usually in their 40s.
But this site with slightly lowered ground level seemed pretty unique to me as he hid the info sign asking us to guess what it was. Turns out it was a Ballcourt and was used for games that brought surrounding communities together for play and trade. When asked what we thought they used for balls, none of us guessed rubber. He said that material was not available locally, but they got it by travel or trade.
He said that while the Hohokam were not like the Mayan who practiced human sacrifice to appease or appeal to their gods, they shared a belief in the next life.
It seemed pretty brutal to me to hear, though, that sportsmanship was a particularly unknown concept. The losers of the games got their head cut off! But the winners were heroes and got all they wanted for a year. He said in any case, the rewards and penalties made for exciting games! Yikes!
When we got to the top of this mound, he told us how the entire thing was made up of trash that was discarded over a period of 1,000 years. It was an important find that revealed details of the Hohokum lives, the crops they planted and the animals they hunted that made up their food supply.
Their largest cultural treasure ever was found on this trash pile when they discovered a pot full of 100,000 beads and 30 copper bells. They also found seashells that were obviously not indigenous to the area, but were apparently used in trade. He had us marveling at the skill and ingenuity it took for these “primitive” people – whose tools were just sticks & rocks – to put holes in shells to use in jewelry and fashion copper into bells that rang. I loved the story about how the Hohokam would go on a Vision Quest to discover what their role would be in the group, then they would leave bells as gifts at the foot of the mountain after this quest. There are petroglyphs nearby from these events.
He said that besides being an important archeological site, this place was special in a spiritual sense. Like a Sedona vortex, it’s an exceptional space with strong energy. He shared that once when he was digging a ditch here in August when it was so hot he could barely stand it, he felt a shiver go through him. When asked what he thought that was about, he simply said, “I prefer to maintain the mystery.” Woo-woo fan that I am, I loved that answer and truly enjoyed this hike!
More Info on Romero Ruin:
The Catalina State Park area appears to have been continuously occupied from at least the Middle Archaic period (5000-1000 BC). Prehistoric farming, small habitation, and pueblo sites constructed of rock and adobe can be found throughout the area. The Romero Ruin is an excellent example of a Hohokam pueblo with associated ball court. The earliest date for its occupation is 550-600 AD. The ruin was extensively occupied between 1000-1100 AD and then abandoned sometime between 1300-1450 AD.