Hello and welcome to Distant Echoes episode 3: New Mexico 3: The Mogollon.
Last time we covered the development of the Ancestral Puebloans from the shift to a more plant heavy diet and early cultigens to small above ground farming communities. There are two other major groups in the southwest that often don’t get as much of a spotlight as they deserve, the Mogollom and Hohokam. The latter were mostly in Arizona and Northern Mexico, and thus are out of the scope of this series. The Mogollon on the other hand were located in Southern New Mexico and northern Mexico. They didn’t build as grand of structures as the Ancestral Puebloans and by and large their culture disappeared before the arrival of the Spanish. As a result, there has been a lot less academic interest. This will also cause this episode to be quite a bit shorter than the others. When I was first conceptualizing how to approach the Prehistory of New Mexico one of my first ideas was to jump back and forth between the Ancestral Puebloans and Mogollon people. But it just proved difficult to find enough information to compare and contrast these cultures that much.
There is also the unique difficulty with their archeological record. For one of the sub cultures we’ll be talking about for most of this episode, the Mimbres, their bowls are highly sought after by art collectors and many of their sites are not under government protection. This makes it easy for pothunters to dig their sites up, in some cases these pothunters even use bulldozers or other heavy equipment to quickly dig up the sites. Even when it’s just digging with hand tools, picking such sites clean makes it extremely difficult for archeologists to examine the sites and draw insights into these people. I will note from the outset that this will mostly be focused on the Mimbres Valley rather than the entire region as that was the most studied place I found in my research.
These works of pottery are really quite interesting. Those found as grave goods will often have a hole punched in the bottom, some archeologists think maybe these mean the bowls were ritually killed. Their motifs are quite unique. I’ve got a link to some examples of these bowls in the companion post for this episode.
First let’s talk about the name, Mogollon. It is derived from the name of a Colonial governor of New Mexico, Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon. They gained this name due to a nearby town named Mogollon where it was first determined they were a distinct group.
Around 200AD, clear signs of this cultural group began to appear. Most early Mogollon sites appear to be defensive, located atop bluffs or ridges where access was particularly difficult. Something I’m sure many archeologists are grateful for when carrying equipment to a site. At this time they lived mostly in pithouses.
Around 600 AD these round or oval pit houses would be standardized to a more round shape. This is also when the Mimbres People abandoned the highlands. Never returning to them again. Instead they chose valleys and rivers to settle along.
Around 1000 AD the shift from pit houses to above ground pueblos began in the Mimbres Valley. During the transition, sometimes archeologists have found pit houses with masonry walls and tops, most likely these were used to keep the walls from collapsing. Thus it was a natural extension to move the houses above ground. Often these sites would be built upon previous pithouses.
This is when the Mimbres Classic period begins. The pottery created by these people during this very short time is truly unique. It is thought that the reason these motifs appear is closer contact with the Hohokam. This period is truly the peak of the Mimbres society with the largest estimated population.
Estimating population is extremely difficult, however. Some groups could have had larger homes than the number of people that lived in it at any one time. There are some traditions where the husband moved in with his wife’s family. Thus a family that had only daughters could be trying to fit nearly 3 generations into the same size home as a family that had only sons, which at some points could only be trying to fit 1 or 2 generations. But on average the number of living rooms are counted and this is extrapolated to estimate the population.
There is also evidence of the Mimbres being part of an extensive trade network. Macaw skeletons have been found, much like their contemporaries in Chaco Canyon to the north. Implying they too were involved in the trade networks that existed at the time.
However that was not to last, around 1100 Chaco Canyon began to collapse, as we’ll get to soon enough in the narrative. And with that collapse, the Mimbres also began to decline. By 1150 all signs of the culture were gone and the Mimbres Valley was nearly uninhabited.
Now what could cause the Mimbres People to just disappear? One theory is that at this peak of population they simply were working the land too hard, a simple drought would be all it took to cause a system wide collapse for such a fragile system. This is one of the theories as to why Chaco fell, after all. Why not the Mimbres too? Another theory involves the rise of Casas Grandes. During 1030-1060 Casas Grandes in modern Mexico was rising to power. It quickly became a major trading hub and began to spread its influence. It is possible that this new competitor that was closer to Mesoamerica was too hard for Chaco Canyon or the Mimbres to compete with, causing their systems to collapse. Shortly after the disappearance of the Mimbres people the Casas Grandes aligned Black Mountain people appear in the southern reaches of the Mimbres Valley. These could be the remnants of the Mimbres People, having been forced to assimilate into the Casas Grandes system.
As for the greater Mogollon world, during the 1200s, the Mogollon would move into Cliff dwellings, such as the Gila Cliff Dwelling, like the Ancestral Puebloans to the north. However by the 1500s, the Mogollon had collapsed and it is believed they migrated to the Pueblos.
They were also quite an advanced society, much like the Ancestral Puebloans, they have found evidence at places like Casas Grandes of calendars. Slots would line up with the sun at specific times of the year, in a form of calendar.