Archaeology of Northwest Mexico: A "Rough Essay"

David Phillips

Southeast Chihuahua in the Late Prehistoric Period

The archaeology of southeast Chihuahua began with J. Charles Kelley's 1949 reconnaissance work along the Rio Conchos. Little work has been done since then, however, and our understanding of the archaeology of southeast Chihuahua relies on work just across the Rio Grande in Texas. There, the term "Late Prehistoric period" refers to events after A.D. 700. About 1200 (though possibly much earlier), small farms and villages appeared at the junction of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos. J. Charles Kelley (1952, 1985, 1989) believed that Jornada Mogollon farmers of northeast Chihuahua spread down the Rio Bravo as far as the vicinity of El Mulato and also colonized the Rio Conchos below El Pueblito. Robert Mallouf (1999) argues that instead, the La Junta people derived from the area's existing population of foragers. If Mallouf is correct, those local foragers adopted a veneer of puebloan culture (including limited farming, pueblo-like structures, and the use of pottery (local pottery making is suspected but not confirmed). The La Junta people interacted with their puebloan neighbors, obtaining Jornada and Casas Grandes pottery and possibly providing buffalo jerky and hides in exchange (Mallouf 1999). The La Junta phase, as this occupation is called, lasted until A.D. 1450 and constituted the southeasternmost expansion of the general puebloan lifeway.

Habitation sites included rows of surface rooms, rectangular pit houses (Kelley 1951), and a few oval or circular pit houses. Other sites along the Rio Bravo include ring middens, hearths, stone artifacts, and Jornada and Casas Grandes pottery (Kelley 1989). La Junta area sites include end-notched pebbles, probably sinkers used in net fishing. The region's occupants seem to have been a mix of part-time farmers, transient settlers, and nomads who maintained symbiotic relationships with each other (Kenmotsu 1994; Morgenthaler 2007) and with the Jornada and Casas Grandes Mogollon.

Kelley once beleived that the La Junta phase occupation continued into historic times (J. C. Kelley 1952, 1986). He later concluded that the area was abandoned at the same time as the Casas Grandes and El Paso phase sites. In protohistoric times (the Concepción phase, A.D. 1550?–1684) the area was used by nomads, who were then missionized (the Conchos phase, A.D. 1684–1760) (Kelley 1989).

Kelley (1989) documented an occupation along the Rio Conchos, above el Pueblito, that may have been by the protohistoric Conchos Indians. The "Rio Conchos Culture" extended upstram along the Conchos and Rio Florido as far as Villa Ocampo, into central and southern Chihuahua. Small sites are dotted along rivers, primarily at or near the mouths of tributaries. Pottery is plain red or brown, and occasionally red-on-brown. Net sinkers are present in the sites, indicating that fishing was important.

In historic times, the basins of southeast Chihuahua and Coahuila were home to nomads who carried on an Archaic way of life. Working in the Bolsón de Mapimí, which straddles the Chihuahua–Coahuila border, Leticia González (1991:17) has provided the following site typology. Open-air sites include (a) scatters of flaked stone with or without ground stone; (b) remains of fires; (c) combinations of type (a) and (b) remains; (d) bedrock mortars, with or without associated artifacts; (e) roasting pits for agave; (f) isolated or clustered petrolgyphs; and (g) pictographs. Rock shelter sites include mortuary caves, isolated burials, and habitation sites.

Our understanding of extreme southeast Chihuahua suffers from a lack of detailed descriptions of sites. The notable exception is a cairn burial described by Mallouf (1987). MacWilliams et al. (2008:37) mention that in the southeast corner of Chihuahua, "small roasting pits are abundant in some areas." The desert country farther to the east, outside Chihuahua, falls beyond the limits of this essay, but readers can find reports on Coahuila prehistory in the bibliography (including the entries for Leticia González and Walter Taylor) and in Brown (1987). Also, see Valadez M. (2008) for a summary of the prehistory of Nuevo León.

Link: Texas Beyond History (La Junta Area)

Link: La Investigación Arqueológica en el Desierto de Chihuahua, by Francisco Mendiola G.

Link: Coahuilense (Coahuila archaeology, anthropology, history, and environment).

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Last revised December 30, 2009.
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