By Karen E. Peterson
The ancient Hohokams of Central and Southern Arizona saw an otherworldly meaning in our state’s radiance: in the springtime explosion of bright yellow flowers on paloverde trees; in the carpeting of purple lupines and orange poppies; in crimson cactus blossoms; in hummingbirds, butterflies, even the glint of minerals in the desert sand. For those who lived here first, these were visual thresholds through which they could glimpse the Flower World — the glimmering, iridescent land of the spirits.
The Flower World is a belief system that arose from Mesoamerica many thousands of years ago and spread to Central America, Mexico and the American Southwest. It did not fade with time but became rooted in the spiritual expressions of 30 modern Native cultures, including the Hohokams' descendants, the Tohono O’odhams and Akimel O’odhams.
You can see its influence even today, in celebrations like November’s spectacular Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, and in the mesmerizing Yaqui Deer Dance performed at Pascua Yaqui communities in Tucson and Guadalupe, outside Phoenix. The beauty and athleticism of the Yaqui Easter ceremony is downright “flowery,” in the sense of what the word means in Flower World terminology — masculine strength and courage.
Once you know about the Flower World and live in Arizona, its flower metaphors pop up practically everywhere, which is one reason these volunteer petroglyph sleuths are balanced this late autumn day like so many mountain sheep on the upper slopes of a 200-foot pile of rocks and boulders — a cone of stones known as an inselberg, or “rock island.” They're just weeks away from completing what they began two and a half years earlier: a painstaking, physically strenuous, bottom-to-top identification — hand-recorded and tabulated, photographed and GPS-coordinated — of the multitude of images on this aerie canvas 30 dusty miles from Tucson, near the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The hill was the last and smallest location in a multi-year investigation of the Flower World’s presence among the early Hohokams by rock art researchers Janine Hernbrode and Peter Boyle, not by way of conventional archaeological means — finding representations on pottery, for instance — but by closer examination of where people gathered: petroglyph sites like this one.
By late December 2017, the work of Hernbrode, Boyle and their 15 hardy volunteers, collectively the “Rock Band,” was completed, and the overall exploration of petroglyph sites in the Tucson valley at its end, save for crunching the data, Flower World-related and otherwise. Final results notwithstanding, as the work progressed on this little hill, Hernbrode remembers thinking, “Something special is going on here.”
The remote inselberg on privately owned and fenced ranchland was the culmination of a quest that began in 2012, following an encounter with a rock art specialist from Texas. She pointed to a glyph at a Hohokam site in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of the city, where Hernbrode and Boyle were working on another project, and remarked that it looked like a flower.
“She asked if I’d heard of the Flower World. I hadn’t,” Hernbrode says. She remedied the gap by turning to the work of Jane H. Hill, retired anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, whose specialty was linguistics.
In her groundbreaking 1992 study, The Flower World of Old Uto-Aztecan, Hill explores the emergence of what she terms the “Flower World Complex,” from its Mesoamerican origins to its spread into the Southwest. A belief system grounded in nature, the Flower World found a welcoming home within the Ancestral Puebloan culture of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
“If you wanted to endow something with a sacred quality, you would call it ‘flowery,’” Hill elaborates. “Flowers represent the idea of what a beautiful, sacred holy world would be like.” This world had no barriers — it could be experienced by anyone, shaman or not, by way of faith, song and flowers.
What is less well known is the Hohokam’s embrace of the Flower World during the same timeframe as the Ancestral Puebloans, roughly 1,000 years ago.
The Hohokams' Sonoran Desert homeland was within the path of migration from Mesoamerica, and fieldwork at Hohokam settlements uncovered artifacts from other cultures, indicating a trading route. But more conclusive evidence was needed to confirm the Flower World Complex within early Hohokam spiritual practice.
It could be, too, that the ephemeral nature of how the Flower World was expressed by the Hohokams and their descendants — by song, primarily — made it more difficult to trace. The word “music” in the language of the Tohono O’odhams, Hill notes, translates to “flowers for ears.”
In her paper, Hill suggested that a re-examination of Hohokam artifacts, including petroglyphs, might offer up clues. Intrigued, Hernbrode and Boyle began looking at previously recorded glyphs at the Santa Catalinas location and atop Tumamoc Hill in downtown Tucson, site of a Hohokam settlement. Both had a good number of what appeared to be flowers, when you knew what to look for.
“My mantra is one is nice, two are interesting, three is a pattern,” says Hernbrode, whose pattern here included related Flower World imagery — birds and butterflies — that help make up the full complement of Hill’s Flower World Complex. With sponsorship by the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society, the two opted to take one more look at a location that included this compact stack of stones.
So Much to Say
The Tohono O’odham call the hill “Chuhl tho’ag,” and say the name likely alludes to the once-running, life-sustaining stream at its base. Flat boulders along the banks are pockmarked with morteros — holes created by grinding mesquite beans for flour gathered from trees lining the waterway.
An oasis for desert dwellers, the O’odhams consider it a sacred gathering site and a seasonal home in the past for mesquite harvesting. Rock Band volunteer William Gillespie, a retired archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, found evidence of a nearby settlement during breaks from glyph hunting.
So while the hill may seem to be (and is) in the middle of nowhere now, back then, it was very much on the beaten path, its bounty of rocks offering up the means for mass communication.
In part, the hill confirmed what Hernbrode and Boyle had hypothesized: The Hohokam’s embrace of the Flower World appears contemporaneous “with its appearance in areas like Chaco Canyon,” Hernbrode says. Confident in their early analysis, she refers to the 900-plus individual Flower World images the team recorded there. Roughly two-thirds are images of birds and butterflies, one-third flowers, among them images that look much like the real thing, from cactus flowers to wildflowers, when photographed side by side.
If that was all the team discovered after years of hard rock labor, the results would be singularly significant, today and for future researchers, who may discover, as Hernbrode suspects, that the Flower World came to the Ancestral Puebloans through the Hohokams first, not vice versa, as assumed.
But the hill had more to impart.
To begin, the tidy inselberg is jammed with more than 9,000 images — abstracts to animals, including 900 snake glyphs — a profusion that may crown the hill as having the largest collection of petroglyphs in Southern Arizona. Hernbrode also suggests that, given its small size, it could have the “densest collection of glyphs” in a state blessed with rock art.
Then there were the “bell rocks” — solid, hefty boulders that when struck with a mallet sound, astoundingly, as clear and joyful as choir handbells. They're found worldwide, but here they counted 40 scattered serendipitously across the inselberg, identified by ages-old strike marks on their surfaces. Tonally ranging over three octaves, each returning a different pitch, some are grouped together to allow for harmonies, notes Boyle, who focused on the bell rocks with volunteer Carl Evertsbusch.
The relationship, if any, between the Flower World and the bell rocks is unknown, though how special it must have been for congregants — nature’s own music to accompany a belief system delivered in song.
With “beginning” also one of the supposed meanings of Chuhl tho’ag, it is worth musing that the name refers to another intriguing find — imagery of the Hohokam and O’odham origin story. While these images are found throughout the hill, one particular grouping stood out: Glyphs are pecked into a pair of neighboring boulders in such a way that the unformed humans, fashioned as stick-art barbells, emerge from the natural fissure between the rocks to become fully human, though curiously with bowed legs.
“Everyone needs someplace to commemorate their beginnings,” says Hernbrode of the provocative pictorial, adding, “They emerged in groups, holding on to one another.”
Hernbrode and Boyle have their work cut out as they sift through the data and begin publishing their latest findings, the first appearing this year in American Indian Rock Art.
As for the remarkably intimate inselberg, it isn’t going anywhere, though all involved are hoping its future is protected. “A sacred site, it is obviously very significant for the Nation,” says Peter Steere, Tohono O’odham historic preservation officer.
Property owner Jesus Arvizu has been happy to share its slopes with the Rock Band researchers. He also allows open access to the O’odhams, as a matter of courtesy and respect. As the hill’s steward, Arvizu receives kudos from Steere, who has walked the rugged area for signs of trespassers — hikers, drug traffickers, vandals — and reports that he hasn’t “even seen a cigarette butt.” As Steere points out, defacing or disturbing petroglyphs in any way is a felony offense under the Arizona Antiquities Act.
A businessman and rancher, Arvizu operates the Cocoraque Ranch and Pavilion, a popular Old West venue for corporate and private events, with its refurbished ranch house, cowboy decor, rodeo corral and plenty of room to dance. He also takes guests on horseback rides to the petroglyph site.
Arvizu has been approached about selling the land, and is willing. Pima County, in whose jurisdiction the hill sits, has the 160-acre property on its open space wish list, but previously secured bond money is gone and all county funding measures were voted down in the 2015 election. Still, county archaeologist Linda Mayro, who said her visit to the site “underscored my goal to see it preserved,” confirms that the county continues to look “for opportunities to ensure the permanent preservation of this exceptional cultural resource."
For now, Arvizu remains its caretaker, visiting frequently as he checks on cattle and fences. While Arvizu admits that he had no idea until recently “how valuable the hill is to history,” he has long understood its allure: “I sometimes sit on the top of the hill. It is so peaceful and quiet. Looking out over the valley, I go back in time and can’t help but wonder how it must have been.”