Cochise Culture Thrives in American Southwest

The Cochise culture of Arizona and New Mexico marked a significant advance in technology and lifestyle over the previous Desert culture.

Summary of Event

The various prehistoric periods in the New World began and ended at different times in different locations. Moreover, most human remains and ancient artifacts have disappeared, with but a few scattered human bones, stone articles, and pottery fragments remaining. There are two principal scientific techniques for dating ancient artifacts: dendrochronology, which is the study of tree ring growth in wood samples, and radiocarbon dating, which measures the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon 14 in organic material. Both these methods, however, are subject to a certain margin of error, which increases over time. Therefore, the categories and dates that have been developed by scholarly research provide only a general structure for the study of the prehistoric cultures of the New World.

Archaeologists have proposed that the Paleo-Indian period of the Pleistocene era began evolving into the Archaic period sometime around 9000 to 8000 b.c.e., reaching its height from 5000 to 1000 b.c.e. There were five major Archaic cultures: the Old Cordilleran in the Pacific Northwest; the Old Copper culture in the Great Lakes region; the Red Paint People in New England and eastern Canada; the Desert culture in the Great Basin region of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona; and the Cochise culture, which evolved from the Desert culture and was centered in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Paleo-Indians of New Mexico and Arizona relied on big-game hunting and gathering wild fruits and grains for subsistence. When the mammoths, horses, camels, bison, and giant ground sloths that once found forage in the rich grasslands of the area disappeared because of the climatic change at the end of the Pleistocene period, the Archaic people of the Desert culture hunted smaller game such as turkey, rabbits, and deer, while continuing to harvest wild fruits and grains. In Danger Cave, one of the major sites of the Desert culture, archaeologists have found small stone points for hunting small animals as well as baskets woven from plant fiber. They also found millstones used to grind wild seeds and nuts into flour, which formed the basis for an unleavened bread that was cooked in a shallow basket placed on hot stones.

The first evidence of the Cochise culture was found in 1926 near the town of Cochise, Arizona, named for the nineteenth century chief of the Chiricahua Apaches. Carbon-14 testing dated artifacts found there to about 9000 b.c.e. Small stone points, baskets, and millstones similar to those from Danger Cave were found at this site. These millstones are called manos and metates and are similar to a mortar and pestle; the metate is a flat stone with a depression in the center, while the mano is a round grinding stone held in the hand. In early Sulphur Springs and Chiricahua phases of their development, the Cochise were not yet farmers. Several millennia later, however, at Bat Cave, a site in west-central New Mexico dating from about 3500 b.c.e., archaeologists discovered a number of corncobs, almost 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in length, from a cultivated primitive species. This indicates that the Cochise people, in the third or San Pedro phase of their development, had acquired the concept of planting crops for food rather than relying on gathering. From the cultures to the south, in Mexico, the Cochise also learned to grow squash and beans.

At this stage, the Cochise people also began building shallow pit houses, which were pits dug into the ground and roofed over with twigs and small branches. They continued to weave baskets from willow, yucca, and agave fibers, and they began to make small, crudely shaped clay figurines and vessels, which were fired in open-pit fires. Scholars have also determined that the Cochise imported shells from the Pacific coast.


As the big-game hunters of the Paleo-Indian cultures vanished along with their quarry, the Cochise people learned to hunt smaller game and, more important, began to cultivate crops. About the same time, they also began to make pottery. This introduction of agriculture and pottery into the area north of Mexico, along with the building of simple shelters, also prompted the appearance of semipermanent villages, which resulted in the creation of more complicated social patterns. One of the most significant legacies of the Cochise culture was the cultivation of corn, which not only provided a stable food supply but also often produced a surplus for trade. All these developments influenced the Southwest cultures in the Formative period (1000 b.c.e. to 1500 c.e.), the most organized and prominent of which were the Mogollon (direct descendants of the Cochise), Hohokam, and Anasazi. These three cultures, shaped by agriculture, developed a village lifestyle that led to the further development of tools, arts, and crafts, especially basketry and pottery.

Further Reading

  • Dick, Herbert W. Bat Cave. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research, 1965. Archaeological report on a significant Cochise culture site.
  • Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. Native Peoples of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. A comprehensive account of modern Native American groups, with particular attention to ways in which they continue cultural traditions inherited from their ancient ancestors.
  • Jennings, Jesse D. Danger Cave. Reprint. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999. The excavation report for one of the important Cochise culture sites, first published in 1957. Long renowned as a model of well-controlled archaeological excavation in difficult circumstances.
  • Sayles, E. R. The Cochise Cultural Sequence in Southeastern Arizona. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1983. A good survey of the culture and its archaeological remains.
  • Stuart, David, and Rory Gauthier. Prehistoric New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. A profusely illustrated account of the New Mexico Historic Preservation Program’s efforts to identify and evaluate the state’s prehistoric resources.