Paquime - also known as Casas Grandes - was the largest city in
the Southwest, unrivaled in scale by any other prehistoric city
in North America. Mysteriously, it is also one of the least known
prehistoric cities today.
From 1200-1400 AD 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.
But few people know about this mysterious city that covered 88 acres
in the Chihuahuan Desert, 100 miles south of the New Mexico border.
Paquime was 27 times the size of Pueblo Bonito, the Ancestral Puebloan
site long thought to be the largest city in the Southwest.
Built of adobe in a land where there was little sandstone available,
the ruins of Paquime have not lasted as well or as majestically
as their stone contemporary cliff and pueblo cities to the north.
Archeologists, who have excavated one half of the city foundations,
are working to uncover more of the mysteries of the vast Paquime
city and the region it served, bringing some startling discoveries
to light. Scientists have also noted that the rise of Paquime dates
exactly after the abandonment of the northern Anasazi cities … might
some of those people have relocated to Paquime?
Paquime not only covered 88 acres, its thick adobe rammed-earth
walls may have risen up to seven stories in height in many sections,
making it the approximate equivalent of no less than a 200 acre,
single story city. This large city was the central commerce, religious,
cultural, and recreational complex that served to unify a 40-70
miles radius of smaller villages totaling 35,000 archeological sites.
It is quite feasible that this city and its outlying towns saw many
thousands of residents and hundreds of visitors every year. More
than just its size, Paquime is also a fascinating city in that it
performed unique functions on a scale of trade, irrigation, recreation,
and ceremony not seen anywhere else in the Ancient Southwest. The
Paquime site is now recognized as part of the UNESCO World Heritage
Mapping and Population Challenge Map out 200 acres in your school's
neighborhood (an acre is approx 200 x 200 square feet). If all of
the buildings in that 200 acre section of land were one story, and
100 people lived on each acre ( 1 for every 20x20 foot area), then
how many people would the 200 acres hold if one person stood in
each 20x20 foot square ?
Answer - the 200 acres would hold 20,000 people. It is possible
that with the multiple stories over the living areas of the 88 acre
city, minus space set aside for public areas and water systems,
Paquime may have held up to half that many people, most likely at
least twice to four times as many as Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon
is thought to have held.
How did these people survive and thrive for more than two hundred
years in the dry Sonoran landscape ? 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. Situated on the floodplain of the Casas
Grandes River, the city itself did not have a local water supply.
The Paquime engineers solved this problem by building an impressive
water collection and distribution unlike anywhere else in the Southwest.
First, water was gathered from a warm spring 2.2 miles to the northwest
and brought to the city boundaries by canals. Once it reached the
city boundary, it was collected and held in large reservoirs to
let the sediment settle to the bottom so the cleanest water could
be separated out. From these reservoirs, smaller stone-lined channels
carried the cleaner water into the blocks of apartment-style housing.
And, most impressive, there was a sanitation ditch system that also
carried sewer water and waste out of the living areas and away from
Monumental Scale Building
The living areas of Paquime were multi-family dwellings, apartment-style,
and the largest was over an acre in size. Built of packed earth
adobe, the walls were finished by hand allowing for a smooth surface
and rounded details. The doorways are in a shape mysterious to us
today, the T shape also found at Chaco Canyon. The ceilings were
crossed by heavy logs, called vigas, that were then covered with
smaller branches called latigas, and then plastered with earth to
form water-tight roofs, or floors between stories. The thickness
of the walls, and the size of the timbers implies structures that
could have been up to seven stories in places. All together there
are at least 2000 rooms in the city. If half of those were living
areas, holding a family of four, there would easily have been 4,000
or more people living in the central city.
Influenced strongly by Mesoamerican architecture, Paquime saw the
construction of 18 earth and stone mounds including four large ceremonial
mounds in distinctive shapes. These mounds include the Serpent Mound
in the shape of a snake with a feather plume or a curved horn arching
over its head, the Macaw Mound in the shape of a bird, and the Cross
Shaped Mound, El Monticulo de la Cruz, a small hill with the cardinal
points of the compass sculpted in raised adobe, showing the customary
variation of 11 degrees from Magnetic North. The fourth mound is
called the Warrior mound, which they paved with stone and probably
was crowned with a temple building.
The people of Paquime used their advanced irrigation system to raise
corn, beans, squash and other crops. They hunted buffalo, antelope,
deer and other wild animals, and also harvested agave, nuts, prickly
pear cactus fruits and other wild plants. They raised domesticated
birds, turkeys in particular for food.
The most fascinating characteristic of Paquime is that it appears
to have as the single largest trade hub in the entire southwest.
With roads radiating out from the city, and traders coming in to
the city, the buildings inside the city limits were designed to
hold and distribute the rarest treasures in the land.
The rarest treasure at Paquime were the tropical parrots that were
highly valued by the Southwest peoples as bringers of rain to their
dry, arid lands. Parrots are seen on pottery, on kiva wall murals,
and in earth mounds of the Southwest. At Paquime, rare exotic scarlet
and green macaws have been found in abundance, birds brought up
to the North from forests in the lower Sonoran (green macaws) or
from even further away from the humid Caribbean shores of the Gulf
of Mexico (scarlet macaws). Paquime not only imported these sacred
birds - it bred them. Parrot breeding pens with circular doorway
plugs have been uncovered, and over 500 parrot burials have been
found (381 scarlet, 81 green over 100 unidentified). Compare this
to the note that a total of 200 scarlet macaw burials have been
found in the rest of the Southwest combined, showing Paquime to
be a site with a distinct density of these revered birds. The tail
feathers of the Macaw were an important part of the Southwest religious
rituals, which featured feathers from all types of birds.
Another valuable treasure at Paquime were the stores of turquoise
and copper. The turquoise and copper was presumably brought down
to Paquime from New Mexico, and a 1586 Spanish report notes that
the parrot feathers were traded to pueblos in the north in exchange
for the 'green stones'. In addition, shells and shell beads made
seashells native to the Gulf of California in the west and the Gulf
of Mexico in the east have been found there in abundance. 5,895
pieces of turquoise have been found, 700 pieces of copper, and 4
million (1.5 tons) of shell. And remember, only half of Paquime
has been excavated, so these finds are likely to increase in number
as more work is done on the site.
Casas Grandes Pottery
Today the local people of the Paquime
region are bringing back the pottery art of their ancestors. This
new generation of potters has created a style of revival pottery
called Casas Grandes and it is inspired by the artifacts found at
Paquime. Now sold in galleries all over the world, these potters
are helping thier local economy grow by farming a workshop that
employees potters and painters to create works that can be sold
and appreciated by collectors in other countries.
What Happened to Paquime ?
Before the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, Paquime had mysteriously
ceased to serve as a city. Scientists study the reason for its decline
- did it experience a drought that cut off its water supply ? Was
it attacked by another people who are known to have been cutting
off trade routes in the region ? Evidence shows that Paquime mysteriously
burnt and was never re-inhabited around 1400AD. It had a two hundred
year reign as the largest, most influential city in the Ancient
Southwest, and today is a reminder of the importance of trade, public
ceremony, art, craft, civic engineering, and animal magic.