Ancient Paquimé and the Casas Grandes World: A Book Review

What Four Decades of Research Has Added to Charles Di Peso's Studies

Ancient Paquimé and the Caas Grandes World (cover art)
Ancient Paquimé and the Caas Grandes World (cover art). University of Arizona Press

Minnis Paul E., and Whalen Michael E., editors. 2015. Ancient Paquimé and the Caas Grandes World. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. ISBN-13 978-0-8165-3131-8 (acid free paper). Amerind Studies in Anthropology, John A. Ware, series editor. 208 pages, foreword, 9 chapters, bibliography, contributor biographies and an index.

Ancient Paquimé and the Caas Grandes World summarizes four decades of research in northern Chihuahua, Mexico, since Charles Di Peso's 1974 eight volume publication of his excavations at Casas Grandes.

It is an edited volume, the result of a 2008 Society for American Archaeology conference symposium and a 2012 seminar at the Amerind Foundation. Casas Grandes, known locally as Paquimé, was a regional center between the 10th and 15th centuries AD, one of several in what archaeologists call the American NW/SW, the loosely related societies of northwestern Mexico and southwestern United States, which includes the Chaco Canyon area.

Di Peso's work was remarkable for its time, but the 40 years since his massive publication have seen advances in both archaeological research methods and interpretive styles. Subsequent excavations and surveys and reanalysis of Di Peso's artifacts have provided a richer, more nuanced understanding of Casas Grande's role in Chihuahua, in the NW/SW, and with respect to Mesoamerican communities with which Casas Grandes interacted.

Chapter Summaries

The foreword, written by John Ware, and an introduction entitled "The Joint Casas Grandes Expedition in Historical Context" by editors Paul E.

Minnis and Michael E. Whalen, together provide a solid background on Di Peso's work and other previous publications since that time.

1. The first chapter is titled "Beginnings: the Viejo Period", written by Jane H. Kelley and Michael T. Searcy. The major sticking point in Di Peso's interpretations of Casas Grandes was the dates: he proposed dates that turned out to be too early by two centuries or more.

In "Beginnings", Kelley and Searcy provide details about the Viejo phase, the pre-classic period before Casas Grandes became an important regional center.

2. In "Ecology and Food Economy", Minnis and Whalen describe evidence for subsistence methods at Casas Grandes: Di Peso, excavating in the 1960s, did not have access to modern day methods of water-screening or indeed fine-mesh screening to recover organic materials. Forty years later, Minnis and Whalen can say definitively that the three sisters of corn, beans and squash, as well as agave and cotton and amaranth were among the crops grown at Casas Grandes.

3. In "Organization of Production at Paquimé", Gordon F. Rakita and Rafael Cruz take on the evidence for the production of local crafts and trade in exotic commodities, including shell, agave, macaws, turkeys, polychrome pots, metates, turquoise and copper.

Religion, Settlement Patterns and Society

4. In "Religion and Cosmology in the Casas Grandes World", Christine S. VanPool and Todd L. VanPool give us a refined interpretation of the regional religion expressed at Casas Grandes, by examining connections between the clearly Mesoamerican elements of ball courts, macaws and the symbolism of the feathered serpent.

Di Peso looked to connections with Toltecs, but because his dates are off, that won't work. Instead, VanPool and VanPool (and other Casa Grandes researchers) point to Aztatlan, the southern-most regional center in the NW/SW region; the western Mexican coast.

5. "Settlement Patterns of the Casas Grandes Area", by Whalen and Todd Pitezal, pulls together recent information about the changing settlement pattern over time of the inner core zone of the town itself and of communities in its hinterlands.

6. In "Society and Polity in the Wider Casas Grandes Region", John E. Douglas and A. C. MacWilliams examine the social and political organization identified in the various zones and the growth and decline of Casas Grandes' influence in the region.

Casas Grandes End and Broader Interpretations

7. In "The End of Paquimé and the Casas Grandes Culture", David A.

Phillips Jr. and Eduardo Gamboa examine radiocarbon dates and other evidence supporting an abandonment about 1450, or about a century before the Spanish arrived to find its empty buildings.

8. In "Paquimé: A Revision of its Relationship to the South and West", Jose Luis Punzo and M. Elise Villalpando pull in data replacing Di Peso's misdated connections to Tula; bolstering connections to greater Mesoamerica, both the Gulf of California and the Gulf Coast; and minimizing that between the US southwest. You will find interesting discussion here about trade routes, known and hypothesized.

9. Finally, Linda Cordell summarizes her reactions to the findings and interpretations in "Ancient Paquimé: A View from the North", an article that was in draft state when she died in 2013. This chapter is an excellent perspective of Casas Grandes within the greater NW Mexico/US Southwest, comparing size and hegemony to that of Chaco Canyon.

Bottom Line

Like all edited books based on symposia, Ancient Paquimé and the Caas Grandes World is a little disjointed: as a generalist reader and a fan of Di Peso's I longed for, oddly enough, an "archaeo-history" of the type Di Peso put together for Casas Grandes back in the day. But, of course, if there is anything the last forty years have shown us, it's that the broad, interpretive story we public archaeologists like to tell is full of pitfalls. Contrariwise, archaeology is full of uncertainties; what seems true and right today may well be false and wrong tomorrow.

That fact about archaeological uncertainty makes for a compelling book, one that demonstrates the profession's true love and respect for Charlie Di Peso, but one that also illuminates the impacts recent technological and methodological changes have had to the sort of grand syntheses that Di Peso had nailed.

Of the nine chapters, I'm fondest of Linda Cordell's essay, because it takes Casas Grandes out of its seemingly singular status and sets it within the greater NW/SW region, as one of several regional centers, loosely connected with one another, but not as powerful as Di Peso assumed it was.

There is much to fire the imagination of the generalist reader in Ancient Paquimé and the Caas Grandes World: trade routes, connections to west Mexico and the gulf coast, trade in macaws and management of resources are just the start. 

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