Subscribe to Archaeology

Searching for the Comanche Empire

In a deep gorge in New Mexico, archaeologists have discovered a unique site that tells the story of a nomadic confederacy's rise to power in the heart of North America

May/June 2014



They called themselves Numunu, “the people,” and for centuries they had been hunter-gatherers living in small camps in the Rocky Mountains. But sometime before 1701, when they were first documented by the French on a map of the High Plains, the Numunu left the mountains and encountered horses, possibly trading for them with their linguistic cousins, the Ute, or the Pueblo people of northern New Mexico. By the mid-eighteenth century, they were known as Comanche, a name derived from the Ute word for “anyone who wants to fight me all the time,” and, on the strength of their unparalleled equestrian skills, they were well on their way to being the dominant Indian nation of the American West. Among the most feared mounted warriors in history, the Comanche forged a nomadic culture that served as a model for other Plains Indians. They ranged from Canada all the way to central Mexico, and carved out a homeland that would come to be known as Comanchería, which included much of modern-day Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, and which endured until the mid-nineteenth century.


Until now, despite the fact that they controlled a vast amount of territory for almost two centuries, and at one point numbered some 40,000 strong, the Comanche have been virtually ignored by archaeologists. “We thought the Comanche had a culture designed to be invisible and to escape detection,” says Barnard College archaeologist Severin Fowles. “If they made camps that they could strike so that no trace remained for the U.S. cavalry to find a few days later, what hope could archaeologists have of finding them more than 200 years later?” But the recent identification of previously unknown panels of rock art at a Comanche encampment in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Gorge is challenging the idea that they left no physical traces behind.


The discovery coincides with the rise of a new generation of historians, who, together with the Comanche themselves, are rereading colonial records and putting together a revised account of Comanche history. This new view contradicts the image of the Comanche in the popular imagination, which casts them as the most brutally savage of the Plains Indians, whose relentless raiding stalled the expansion of the U.S. frontier for decades. In the new, more nuanced approach to Comanche history, the “Lords of the Southern Plains” are emerging instead as skilled tacticians and diplomats capable of mustering thousands of warriors at one time to advance their political and economic interests.



Online Exclusive:
Rock Art of Comanche Warriors



Recent Issues