Windows on the Past

Nestled in the canyons and foothills of the Western Sierra Madre lies a suite of caves that harbor some of the richest architectural treasures of the Mesoamerican world. Etched into the landscape by falling rain more than a million years ago, the caves provided refuge for peoples who settled in the region over the millennia, each of whom left an indelible imprint in their deep recesses. The most recent occupants—known to archaeologists as the Paquimé, or “Casas Grandes” people, after a majestic site 120 kilometers to the north where their culture was first identified—began building elaborate earthen dwellings within the ancient grottos nearly 1,000 years ago. Culturally and stylistically linked to the dwellings of the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest, those of the Paquimé are multistoried adobe structures with stone foundations, wooden support beams, and t-shaped doorways.

Many of the structures are composed of a series of small rooms built one atop the other, their exteriors finished in burnished adobe. Pine ladders provided access to upper floors. Some of the rooms were decorated with renderings of animals and anthropomorphic figures. Although the structures were erected at some 150 known sites throughout northwestern Mexico, two of the greatest concentrations—Las Cuarenta Casas (40 Houses) and Conjunto Huapoca (Huapoca Complex)—have been found in a series of canyons on the outskirts of Madera in the state of Chihuahua. Over the past decade, both areas have been the focus of a major archaeological campaign aimed at recording what cultural material has survived and elucidating the relationship between the people of Paquimé and other cultures of the Mesoamerican world—namely those of Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit—and the American Southwest.

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