Early irrigation systems in southeastern Arizona: The ostracode perspective

Manuel R. Palacios-Fest, Jonathan B. Mabry, Fred Nials, James P. Holmlund, Elizabeth Miksa, Owen K. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


For the first time, the Early Agricultural Period (1200 BC-150 AD) canal irrigation in the Santa Cruz River Valley, southeastern Arizona, is documented through ostracode paleoecology. Interpretations based on ostracode paleoecology and taphonomy are supported by anthropological, sedimentological, geomorphological, and palynological information, and were used to determine the environmental history of the northern Tucson Basin during the time span represented by the sequence of canals at Las Capas (site AZ AA:12:753 ASM). We also attempt to elucidate based on archaeological artifacts if the Hohokam or a previous civilization built the canals. Between 3000 and 2400 radiocarbon years BP, at least three episodes of canal operation are defined by ostracode assemblages and pollen records. Modern (mid-late 20th century) canals supported no ostracodes, probably because of temporally brief canal operation from local wells. Three stages of water management are well defined during prehistoric canal operation. Ostracode faunal associations indicate that prehistoric peoples first operated their irrigation systems in a simple, 'opportunistic' mode (diversion of ephemeral flows following storms), and later in a complex, 'functional' mode (carefully timed diversions of perennial flows). The geomorphological reconstruction indicates that these canals had a minimum length of 1.1 km, and were possibly twice as long. The hydraulic reconstruction of these canals suggests that they had similar gradients (0.05-0.1%) to later prehistoric canals in the same valley. Discharges were also respectable. When flowing at bank-full, the largest canal provided an acre-foot of water in about 2.3 h; when flowing half-full (probably a more realistic assumption), it produced an acre-foot of water in about 8.6 h. Palynological records of the oldest canals (here identified as Features 3 and 4; 3000-2500 years BP) indicate they were used temporarily, since riparian vegetation did not grow consistently in the area. The presence of maize (Zea sp.) pollen in the canals confirms agricultural use of the canal water. However, a low percentage of maize and weed pollen suggests limited agricultural activity in this location, consistent with the lithostratigraphy, granulometry, and ostracode paleoecology. Agricultural fields were probably located downstream of this site. Ostracode assemblages show patterns consistent with the opportunistic or functional water control method, hence providing their value as indicators of human activity and environmental change. The transition from opportunistic to functional modes of canal operation indicates the increasing complexity of the social structure in the Santa Cruz Valley during the San Pedro Phase (1200-800 BC) of the Early Agricultural Period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)541-555
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of South American Earth Sciences
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2001


  • Early agricultural period
  • Functional mode
  • Geomorphology
  • Opportunistic mode
  • Ostracodes
  • Pollen
  • Water control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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