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The Mimbres

While the Anasazi were busy moving from pit houses to building complex stone pueblos and cliff dwellings up on the Colorado Plateau, another group of Ancient Peoples were developing their own unique lifestyle and art nearby. The Mogollon Rim is the transitional area between the high elevation Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners and the lower elevation  deserts to the south. Along the faces of this rim, forests of pinon and juniper grow, and in some areas pine and fir. The Rim area is cut through by river erosion and has created a few valleys with fertile soil and river waters – especially valuable in a land that is still very arid with little rainfall.

From the period of about 1000 to 1200 AD in southwestern New Mexico, a distinctive culture called the Mimbres arose that is now world famous for the elegant ceramics they produced. Along the Rio Mimbres, one of the few year round rivers along the Rim, the Mimbres also moved from pit houses to pueblos, but built a different type of pueblo than we have seen before. Theirs were not pre-planned monumental structures. They grew spontaneously to accommodate new families and were built from rounded cobble and adobe. Their homes did not have doorways on the walls – they entered from the roof tops by ladder and spent a good deal of their time on the rooftops as open air workplaces. Their homes were most often grouped with 3-4 families, each with their own individual living and storage rooms, clustered into one building – what we would consider a four-plex today. Some of their structure were larger – up to 200 rooms, but most were smaller multi-family clusters.

What is truly the most unique about the Mimbres is the refined pottery they produced.

Using white clay and white slip as their glaze, the bowls most often made are decorated with fine, precise black lines and figures. Geometric and human shapes, flowers and animals were all depicted in a distinct and surprisingly consistent style of painting - bats, lizards, hummingbirds, grasshoppers, deer, antelope, coyote, fish, water bugs and more. All of the wildlife around them was depicted on their pottery with a very sophisticated style of representation. Other pots depict mythological figures, or figures involved in an action that probably is retelling a tribal legend or supernatural event.

Few of these beautiful pots have been found hole. Most that have been recovered were found at burial sites and have been punctured (to help the soul escape) and then placed over the man or woman’s head for protection. The implements of the potter – her tools – have only been found in the burials of women, so scientists believe women were the pottery makers in their society.

Like their Anasazi neighbors to the North, around 1200 AD the Anasazi culture began to dissolve at these river drainage sites. They did not leave en masse as the Anasazi did, but took their belongings with them and slowly moved elsewhere.

What caused the Mimbres to leave ?

Scientists studying the area have noticed that the Mimbres had depleted the forests around them – possibly for firewood to cook food, and firewood to make their pottery, or possibly to open more land for farming. With this loss of forest, their food sources also changed. The deer who provided such ample food and resources moved to other forests for shelter and the Mimbres found only smaller wild game like rabbits and birds. The loss of the forests also disturbed the soils and changed the wild foods available – more weeds and less wild grains are found from the later years of their village life. With this decline, the spectacular pottery also declined and was no longer made with the quality and skill of their peak pottery period.

We can learn from the Mimbres two important lessons. First, that the natural world around us is the source of our nourishment and a source of inspiration to create images and objects that honor nature’s beauty and mysteries. And second, we can realize that protecting the forest as an essential resource is very important to human society, and its loss causes a grave imbalance than can destroy a people’s ability to survive in a few short generations.