The Casas Grandes Community
Archaeology Southwest Magazine Vol. 17, No. 2
Paul E. Minnis
University of Oklahoma
Michael E. Whalen
University of Tulsa
For more than 400 years, Casas Grandes has been recognized as one of the largest and most important communities in the ancient Puebloan World, starting with Baltazar de Obregón’s published description of the site in 1584. However, it was not until 1959 that the grandeur of this site was revealed in detail by the Joint Casas Grandes Project (JCGP), led by Charles Di Peso of the Amerind Foundation and Eduardo Contreras Sánchez of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). For three years, this monumental project uncovered the remains of a remarkable community with up to 2,000 rooms in massive, multiple-story adobe roomblocks, a sophisticated water-distribution system, and many public ritual structures, including ballcourts, platform mounds, and feasting ovens. There was also evidence of elites and hoarding of wealth, such as 4.5 million shell artifacts. Long-distance relationships were indicated by the many presumed trade items, such as parrots and copper, found at Casas Grandes, and the presence of both Puebloan and Mesoamerican features. Casas Grandes’ designation as a World Heritage site by UNESCO and the construction of a world-class museum at the site by INAH are further recognition of this site’s importance.
Ideas abound concerning the role that Casas Grandes (also known as Paquimé) played in the prehistory of northern Mexico and the United States Southwest at its height during the Medio period (A.D. 1200-1450). The best-known explanation is Di Peso’s mercantile model. He suggested that the Casas Grandes area was a Puebloan backwater until pochteca-trading agents of the great Mesoamerican states to the south-organized Casas Grandes to coordinate economic exploitation of Mesoamerica’s far northern hinterland, an area that Di Peso called the Gran Chichimeca. Once the trading networks changed, Casas Grandes lost its prominence and then declined, ultimately being sacked by its enemies. A more recent explanation is a geographically reversed image of Di Peso’s ideas. Stephen Lekson argues that Casas Grandes was established by Chaco elites from the north after the decline of their original homeland. We offer a third alternative: that the rise of Casas Grandes is best understood as primarily a local phenomenon of emergent elites jockeying for power and prestige, ultimately leading to the dominance of Casas Grandes over its neighbors.
Casas Grandes did not develop in a regional vacuum. It has long been known that hundreds of smaller Medio period sites are present in the Casas Grandes region. Early regional surveys-especially those by E. B. Sayles, Donald Brand, and Robert Lister from the 1920s through the 1940s-described some of these sites, and the JCGP conducted limited regional reconnaissance. The nature of the relationships between these communities and Casas Grandes is neither well known nor agreed upon by archaeologists. Progress has been steady but slow, however, because funding resources available north of the border are not available in Chihuahua. For example, there have been recent individual archaeological projects in the United States Southwest whose budgets surpass all of the money ever spent on studying the prehistory of the entire state of Chihuahua. Despite the relative lack of funding, a number of recent and current projects are investigating Chihuahua prehistory.
We began our fieldwork in 1989, to understand the regional context of Casas Grandes’ dynamic history. During four seasons of survey, we recorded about 450 sites-350 of which date to the Medio period-around Casas Grandes and up to 70 kilometers away. Casas Grandes is a unique site in terms of its size and characteristics; it is about 10 times larger than the next largest site in the surrounding area. Nevertheless, we concluded that Casas Grandes controlled a core area much smaller than many previous researchers suspected, on the order of about 30 kilometers from the site. Communities farther away were certainly influenced by Casas Grandes in many important ways but seem not to have been controlled by it.
Since 1996, we have been excavating sites in the core area to further refine our understanding of the history of the Casas Grandes polity. Specifically, we have worked at four sites, each representing different parts of the Casas Grandes system. Two sites, 231 and 317, are “typical” domestic sites-representative of communities where most ancient Casas Grandeans lived. With a full complement of domestic artifacts, and unremarkable but serviceable architecture, these sites were inhabited by small groups of subsistence farmers. Our pilot project studying upland agriculture indicates that the core area was extensively farmed using many different techniques and harvesting a variety of crops, such as corn and agave.
Our 1998 field season concentrated on site 242, which is very different from sites 231 and 317. This site has an unusually elaborate and large ballcourt, as well as the only platform mound found in the area outside Casas Grandes itself. There is some preliminary evidence from the study of nearby field sizes and from the ceramic assemblage that the leaders at site 242 produced unusually large a-mounts of food or drink for public feasts.
We recently concluded three seasons of work at the Tinaja site (site 204), one of the largest sites in the Casas Grandes core, located approximately 15 kilometers west of Casas Grandes at the base of the Sierra Madres. We excavated 35 of its approximately 200 rooms, a ballcourt, two feasting ovens, and a midden. Our work at 204 represents a large excavation database for a Medio period site, second only in size to the work at Casas Grandes itself. This research will allow us to examine the role of large sites within the Casas Grandes polity from a historical perspective. Were these large sites early competitors with Casas Grandes or were they always secondary to it?
Despite our efforts and those of the other scholars working in northwestern Chihuahua, there is much to do. Decades during which little or no archaeological research was conducted, as well as meager funding, have left a research deficit that will require much work to overcome.
This issue was made possible by a generous gift from Benjamin W. Smith.
Issue Editors: Paul Minnis and Michael Whalen
- Instítuto Nacional de Antropología e Historia Chihuahua – Elsa Rodríguez García
- (Translation) INAH in Chihuahua
- Loma de Moctezuma: At the Edge of the Casas Grandes World – Timothy D. Maxwell and Rafael Cruz Antillon
- The Southern Zone of the Chihuahua Culture – Jane H. Kelley and Karin Burd-Larkin
- Exploring the Mountains of Chihuahua: Proyecto Provincia Serrana de Paquimé – Eduardo Pío Gamboa Carrera
- The Hilltop Site of El Pueblito – T. Alan Pitezel
- Late Archaic Villages on the Rio Casas Grandes – John R. Roney and Robert J Hard
- Charles Di Peso and Casas Grandes – Gloria J. Fenner
- Archaeological Tourism in Chihuahua – Paul E. Minnis and Michael E. Whalen
- Museo de las Culturas del Norte – José Luis Punzo Diaz