Mogollon Culture Rises in American Southwest

Mogollon culture formed part of the early Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest, influenced other regional cultures, and later merged with the Anasazi.

Summary of Event

Mogollon culture evolved from the earlier Cochise culture, an adaptation of the widespread Desert culture of the Great Basin, which dated to 6000 or 5000 b.c.e. The Mogollon culture, which has been identified largely by the use of pit houses and brown and dark red pottery, was located in an area bordered by the Verde River on the west, the Little Colorado River on the north, the Pecos River on the east, and the Chihuahua Desert on the south. This area can be subdivided into two areas, a northern or mountainous region and a southern or valley region, which represent both topographical and cultural differences. The southern Mogollon encompasses the Mimbres branch, which is renowned for its fine pottery.

The Mogollon culture inhabited the Gila cliff dwellings near modern-day Silver City, New Mexico.

(Mark Nohl/courtesy New Mexico Magazine)

Until the 1930’s, the Mogollon were not generally recognized as a separate culture from the neighboring Anasazi to the north and Hohokam to the south and west. The name Mogollon was first used by Emil Haury in 1936, after he had successfully argued for recognizing them as a separate people. The name derived from the Mogollon mountains of central Arizona and New Mexico, which had been named for an eighteenth century governor of New Mexico.

Archaeologists now recognize four distinctive prehistoric civilizations in the southwest: Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, and Patayan, all of which have been referred to as Pueblo, which is the Spanish word for “village.” The earliest Mogollon villages were generally composed of roundish or irregularly shaped pit houses ranging in number from four or five to fifty or more. These dwellings consisted of an excavated pit with a depth of 2 to 5 feet (0.6 to 1.5 meters) and a diameter of 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) covered by a roof made of poles, brush, and mud. The roofs were most often of the umbrella type: one central post with smaller poles coming from it. However, roofs were sometimes constructed using four posts set in a square. Hearths and storage pits were located in or near the house. The entrance, which usually faced the east or southeast, varied in length. The overall effect resembled an igloo.

Most villages contained one or more ceremonial structures, known as kivas, which were larger than the dwellings. The overall construction of villages does not appear to have followed any plan but was rather haphazard. The earliest villages were usually located on high mesas, bluffs, or ridges, which made them easier to defend against raids by hunting-gathering peoples who coveted their food supplies. Later villages were built in valleys or plains near rivers or streams. While less defensible, these locations provided more favorable conditions for farming. There is speculation that the earliest villages were not permanently occupied but were used only seasonally, possibly in the colder months. During the warmer months, after crops were planted, groups may have disbursed to hunt and gather provisions for the winter. As farming began to provide a larger portion of their diet, this situation changed and hunting-and-gathering activities decreased accordingly. This change affected not only the location of villages but also the duration of their occupancy and the size of the dwellings.

It is generally agreed that farming and pottery were the result of diffusion from Mesoamerica. By around 2000-1500 b.c.e. maize, squash, and beans had been introduced into the Southwest from Mexico. These became important in supplementing the diet of the Mogollon, who were still basically a hunting-gathering people. The diet consisted of roots, nuts, seeds, berries, yucca, cactus, sunflowers, insects, small game, deer, and bison. The archaeological sites of Tularosa and Bat Cave in New Mexico have provided information on Mogollon diet.

The relative importance of the different components of the diet is reflected in the frequency with which metates, or grinding stones, and manos, or hand stones, were fashioned. Additional artifacts include polishing stones, grooved mauls, hammer stones, axes, scrappers, choppers, knives, projectile points and tubular pipers. Bone tools include awls, needles, skewers, flakers, fleshers, tubes, and whistles. In general, the tools were more crudely made than those of other contemporary cultures.

The earliest Mogollon pottery was plain, polished brown or dark red. This style of pottery continued throughout Mogollon history, although later other styles were added. Pottery appeared around 500 b.c.e. in the San Simon drainage in Arizona and is believed to have a Mexican influence. Most pots were coiled but some were molded by hand.


At the height of its prehistoric development, Southwest civilization was characterized by villages composed of pit houses, horticulture using dry or irrigation techniques, cultivation of maize, squash, beans, and tobacco, hunting and gathering of wild foods, domestication of dogs and turkeys, pottery, and fashioning of stone, bone, and shell artifacts. Overall, the Mogollon culture changed very slowly compared with many other indigenous cultures, and it is not known whether the same language was spoken throughout the region or if they considered themselves to be one people.

Further Reading

  • Cordell, Linda. Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1994. A brief cultural history and description of the various civilizations referred to as Pueblo.
  • Plog, Stephen. Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. A discussion of the various cultures which inhabited the Southwest from prehistoric to modern times. Contains numerous maps, drawings, and photographs.
  • Reid, Jefferson, and Stephanie Whittlesey. Grasshopper Pueblo: A Story of Archaeology and Ancient Life. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Uses a single Mogollon site as the starting point for a general overview of the culture. A good introductory work for the nonspecialist.
  • Riggs, Charles R. The Architecture of Grasshopper Pueblo. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001. Focuses on the building techniques and architectural environment of the Mogollon.