Archaeology of Northwest Mexico:
A Review

David Phillips

West Flank of the Sierra Madre Occidental

To the extent that outside archaeologists have noticed the prehistory of northwest Mexico, in most cases they have overlooked the important archaeological complexes extending along the west flank of the Sierra Madre Occidental (Zone 2 in Figure 1; see Pailes 1978). Our knowledge of these complexes owes a great deal to the pioneering efforts of Richard Pailes (1965–1997).

Rio Sonora Culture

The Rio Sonora Culture was defined by Amsden (1928), but not described until Pailes' work. Here the term is applied to the portion of Zone 2 along and near the Río Sonora. Almost all of the local pottery is brown ware, including incised, punched, or corrugated forms, and is reminiscent of Mogollon wares on both sides of the international line.

Pailes defined an "early phase" of agricultural settlement, but the first extensive evidence comes from his "middle phase" (Pailes 1984; this is Doolittle's [1988] "early phase"), from A.D. 1000 to 1150 or 1200. Habitation sites generally consisted of pit houses overlooking the floodplains of the Rio Sonora and major tributary arroyos. Most sites had one to eight rooms, though two "hamlets" and one large village (the San José Site) were present (Doolittle 1988).

About A.D. 1150 to 1200, the people of the Río Sonora valley began building surface structures as well as pit houses. The surface rooms are indicated by rectangular arrangements of cimientos; the lack of rubble indicates that rooms were built of adobe. At local centers, double rows of cimientos mark the locations of especially wide walls and thus, by inference, of multi-storied buildings. Most sites are fairly small, however, indicating communities based on a ranchería pattern of dispersed homes. Sites occur on terrace edges and other high spots overlooking the floodplains of the larger streams.

In many parts of Oasis America, the local archaeological sequence ends before the arrival of the Spanish, as sedentary villagers give way to nomads. This was not the case in the serrana of northeast Sonora, where multiple polities were encountered and eventually assimilated by the Spanish Empire. Carroll Riley (1979–1987) refers to the local polities as "statelets," in recognition of their hierarchical and often bellicose nature.

The Serrana Tradition

Pailes traced the Rio Sonora Culture well to the south of the river of that name, but only tentatively. More recently, Carpenter and Sánchez (2008:30) have proposed the name "Serrana tradition" for sites in Pailes' southern sub-area. Working in the Onavas Valley (of the Río Yaqui, between the Álvaro Obregón and Novillo Dams), Emiliano Gallaga has concluded that "this area contains cultural remains related to the Huatabampo tradition and not with the generally asssigned tradition, Rio Sonora (see Gallaga 2006, 2007)" (Gallaga 2009:8).

In the initial descriptions by Pailes, the area included rough masonry structures on high benches overlooking the narrow valleys of the upper foothills. "Dry" (direct rainfall) farming is possible in these valleys, and sites were more widely dispersed than in the northern sub-area, occurring as rancherías of one to five households (Pailes 1972, 1978). The tradition began with plain brown pottery about 200 B.C. After A.D. 200, red-slipped pottery was also made (the Batacosa phase). For the period after A.D. 700, Pailes saw a split between the upper and lower foothills. In the lower foothills the Cuchjaqui phase continued until the arrival of the Spanish. In the upper foothills the Los Camotes phase lasted until A.D. 1250–1300 and was followed by the San Bernardino phase, which continued until Spanish contact (Pailes 1972, 1978).

Gallaga's (2006, 2007, 2009) survey of the Onavas Valley located 126 sites within 67 square km, including one paleontological site, four Archaic period sites, 117 prehistoric (probably late prehistoric) sites, and six historical sites. Of the 117 prehistoric sites, 75 were campsites and 42 were residential. The latter included 36 rancherías, four were hamlets, and two were villages (with public architecture—a stone altar in one case, a mound in the other). Gallaga suspects that a prehistoric regional center existed at Onavas, but is obscured by the modern village.

Gallaga's survey identified 83 residential structures, including 56 with single alignments of river cobbles (cimientos) or spaced stone slabs, four with double alignments of cobbles (indicating thicker walls), three stone platforms, a stone circle, two rectangular depressions with thick cobble walls, five historical structures, and 12 possible structures (Gallaga 2007). He describes the ceremonial structures as follows:

The first ... a small earthern mound ... measured 16 × 7 m by 2.5 m high, consists of packed earth, and was likely covered by river cobbles ... Unfortunately, human and animal activities have systematically destroyed the site .. [A]t the second village ... a structure was tentatively identified as an altar on top of a small hill. This structure consists of two stone slab platforms, one 8 × 6 m and another (4 × 4 m) superimposed on the first. Other stone structures or platforms, probably used for habitation, were also found (Gallaga 2007:336–337).

Gallaga (2007) also mentions a possible funerary mound, about 100 by 65 m and 2 m tall, near Onavas, most of which has been destroyed.

The more than 10,000 collected sherds were 96.5 percent plain, 3.5 percent decorated (Gallaga 2007, Table 1). The "plain" category included a small number of red-slipped monochromes "similar to those from southern Sonora, such as Cuchujaqui Red, Batacosa Red, and Huatabampo Red ... In addition, some had interior shell scraping similar to ... wares from the coast, revealing a possible interaction with coastal groups" (Gallaga 2007:337). The decorated pottery was mostly a newly named local type, Onavas Purple-on-red, but also included 15 Casas Grandes sherds, one Nogales Polychrome sherd, and one sherd possibly from northern Sinaloa. The lack of Rio Sonora style textured pottery is noteworthy.

Numerous sites with shell ornaments, as well as tools, manufacturing waste, and raw shell, indicate that the valley was heavily involved in the regional shell industry. Various parts of the seacost were within easy travel from the Onavas Valley. Moreover, as Gallaga (2007:331) notes, "The geographical direction and location of the Río Yaqui positions [it] as an ideal trade corridor."

Gallaga (2007:339) proposes a sequence for the Onavas Valley that extends from Paleoindian through late prehistoric, but admits that because he is working only with surface data, the sequence "is a work in progress." Gallaga argues for continuity between his late prehistoric sites and the historic Nébome (Pima Bajo).

Farther south, in northernmost Sinaloa, Carpenter and Sánchez (2008) report on the recently excavated site of Rincón de Buyubampo in Choix township, in a lower foothills setting. The site was occupied between A.D. 1200 and 1700 and included 10 to 15 habitation units, the latter including contiguous surface rooms, terraces, and granaries. Three of the habitation units were excavated, and included large rooms (two were 10 by 8 m) with thick walls and roof support posts. Hearths in a U or UU shape were sometimes associated with grinding tools. The local pottery included plain brown, plain red, and textured (mostly punctate or incised) wares. Imported ceramic items included Guasave Red-on-tan (A.D. 1200–1450), Aztatlán polychromes, spindle whorls, and a fragment of a cylinder stamp.

Carpenter and Sánchez (2008:32, tr.) report that Rincón de Buyubampo also produced "a great quantity of ornaments of marine shell from the Gulf of California and the Pacific, along with a great quantity of shell waste that appears to indicate the on-site production of Glycymeris bracelets and ornaments of other species." The site included a small storeroom with tools for shell working. Finally, the site yielded two small fragments of obsidian prismatic blades and a copper bell.

The Tacuichamona Culture

Farther south and east in Sinaloa, the western foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental were home to the Tacuichamona culture, first defined by Sauer and Brand (1932) as a local variant of the Aztatlán tradition. Here the sites were small and characterized by pottery with punctate designs, but they also included a coarse polychrome with black and red designs on a brown background (Tacuichamona Polychrome). Pailes (1972, 1976) argued that other than the polychrome pottery, made in imitation of the Aztatlán polychromes of the coastal plain, the Tacuichamona culture was more similar to the Rio Sonora culture, and should therefore be considered independent of the Aztatlán tradition.

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Last revised January 4, 2011.
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