The Madera Cave dwellings are pre-Colombian sculpted clay structures nestled in the natural caves and cliffs in Chihuahua’s western Sierra Madre. It is believed that these structures were created by the Paquimé or Casas Grandes culture between AD 1060 and 1450. Following the desertion of these habitats in the sixteenth century, the area was resettled by the Apache tribes in the seventeenth century. The Apache settlements included small multi-family residences that made use of the caves and the shelter of the cliffs in the mountainous Papigochic River basin. The dwellings are two- and three-story clay units with T-shaped doorways, built around small squares with communal granaries; the different rooms interconnected by means of ramps and ladders. Centuries of exposure to the elements and natural occurring erosion and decay, along with years of neglect, vandalism, looting, and damaged caused by cattle in the surrounding mountain region, have progressively deteriorated the cave dwellings. Limited funding and lack of technical resources have impeded the timely conservation of these archaeological sites.
1998 and 2000 World Monuments Watch
WMF’s attention was drawn to the cave dwellings when they were included in the 1998 and 2000 World Monuments Watch. In 2002 the J.M. Kaplan Fund provided support to WMF to assist with the development and implementation of a conservation project at the Cuarenta Casas site. The work was undertaken by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH)-Chihuahua and Fuerza Ambiental A.C. The worked proved to be catalytic and additional conservation work was undertaken in subsequent years, notably in the complex of Cueva Grande (2004) and Huápoca Cliff Dwellings (2004-2006), Las Rancherias (2007), and Cañón del Embudo (2008). In addition to the support from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, funds from WMF’s Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage were directed toward documentation, structural stabilization and consolidation of architectural elements, installation of site fencing and security, the creation of interpretative and educational programs, and improvement for visitor access and services. The development of an integrated management plan sought the integration of local landowners in the active management of the site, as well as the creation of controls by governmental and civil institutions to improve legal protection and tourism management. More recently, Cueva de la Olla was added to the conservation program in 2011 and is expected to be completed in 2012. Work at Cañón del Embudo will be finished in 2013.
The Madera Cave dwellings are part of an evocative landscape that allows visitors to understand the great continuity of settlements in the area and the ingenuity of early residents who harnessed a complicated environment to create sustainable communities. Their study, conservation, and interpretation contribute to understanding more fully the development of the region and particularly the evolution of the Casas Grandes culture.