Casas Grandes cultural tradition

Scientists have long considered Casas Grandes cultural tradition and its largest site, the Paquimé, to be one of the largest and most significant centers in the cultural development of the entire US Southwest and northern Mexico of the pre-Hispanic and protohistoric period in the Southwest. Although located within the modern borders of Mexico (northern parts of the states of Chihuahua and Sonora), near the present-day border with the United States, Casas Grandes tradition seems to be more geographically and culturally related to the Southwest, albeit with strong Mesoamerican influences visible in the religious architecture and material culture.

It is often said that the Casas Grandes (Paquimé) site was a kind of trading post between the Southwest and Mesoamerica, or even that its development was stimulated by certain Mesoamerican centers. Charles C. Di Peso, who studied this site, even claimed that it was the “backbone” of the Pueblo culture until the Aztec merchant-spies (pochteca) turned it into a kind of place from where the Southwest (this part of the area sometimes named as Gran Chichimeca) might be “exploited”. Another researcher, Stephen Lekson, however, sees this center as a place where Ancestral Puebloan “elites” migrated from the Aztec Ruins and Salmon Ruins, to which they had previously moved from Chaco Canyon. However, one thing is for sure: Casas Grandes became a kind of Southwest center after the collapse of the great centers of the Pueblo, Hohokam and Mimbres/Mogollon cultures, in the last two centuries before arrival of Europeans (Spaniards in this case).

The basis of the Casas Grandes economy was agriculture, with the cultivation of corn, beans, squash, agave, chilli, cotton and other crops. The site of Paquimé itself is located in a well-watered valley, with a kind of microclimate that allowed for a slightly longer growing season than elsewhere. Of key importance for the economy and agriculture was artificial irrigation and supplying farmlands with water from the canals on site, as well as in other settlements of the Casas Grandes tradition.

Many examples of public and ceremonial architecture have been found in Paquimé and other sites of the Casas Grandes tradition, with numerous references to Mesoamerica. First of all, several ballcourts were discovered in Casas Grandes itself, very similar to typical Mesoamerican ones, including two I-shaped and one T-shaped court. Some of these ballcourts are adjoined by clay and stone platform mounds. The mound adjacent to the southern part of the largest I-shaped field in Paquimé features stone cover (this ballcourt is adjoined by at least one more mound on the long west side). There are a total of 18 mounds in Paquimé itself, including platform and also effigy (a bird) mounds. Most of the monumental, public, and ceremonial architecture, including the ballcourts, platform and figural mounds, are located in the central and western parts of the site, while the “ordinary” residential and storage architecture is concentrated in the eastern part of Paquimé site.

The presence of elites in Paquimé is demonstrated by both the monumental and public architecture as well as the complex water distribution system—clearly illustrating the well-planned and coordinated construction of the site as a whole—along with the opulent burial furnishings. Some evidence strongly suggest also the control of the Casas Grandes elite over local as well as long-distance trade with areas hundreds and thousands of kilometers away from this city-settlement. Undoubtedly, one of the main determinants of Paquimé’s development was long-distance trade and exchange, and the two most important exotic items traded were parrots imported from northern Mexico as well as the tropical forests of southern Mexico and the border between Mexico and Guatemala, and shells obtained mainly from the Gulf of California (during research excavations found four million beads and semi-finished shells were uncovered in just two rooms at Casas Grandes). Other items traded include copper bells and other copper products, turquoise and turkeys mass-bred in Paquimé; some products characteristic of the Great Plains, including buffalo skins, were also found. Parrots, like turkeys, were most likely obtained for ritual purposes and mainly because of their rich plumage.

The most characteristic Casas Grandes pottery are polychrome vessels. There are many types, mainly when it comes to their location, including the most famous and recognisable Ramos Polychrome style. These were decorated with a black or red ornamentation on a cream or brown-reddish background, and the design includes geometric (e.g. complex combinations of lines, step motifs, or spirals) as well as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs (birds, e.g. parrots and owls, as well as dogs, rabbits, badgers, frogs, snakes, lizards and fish, as well as larger animals like mountain sheep). There are also quite numerous combined representations of people and animals, for example, the bird man motif; this hybrid may be identified with a shaman guided to the afterlife by a bird.

Paquimé and the entire Casas Grandes tradition is a manifestation of one of at least several traditions and cultures of the northern areas of Mexico (the states of Sonora and Chihuahua) that developed there at least since the end of the Archaic period. For this period and until the arrival of the Spaniards, six major cultural traditions have been distinguished in this area: Costa Central (Middle Coast), Trincheras, Casas Grandes, Rio Sonora, Huatabampo and Serrena.

The spectacular architecture and monuments of this place and its unique role in the cultural development of this part of North America meant that in 1998 the site of Casas Grandes as Archaeological Zone of Paquimé, Casas Grandes (Mexico) was included in the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List. This site also falls under the protection of the State of Mexico and is managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico—INAH. A modern museum, Museo de las Culturas del Norte, has operated there since 1996.

The website uses cookies

In order to provide services at the highest level, we use cookies that will be placed on your device (computer, laptop, smartphone). At any time, you can change the settings of your web browser and disable the option of saving cookies.