Archaeology of Northwest Mexico: A "Rough Essay"

David Phillips

Paleoindian (or Paleoamerican) Period

Pre-Paleoindian Horizon?

Working in the Sierra Pinacate area of northwest Sonora, Julian Hayden (1976) argued for the existence of a pre-projectile point horizon (30,000 to 11,500 B.P.). His evidence consisted of surface finds whose ages were estimated (based on accumulated desert varnish rather than directly dated (Heilen 2009). Such reasoning was more acceptable before the widespread availability of radiocarbon dating than it is today.

Clovis Culture

The earliest undisputed occupation of the region was by Clovis hunters, whose artifacts have been found at 13 sites and 21 isolated occurrences in Sonora (Gaines and Sánchez 2009). Gaines et al. (2009) have summarized the Clovis archaeology of the state (see also Holliday et al. 2007; Montané 1985; Sánchez 2001). The Clovis people were part of the Paleoindian cultural stage, as it is known in northern Mexico, the U.S., and Canada; in much of the New World that stage is sometimes instead referred to as the Paleoamerican period.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Manuel Robles of the Universidad de Sonora worked with volunteers to identify 11 Clovis locations (with 25 points) in Sonora and to study one site, El Bajío (SON:K:1:3), in greater detail (Gaines and Sánchez 2009; Robles 1974; Robles and Manzo 1972). Later, Kenneth and Marian McIntyre (1974, 1976) and Julio Montané also worked at the site, and Montané recorded additional early sites (Gaines and Sánchez 2009).

In 1979, Guadalupe Sánchez and John Carpenter revived Paleoindian research in Sonora, including studies of the earlier collections by Guadalupe Sánchez (2001). In 2003 the new work led to an interdisciplinary research program jointly sponsored by the University of Arizona and INAH (Gaines and Sánchez 2009; Holliday et al. 2007). In 2003 the research included systematic survey and excavation of test trenches, test pits, and features at El Bajío (Gaines et al. 2009; Sánchez 2001, 2004; Sánchez and Carpenter 2003). The "best-known and most extensive Clovis site reported from Mexico" (Gaines et al. 2009:309), El Bajío covers more than 4 square km and includes later components. It served primarily as a quarry for vitrified basalt, but the remains indicate that a wide range of activities took place. The site is north of Hermosillo, in the Rio San Miguel drainage basin (Gaines et al. 2009).

Clovis point from Fin del Mundo, Sonora
Clovis point from Fin del Mundo Sonora. Photo by Edmund Gaines; used by permission of the photographer.

El Fin del Mundo is an unusually intact Clovis site in northern Sonora. Intensive study of the site began in 2007, and has located two bone beds, the upper one with remains of hunted gopmphotheres. This bone bed dates to about 13,000 BP. Additional Paleoindian loci include a campsite. Some of the stone used at El Fin del Mundo was quarried at SON K:1:3 (Sánchez et al. 2009; see also Holliday et al 2009; Mentzer and Holliday 2009).

Southeast of Hermosillo, in the Rio Matape drainage basin, SON:O:3:1 has loci extending over a 2.5 by 1.5 km area. The site was discovered and collected by one of Robles's volunteers, and was tested in 2005, yielding hundreds of Clovis artifacts in addition to later remains (Gaines et al. 2009). Sánchez and Gaines (2009:4) mention this site and also "SON N:11:20–21, a large site located about 10 miles [16 km] from the Gulf of California." They also mention "two fluted points reportedly found in coastal shell midden contexts near Tastiota and Desemboque de los Seris, and a fluted basal fragment found at the large rockshelter site, SON O:5:6."

Although Clovis sites are known from the coastal plains, Gaines et al. (2009:308) warn that the sea was lower at the end of the Pleistocene. Any actual coastal Clovis sites are now probably underwater. At SON:N:11:20–21, southwest of Hermosillo, loci with remains are found at the edge of a playa and in a dune field, extending discontinuously over more than 10 square km. After being collected for more than 30 years, the site was tested in 2007. The remains indicate that "projectile point maintenance and replacement were major activities" (Gaines et al. 2009:316–317), presumably in support of nearby hunting. Some unfluted points were found, hinting at possible later Paleindian use of the site.

Di Peso (1955) reported a Clovis site north of Guaymas, but Gaines et al. (2009:320) were unable to relocate the site. Farther north, Carpenter (2009) reports a complete Clovis point and a second, unfinished point from La Playa, a site best known for its Early Agricultural period occupation.

Gaines et al. (2009) discuss the distribution of additional sites and isolated Paleoindian points in Sonora, which together indicate an occupation zone stretching from Guaymas northward. Finds of Clovis artifacts have also been made in Sinaloa:

Arturo Guevara (1989) documented two fluted projectile points in the region of Sinaloa de Leyva and Bebelama ... Also, four lanceolate bifaces with direct-percussion, edge-to-edge flake removal, and surely related to the Clovis Paleoindian period, can be found in the collections of the Évora Regional Museum in Guamuchil ... The large quantity of known Paleoindian sites in Sonora, along with a distribution of Clovis projectile points that extends to Jalisco, suggest that the Pacific coast probably played an important role in the movement of Paleoindian groups toward the south (Carpenter and Sánchez 2008:23).

Clovis finds are less common east of the Sierra Madre Occidental, perhaps in part due to the extensive late Pleistocene/pluvial lakes in what are now closed basins with playas. While the lakes would have filled only some 5 to 20 percent of each basin [see Allen 2005], surveys would need to focus on the ancient lake shores to locate the associated early sites (Marrs 1949). The numerous finds from the adjacent boot heel area of New Mexico (Fish and Fish 2006) suggest that with more work, more Paleoindian sites will be documented on the east flank of the sierra. For now, the few known Clovis points come from northern Chihuahua (Di Peso 1965; Phelps 1990a), the Bustillos Basin of central Chihuahua (MacWilliams 2001), and Durango (Lorenzo 1953).

Other Paleoindian Groups

Carpenter and Sánchez (2008:23) found "a point indicative of the late Paleoindian period in the vicinity of Balácachi" in 2004, and mention three bifaces "of possible Paleoindian affiliation in the Casa de la Cultura Contrado Espinosa in Los Mochis."

Gaines et al. remark on the "absence of Folsom artifacts" in Sonora, and attribute that absence to the Folsom culture's being "Great Plains tradition" (Gaines et al. 2009:330). In contrast, Aveleyra (1961) reported a Folsom point fragment from Chihuahua, and other scattered finds also indicate continued Paleoindian use of Chihuahua after the Clovis period. A rock shelter near Santa Isabel, south and west of Chihuahua City, included basal cultural deposits that yielded a Plainview point base and a radiocarbon date of 9120 ± 50 BP (MacWilliams et al. 2008:42). The Proyecto Arqueológico de Chihuahua found a Paleoindian point fragment in the street of a village overlooking Laguna Bustillos.

In the Sierra Pinacate area, Hayden (1967, 1976) located sites of the San Dieguito culture. These sites indicate local use of marine resources from the Sea of Cortez.

Human Remains?

Paleoindian human remains have not yet been found in northwest Mexico, with the possible exception of the Chinobampo skull from southern Sonora (Aveleyra 1964).

Link: Holliday et al. 2007 on Paleoindian research in Sonora.

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Last revised February 22, 2010.
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