The Mimbres Culture

Looking out from inside one of the caves where the Mimbres built their homes a thousand years ago
Possibly the most famous, best preserved and most accessible Mimbres Mogollon site:
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
View of a typical Mimbres pottery bowl
Mimbres bowl with rabbit design

The Mimbres Culture was a local development of the general Mogollon Culture. "Mogollon Culture" is a loose term applied to any of the people who were living in the environs of the Mogollon Rim from about 200 BCE up to the time of the Spanish arrival.

The Mogollon Rim extends from southwestern New Mexico northwestward to west of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It marks the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, a large block of land around the Four Corners area that was pushed up by geologic forces about 65 million years ago. In some areas, the difference in elevation between the edge of the Rim and the desert floor below is 2,000 feet.

The Mimbres people were centered around the Mimbres Valley in southern New Mexico. The Mimbres area includes the upper Gila and San Francisco River basins in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. It also extends eastward to the Rio Grande and its western tributaries in southwestern New Mexico.

While the Mogollon Culture spanned more than a thousand years, the Mimbres Culture seems to have spanned the time period between 825 and 1450 CE with the most developed phase being between 1000 and 1150 CE.

From about 825 to 1000 CE the Mimbres developed distinctive pithouse villages. Houses were generally rectangular with sharp corners, well-plastered walls and hardened floors. They averaged about 180 square feet in size. Subterranean kivas were well developed and often included ceremonial features like foot drums. Pottery was already well developed and included early forms of Mimbres black-on-white ("boldface") designs, red-on-cream designs and textured plain wares. Archaeologists feel their pottery was an extension of earlier Cibola ceramics from north and west of the Gila Mountains.

Something happened around 900 CE that almost overnight caused the Mimbres to burn their ceremonial constructions in spectacular conflagrations. After that it appears their social and spiritual practices changed and ceremonial constructions evolved to be more above ground.

The Mimbres Culture was a contemporary of the Chaco Culture to the north. Both built structures of stone but the Chacoans built up while the Mogollon built out. The Chacoans built round ceremonial structures below ground while the Mogollon built their rectangular ceremonial structures above ground. When it comes to the decorations on their pottery, both had a problem with colors that wouldn't survive the firing or any utilitarian use afterwards. That was a primary characteristic of the Cibola wares archaeologists feel were the precursors of all Puebloan ceramics: black decorations on a smoothed white base.

The Mimbres Valley was cut by the Mimbres River which flowed south and southwest until it sank into the desert sand not far from the mountains it originated in. The stream hasn't drained to anything that reaches the sea in thousands of years, if ever. Because of that fact, there have never been any fish in the Mimbres River. However, the fish is probably the single most painted design on all Mimbres pottery that has been found. And the fish always have four legs (like the modern avanyu of the northern Rio Grande Pueblos).

View of a Mimbres bowl
A Mimbres bowl with a hachure
and geometric design

The Classical Mimbres Phase lasted from about 1000 CE to about 1150 CE and was marked by ever larger stone masonry pueblo constructions with clusters of roomblocks (some containing as many as 150 rooms) centered around an open plaza. Quite often each roomblock had its own ceremonial rooms.

Kivas tended to be smaller and became square or rectangular in contrast to other Ancient Puebloan circular designs. The largest Classical Mimbres sites are also located just above wide flood plains where regular water flows were able to support the level of agriculture they needed to support their population. There were smaller villages upland.

The Tularosa Phase lasted from about 1150 to about 1450 CE and is marked by the advent of cliff dwellings and the abandonment of the larger pueblo structures. Most of the Mimbres Valley was abandoned with some people headed south and others north, east and west.

For many years it was thought the Mimbres simply disappeared but further research has turned up evidence that they migrated to nearby areas and merged into the local societies there. Some went north to the area west of Truth or Consequences, some into the Tularosa Basin, some to the Rio Salado area. Some groups then moved further to Acoma, Laguna and Isleta while those in the Rio Salado area migrated to the areas of Zuni and Hopi.

Most people associate "Mimbres" with Mimbres pottery, a highly developed and distinctive ceramic form. The pottery produced in the Mimbres region was often in the form of finely painted bowls, distinct in style and decorated with geometric designs and stylized paintings of animals, people and cultural icons in a black paint on a white background. These images often suggest familiarity and relationships with other cultures in northern and central Mexico. The elaborate decoration also indicates the people enjoyed a rich ceremonial life.

A typical Mimbres bowl from the Classical Period
A Mimbres bowl with fine line,
geometric and stylized fish designs

Early Mimbres black-on-white pottery, called Boldface Black-on-White (now called Mimbres Style I), is primarily characterized by bold geometric designs with a few early examples of stylized human and animal figures. Over the years, both geometric and figurative designs became increasingly sophisticated and diverse.

Classic Mimbres Black-on-White pottery (Style III) is characterized by elaborate geometric designs and very refined brushwork (including very fine linework). The pottery often included figures of one or more animals, humans, or other stylized images bounded by simple rim bands or by geometric decorations. Bird figures are prominent on Mimbres pots, including images of turkeys feeding on insects and birds being trapped in a garden. Images of fish are also common.

The fine line design in the upper part of the bowl in the final photo has been traced as far back as a petroglyph in Oregon done by an Archaic Paiute artist about 4,000 years ago.

Should you learn a bit about Mimbres mythology, you'd see the designs all tell stories from their oral history. Many of those stories are still told among the Rio Grande Pueblos, many of those designs decorate pottery made today.

Mimbres bowls are often found in burial sites, usually with a spirit hole punched out in the center. Most commonly Mimbres bowls have been found covering the face of a buried person. Wear marks found on the insides of the bowls show they were used in real life situations and not just produced as burial items.

Photos are in the public domain