Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales and Eduardo Corona-M.
Interest in the first hunter-gatherer populations of Mexico has increased in the last fifteen years. Exploration of the Late Pleistocene localities involved in the early peopling of Mexico, including the discovery of new ones and reanalysis of known ones, and the application of new methods and techniques (e.g. AMS radiocarbon dating, stable isotopes, scanning electron microscopy, palaeobotanical analysis) have increased. Archaeozoology has contributed to this expansion by increasing the record of terrestrial vertebrates, improving understanding of the record and delimitation of distributional ranges of extinct species. There is now more information on the type of diet of some extinct herbivores and hypotheses about the status of local palaeoenvironments have been provided. Questions remain about the interactions between human migrations and the environments, specifically the degree of influence that humans had in the extinction of mega- and mesofaunas, and the diversity of subsistence strategies employed by hunter-gatherers in the Late Pleistocene.
Vernon L. Scarborough
Agricultural intensification is the process whereby land-use activity is heightened through an increase in production on a plot. Production can be stimulated by an increase in the amount or kind of labor invested, the incorporation of crops that yield more food or fiber, or the use of a novel technology. In Mesoamerica, few “technological breakthroughs” precipitated change, rather the developmental trajectory for intensification was based on labor allocation and slow advances in the amount of food potentially harvested by an evolving process of plant domestication—principally maize. This article discusses agricultural intensification in West Mexico, Central Highland Mexico, the Valley of Oaxaca, and the Maya lowlands.
Eduardo Matos Moctezuma
This chapter discusses the Mexica monumental sculptures uncovered in downtown Mexico City during the late eighteenth century, including the Coatlicue and Tlaltecuhtli sculptures, and the Sun Stone. Other important Mexica archaeological ruins of Tenochtitlan were unearthed during the nineteenth century. The discovery of a stone sculpture of the goddess Coyolxauhqui at base of the Templo Mayor in 1978 led to the excavation of the structure as part of the Proyecto Templo Mayor (Templo Mayor Project). This project has collected data on more than 40 Mexica structures in the heart of Mexico City, including numerous offerings and other important information regarding Aztec history. Some significant findings in recent years include the discovery of several important structures, including the cuauhxicalco, ballcourt, and tzompantli The recent discovery of a stone sculpture of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli has also provided essential data, particularly in terms of the offerings found beneath and around the sculpture.
Shoshaunna Parks and Patricia A. McAnany
This article examines the present relationship between indigenous people and archaeology in Mesoamerica, with an emphasis on the Maya region. It provides a brief analysis of the historical and political conditions that have contributed to the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples from the ancient past. It also looks at recent interactions among stakeholders in the investigation, interpretation, and management of Mesoamerican archaeological heritage.
Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos
The historiography of archaeology in Guatemala is still in its infancy. Accounts of Maya archaeology are mostly concerned with the development of ideas in North America and Europe, where strong traditions of Maya research developed since the nineteenth century. Few authors delve into the sociopolitical events that have conditioned the work of foreign scholars in the country, their interaction with Guatemalan students, and the intellectual currents that have influenced the latter. Guatemalan archaeology has also been overlooked in general surveys of Latin American archaeology. This article describes selected stages in the history of Guatemalan archaeology, based on previous overviews.
Jaime J. Awe
Located on the southeastern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize is the second smallest country in Central America. In spite of its size, however, the country has an incredibly rich and diverse cultural heritage that includes the remains of pioneering preceramic cultures, numerous prehistoric cities that reflect the grandeur of Maya civilization, the ruins of several “Visita” churches that represent the failed efforts of sixteenth-century Spanish entradas , and various historic sites of the British colonial period. This article provides a brief history of the management of archaeological resources in Belize, a summary of archaeological investigations during the last two hundred years, and the present direction of archaeological research in the country.
Rosemary A. Joyce
Greg Borgstede and Eugenia Robinson
This article reviews archaeological evidence of the Late Postclassic period in the Maya highlands. The Maya highlands contain a diverse and complex geography, a diversity that is represented in the material record. While archaeological and ethnohistoric evidence from the central Guatemalan highlands has long dominated discussion of the Late Postclassic period, research has shown that developments outside of this subregion were extremely variable and localized. A focus on the Quiché and Kaqchikel states has resulted in an important and rich body of evidence that has undeniable importance to Maya and Mesoamerica studies, as well as modern Maya peoples.
The Guatemala highlands is an area of contrasting climate, topography, and agricultural potential. High basins and fertile valleys are situated among a series of mountain ranges from the Pacific Coastal volcanic chains to the massive uplifts to the northeast, offering several advantages that facilitate human settlement. The Central Highlands are home to important natural routes, including the Motagua River, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean and separates a series of these mountain ranges crisscrossing Guatemala from east to west. To the north, tributaries of the Chixoy River irrigate the Central Highlands. This article focuses on the Central Highlands, and in particular on the primary site of Kaminaljuyú, which can be used as a proxy to understand better developments throughout the region.
Geoffrey McCafferty, Fabio Esteban Amador, Silvia Salgado González, and Carrie Dennett
The southern frontier of Mesoamerica has fluctuated through time but has generally included portions of the Central American countries of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Tied into this liminal status, the history of archaeological research and the development of archaeological institutions in these countries have varied, sometimes emphasizing “Mesoamerican-ness” and sometimes highlighting independent development. This article discusses the history of archaeological practice in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It then presents a brief overview of the culture history of the region with particular emphasis on relations with Mesoamerican cultures.
Douglas J. Kennett
This article reviews archaeological evidence of the Archaic period (~7000–2000
Archaeological remains testify to the spread of goods and ideas over broad areas of Mesoamerica at different times throughout its prehispanic history. However, most material expansions are unaccompanied by texts, so it is difficult to identify which resulted from empires, and which from other types of interaction, like trade, gift giving, and emulation. In contrast, the Aztec Empire, which dominated central Mexico during its final pre-conquest years, is known to us mostly through documents written during and after its overthrow by Spaniards in 1521. Ironically, the material remains do not match the expectations raised by the documents. More relics have been excavated and studied in the last few decades than previously, but relatively few scholars have yet engaged with their evidence. This article shows how the imagery of sculptures can supplement and refine our notions of Aztec strategies.
The Mesoamerican Classic period (ca. 250–900
Geoffrey McCafferty and Sharisse McCafferty
Woven textiles were highly prized commodities in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, to the extent that they were commonly used as tribute items and even as a standard of value in commercial exchange. This article discusses ways that textile production has been approached archaeologically in terms of both its function and cultural meanings. Textile production was important both functionally and symbolically. Major female deities from throughout Mesoamerica were closely associated with this important aspect of domestic production, which was also linked metaphorically with sexual reproduction. Textile symbolism in Mixtec codices were also used to denote architectural and natural spaces, as a metaphor for the acculturation of the landscape.
Emily McClung de Tapia and Diana Martínez Yrizar
This chapter provides a brief discussion of the main themes relevant to historical ecology and how it differs from cultural ecology as used in Mesoamerican archaeology. A historical ecological perspective is appropriate for the study of Aztec landscape modification during the sixteenth century in the Basin of Mexico because of its inherent focus on the dialectical relationship between human populations and their environments. The Aztec landscape was viewed as a sacred entity and intensive exploitation was mediated by complex rituals within the indigenous worldview. Chinampas are discussed as an example of a highly intensive agroecological system within the sacred prehispanic landscape that has persisted until the present, although in the modern urban environment its preservation is fraught with risks and conflicting interests.
Aztec Agricultural Strategies: Intensification, Landesque Capital, and the Sociopolitics of Production
The Aztec Empire was built on an agricultural base. However, the relationships between agriculturalists and the state and the characteristics of farming systems were not monolithic. Agricultural landscapes involved strategies in which farmers responded to demographic growth, ecological conditions, and political economy. Highlighting the processes of intensification and landesque capital, this chapter discusses how farmers cultivated a diverse assemblage of crops by responding to the ecological constraints of soil, slope, and water. These included terrace systems, irrigation systems, and raised fields. These strategies and investments were connected to the structure of the empire. Agriculturalists paid tribute to local lords and imperial officials, and farmer-merchants traded their products in market places. This relationship between production and political economy, however, was mediated by complex and nested systems of tenure that guided patterns of usufruct, labor obligations, and conveyance.
Ray Hernández Durán
Following the Spanish Conquest, responses to Aztec art were varied. While architecture and many sacred sculptures were demolished and their material remains recycled into new construction, other works were either repurposed to fulfill new functions in the colonial setting or sent to Europe where they were collected and admired. Certain Aztec art forms persisted after the Conquest but with various adaptations or reformulations, as seen in manuscript production and featherwork. Other Colonial artworks, for example sculpture and wall paintings, evince the influence of indigenous esthetics, techniques, and forms, evident in sculpture and wall painting. Eventually, Aztec objects transitioned from being perceived as exotic curiosities in royal collections and world’s fairs to historical and archaeological artifacts to works of art appreciated by audiences in Mexico, as signifiers of national identity and indigenous achievement, and in museum exhibitions abroad where Aztec art often continues to be enigmatic, misunderstood, or unknown.
Aztec religion and the Central Mexican divinatory calendar were intrinsically linked. Focusing on the Aztec conception of art and artists, this chapter presents an overview of how art Aztec art (sculpture, painting, carving, weaving, etc.) and architecture served as an expression of Aztec religion, the calendar, and an overall view of the cosmos. Aztec art addressed the past, both in commemorating historic events, and in recalling and referencing the accomplishments of past cultures, collectively referred to as Toltecs. Art also celebrated past, present, and future periodicities that served as evidence of divine action in the world – particularly action on behalf of the ruling elite and, in the case of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan, divine approbation of empire. Hence Aztec works usually combine references to what we today would consider mundane historical events and actions with images of divinities and supernatural concepts.
Michael A. Ohnersorgen and Marcie L. Venter
Interactions at the Aztec imperial edges varied considerably, with some marked by a general congruence of political, economic, and symbolic domains, suggesting that border-like conditions shaped interactions, while other boundary areas were more permeable frontiers where cultural domains overlapped and were interconnected, but differently bounded. Most previous characterizations of Aztec boundary interactions come from documents of the sixteenth-century Basin of Mexico or late sixteenth-century Relaciones Geográficas . Data from recent archaeological projects complement the rich ethnohistorical record, and several of these studies explicitly frame Aztec provincial relationships as a dynamic process of negotiation. This article presents summaries of this information for the western, southern, and eastern margins of the Aztec Empire.
Ethnohistoric evidence emphasizes the role of women in ritualized Aztec household practices and religion that were concerned not only with household maintenance or fertility but also with broader cosmological processes. This chapter supplements the limited written evidence for Aztec household rituals with a review of archaeological data on ritual features and artifacts, including burials, figurines, feasting ceramics, New Fire ceremony middens, and musical instruments. Archaeological findings add a political dimension to our understanding of Aztec household ritual—demonstrating that ritual also served in political negotiations of status and identity—and suggest a complex, bidirectional relationship between state and household-level ritual practices. Finally, excavations have revealed more variation in funerary rituals than can be appreciated in the primarily elite, Tenochtitlan-authored documentary record.