[Home] [Current Tables of Contents]

[ HLAS Online Home Page | Search HLAS Online | Help | FAQ | Comments ]


Volume 57 / Social Sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY: ARCHAEOLOGY


Mesoamerica

JOHN HENDERSON, Professor of Anthropology, Cornell University
DEBORAH L. NICHOLS, Professor of Anthropology, Dartmouth College


ALTHOUGH SCHOLARS HAVE increasingly taken a more interpretive, comparative and theoretical approach to Maya archaeology, a substantial amount of the literature is still highly descriptive. Most of these descriptive publications consist of field investigation summaries (settlement pattern studies, excavation projects) or technical analyses (sourcing studies, especially of obsidian).

The fundamental theoretical perspectives that shape the work of Maya scholars can be classified into two groups (item bi 98011989). One set represents the continuing impact of processual archaeology, is empirically oriented, and tends to emphasize ecology, subsistence, population, and economy. The second is a more humanistic, non-scientific perspective. It emphasizes cultural realms, such as religion, a less constrained style of interpretation, and, while it has much in common with some varieties of “post-processual” archaeology, it also represents a continuity of art historical and culture historical approaches that have consistently been strong components of Maya studies.

Core-periphery perspectives continue to provide the most common explicit theoretical models for processually-oriented Maya archaeology (item bi 95004064). World systems theory, originally developed by the historian Immanuel Wallerstein, remains the most persistent version of these models. However, critiques of its applicability to prehistoric societies have sharply limited its popularity within the archaeological field.

The most prominent dimension of the growing emphasis on an interpretational approach is the array of studies based on decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing and on related insights based on iconographic analysis (items bi 98011965, bi 98012127, and bi 98012037). The popularity of these approaches among Maya scholars, and their appeal to the general public, has increased steadily over the past two decades, and the trend shows no sign of abating. Some of these studies focus on specific aspects of ancient Maya religion, mythology, and symbolism (items bi 96002306, bi 98011183, bi 98011888, bi 98011963, bi 98011926, bi 98011968, bi 98011970, bi 98011980, and bi 98011981); others, assuming similarity among all Maya societies, attempt a more global, synthetic interpretation of the ancient Maya (item bi 98011565).

Interpretive approaches also include attempts to understand the principles and institutions that underlay the political and economic organization of ancient Maya societies. Some of these studies on the emergence and nature of ancient states are informed by comparative theoretical perspectives (items bi 98011342 and bi 98011990). Others, more focused on reconstructing the political landscape of the ancient Maya world, draw heavily on advances in decipherment and on iconographic analysis and tend to be highly interpretive, even speculative (items bi 96022231, bi 97007368, and bi 98011984). Explorations of economic organization, by contrast, tend to hold back from interpretation, emphasizing a grounding in empirical data (items bi 98011907, bi 98011937, and bi 98011947). These economically oriented studies, along with investigations of the environment, ecology, and subsistence (items bi 98011927, bi 98011898, bi 98012945, bi 98011920, bi 98012080, and bi 98011938), represent the processual thread within Maya archaeology.

Documenting and understanding the history, formation, and development of precolumbian civilizations and their antecedents dominates archaeological research in Mexico. Although scholars have, in recent years, conducted relatively less field research aimed at uncovering the origins of maize cultivation in Highland Mexico, the estimated timing of this agricultural development has stirred a considerable amount of controversy (item bi 98012076). Reanalysis of early maize from the Tehuacan Valley, using the accelerator mass spectrometric (AMS) method of radiocarbon dating, has yielded more recent dates, suggesting that the critical time-frame for maize domestication was 3500-2500 BC, and not 5000-3500 BC as has been generally accepted. The debate surrounding early American agricultural chronology is likely to continue as additional studies, now underway, uncover new clues. This issue highlights not only the value of reanalyzing material collections, but also the need for new field research on the highlands on the Archaic and early formative periods.

The Pacific and Gulf Coasts of Chiapas, once backwaters of contemporary archaeology, have become the focus of a series of on-going investigations concerning the origins of sedentary villages and early complex societies (items bi 96003680 and bi 98011193). Sedentary villages were present here by 1550 BC, and ranked societies developed as early, if not earlier, than in the more famous Gulf Coast Olmec heartland; the notion of the Olmec as Mesoamerican civilization’s "mother culture" - an artifact of the history of archaeological investigations - is simply no longer tenable. At the same time, the regional approach taken by the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan Archaeology Project, combined with excavations of residential areas and hinterland centers, is providing much needed details of Olmec chronology and their social, political, and economic organization.

Theories recently advanced to account for these and later developments encapsulate broader disciplinary trends that emphasize human agency, political economy, history, and ideology—approaches that are becoming the "normal science" of archaeology (see Cowgill in item bi 97007257). Marcus and Flannery, in their book, Zapotec civilization (item bi 97007390), argue that action theory provides a way to incorporate humans as actors of social change within a scientific and comparative explanatory framework, and thus serves as a counter-balance perspective to structural and syncretic models.

Ideology figures prominently in Hosler's The sounds and colors of power (item bi 95019514), in which she argues that metallurgy was adopted in west Mexico from northern South America through coastal trade networks, not principally for utilitarian purposes, but, because sensory properties and relative scarcity linked metals to sacred precepts and the hierarchy of human social relations. Hosler's work suggests a number of avenues for future research in west Mexico.

Current research on the origins and evolution of Mexica (Aztec) society has complemented the ethnohistorical shift away from the standard Spanish chroniclers to local sources by focusing on the culture’s political economy. The picture now emerging from the combined and sometimes - as in the case of Aztec imperial strategies (item bi 97007250) - collaborative research of archaeologists and ethnohistorians of the Mexica is not that of a monolithic centralized State, but of a State that employed various strategies to control and manipulate networks of social, political, and economic relationships among diverse city-states and factions.

The number of recent general, regional, and topical syntheses - including the three-volume Historia antigua de México, written by leading archaeologists but accessible to non-specialists - suggests that archaeologists are making greater efforts to present their findings to a broader audience. Also notable is the number of collaborative symposia, conferences, and publications involving Mexican and North American archaeologists. The Univ. of Pittsburgh's Latin American Archaeology Publications now distributes books published in Mexico by INAH and UNAM's Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas, making salvage and research archaeology results more accessible in North America.

Nichol's contribution to this chapter was written while I was on sabbatical leave from Dartmouth College. I gratefully acknowledge the expert assistance of Patricia Carter and the staff of the Inter-Library Loan Office (Baker Library, Dartmouth), Dr. Ridie Ghezzi (Baker Library, Dartmouth), and Dr. Gregory Finnegan (Tozzer Library, Harvard) and the help and support of Amy Puryear and others on the staff of HLAS.


Go to the:


Begin a Basic Search | Begin an Expert Search

[ HLAS Online Home Page | Search HLAS Online | Help | FAQ | Comments ]


LC image Library of Congress
Comments: Ask a Librarian (11/09/04)