Archaeology of Northwest Mexico:
A Review

David Phillips

Southwest Chihuahua

For this essay, southwest Chihuahua is defined as the portion of southern Chihuahua falling within the Sierra Madre rather than in basin and range country. Under this definition southwest Chihuahua includes the headwaters of streams draining into both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Historically, the area was dominated by the Tarahumara. While it would be easy to rely too heavily on the Tarahumara as an analogy for the local prehistoric people, it it worth noting the Tarahumaras' low population density, flexible habitation and farming practices, extensive use of wild species, and decided lack of hiearchy in social interactions.

Most of the documented sites are cave and rock shelter sites, which were used for habitation, food storage, and burial. Cave structures include rock rooms and granaries. Cliff dwellings continue south in the Sierra Madre as far as southern Durango (Lazalde 1984; Narez 1995, Rubín de la B. 1946).

In discussing the early use of the headwaters of the Conchos, MacWilliams et al. (2008) mention the presence of pottery in a cave known locally as Ganóchi (Place of the Giant). The deposits also yielded "a mud and grass container" (MacWilliams et al. 2008). (Large storage ollas were built by coiling and stitching cables of grass, then daubing the resulting giant basket. The better-known olla-shaped granaries of the Sierra Madre in northwest Chihuahua, within the Casas Grandes culture area, are most likely these same artifacts writ large.)

Suzanne Lewenstein (1993, 1995; Lewenstein and Sánchez 1991) recorded 20 sites on both sides of the continental divide. These included caves and rock shelters (some with structures), a hilltop site, artifact scatters including workshops for stone tools, and pictograph sites. The sites included pottery resembling Tarahumara pottery, and also flaked obsidian.

The few archaeologists who worked in the rugged canyon country of the Pacific Watershed during the 20th Century focused on caves. In 1931 Robert Zingg located more than 40 sites around Norogachic and excavated in at least two of them. He came up with a local phase sequence that is best treated with caution (MacWilliams 2001:76–78; Taylor 1943). Local material culture includes use of caves for homes and as burial areas, maize, basketry, agave fiber cloth, feather or rabbit fur blankets, and mostly plain pottery. Cave sites included granaries and rounded dwellings of rock and mud.

Ascher and Clune (1960) excavated part of Waterfall Cave, near the Cascada de Basaseachic. The cave contained mostly burials, which were covered by mats. Organic materials in the cave also included cotton, maize, beans, squash, and gourds (Clune 1960). Five polychrome sherds were from vessels probably inspired by the southern Casas Grandes polychromes, but most were plain brown.

In 1980 the Museum of Man, San Diego received two mummified individuals looted from a cave near Loreto. One was an adolescent female, the other a child. The report on these individuals (Tyson and Elerick 1985) is a model of what can be done with such remains, even when much of the original context is lost. The burials were radiocarbon dated to 860 ± 40 BP. Cave looting has also yielded a number of textiles, some of them striking (Mera 1943; O'Neale 1948; Phillips 1987).

Local rock art is minimally documented by Irigoyen (1979) and Lumholtz (1973), both cited by Guevara S. (1985), and by Lewenstein (1995).

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Last revised June 28, 2009.
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