Archaeology of Northwest Mexico:
A Review

David Phillips

Central Chihuahua

Central Chihuahua is the portion of Geographic Zone 4 between the northernmost sites of the Loma San Gabriel culture (along the upper Rio Conchos) and the southernmost sites of the Casas Grandes culture. Reconnaissance surveys by Sayles (1936) and Brooks (1971) indicated that the residents of this area made plainware pottery and did not leave behind obvious architectural traces. The lack of eye-catching remains encouraged archaeologists to mistakenly view central Chihuahua as a gap in the zone of farming villages extending north from Durango.

Archaeological survey and limited excavation in and near the Bustillos Basin, by Jane Kelley and her colleagues (especially Art MacWilliams) has since led to the definition of the La Cruz site complex (Kelley et al. 1999; MacWilliams 2001; MacWilliams and Kelley 2004). The complex includes "shallow pit houses, jacal structures, external hearths or roasting pits, and trash middens. Puebloan architecture is absent" (MacWilliams 2001:215). La Cruz sherds are 95 percent plain, the rest being textured, red-slipped, or red-on-brown (MacWilliams 2001, Table 6.1).

The known sites suggest a population dispersed into hamlets and possibly a few small villages, home to "relatively small groups that are in many ways comparable to the Tarahumara" (MacWilliams 2001:216).

There are three preferred settings for the larger Ceramic period sites in Laguna Bustillos Basin, which are admittedly large only by local standards. These are the basin floor north of Laguna Bustillos, terraces along tributaries draining the Sierra Napivechic into the west side of the basin, and rock shelters wherever they occur. Smaller Ceramic period sites and sites with ceramic period components are distributed more widely (MacWilliams 2001:138–139.

Most of the radiocarbon dates indicate an occupation between A.D. 800 and 1220. Two dates, plus the presence of both pit houses and surface structures, hint at an occupation stretching back to A.D. 300 and possibly also at local participation in the regional shift from pit houses to surface structures. Given the known dates, it appears that during the Viejo period, the north edge of the Bustillos Basin marked a cultural frontier between the Casas Grandes culture and the plainware-making farmers of Central Chihuahua. During the Medio period, in contrast, the Bustillos Basin lay empty.

One late prehistoric (post-La Cruz) site is known for the Bustillos area: Cerro el Apache, a cerro de trincheras with 450 linear m of terraces. Baked daub hints at the former presence of structures. The pottery found at the site was plain brown, except for one redware sherd. Two radiocarbon samples indicate an age of roughly 410 BP (MacWilliams 2001:191–205, 291–293).

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Last revised July 3, 2009.
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