The Mysteries of Paquime

Collapsed in the Mid-fifteenth Century

Text and Photos Jay W. Sharp

"It was a dark and stormy night," Charles Schulz’s Snoopy used to say every time he sat down on his doghouse roof to write a new mystery novel. That was about as far as he could ever get in telling his story.

"It was a dark and stormy night," Southwestern archaeologists say these days, every time they gather at conferences to discuss Paquime, or Casas Grandes, that ancient, sprawling ruin in the northwest corner of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The more they try to unravel the mysteries of Paquime, the darker and stormier it seems to get.

Paquime emerged from shadowy origins early in the thirteenth century. It became the largest and most culturally complex settlement in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. It bore the imprints of both the puebloan cultures of the Southwest and the great Mesoamerican cultures of southern Mexico and central America. It served as a cultural beacon for prehistoric people within a thirty thousand square mile area, which encompassed far west Texas, southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, northeastern Sonora and northern Chihuahua. It collapsed in the mid-fifteenth century, perhaps a century before the arrival of the Spanish, who first spoke of the ruin in 1560.


Life at Paquime

The Paquime people established their community on the west bank of the Casas Grandes River, a small stream which flows northward then eastward into an inland lake, draining the desert basin and range country at the northeastern end of the Sierra Madre. In a sequence poorly understood by archaeologists, the people raised several clusters of multistory terraced buildings and a number of religious monuments. They constructed the building walls of mud, or adobe, applying and smoothing the "cement" a handful at a time, a tedious construction method which yielded graceful curving corners. They built the roofs of heavy supporting timbers, or vigas, which they covered with small straight branches, or latigas, and plastered earth. Collectively, the buildings housed perhaps one thousand six hundred rooms. The largest building covered nearly a full acre.


The people of Paquime raised corn, beans, squash and other crops; hunted buffalo, antelope, deer and other wild animals; and harvested agave, nuts, prickly pear cactus fruits and other wild plants. They raised domesticated birds, crafted high quality ceramics, wove textiles, created exquisite jewelry, may have manufactured metal products, and apparently developed and sustained a widespread trade network.

At its height, several thousand people lived at Paquime, spanning nearly one hundred acres. Deeply spiritual, they spun a web of influence across the hundreds of hamlets and villages that lay within their cultural sphere.

Cultural Roots

Paquime apparently stood at the intersection of the reach of the puebloan people from the north and that of the Mesoamericans from the south and southwest.

    Strange "T'-shaped doorways, which occur in adobe ruins across the desert Southwest. The function has never been satisfactorily explained. Did they have a defensive function? Facilitate carrying loads? Have religious symbolism? No one really knows.

Like pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico, Paquime’s terraced building compounds embraced central plazas, large agave roasting pits, a walk-in well and at least one subterranean ceremonial chamber. Rooms featured T-shaped doorways, sleeping platforms and massive structural-post-support disks. Like the famed Chaco Canyon pueblo ruins in northwestern New Mexico, Paquime lay at the hub of radiating roads. Based on oral histories of western New Mexico’s Acoma and Zuni Pueblos, Paquime apparently became a destination for migrants from the San Juan Basin region in northwestern New Mexico.

Paquime looked much like a typical Southwestern pueblo, but it evidently resonated to Mesoamerican ritual, celebration, know-how and commerce.

Mesoamericans introduced an ancient and labyrinthine religion, or belief system, rooted in dark mysteries of storms, clouds, water, earth and night sky. Powerful holy men appeared like apparitions in sacred temples, mountain peaks, springs, caves and secreted natural alcoves to enter into the world of the spirits and communicate with deities with exotic names like Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc and Tezcatlipoca. They committed the dead into the realm of the supernatural, hoping they would intercede with the deities to deliver rain for crops and prosperity for the people.

Under the influence of the Mesoamericans, Paquime’s people constructed in the easternmost plaza a platform mound, which they paved with stone and probably crowned with a temple building. They built effigy mounds, one in the shape of a serpent, another in the shape of a bird. (The serpent mound, with a feather plume or a curved horn arching over its head, gave honor to the Quetzalcoatl deity.) They built a mound with the shape of a cross, aligned with the cardinal directions. They produced images associated with the Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc deities on ceramics, ceremonial chamber walls and rock surfaces.

During religious ceremonies in the night at Paquime, you could have heard the chanting of the priests, the throb of drums, the pounding steps of dancers, the tinkle of sacred copper bells.

The Paquime people excavated from the earth within the plaza areas at least three Mesoamerican-style ball courts, including one with the classic Mesoamerican "I" shape immediately adjacent to the temple mound. Ball games, played for more than two thousand years in prehistoric America, served not only as metaphors for competition for supremacy between communities in a region. They also held central roles in ritual and politics.

Structures and symbols spoke of Mesoamerican religion and game. Other evidence pointed to Mesoamerican technology and trade.

Paquime builders constructed channels to conduct fresh water into the community and waste water away from the living areas. Paquime keepers somehow managed to breed and raise scarlet macaws, icons in Mesoamerican ritual, in the Chihuahuan desert, far from the birds’ native tropical habitats. Paquime craftsmen fashioned elaborate pendants from Mesoamerican copper and shells and Southwestern turquoise.

In the ruins of their community, the people of Paquime left abundant evidence of extensive commerce with Mesoamerica: copper bells, copper armlets, copper ceremonial axes, Pacific Coast seashells, spindle whorls, ceramic drums, ceramic shards.

The community apparently marched to the cadences of both puebloan and Mesoamerican drummers.

Paquime’s Sphere of Influence

Paquime’s influence evidently spread like ripples in a pond, stronger at the epicenter, weaker at the margins. Within a day’s march from Paquime, other pueblo communities built similar mud walls, raised similar ritual architecture, constructed ball courts, raised macaws and imported similar trade goods. Within two to three days’ march, still other communities built similar mud walls and some ritual architecture and imported the trade goods, but they evidently constructed few ball courts and raised few, if any, macaws. Farther away, hamlets and villages followed their own patterns of life, but they seem to have connected to Paquime through trade goods.

Even at the far reaches, the prehistoric people felt the mystic winds of Mesoamerican religious beliefs, ritual and icons, validated by Paquime, and they apparently fused them with their own supernatural traditions. Across the region touched by Paquime, puebloan peoples created a vast gallery of religious art, connections to the spirit world: plumed or horned serpent Quetzalcoatl figures, strange goggle-eyed Tlaloc figures, step sided rain pyramids, zigzag lightning symbols, sacred macaws.

The Collapse

The fall of Paquime began in the fifteenth century, possibly because a warlike Mesoamerican empire called Tarascans cut trade routes. Commerce would have dwindled. Alternatively, drought may have set in. Cultural alliances in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico may have realigned. Paquime’s influence would have waned. Finally, someone, possibly nomadic warriors from the north, sacked and burned Paquime. The end had come.

The Mysteries

Up to now, the architectural and artifactual remains at Paquime and the surrounding region have presented a mosaic of mysteries.

Who energized Paquime early in the thirteenth century, building it into a cultural beacon? Some archaeologists have pointed to Mesoamerican missionary traders – pochtecas, they were called. Others have suggested elite groups who must have migrated south, to the Paquime area, in the wake of failing pueblo cultures in the San Juan Basin. Still others have credited puebloan people from southwestern New Mexico, or leaders from the immediate Paquime region, or some combination of puebloans and Mesoamericans.

How much political power did Paquime wield in the region? Some scholars have said that the archaeological evidence suggests very little political control by Paquime. Others have thought that Paquime priests may have imposed significant power, at least in their immediate area, by controlling supernatural secrets and sacred objects.

Did Paquime serve primarily as a center for manufacturing exotic goods? A trading center for imported exotic goods? A major consumer of imported exotic goods? A cultural and religious inspiration for the people of the surrounding region? Many archaeologists have suggested that Paquime served as a major trade and manufacturing center, a commercial link between the pueblo and the Mesoamerican areas. Others have pointed to evidence that Paquime may have been more of a consumer and religious center, perhaps a regional equivalent to Mecca or a Vatican.

What finally brought Paquime to its knees in the late fifteenth century? Archaeologists have proposed, of course, that warfare in Mesoamerica wrecked trade and commerce in the north. Others have suggested the possibilities of warfare between Paquime and nomadic tribes, factionalism between neighboring pueblos, change in environment, the epidemic of disease.

Who attacked the fading Paquime in its final days? Nomadic warriors? An enemy pueblo?

In the last conference in which researchers met to discuss Paquime and its mysteries, they all agreed, "It was a dark and stormy night," and…

The answers to the mysteries are…
The answers to the mysteries…
The answers to…
The answers…
The …

Paquime, declared a World Heritage Site in 1997, lies about one hundred miles south of the Columbus, New Mexico/Palomas, Chihuahua, border crossing, the most convenient in the region. In fact, Pancho Villa crossed here to attack American forces at Columbus during the Mexican Revolution in 1916, the last foreign invasion of the United States.

From the crossing, follow Mexican Highway 25 south for about eighteen miles to the intersection with Mexican Highway 2. Turn right and follow Mexican Highway 2 for about thirty seven miles to Janos, the site of many conflicts between the Mexicans and the Chiricahua Apaches during the nineteenth century. Janos, founded by Franciscans in about 1580, is also the location of an early mission church, which is now falling into ruin.

At Janos, turn left and follow Mexican Highway 23 for about thirty eight miles into Nuevo Casas Grandes, where you will find tolerable lodging and meals. Nuevo Casas Grandes is located only a few miles from the small community of Casas Grandes and the ruins of Paquime and its museum.

Once you have explored Paquime and the museum, which you can do in a half day, you may wish to drive south (over a rough and unpaved road) for about eleven miles to the village of Mata Ortiz, the home of famed Mexican potter Juan Quezada and his artistic progeny. Mata Ortiz is today probably the best place in all of Mexico to buy pottery, much of it recalling the splendid ceramics recovered from the Paquime ruins.

En route to Mata Ortiz, you will pass the hamlet of San Diego, where fabled Chihuahuan rancher Don Luis Terrazas once maintained one of his numerous haciendas. The house, with the initials "LT" over the main entrance, is still standing, unoccupied, now collapsing. Terrazas, a small man who weighed about one hundred and ten pounds, owned over seven thousand square miles of ranch land in northern Mexico and ran some four hundred thousand head of cattle. When he died, in 1923, he had amassed an estate so huge that it made wealthy men of one hundred heirs.

To enter the Mexican interior, you will need a proof of citizenship (for instance, a passport or a birth certificate) and a title for your car (or the leinholder’s written authorization to take your car into Mexico). Although not required, you should purchase automobile insurance in the United States cover you in Mexico in the event of an accident.

Mexican Highways 23, 2 and 25 are all paved, but are two lane and narrow. While I have driven those and other highways in Mexico at night, it is not an experience I would recommend.

I have not been able to find a source which gives a good lay overview of Paquime. The most authoritative recent book is The Casas Grandes World, a collection of archaeological papers, fairly technical, edited by Curtis F. Schaafsma and Carroll L. Riley and published by The University of Utah Press.



There are hotels/motels in Deming, New Mexico and El Paso Texas with something for every taste and price range. For a complete list and to check availability or make reservation on line Click on the city name.

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