Archaeology and Prehistory of Northwest Mexico: A "Rough Essay"

David Phillips


"The Northwest is not simple."*

Why a bilingual online resource on the archaeology of northwest Mexico? The answer is that for too many years, the region was ignored by most archaeologists on both sides of the border.

For Mexican archaeologists, their nation's history discouraged interest in el Norte de México [see Lorenzo 1981]. After the Mexican Revolution, anthropology enlisted itself in the effort to forge a new national identity. Archaeology's particular assignment was to emphasize the glories of Mesoamerica, and thus Mexico's unique identity (as opposed to the pre-revolutionary elevation of European culture as the national norm). Besides, Mexican archaeologists who worked in the southern part of the country were guaranteed spectacular results, at a time when archaeological theory easily ignored the unspectacular remains later deemed so necessary to constructing evolutionary sequences. This initial bias became self-perpetuating through the training of new generations of Mexican archaeologists. As Leticia González remarks, when she began doing fieldwork in the deserts of northern Mexico, she found that her coursework had not given her "the theoretical or methodological tools needed to understand an archaeological context so different ... from Mesoamerica's" (González A. 1992:v, tr).

Marie Areti-Hers and María Soto (2001) have summed up traditional Mexican perceptions of northern Mexico. Mesoamerica was diverse, the north uniform. Mesoamerica was archaeologically rich, the north lacking. Mesoamerica had a clear historical trajectory (Preclassic, Classic, Postclassic), the north did not. Mesoamerica's agricultural life was comprehensible, the life of foragers was not. Ignacio Bernal (1980:180) expressed the dominant attitude as follows: "A few permanent centers excepted, the area contains no clearly defined sites to be explored. Researchers had therefore to investigate caves, woods and valleys for the scarcely visible traces of the wandering peoples who had lived there, while primitive settlers had been few." A few years later, one popular summary explained that "The archaeological remains of northern Mexico are quite simple: generally they consists of temporary camps, pictographs, and petrolgyphs" (tr. from Garza T. and Tommasi 1987:177). In other words, northern Mexico offered only boring archaeology about boring people.

At the same time, U.S. archaeologists specializing in the "Southwest" (a term applied not only to territory seized by the U.S., but also to much of today's Mexico) found it far easier to work in the U.S. half of "their" culture area. In the second half of the 20th century, the problem was exacerbated by the ecological-functionalist paradigm, which dominated Southwest prehistory for about three decades. Since the paradigm viewed culture change as driven by local adaptations, archaeologists felt little pressure to look beyond their immediate work areas for explanations of change.

The result was a gap—not in cultures, but in archaeological information. Even so, there was enough information, in the sense of being able to start on the business of synthesis and explanation. Moreover, a handful of individuals (most notably Charles Di Peso and J. Charles Kelley) began doing just that. Despite their efforts, the idea of "no information" became a perpetual loop. If there was no information, there was no point in looking at the area. Because people didn't look at the area, they didn't learn that there was, in fact, useful information (and they didn't follow up by adding to that information). Given this self-perpetuating lack of interest among the great majority of professionals, the few projects in the region were unable to generate the scholarly equivalent of critical mass.

Times have changed. There finally seems to be a self-sustaining research effort in northwest Mexico, by archaeologists from both sides of the international border. In particular, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) has regional centers, and a permanent staff of archaeologists, in Mexico's northern states. Conferences in northwest Mexico, bringing together Mexican and U.S. archaeologists, were once almost unheard of but now occur frequently. The regional literature now consciously addresses the effects of the international border on archaeology, and seeks to overcome those effects (e.g., Carpenter and Sánchez 1997; McGuire 1997, 2002; Mendiola 2008; Villalpando 2002; Webster et al. 2008). The most heartening development is the insistence of a small but growing minority of Mexican archaeologists that northern Mexico is worth studying for its own sake, and not as a footnote to the country's Mesoamerican heritage (e.g., Lelgemann y Caretta 2009; Ramírez A. 1997).

Even so, the effort to create a unitary archaeology of northwest Mexico is an uphill battle. As McBrinn and Webster (2008:4) remark, "The difficulty of access and a general lack of bilingualism have led to only superficial use of the Mexican literature by most English-speaking archaeologists. Although more Mexican archaeologists read English, they too have difficulties accessing the work of their U.S. colleagues especially that published in the so-called gray literature." The lack of cross-border communication is both widespread and persistent (McGuire 1997; McBrinn and Webster 2008:4).

The particular goal of this web site is to provide tools to those who wish to overcome the lack of cross-border communication. The bibliography tracks the growing number of publications and other sources of information, especially online resources that shatter the limits imposed by international borders. The bilingual essay (in this, the English version, and in Spanish) provides a way for U.S. scholars to be aware of work by their Mexican counterparts, and vice versa, without having to know the language used al otro lado ("on the other side"). Finally, for non-specialists who seek an initial understanding of the region's prehistory and archaeological literature, the various sections of the online essay serve as rough guides.

The Culture Area

Northwest Mexico was part of a culture area, or continuous region in which the individual native societies experienced similar environmental conditions and developed similar cultural repertoires. One underlying assumption is that within culture areas, specific practices were spread by sharing among groups (diffusion) rather than by independent invention.

The culture area included much of northern Mexico and the western United States (as is shown on this web page). The area extended north from Mesoamerica to include northern Sinaloa and Durango, all of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila, and parts of other northern Mexican states. It did not stop at today's international border, of course, but continued into Arizona, New Mexico, the southern and western tips of Texas, southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, the southern tip of Nevada, and a sliver of southeast California. To cite Erik Reed's [1951] mnemnonic, the culture area extended from Durango, Mexico, to Durango, Colorado, and from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Las Vegas, New Mexico.

As one consequence of the international boundary, the culture area does not have a universally accepted name (McBrinn and Webster 2008:3–4). Alfred Kroeber's [1928] "Southwest" applied a geographical term for the U.S. portion of the area to the entire area, adding insult to the injury imposed when the U.S. seized much of Mexico in 1846. The term did fit, however, in the sense that most "Southwestern" archaeologists based in the U.S. simply ignored everything that had gone on in northwest Mexico. Beals's [1943] substitute, "the Greater Southwest," had the virtue of acknowledging the extent of the culture area, even if it continued the use of U.S.-centric terminology. Today, most U.S. archaeologists use "Southwest" or "Greater Southwest" in everyday speech, though attempts to be open-minded have led to a variety of awkward compromises, including "North American Southwest," Southwest/Northwest," and "the borderlands."

Mexico's archaeologists often refer to the same culture area as el Norte de México. While one might criticize this name as being "Mesoamerica-centric," from the viewpoint of historical process the name makes more sense than "Southwest" (nothing in the culture area derived from a region for which its direction was "southwest"). In 1989 I suggested that U.S. archaeologists adopt the term "Northern Mexico" for the entire culture area (Phillips 1989)—a proposal that nobody but me remembers. A different alternative name, la Gran Chichimeca, derives from Charles Di Peso's (1974) rare ability to see the full geographic extent of archaeological research problems, but is tainted by his claim that the culture area's prehistory was driven by merchant-warriors from Mesoamerica. This has not prevented a number of Mexican archaeologists, most notably Beatriz Braniff (2001), from using and even promoting the name.

In summary, we must come to grips with an area united by its indigenous traditions, and shared by Mexico and the U.S., for which the preferred Mexican names are almost never used by U.S. archaeologists, and for which the preferred U.S. terms are just as rarely used by Mexican archaeologists. The terminological divide is of concern in part because it marks a the lingering rift between U.S. and Mexican scholarship (McBrinn and Webster 2008:4; see also Newell [1999]).

Until a better solution comes along, this online essay adopts terminology proposed by Paul Kirchoff [1943, 1954], whose term "Mesoamerica" has gained universal acceptance. Kirchoff also defined the enormous, mostly desert region north of Mesoamerica as "Arid America." That region contained, in turn, a more restricted region where agriculture was possible, "Oasis America." Besides being geographically neutral, Kirchoff's two terms for the region lend themselves to a dynamic rather than static interpretation of the culture area. In other words, the region was what it was because of the interplay between an earlier foraging adaptation to the vast, mostly dry landscape and a younger, introduced pattern of agriculture and village life (see Phillips 1998). It is this uneasy dynamic, not a list of static traits, that gave the region its special character.

Defining Archaeological Northwest Mexico

In archaeological terms, then, "Northwest Mexico" is part of Arid America and is dominated by the southern half of Oasis America—a zone characterized by farming, village life, and pottery making. The last trait is arguably the most trivial of the three, but for archaeologists in the field, identification of the extent of Oasis America depends heavily on pottery. In the northwest quadrant of Mexico, ceramic repertoires shifted abruptly from complex shapes (such as tripod dishes) to simpler ones (such as globular jars and hemispherical bowls). In the absence of excavation, this shift marks the border between Mesoamerica and Oasis America. The northward continuation of simpler ceramic repertoires also serves to mark, very roughly, the extent of Oasis America. In the the rest of Arid America, in contrast, the absence of pottery correlates rather well with the absence of farming and village life. Thus, in practical terms, the essay's geographic scope equates roughly with the extent of pottery production and use in northern Mexico.

In the first field-based attempt to trace out the spatial relationship between Oasis America and Mesoamerica, Edgar Lee Hewett (1908) relied on the distributions of painted pottery to define each culture area, and took a wide gap in painted pottery to represent a cultural gap between the two culture areas. This conclusion reverberated in unfortunate ways for decades afterwards (Phillips 2002). Had Hewett (and those after him) considered the intervening plainware cultures, the continuity in the distribution of pottery (and thus of pottery makers) from Mesoamerica northward would have seemed more compelling.

Ancient village life sometimes leaves obvious traces, as in the case of Medio period Casas Grandes sites, but sometimes it does not. The same can be said for evidence of prehistoric agriculture. Despite early assumptions about a gap in the distribution of prehistoric village farmers, starting with Hewett (1908), it is now clear that agricultural communities stretched north in continuous zones from the Mesoamerican frontier into the U.S. Southwest. This essay is most concerned with the development of those prehistoric agricultural communities, but necessarily considers what came before them and, in some cases, what came after. The essay will also include information on what happened outside the zone of village life, wherever such information will help readers understand historical trends within Arid America as a whole.

*From a statement signed by Beatriz Braniff, Charles Di Peso, Richard S. Felger, Bernard Fontana, Thomas Hinton, Cynthia R. de Murrieta, Arturo Oliverso, and Charles Polzer, dated October 4, 1974 (Braniff C. and Felger 1994:201).

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Last revised January 2, 2011.
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