Paquime – Casas Grandes

The Great Puebloan Abandonments and Migrations


For reasons poorly understood by archaeologists, Paquime – or Casas Grandes – the great Puebloan community of northwestern Chihuahua, ascended as a major regional presence during the 13th and 14th centuries, in the midst of a period marked by unprecedented cultural splintering and dislocations in the surrounding areas.

In the Eye of the Storm

To the north and east of Paquime, the Mogollon Puebloan people walked away from ancestral homelands, gave up old traditions, moved to new locations, reverted to the old hunting and gathering lifestyles, or simply disappeared from the archaeological record. To the north and west, the Hohokam Puebloans mirrored the Mogollon displacement. Well to the north, the Anasazi Puebloans followed suit. "The effects of abandonments and population redistribution around 1300 rippled throughout the still inhabited Southwest," Linda Cordell said in Archaeology of the Southwest. Meanwhile, in Mesoamerica – the wellspring of Puebloan agriculture, an ancient partner in commerce, and an inspiration for ideas – the civilization known as the "Toltecs" had collapsed. The fledgling civilization of the Aztecs had barely taken root.

Yet, somehow, in the eye of the great storm of change – a Puebloan equivalent to the Diaspora – Paquime managed to crystallize and prosper, becoming one of the largest and most influential communities in the pre-history of the arid basin and range country of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

The Old City

Paquime left an extraordinarily rich, if confusing, archaeological record. Apparently, the "city," as it was dubbed by Charles C. Di Peso, the legendary archaeologist who excavated nearly half the site in the 1950’s and 1960’s, coalesced around a Mogollon-like nucleus of people, capitalized on Hohokam precedents for its early community architecture and water control, blossomed after an Anasazi infusion of immigrants, and answered to Mesoamerican calls for trade and cultural customs.

Indian ruins
HJPD / CC BY-SA Wikimedia

Paquime arose from misty beginnings, probably sometime during the second half of the first millennium. Much like the Mogollon to the north and east, the early Paquime people, in all likelihood, first constructed a cluster of pithouses around an open plaza. They raised corn, beans and squash – the traditional food crops – on the flood plain of the Rio Casas Grandes, just to the east of their village. They manufactured a simple brown pottery. They hunted wild game and collected wild plants to supplement their agricultural production.

Much like the Hohokam to the north and west, the Paquime people began building rectangular walled surface structures next to their pithouse lodges late in the first millennium. They built the walls with tightly spaced verticalIndian ruins posts heavily plastered with clay, and they likely built the roofs with timbers, brush and grass, possibly plastering the top with clay.

They began building single-story adobe-walled room blocks early in the second millennium, incorporating, as Cordell said, "T-shaped doorways, raised fire hearths, square-column fronted galleries, and stairways." They had completed 20 room clusters by the 12th century, serving all of them with a single water control system.

At the outset of the 13th century, possibly after a decline or even a hiatus in population, Paquime began a resurgence and transformation which was unparalleled in swiftness and scope within the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. "Something major happened quite abruptly, and the changes were spread throughout the region quickly," said Curtis F. Schaafsma and Carroll L. Riley in their paper "The Casas Grandes World: Analysis and Conclusion," published in The Casas Grandes World.

The New City

Within as little as a decade, Paquime had reinvented itself. Giving up single-story house clusters and plazas, the people built an entirely new adobe-walled city, with planning, architecture and construction which reflected influences from the Anasazi of the Colorado Plateau. They built ceremonial mounds and ballcourts which echoed the customs of the Mesoamericans of southern and western Mexico. From a vibrant community of more than 2000 rooms and more than 2000 residents, an eclectic population cast the rays of its emerging culture across 30,000 to 40,000 square miles.

"A prodigious amount of coordinated effort must have gone into the construction [of Paquime]…" said Di Peso in his monumental Casas Grandes: A Fallen Trading Center of the Gran Chichimeca. "It did not appear to have grown "like Topsy," but rather gave the feeling of being the nonpersonal, almost commercial, endeavor of a massive labor force, which, operating under the strict control of a few individuals, produced a telltale pattern of wall abutments, underground plaza drain systems, formalized plazas, public entries, subterranean ceremonial structures, and staggered outer wall design…

"…new apartments offered a decided material advantage, as the average, high ceilinged, airy living room space was greatly increased and more solidly constructed. The occupants were introduced to heated sleeping platforms, raised platform cooking hearths, new types of vertical and horizontal transportation [passageways], domestic running water, drained plazas, and more importantly, protection from unwanted alien peoples, who now stayed outside of the strong, bastioned outer walls."

Indian ruinsAccording to Di Peso, Paquime would expand until it covered 88 acres. It was not the largest of Puebloan communities, but it still grew to a size 27 times greater than that of Chaco Canyon’s famed Pueblo Bonito. At its peak, Paquime comprised a horseshoe-shaped three- to seven-story apartment complex which overlooked vibrantly busy public areas immediately to the west, south and north.

The apartment complex, which embraced a public plaza and private courtyards, incorporated spaces which served for living quarters, domestic storage, a subterranean well, a sweat bath, single and multiple graves, turkey and macaw nesting boxes, slave dungeons, warehousing, artisan work areas, ceremonial rooms, ceremonial item storage (mostly bear bones), and even a human-skull trophy room. Like Anasazi pueblos in Chaco Canyon, the Paquime apartment complex incorporated planned layouts, T-shaped doorways, sandstone disk timber seatings, square colonnades and stairways.

The public areas included an open market, effigy mounds, ceremonial mounds and ball courts (although there are no kivas, the ceremonial chambers which were the signature of Anasazi pueblos). "The…marketplace complex was designed and zoned for commodity exchange and the surrounding structures for visual impact," said Di Peso. Surrounded by a plastered retaining wall, the market not only had booths for merchants, it also had what are evidently temporary living quarters or, perhaps, chapels for visiting traders. "In its pristine condition," said Di Peso, "the tract must have had made a tremendous impact, as there was a conscious effort to create a dramatic play of light and shadow and functional openness, which doubtlessly impressed the visitor." The most important ceremonial mounds included one shaped like a snake, which may have been the widely recognized plumed serpent symbol of the Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcoatl; one shaped like a bird (possibly a beheaded turkey), which seems unprecedented in neighboring cultures; one configured like a cross, which aligns with the cardinal directions and helped set the orientation of the city and mark the passage of the seasons; and two truncated pyramidal or conical structures, one which may have served as a signal fire platform, the other which did serve for elite burials and ritual celebrations. The ballcourts included two public arenas laid out in the form of the letter "I" and one, apparently a religious arena, laid out in the form of a "T." As in Mesoamerica, the I-shaped courts probably served not only as fields for sport and entertainment, but also as a forum for heroic athletic performances, factional dispute resolution and high stakes gambling.

The T-shaped court, attached to one of the most elaborate sections of the apartment complex, probably served as the setting for some of Paquime’s most important religious ceremonies. Within its walls, holy men re-enacted mythical games, according to Di Peso. At its heart, beneath a "spirit hole," priests had buried "an adult male who was seated upon a flexed male, after the fashion of [a Mesoamerican] design, wherein Death sits on his victim while cornstalks issue upward from the scene, supporting the theory that fertility was a considerable measure of the game’s religious symbolism," said Di Peso. In a burial at the south end of the court, the priests had placed a "pregnant adult female overlying another woman, whose severed right arm was draped over her shoulders." In another burial at the north end, they had placed "a disjointed adult female, whose severed feet were articulated, and an odd adult male skull complete with mandible scattered above an articulated adult female." Di Peso believed that the burial of dismembered humans "was associated with this northern ceremonial ball court cult, even as it was in Mesoamerica."

Life at Paquime

The archaeological record suggests that, at its zenith, Paquime’s population – which resembled historic Puebloan populations in physical appearance and dress – developed and honed perhaps the most diverse mix of cultural traits, occupations, skills and beliefs of all the pre-Colombian peoples of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Politicians unified and orchestrated the life of the immediate community (they do not seem to have controlled the regions as a whole). Spiritual leaders gave meaning to religion, ritual and spirituality. Chanting medicine men used hollow bones to "suck illnesses" from the bodies of their patients. City planners and architects invested harmony, form and direction in community structures. Engineers designed and built water transport and irrigation systems. Craftsmen raised massive adobe walls, shaped and set construction timbers, built colonnades, constructed roofs and laid stone mound and ballcourt facades. Artisans turned shell, clay, copper, stone, wood, plant fibers and animal and human bone into art forms or ceremonial objects. Merchants enriched Paquime (and themselves) in the booths of the marketplace. Itinerant traders served as the agents of import and export on the trails to distant communities. Athletes won glory for their communities on the I-shaped ball courts. Farmers raised corn, beans, squash and other crops in their irrigated fields. Hunters killed game to supplement family larders. Aviculturists bred and raised turkeys and the precious and exotic scarlet and soldier macaws for ceremony, display and trade. Warriors protected Paquime and, presumably, raided its enemies. The spiritual leaders, the artisans, and the merchants and itinerant traders played pivotal roles in the life of the community.

The Spiritual Leaders

"In the world of the Paquime…," said Di Peso, "all things were real and could be either good or bad—therefore, it took considerable magic to insure one’s health, to guarantee food, and to minimize the potential misfortunes of one’s surroundings."

Holy men connected the people of Paquime to a pantheon of deities. Di Peso believed that they especially venerated Quetzalcoatl, the ancient Mesoamerican deity who represented, in convoluted and mysterious ways, the powers of goodness and light against the forces of evil and darkness. They probably identified Quetzalcoatl variously with the planet Venus, wind, war and possibly human sacrifice. They memorialized him in monuments, jewelry, ceramics and rock art, and they often used the symbol of a serpent which bore a feather plume or an arched horn or sometimes both the plume and horn above its head to mark Quetzalcoatl’s overarching presence in their religion. The holy men of Paquime also wove Tlaloc, an ancient Mesoamerican deity connected to storms and water, into their religion. As in Mesoamerica, Paquime priests may have sacrificed children to Tlaloc, probably beside springs and ponds. Classically symbolized by goggle-eyes and a snarling mouth, the Tlaloc deity "was evidenced at Paquime," said Di Peso, "by the multiple groups of articulated burials of common-age young people…"

Shamans bridged the natural and supernatural worlds of Paquime, visiting the spirits to convey prayers and solicit gifts. A shaman, said archaeologist Christine S. VanPool in her article "Flight of the Shaman," Archaeology Magazine, January/February, 2002, "prepares to leave this world by entering a trance, often through the use of psychoactive plants, self-mutilation, sleep deprivation, ritual dancing, or fasting." He enlists animal spirits to protect him during his dangerous missions. Sometimes, he transforms himself into a totemic animal to facilitate his passage. The Paquime shamans, VanPool said, helped induce their trances by smoking high concentrations of tobacco in tube-shaped pipes. Their spiritual journeys found visual expression in the form of pots shaped like smokers and painted with transformation symbols. "Why did the Casas Grandes shamans take their journey? I believe their primary role was to ensure that rain would come to their arid land," said VanPool.

The Artisans

The artisans produced the commodities – especially the shell ornaments and ceramic vessels – which, through trade, would help define the cultural reach of Paquime for modern archaeologists. The artisans drew from huge stores of shells imported from the Gulf of California to craft items such as necklaces, pendants, bracelets, rings and even musical instruments which spiritual leaders used in religious ritual and which merchants exported to distant trading partners. Di Peso believed that slaves "confined to the low dungeon-like rooms of the warehouses…spent their waking hours perforating millions of tiny spiraled whelks," although they "did not own or revere the shell they were forced to handle." Skilled craftsmen used quartz crystal pestles, chipped stone gravers and stone abraders to produce "such exquisite items as the truncated Olividae and Conidae [shell] beads, dyed tinklers, cut and incised pendants, a mosaic-covered Strombus alter piece, and pseudo-cloisonne armlets." Meanwhile, Casas Grandes ceramists "produced effigies and painted vessels – all highly decorated with geometric design – depicting men, women, macaws, owls, snakes, badgers, fish, lizards, and mountain sheep," as VanPool said in her article in Archaeology Magazine. "The naturalistic images often are detailed enough to allow the identification of animal species. Many vessels even record ritual behavior that occurred in the past…" Archaeologists have found Paquime and Paquime-style ceramics at 13th and 14th century village sites scattered across western Texas, southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, northeastern Sonora and northern Chihuahua.

The Merchants and Itinerant Traders

Merchants and itinerant traders linked Paquime to what archaeologist J. Charles Kelley has called the "Aztatlan Mercantile System," a vast network of trade routes and markets which extended from the Valley of Mexico up through northern and western Mexico into the southwestern United States. As Kelley said in his paper "The Aztatlan Mercantile System: Mobile Traders and the Northwestward Expansions of Mesoamerican Civilization," Chapter 9, in Greater Mesoamerica: The Archaeology of West and Northwest Mexico, "…Paquime was indeed the center of a major interaction sphere…" and the mercantile system was the "only probable mesoamerican [sic] source for the conversion of Paquime into the center…" In Kelley’s view, Paquime evidently served as the "gateway" for trade with communities within its range of interaction.

The merchants energized the mercantile life of Paquime, presumably capitalizing on the city marketplace to acquire raw materials (Di Peso found nearly 4,000,000 individual marine shells warehoused in the community apartment complex), coordinate artisans’ manufacturing work, and negotiate commodity exchanges. The itinerant traders – possibly roving "wheeler/dealers" from throughout the system – served as conduits, not only for merchandise, but also for ideas and ideology. Still following their vocation well into historic times, Indian itinerant traders of Mexico "…traveled over the whole land, bartering, trading, buying in some places and selling in another…" said Father Bernardino de Sahagun, one of the earliest Spanish Franciscan missionaries in Mexico. "They also travel through towns, along the seashore, and in the interior. There isn’t a place they do not pry into a visit, here buying, there selling." (I have taken the quote from Kelley’s paper on the Aztatlan mercantile system.) The archaeological record suggests, according to Kelley, that their stock in trade included fabrics, smoking pipes, tobacco, metal objects (copper, bronze and gold), turquoise, cacoa and ceramics.

The itinerant traders, "who, as late as 1895, were still carrying on extensive short- and long-distance trade on foot…" said Kelley. "In 1895, Lumholtz [Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian natural scientist and adventurer] questioned at length two of these traders and actually weighed one trader and his load (pottery). This trader weighed 70 kilos [154 pounds]; his load weighed 63 kilos [139 pounds]; and he had been a [trade bearer] for 35 years. He was able to compete with pack mules by walking twice as far each day, 30 or 40 miles, as a loaded mule."

Indian ruins

In a remarkable feat, itinerant traders transported scarlet and military macaws from the rain forests of Central America across the deserts of northern Mexico to the city of Paquime. Somehow, they managed to keep the birds alive in spite of drastic environmental change, unaccustomed diet and extreme confinement. (In native habitats, macaws live in riverine forests, nest in high trees and range widely in search of fruits. They will chew up ordinary wooden cages.) Clearly, Paquime held the birds in high regard. Potters often incorporated their images into Casas Grandes ceramics. Paquime breeders raised macaws in rectangular adobe boxes equipped with nesting material and perches. They left, not only the boxes, but the skeletons and even the eggshells of the macaws as part of their archaeological record. Presumably, Paquime traded the birds or their feathers, both clearly highly valued, to other Puebloan peoples.

Interactive Sphere

Ten times larger than any neighboring community, Paquime’s cultural influence washed over the surrounding lands like ripples spreading across a pond, stronger near the center than at the edge. Paquime’s "interactive sphere" – a region where settlements share cultural traits, religious beliefs, architecture, icons and commerce in varying degrees – primarily encompassed northwestern Chihuahua, northeastern Sonora, southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and far west Texas.

Following investigative surveys during the 1990’s, archaeologists Michael E. Whalen and Paul E. Minnis have suggested that Paquime’s interactive sphere could be divided into three irregularly shaped zones. First, as they said in their paper "Investigating the Paquime Regional System," published in The Casas Grandes World, "There was a zone of maximum interaction" within about 18 to 20 miles – roughly a day’s walk – of Paquime. In pueblo ruins within this zone, they found architecture, construction, ball courts, macaw cages and ceramics similar to those of Paquime. Next, there was a zone of intermediate interaction within two to possibly four days walk. They said that "Architecture and ceramics are similar to the inner zone, but ball courts and macaw cages were not common… There are several small, simple ball courts in southwestern New Mexico," about 75 miles north of Paquime. Finally, there was "A third interaction zone…defined by those areas whose ceramic assemblages show contact with Paquime but where no ball courts or macaw cage doors have ever been recorded," and it extends perhaps 200 miles from Paquime.

Whalen and Minnis conclude, tentatively, that "Communities within a day’s walk of the center appear to have participated relatively heavily in a system of ball court ritual and prestige goods exchange." Communities within the next zone "seem to have participated in the ritual and exchange system at a considerably lower level." While the outer zone clearly felt the influential ripples emanating from Paquime, the communities showed "no indication of this participation."

Why the Ascension?

Archaeologists have tried for decades to explain the Paquime phenomenon. How can you account for the rapid resurgence and transformation of Paquime at the beginning of the 13th century, just when the surrounding regions fractured? Paquime, said Di Peso, "…must have been a very exciting place with all of its daily market activity, the hustle of its many workshops, the staged ceremonial pomp, and the ball games, to say nothing of the vital timbre of the Paquime building and remodeling program."

Di Peso believed that "While the Toltec warrior-king, Matlaccoatzin, reigned from Tula," itinerant traders called puchtecas, who wanted "to accumulate wealth," moved into "the northern area and inspired the construction of such contemporary trading posts as those in the Casas Grandes Valley of Chihuahua…" Unfortunately, Di Peso, otherwise a brilliant and disciplined field archaeologist, miscalculated the dates for Paquime’s resurgence as well as its decline. Based on faulty assumptions about tree-ring data – a major source of dating in the American southwest – he thought the city was thriving at the time of the Toltecs and the Chaco Canyon Anasazis, and he developed his interpretation within that framework. In fact, as later research has shown, Paquime arose at least a century and a half later than Di Peso thought, after the collapse of the Toltecs to the south and after the abandonment by the Anasazis of their Chaco Canyon Great Houses.

There has to be another explanation for the ascension. Since the 1990’s, archaeologists have variously attributed the Paquime phenomenon primarily to stimulation by the Aztatlan Mercantile System, immigration from Mexico’s west coast, inspiration by Anasazi refugees, newly established empire by Chaco Canyon Anasazi elites, a combination of mercantile system stimulation and Anasazi inspiration, emergence of indigenous leadership, local manipulation and control of prestige goods and social and ideological concepts, and combinations of possibilities.

"There are difficulties with formulating testable models…" said Ronna Jane Bradley, with considerable understatement, in her paper "Recent Advances in Chihuahuan Archaeology," Chapter Thirteen in Greater Mesoamerica: The Archaeology of West and Northwest Mexico. "Clearly, Paquime was involved in extensive complex relationships with distant polities, and more work needs to be done before we can adequately understand those relationships."

Why the Decline?

By the 15th century, Paquime had spent its energies, although the population appeared to increase. "…two and one-half generations sat idly by and watched the magnificent city of Paquime fall into disrepair," said Di Peso. "The artisan-citizens continued to produce an abundance of marketable goods, but civil construction and public maintenance all but ceased. The populace took over various public and ceremonial areas and with crude alterations made living quarters of them. The dead were slovenly buried in the city water and the vital plaza drain systems, choking both." Based on his miscalculation for the emergence and the demise of Paquime, Di Peso believed that the collapse of the Casas Grandes regional system occurred in the midst of the upheavals in the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi areas. In fact, it occurred essentially at the end of the great Puebloan Diaspora.

There had to be another explanation for the decline. Some archaeologists have suggested that perhaps Paquime spiraled downward after the warlike Tarascan people of Mesoamerica destroyed the Aztatlan Mercantile System in the 15th century. That could have interrupted Paquime’s access to trade goods such as shells, macaws and copper. It might have undermined the Casas Grandes economy. Of course, archaeologists may reject that notion, too. As J. Charles Kelley said, "That is the common fate of archaeological hypotheses based, as archaeological models always are, on insufficient data."

A Violent End

Whatever led to Paquime’s ascent, whatever caused its demise, it ended in violence and tragedy, visited on the city, perhaps, by the "unwanted alien peoples" who had earlier been held out by the "strong, bastioned outer walls." Evidently, said Di Peso after seeing the archaeological record, Paquime was "attacked by enemy people who burned the city by igniting the first floor master beams, causing the city to collapse upon itself like a house of cards; killed several hundred men, women, and children, and left their fallen bodies not only in the house collapse, but also in the open plazas, on ceremonial mounds, in ball courts, as well as near the ancestral tombs; defiled numerous altar pieces and threw their broken remnants into the open plazas and down the staircase of the abandoned walk-in well; and finally left a number of precious breeding macaws and turkeys in the pens and sealed boxes to die of neglect. It was equally obvious that no one remained to clean up the aftermath after the smoke of the attack had cleared, save for the scavenging animals which came to rummage and disperse the bodies of the unburied dead."

Jay W. Sharp


"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13) This page
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)

Pueblo Rebellion
Profile Of An Apache Woman
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing



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