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“The Mimbres”

by M. H. Salmon

This is the story of one man’s 200-mile wilderness journey down the Gila River of New Mexico and Arizona. The author, M. H. Salmon, travels partly on foot but mostly by canoe. Salmon calls the Gila “the last mainstem, free-flowing river in New Mexico.” In this excerpt, the writer reflects on the Mimbres people, who lived in this section of Gila River country many centuries ago.

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They had come into these valleys as tattered bands just ages ago. They were afoot, the entirety of the forced simplicity of their lives contained in the packs on their backs. And they had, most likely, come up from the south, off the harsh deserts of what we know as Mexico, and finding slender runs of clear perennial water coming off the mountains to the north, they settled into the valleys along the various streams where they had water and threads of level land for crops and yet could reach either the deserts or the mountains in a day's hunt.

It must have seemed a glory of a find. For here between mountain and desert was a measure of land without great cold and yet relieved of great heat. Four gentle seasons invigorated by mile-high elevation, healthy breezes, and a bracing arid climate, where nonetheless water flowed for every need. They prospered in ways beyond any previous imagination. Each generation was gradually more numerous than the last, until their villages dotted the prime lands along the available streams. And each generation was better fed, housed, and clothed. In time only campfire narratives, spoken by the Old Ones and passed down from the Ancients, could remind them of the hard scrabble in a harsher land and time.

Petroglyph of Running Figure, Eastern Galisteo Basin, New Mexico“Petroglyph of Running Figure, Eastern Galisteo Basin, New Mexico,” David Grant Noble (Photographer)

Geological time would hardly mark their passing. By our time they lived a thousand years. And near the end, an end they could hardly see coming, a modicum of primitive leisure (and the primitives, it seems, had a good deal more leisure than ourselves) and a verdant land and life yielded a generation or two of dreamers, the artists of their time. With a written language they would have left a great literature. But they could only scratch on chosen walls of native rock, and with home-made paints mark on their pots and bowls of fired soil, and there they made an art both crude and timeless, at once the sublime and the ridiculous; the mundane, and the pyramids of perception. Art of power and sadness, and death and fun; of satire and lust; of love and birth and the creatures with whom they shared the chain of life. With their art they would reach everything, from the raunch of pornography to the mysteries of the cosmos.

And then, in another generation or two, they were gone. Many died. Those who lived gradually dispersed. The vegas and stream courses were left empty of humankind. Only featureless trails led away…to where? Among the artists, priests, and the Old Ones there must have some who understood what had gone wrong. But it was too late; change couldn't help them now and not even the spirits could save them. With a written language they would have left a great story for us to read. But they were artists who could only scratch on native rock and mark on fired soil with natural paints. Perhaps some of the answers lie there.

And indeed, despite the pillage and plunder of bulldozing pothunters, a number of Mimbres sites have been carefully excavated and studied, and works of art recovered and studied, and much has been learned. We have learned to discredit two myths concerning the decline of the Mimbres; that their disappearance was caused by drouth, or the victories of rival tribes.

While a severe drouth did engulf southwest New Mexico for several decades in the late twelfth century, the Mimbres were already in severe decline before the drouth hit; the lack of rain merely exacerbated their problems and accelerated their demise. And the Mimbres were long gone centuries before the marauding Apaches came into the region.

Recent studies indicate a more mundane yet more plausible reason for the disappearance of a people—they overpopulated their range. It is estimated that at the height of their culture there were in excess of 5,000 Mimbres living in the Mimbres Valley alone, with proportional population growth along other rivers and streams. They killed off the game and used up the wood and timber within their range of practical use. Intensive irrigation agriculture, without rest, rotation, or sustainable cropping, eventually burnt out and spoilt the soil. They overpopulated their range, and were killed off or driven out by their very success. Some of the stress and desperation of this decline is visible in some of the art they left behind, wherein intertribal strife depicts an increasingly desperate people.