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Casas Grandes / Paquimé

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Perhaps the most impressive prehistoric ruin in the Southwest is the Casas Grandes site located across the border in Mexico. In size, Casas Grandes, which is twenty-seven times larger than Chaco Canyon's Pueblo Bonito, is almost in a category of its own. And the levels of technological and commercial sophistication achieved by its inhabitants were unsurpassed by any indigenous community or group in the American Southwest. Noble 1981, p 12

Part of the barbarous frontier of the developed cultures of Mesoamerica, Casas Grandes was settled around AD 700 by enterprising Mesoamerican entrepreneurs (puchtecas) who saw its potential as a commercial base. They built the city Paquimé and under their leadership it became the nucleus of an empire with thousands of satellite or culturally associated villages, dominion over 85,000 square miles of land in northwestern Chihuahua and northeastern Sonora, and control over a trade network reaching hundreds of miles to the north. Prime trade items included parrot feathers and turquoise.

After the mid-11th century the city grew tremendously and had an urban renewal in the mid-13th century. Large marketplaces, warehousing facilities, ceremonial mounds, plazas, ball courts and a complex of high-rise apartment buildings were all built.

Di Peso speculates that the dramatic architecture of Paquimé probably was planned in part to entice large numbers of visitors from the hinterlands to further "fill the larders of the city and its masters." No doubt such a strategy was successful, and as power focused on the city, it was probably possible to involve rural inhabitants in the construction of the extraordinary water control system. Noble 1981, p 13

Aqueducts were built that began at Varalemo Warm Springs (today producing over 3,000 gallons of water per minute) and were stored at Paquimé in a reservoir from which it was dispensed in underground stone-lined channels that served the main house clusters. Drainage tunnels and large subterranean walk-in cisterns were other features of the system.

Casas Grandes inhabitants also enjoyed heated sleeping platforms, airy living spaces, raised platform cooking hearths, city parks and a bustling marketplace. Some plazas had turkey and macaw pens, reflecting how avicultures a principal economic engine of the town.

After 1261, the city began to fall apart. Civil reconstruction and public maintenance ceased. Economic depression, an earthquake and a meteor shower all devastated Casas Grandes. By 1340 the area had fallen and Paquimé was abandoned. When the first Europeans entered the area in the 16th century, the city was just a ruin and the valley was virtually abandoned. Comparisons have caused Casas Grandes to be grouped as Mogollon, but that is a tenuous assertion and the descendants of Casas Grandes have not been conclusively identified.