Ghosts of the Past: Marine Fish on Mimbres Pottery

Porpoise on Mimbres Bowl from the  Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, New Mexico

In the far southwestern corner of New Mexico is a treasure. The Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, housed in the 1916 Armory Building, has collections that include a lot of just about everything. Who knew someone collected buttonhooks and that they could be so interesting? This is the thing about the museum: it’s easy to get distracted.

I visited on a windy, cold, spring day last week with pretty much one goal in mind. I’d heard about their collection of Mimbres artifacts and, as an archeologist, I just couldn’t resist an exhibit like that. I got a bit lost in the doll collection (there wasn’t a way out), wandered past cabinets of porcelain and fine china, meandered down a narrow hall, and then took a left into a room of wonders. Glass cases held ceramic bowls, pots, and bean jars of all shapes and sizes, trays of tiny beads, arrowpoints, bone tools, and fragile cord used for snare traps. I made the rounds, once, twice, and then just stood there, listening to the stories whispered by the pots.

The Mimbres Room, Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, New Mexico

The Mimbres people lived in the Mimbres River valley of southwestern New Mexico. For about 200 years (between AD 950 and 1150) they produced distinctive black-on-white pottery that told the story of their lives—men setting snares and carrying rabbit sticks, women giving birth, and people swimming with a school of fish. Many of the bowls have a single animal carefully painted on the bottom: a frog, bird, pronghorn antelope, or fish.

At first, you think that the animals are simply abstractions, the essence of the animal. But when you look closer, you begin to notice details and you eventually realize that the little fat bird with the tear-drop shaped circle around its eye must be a Montezuma Quail. Which is interesting, because Montezuma Quail don’t occur in that region today. But neither do the fish.

Quail BowlMontezuma Quail

Stephen Jett, a geographer from the University of California, Davis and his colleague Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist, got interested in the fish represented on Mimbres pots and wrote a paper titled “The Exotic Origins of Fishes Depicted on Prehistoric Mimbres Pottery from New Mexico” (American Antiquities 51(4), 1986, pp 688-720).

About 11% of the animals shown on Mimbres pots are fishes and, as early as the 1950s, researchers noted in passing that many of the fish weren’t what you’d find in the Mimbres River. In fact, they kind of look like something you’d see in the ocean. But as any geographer will tell you, southwestern New Mexico is a long way from the ocean. A very long way away.

Jett funneled every fish image that he could find to Moyle and asked a simple question: What do you think this is? Surprisingly, Jett and Moyle discovered that they could identify many of the fish and that the majority of the fish species painted on Mimbres pots were marine in origin. Jacks, giant jewfish, snappers, grunts, and the distinctive long-nosed butterfly fish were carefully painted by the Mimbres. The Pacific razorfish—with its distinctive “unicorn” fin—is clearly depicted along with tiny blennies, and giant parrotfish.


Of course, the million dollar question is “How in the world did the Mimbres people know what long-nosed butterfly fish and Pacific razorfish looked like?” But before we answer that question, there’s more you should know.

The Mimbres were apparently fascinated by the ocean. Dozens of clam shell bracelets and hundreds of tiny shell beads fill the trays and cases of the Mimbres rooms at the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum. Thousands of shell items—from at least 11 genera of seashells—have been recovered from Mimbres archeological sites in the region.

Ancient seashells found in a Mimbres site in southern New Mexico.

Conventional wisdom is that all of the shell jewelry originally came from the Hohokam, a contemporary cultural group that lived in south-central Arizona and were believed to control the shell trade. They obtained their raw materials from the Gulf of California and the Pacific coast, ground the shell down to create bracelets, tinklers, pendants, and beads, and then traded them to the Anasazi to the north and the Mimbres to the east.

But Jett and Moyle weren’t quite so quick to accept conventional wisdom. The fish on the pots, they say, indicate that the Mimbreños were very familiar with the ocean and were most likely active participants in shell collecting and transportation. By looking at the species of fish and the types of shell, they concluded that the Mimbres people were making trips to the Gulf of California and specifically, the area around Guaymas, Mexico. Near Guaymas both the reefs necessary for the fish species depicted on the pots and the sandy beaches where the shells could be collected are found.

To the modern human, the thought of walking 1000 miles or so to the coast and back is a bit daunting. But to the Mimbreños? Probably not so much. A trip of that distance would only take a couple of months by foot and there were undoubtedly villages (and trade opportunities) along the way. The marine archeologist in me also has to wonder if they used canoes or some type of water transportation to speed up the journey (although I couldn’t find any images of boats on the pottery I saw).

Because there’s little evidence that the Mimbres people either traded their pottery or imported pottery from other places, they must have painted their fish pots when they returned home. Did they sketch the different types of fish on pieces of bark and take them back to show the potters? Or did they memorize details to paint later?

The pots in the museum whisper to me, but they keep some secrets to themselves.

Deming Luna Mimbres Museum | 301 S. Silver Ave., Deming, New Mexico | 575.546.2382 |


Jett, S.C. & P.B. Moyle. 1986. The exotic origins of fishes depicted on prehistoric Mimbres pottery from New Mexico. American Antiquities 51(4):688-720.

Parks-Barrett, M.S. 2001. Prehistoric Jewelry of the NAN Ranch Ruin (LA15049), Grant County, New Mexico. Master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University.

Images from the collections of the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum.

This entry was posted in Animals, Archeology, Chihuahuan Desert, Fish, New Mexico and tagged , , , .


  1. Laura Belkin February 1, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

    Very interesting. We forget that people hundreds of years ago didn’t have all the distractions we do. The thought of walking several months through interesting areas wouldn’t seem outlandish. There are even people today who would relate to that.

  2. Cathryn Hoyt February 1, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    I agree. There was a tiny part of me that was thinking “wouldn’t it be interesting to recreate that journey?” But then the reality of trying to walk through Mexico by myself hit. But wouldn’t it be interesting?

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