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Where the Rivers Run North

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 1-5 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0009

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Most attempts to bring Northwest Mexico and the American Southwest together into a recognizable whole are confounded by the complexity of these two regions (Byrkit 1992). Part of the problem stems from an arbitrary boundary that splits what would otherwise be a single geographic province into "Mexico" on the south and the "United States" on the north. Numerous names have been offered to denote the area, particularly the land that lies between the Santa Cruz River in Arizona and the Rio Grande in Texas. It has been called the Gran Chichimeca, the Southwest, Northwest Mexico, the Other Southwest, the Greater Southwest, Arid America, Oasis America, Cultura Mogollon, the Borderlands, and even Aztlán. Each term can be defined with some degree of precision, but the characterizations often cloak cultural differences and, in the worst of cases, can be offensive. And yet this region has always been a migratory corridor: a natural flyway for birds moving south in the winter and back north in the summer along watercourses that flow from south to north, connecting the diverse habitats of the mountains and plains into a transitional mixing zone where ecology and history have played out for thousands of years.

Human populations have ebbed and flowed across this present-day international border for millennia. The land itself experienced early human history with the arrival of Paleo-Indians most likely following herds of now-extinct horses or mammoths with throwing spears 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. As early as 4000 bp, the "three sisters" of domestication—corn, beans, and squash—arrived in this borderland via migration from the highlands of western Mexico. With the beginnings of agriculture, human populations grew in numbers, and there is strong evidence of a corresponding movement of people shifting north from central Mexico and south from New Mexico and Arizona, carrying with them products of trade: turquoise, salt, parrot feathers, copper bells, seashells, and ceramics, along with novel agricultural techniques and new ideas for social organization and architecture.

This geographical territory has sometimes been a refuge but more often, it seems, a battlefield. In recent history, northern Chihuahua became a haven for Mormons and Mennonites seeking refuge from religious persecution, but archaeological evidence points out that it has often been a place of great danger. According to one controversial theory, put forth by archaeologist Charles Di Peso (1974), the inhabitants of the prehistoric city at Paquimé, on the outskirts of present-day Casas Grandes, were murdered and their city burned. The Spanish conquistadors established missions and garrisons in the area, but were chased out by well-organized local Indians, the Sumas and Janos, and kept out for hundreds of years. Modern Mexicans attempted to settle the region in the 1800s but were harassed by Comanches and Apaches from the north and east. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, scores of people on both sides of the border found themselves in a firefight of one kind or another. Even today, competing drug cartels imprint violence on the region as they seek to control the movement of narcotics north and guns and money south: a new version of commerce across this contested ground.

Di Peso's premise states that Toltec Pochteca traders from the central highlands of Mexico traveled north and settled this region as a commercial trading center. New research, however, suggests a different picture. As the area began to dry out around the mid-1100s with the arrival of the global Medieval Drought (which lasted around sixty years), people in present-day northern New Mexico moved south into the valleys of the Rio Grande, the Gila and Salt Rivers, and the Río Casas Grandes and its tributaries in northern Chihuahua. A controversial theory by archaeologist Stephen Lekson (1999) suggests that Ancestral Pueblos traveled south during the drought into the Casas Grandes Valley, where they ultimately settled the city of Paquimé and shaped the Casas Grandes Culture. But archaeological work by Whalen and Minnis (2001) suggests that the development of the Casas Grandes Culture didn't depend on immigration alone. Instead, it may have been an outgrowth of local population increase due to innovations in agriculture and diet.

The Casas Grandes Valley rests like an...

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