Archaeology of Northwest Mexico:
A Review

David Phillips

North Coastal Sinaloa and South Coastal Sonora

Aztatlán Complex

Mesoamerican settlements were present in southern Sinaloa by about A.D. 250. After A.D. 600, such settlements spread north along the coast, as the Aztatlán complex (Carpenter and Sánchez 2008; Kelley and Winters 1960; Meighan 1971; Sauer and Brand 1932). The complex's Mesoamerican attributes included polychrome pottery, modeled spindle whorls, cylinder stamps, elbow pipes, copper artifacts, and obsidian prismatic blades.

At the same time, Aztatlán was part of a frontier, and most people may have lived in dispersed settlements (rancherías). The limited evidence to date indicates that houses were simple and had perishable superstructures (see Cabrero 1989; I. Kelly 1945). Carpenter and Sánchez (2008) view the societies of the Sinaloa coast as middle-range, not states. "The only site with evidence of possibly complex internal organization was found at Culiacán, where the distribution of mounds (for trash and/or house platforms) might reflect the presence of plazas or residential compounds (Kelly 1945)" (Carpenter and Sánchez 2008:26, tr.). Two ceremonial mounds and two ball courts are the only known explicitly ritual architecture. Secondary burials in plainware ollas were the norm and continued into historical times, but primary and secondary inhumations are also found (Carpenter and Sánchez 2008:26–27).

Besides polychrome pottery, Aztatlán sites have red-rimmed and black-on-tan wares (I. Kelly 1938).

In the early years of research, it seemed possible that Mesoamerica once extended as far as the Rio Fuerte, but then shrank back. When the Spanish reached the area, the northernmost Mesoamerican town on Mexico's west coast was Culiacán. Given Carpenter's reanalysis of El Ombligo (see below), we may instead have a situation where Mesoamerica never expanded beyond Culiacán. Instead, local groups north of that town may have selectively adopted Mesoamerican beliefs, practices, and goods. To put it differently, on closer inspection the transition from Mesoamerica to Oasis America may prove to be much fuzzier than the lines we like to draw on maps.

Huatabampo Culture

North of the Aztatlán complex, sites of the Huatabampo culture occur between the Rio Mocorito (northern Sinaloa) and the Rio Mayo (southern Sonora). Until recently the Huatabampo culture was known primarily from its artifact assemblage, which included plain brown and red wares, ceramic figurines, and carved shell (Ekholm 1939, 1940). Carpenter and Sánchez (2008:27) now see Huatabampo culture beginning between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, when the local Early Agricultural population began making plain brown pottery. A little later, red-slipped vessels appeared.

Based on work at Machomoncobe (Álvarez 1982, 1985), local villages included structures of perishable materials, open-air activity areas, trash dumps, burial areas, and offertory caches. The same work indicates a mixed subsistence base that included farming of maize and beans, fishing, shellfishing, foraging, and hunting.

At El Ombligo burial mound, Ekholm (1942) discovered 196 burials, both primary and secondary, including secondary burials in ollas. Mesoamerican-style dental mutilation and cranial deformation were present. Funerary offerings included Mesoamerican-style artifacts. In reanalyzing Ekholm's data, John Carpenter (1994, 1996) identified two periods of use. During the Huatabampo period (A.D. 500–1100), molded spindle whorls, ear ornaments, and cloisoné gourds point to a Mesoamerican connection but the plain red pottery is typical of Oasis American ceramic habits. During the Guasave period (A.D. 1100–1400), the funerary assemblages include Mesoamerican-style pottery and ceramic pipes as well as clay masks, trophy heads, copper bells, other copper artifacts, obsidian prismatic blades, a cylinder stamp, and turquoise. Even so, Carpenter concluded that the Guasave period represents a continuation of the Huatabampo culture, not a displacement of that group by Mesoamericans. He interprets the changes at el Ombligo as the emergence of a local prestige economy in which the prestige items were Measoamerican. Carpenter and Sánchez (2008:29–30) suggest that the Huatabampo culture became the historical Cahita.

North of the Rio Mayo

Between the Rio Mayo and Cabo Haro, local prehistory is poorly documented. Guaymas area sites yield a thick brown ware. The age of the sites is unknown but they may be related to the historic Yaqui (Bowen 1976:110–115).

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Last revised May 19, 2009.
The quality of this page depends on the assistance of readers. Please send your corrections and additions to