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The Jornada Mogollon: Shedding New Light on an Ancient Chihuahuan Desert Civilization

Texas Parks & Wildlife photograph. The painted images at Hueco Tanks, near El Paso, are one of the most striking legacies of the Jornada Mogollon civilization. Archeologists are gaining new insights into this society, which, for at least 1,000 years, flourished in the desert-mountain country of present-day West Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua.

In the last pages of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator, imagines North America as first seen through European eyes. For a moment, he imagines, that early sailor “must have held his breath in the presence of this continent... face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Central to that wonder was the land as blank slate, without history – “a fresh, green breast of the new world,” in Fitzgerald's words. Yet that story was never accurate. People have thrived in every part of the Americas for more than 10,000 years.

West Texas is no exception. Diverse societies have developed, flourished and faded here. One of those societies is known as the Jornada Mogollon. Archeologists are gaining new insights into this Chihuahuan Desert culture.

Myles Miller has spent decades researching the Jornada Mogollon. The society – which built pithouse villages, and, later, adobe pueblos – stretched from the Guadalupe Mountains to present-day southern New Mexico and Chihuahua. It's been little-studied, but Miller's work is filling in the story.

“It tends to get ignored by the academic community,” Miller said. “When they do know something, they really don't know the literature, and they just assume that Jornada was kind of backwards. But in studying it for 30-plus years, it's become evident they had a very stable culture.”

The Jornada had wide-ranging trade ties – including with the Mimbres society of central New Mexico, famous for its black-on-white pottery, and, later, with the urban center of Casas Grandes in Chihuahua. Archeologists have assumed the Jornada were indebted to these more “sophisticated” societies for their culture. But Miller finds that central elements of Jornada identity predated, and outlasted, those societies.

That identity was intimately tied to the landscape in which the people lived.

“The Jornada carried on with a deep structural view of their relation to the natural environment,” Miller said, “with ancestors originating in mountains and caves in the landscape around them. We see that in these shrine caves. We see it in the iconography of what is painted on pottery, in the rock art and on prayer sticks left in ritual caves.”

The concept of caves as places of origin – and as portals to the sacred world – is widespread in the Southwest and Mexico. But one of the earliest known shrine caves is just east of El Paso – a site called Ceremonial Cave.

Evidence suggests it was a pilgrimage site for at least 2,000 years, and distinctive Jornada artifacts – “goggle-eyed” figures painted on flattened sotol stalks, painted masks like those at Hueco Tanks – date back to 600 CE. 

The desert-mountains we admire today were sacred for the Jornada. Shrines are found on mountain peaks, and in places with striking mountain views.

Then there is a phenomenon Miller refers to as “pieces of place.” In excavations, Miller finds objects from mountains and caves – crystals and fossils, stalagmites and stalactites – in the foundations of homes.

“So they would break off pieces of speleothem,” Miller said, “or they would bring quartz crystals gathered in these places, and they would bring them back to their settlements, because those things were imbued with the powerful essence of those sacred landscapes.”

Hueco Tanks is perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the Jornada. In volcanic mountains near El Paso, thousands of images are painted in shallow caves. Some resonate with traditions from central Mexico, and archeologists long believed they'd been transmitted to the Jornada via Casas Grandes, around 1200 CE. Yet images here have recently been dated to 600 CE. 

Rather than being influenced by other societies, Miller said, the Jornada likely shared a “reservoir” of beliefs and ideas with those cultures. Those shared beliefs found unique expressions in diverse societies.

Jornada society endured – even as more “complex” or hierarchical cultures like Mimbres and Casas Grandes collapsed. Yet around 1450, Jornada communities were abandoned.

What became of the people is debated. The ideas persist – the Tigua of El Paso, for example, regard a West Texas mountain as the origin place of their people.

And on the West Texas landscape, the Jornada presence remains – in fragments of pottery, in chipped stone from tool-making, in agave-roasting pits and remnants of villages. 

It's a reminder of a society that, for at least 1,000 years, belonged in, and to, the Chihuahuan Desert.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.