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Exhibit engages community with faculty research

April 04, 2011

It’s often a challenge for academic institutions to effectively relay research results to the general public. Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change is taking a novel approach by using its ASU Museum of Anthropology to engage the community while sharing its discoveries.

Kicking off a series of exhibits based on research by school faculty is the timely, sustainability-centered “Choosing a Future with Water: Lessons from the Hohokam.”

This interactive exhibit looks at the life-giving role of the Phoenix area’s most vital resource – water – from our current perspective, as well as that of the ancient inhabitants of the area, the Hohokam.

The impetus for the presentation is a journal article co-authored by school professors David Abbott, Keith Kintigh and Margaret C. Nelson and associate professor John M. Anderies. “The Cross-scale Interplay between Social and Biophysical Context and the Vulnerability of Irrigation-dependent Societies: Archaeology’s Long-term Perspective” appeared in the September 2010 issue of Ecology & Society.

Abbott, a noted Hohokam expert, and Kintigh, an archaeologist specializing in the American Southwest, served on the exhibit team with museum professionals Judy Newland, museum director; Peter Banko, outreach and operations coordinator; Richard Toon, museum studies program director; and Catherine Nichols, former assistant curator.

Known for their large-scale irrigation works, the Hohokam farmed productively for centuries. Anchored to their local landscape by huge investments in their irrigation infrastructure, they became vulnerable to overtaxing local resources. To avert these risks, the Hohokam expanded their economy to a regional scale in which resources of many kinds were traded among diverse ecological zones. Eventually, the regional economy broke down, and the Hohokam reverted to local, isolated groups that faced overpopulation, environmental degradation and ruin.

Abbott believes this ages-old example of water management is salient to today’s debate on how to ensure continued adequate water supply to a growing desert metropolis. Noting parallels between the Hohokam experience and what is happening now, he explained, “The Hohokam had great success for a long period and then collapsed. If we continue with our current patterns, our civilization could follow the same path.”

Abbott pointed out that, like the Hohokam farmers, Phoenix-area residents share their water with others. The valley’s population is served by water from the Salt, Colorado and Verde Rivers and, to a lesser extent, local wells. Many other in-state communities depend on the same river sources, and in the case of the Colorado River, residents of six other states – California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – lay claim to its water under the Colorado River Compact.

“We are all connected by a dependency on this common source. What we do here in the Phoenix region can affect what happens to the people in Los Angeles, and vice versa,” Abbott reminded. Looking ahead, he asked, “As water sources become scarcer, will we cooperate with other communities that depend on those sources, or will we follow the Hohokam example and try to go it alone?”

Among its offerings, the museum exhibits numerous Hohokam ceramics discovered on or around the ASU Tempe campus. Additionally, there are two sizable murals: one depicting Tempe when Hohokam agricultural activity was at its height and a map of the Phoenix metropolitan region marked with modern water-delivery routes and the much more extensive ancient Hohokam canal system.

The interactive corner creatively asks visitors to consider the far-reaching implications of water use. Guests can try their hand at the Water Sim from ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City or a game where players roll a die to attempt to strike a balance between the water available to their city and the needs of the city’s population. Another activity challenges visitors to figure out how many and what types of plants can be sustained in their garden for every 50 gallons of water. And there’s a guessing game involving the major culprits of household water use.

A section called “Desert Feast” details some of the native foods eaten from ancient times to the present. Visitors can even pick up a printed recipe for chocolate chip cookies made with mesquite flour.

As student groups, campus guests and members of the greater community move through the gallery space, Abbott hopes they not only enjoy the presentation but also take away a sense of connection to the people who came before them and learn from the archaeological record they left behind.

“Choosing a Future with Water: Lessons from the Hohokam” will run through April 15. The ASU Museum of Anthropology, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday-Friday and is located inside the School of Human Evolution and Social Change on the Tempe campus. For more information, visit