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Visiting Paquime, the Prehistoric “Water City” of the Chihuahuan Desert

photograph by Christopher Hillen. Less than 200 miles southwest of El Paso, Paquime, or Casas Grandes, is the largest city center known from the prehistoric North American deserts. Thousands lived here in multi-story adobe apartments, marshaling the waters of nearby rivers and springs in an urban oasis.

“There are many houses of great size, strength and height,” the Spanish chronicler Baltasar Obregon wrote in the 1560s. “They are six and seven stories, with towers and walls like fortresses.” “The houses contain large and magnificent patios paved with enormous and beautiful stones,” he wrote, with “walls whitewashed and painted in many colors and shades with pictures.”

This was Casas Grandes, or Paquime. Thousands lived in this desert city only a century before the Spanish arrived. A three-and-a-half-hour drive from El Paso, 250 miles due west of Marfa, Paquime is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To visit this site in Chihuahua, Mexico is thrilling. Here, the region's prehistoric people built a thriving city – rooted in ancient desert traditions, and connected to cultures far afield.  

Located near the modern city of Nuevo Casas Grandes, Paquime is surrounded by Chihuahuan Desert grasslands and volcanic hills and mountains. Paquime and Marfa are at almost precisely the same elevation, and a West Texas visitor could easily imagine they were on the Marfa Plateau, at the foothills of the Davis Mountains.

But there's an important difference. The great range of the Sierra Madre Occidental rises just 25 miles west of Paquime. Flowing from the mountains, two perennial streams join here to form the Casas Grandes River. The people of Paquime were able to marshal these waters, as well as those of a prolific nearby spring, for an urban oasis. There were reservoirs and canals to convey drinking water, as well as fields of corn, beans, squash and other crops. 

The city flourished between about 1200 and 1450 CE.

Dr. Michael Searcy is an archeologist at Brigham Young University who's worked at Paquime for 15 years.

“It was probably a site to see as a prehistoric person walking across the desert and coming into this water city,” Searcy said, “where people were able to harness the power of that water and create this thriving city. It's just absolutely incredible what there is to see if you can make it.”

Paquime is a superlative site. It's the largest city center known from the prehistoric North American deserts – population estimates range from 2,000 to 10,000 people. But, compared to, say, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, it's been little studied. Mexican archeologists have been focused farther south, on Toltec, Aztec and Mayan sites. And most U.S. archeologists work north of the border. Until recently, there was a single archeologist in Chihuahua – compared to a hundred in Arizona alone.

Pioneering excavations were done here in the 50s, led by U.S. archeologist Charles Di Peso and Mexican archeologist Eduardo Contreras Sanchez. Four centuries after Obregon's visit, Paquime's painted walls, pillars and multi-story apartments had been reduced to tall mounds of earth. Di Peso's team excavated only a portion of the site – three-quarters of the city remains buried. But what they found was dazzling. Visitors can walk amidst these excavated ruins – and enter another world.

The mystery and paradox of Paquime is evident right away.

“And one of the first things you pass is the farthest north Mesoamerican-style I-shaped ball court in all of Mexico,” Searcy said, “and as you pass by that you'll pass by these massive pit ovens, in which we think agave hearts were roasted.”

Chihuahuan Desert peoples have roasted agave hearts for at least 11,000 years – converting the otherwise inedible plants into sweet food, and, at times, fermented drink. At Paquime, this ancient tradition continued – at a monumental scale. 

The rock-lined pit oven that visitors see here – one of five that were excavated – could have cooked up to 6,000 lbs of agave. These great roasting pits were almost certainly central to the city's ceremonial life.

While the earth ovens speak of local continuity, the I-shaped ball courts tell another story. The courts mirror structures found in what's now southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. The Spanish observed the ball game among the Maya – players used their hips, shoulders, knees and elbows to put a rubber ball through a hoop. The games had a high-stakes, ritual dimension – losers might be sacrificed. There is a human burial at the center of one of Paquime's ball courts.

The connections to what's now southern Mexico are also apparent in one of Paquime's most remarkable features: its bird breeding pens.

The brightly colored feathers of scarlet and military macaws – large tropical parrots – were important in ritual life in the Southwest for centuries. But the Paquimeans didn't just import tropical parrots – they bred them. Visitors see rows of their adobe bird pens – water was directed through them, to maintain the humid conditions the birds needed. 

Other features speak to Paquime's role as a ceremonial center. Visitors pass multiple “effigy mounds,” fashioned of earth and masonry. There's the Mound of the Cross. It's thought to have been a solar observatory, for tracking the solstices and equinoxes. Seventy-five-by-50-feet, The Mound of the Bird depicts a parrot with its head cut off, suggesting sacrificial rites. Then there's the Mound of the Serpent. The horned or feathered serpent was an important image across prehistoric North America. The Paquimeans created an effigy of this figure – more than 100 yards long. Visitors can walk its length, and see its horned head, and stone eye.

Throughout, one passes amidst the remains of the city's great earthen architecture – elaborate networks of rooms and walls. These include the largest adobe structures in the prehistoric Americas.

Then there are the artifacts. Adjacent to the site, the Museum of the Cultures of the North testifies to the richness of this Chihuahuan Desert culture. There's shell jewelry – the Paquimeans imported marine shell from the Pacific Coast, 250 miles across the rugged Sierra. There's the distinctive and justly famous Casas Grandes pottery – ornately painted vessels, and ceramic sculptures of desert animals, of pregnant women, of men, some smoking pipes.

Agricultural surplus likely fueled Paquime's accomplishments. But throughout human history, surplus has usually meant haves, and have-nots. And hierarchy has its dark side. At one burial here, an apparently elite individual was buried – along with sacrificial victims.

Much about Paquime will always be mysterious. But Searcy and his colleagues are planning extensive new research – which promises to transform archeological understanding.

“We've got a lot more dirt to move,” Searcy said. “We've definitely barely scratched the surface in comparison to other places in the greater Southwest and northwest Mexico. We're going to be able to rewrite the story of Paquime in the next 10 to 15 years, I think.”

There's no doubt the prehistoric people of what's now West Texas were connected to Paquime. The city imported pottery made near present-day El Paso. Paquime's stunning ceramics are found, in abundance, in the Big Bend. And new DNA research proves that prehistoric West Texans had close kin in the desert city.

Paquime is oriented toward visitation, and veteran archeologists say those who stay in tourist-oriented areas can travel there safely. It's an unparalleled encounter with our region's prehistoric past.

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