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Letter from Chihuahua

Cliff Dwellers of the Sierra Madre

A recurring design motif found in northern Mexico’s ancient mountain villages reflects complex cultural ties between distant peoples

March/April 2021

Chihuahua Dwellings Las VentanasStephen H. Lekson is a curator emeritus of archaeology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and has excavated in the American Southwest for almost 50 years. He first contributed to ARCHAEOLOGY in 1990. Among his articles is “Rewriting Southwestern Prehistory” (1997), in which he first articulated the novel “Chaco Meridian” theory, which holds that successive regional capitals in the Southwest were established in relation to one another according to precise geographic coordinates. Here, Lekson tells the story of his latest visit to the Chaco Meridian’s southernmost end.


Chihuahua MapOutside the town of Madera in the Sierra Madre, some 130 miles west of Chihuahua City in northern Mexico, canyons cut deep into the mountains. Here, in caves and alcoves and on ledges high up the canyon cliffs, the white walls of ancient dwellings stand out against green scrub. Like the cliff dwellings of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, those in the Sierra Madre made up small villages peripheral to a great political center. For the villages of Mesa Verde, that center was the site of Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico; for those in the Sierra Madre, it was Paquimé, a city that lay some 60 miles to the north in the plains that lie east of the mountains. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Paquimé, also known as Casas Grandes, was ruled by people who held sway over a region about half the size of Ohio. The cliff dwellers of the Sierra Madre lived on the western fringes of that expansive territory.


In a cave near the head of one these long canyons is a cliff dwelling called Las Ventanas, or The Windows, named for the many tiny fenestrations of one of its 30 rooms. The site is at the center of a cluster of cliff dwellings together called Cuarenta Casas, or Forty Houses. Las Ventanas is the largest of that group, and one of the largest ever built in the Sierra Madre. In places it was two stories tall, the second-story walls reaching the cave’s roof. Where the second-story walls have collapsed, their outlines remain on the smoke-blackened ceiling, like ghostly negative wall plans. Like most Sierra Madre cliff dwellings, Las Ventanas is constructed of adobe, which is made by pouring mud into plank frames and ramming it into wide courses. The builders repeated the process to raise each story’s walls five or six feet high. Many of these dwellings feature large, T-shaped doors, unusual portals to which their builders may have ascribed ideological or political importance, and whose possible significance drew me to the Sierra Madre.