Pre-Columbian civilizations, the aboriginal American Indiancultures that evolved in Mesoamerica (part of Mexico and Central America) and the Andean region (western South America) prior to Spanish exploration and conquest in the 16th century. The pre-Columbian civilizations were extraordinary developments in human society and culture, ranking with the early civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. Like the ancient civilizations of the Old World, those in the New World were characterized by kingdoms and empires, great monuments and cities, and refinements in the arts, metallurgy, and writing; the ancient civilizations of the Americas also display in their histories similar cyclical patterns of growth and decline, unity and disunity.
In the New World the roots of civilization lay in a native agricultural way of life. These agricultural beginnings go back several millennia, to perhaps about 7000 bce and the first experimentations by the early Americans with plant cultivation. The domestication of successful food plants proved to be a long, slow process, and it was not until much later that a condition of permanent village farming life was achieved in the tropical latitudes of the two continents.
Sedentary village farming in Mesoamerica came into being by about 1500 bce. Corn (maize), beans, squashes, chili peppers, and cotton were the most important crops. These early villagers wove cloth, made pottery, and practiced other typical Neolithic skills. It appears that such villages were economically self-contained and politically autonomous, with an egalitarian social order. But rather quickly after this—between about 1200 and 900 bce—the building of large earthen pyramids and platforms and the carving of monumental stone sculptures signaled significant changes in this heretofore simple social and political order. These changes first appeared in the southern Gulf coast region of what is now Mexico; and the sculptures, rendered in a style now called Olmec, are presumed to depict chiefs or rulers. From these and other archaeological indications it has been inferred that a class-structured and politically centralized society developed. There appeared subsequently other large capital towns and cities in neighbouring regions that also displayed a similar Olmec art style. This Olmec horizon (i.e., a cultural diffusion that is contemporaneous at widely scattered sites) represents the first climax, or era of “unification,” in the history of Mesoamerican civilization.
After about 500 bce the Olmec “unification” gave way to an era (consisting of the Late Formative and Classic periods) of separate regional styles and kingdoms. These lasted until c. 700–900 ce. Among these are the well-known Maya, Zapotec, Totonac, and Teotihuacán civilizations. While sharing a common Olmec heritage, they also displayed many differences. For example, the Maya excelled in the intellectual pursuits of hieroglyphic writing, calendar making, and mathematics, while the Teotihuacán civilization placed its emphasis on political and commercial power. Teotihuacán, in the Valley of Mexico, was an urban centre of some 150,000 people, and the influence of its civilization eventually radiated over much of Mesoamerica. As such, Teotihuacán constituted a second grand civilizational climax or “unification” (400–600 ce). Teotihuacán power waned after about 600, and a “time of troubles” ensued, during which a number of states and nascent empires competed for supremacy. Among these competitors were the Toltecs of Tula, in central Mexico, who held sway from perhaps 900 to 1200 (the Early Postclassic Period). After their decline (in the Late Postclassic Period), another interregnum of warring states lasted until 1428, when the Aztec defeated the rival city of Azcapotzalco and emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico. This last native Mesoamerican empire was conquered by Hernán Cortés (or Cortéz) and the Spaniards in 1521.
In the Andean area, the threshold of a successful village agricultural economy can be placed at c. 2500 bce, or somewhat earlier than was the case in Mesoamerica. The oldest primary food crops there were the lima bean and the potato, which had long histories of domestication in the area, although corn appeared soon after the beginnings of settled village life. Indications of a more complex sociopolitical order—huge platform mounds and densely populated centres—occurred very soon after this (c. 1800 bce); however, these early Andean civilizations continued for almost a millennium before they participated in a shared stylistic “unification.” This has become known as the Chavín horizon, and Chavín sculptural art has been found throughout the northern part of the area.
The Chavín horizon disappeared after about 500 bce, and it was replaced by regional styles and cultures that lasted until about 600 ce. This period of regionalization (called the Early Intermediate Period) saw the florescence of a number of large kingdoms both on the Pacific coast and in the Andean highlands; among them were the Moche, Early Lima, Nazca, Recuay, and Early Tiwanaku. The period was brought to an end by the Tiwanaku–Huari horizon (Middle Horizon; 600–1000), which was generated from the highland cities of Tiwanaku (in modern northern Bolivia) and Huari (in central highland Peru). There is evidence—such as the construction of new centres and cities—that this Tiwanaku–Huari phenomenon, at least in many regions, was a tightly controlled political empire. The horizon and its influences, as registered in ceramics and textiles, died away rather gradually in the ensuing centuries, and it was replaced by the several regional styles and kingdoms of what has become known as the Late Intermediate Period (1000–1438).
The terminal date of the Late Intermediate Period marked the beginning of the Inca horizon and of the Inca conquests, which spread from the Inca capital, Cuzco, in the southern highlands of what is now Peru. By 1533, when Francisco Pizarro and his cohorts took over the empire, it extended from what is now the Ecuador–Colombia border to central Chile.
The synchroneity of horizon unifications and alternating regionalizations in Mesoamerica and the Andean region is striking and prompts the question of communication between these two areas of pre-Columbian high civilization. Although it is known that there were contacts—with the result that knowledge of food plants, ceramics, and metallurgy was shared between the two areas—it is also highly unlikely that political or religious ideologies were so spread. Rather, the peoples of each of these major cultural areas appear to have responded to their own internally generated stimuli and to have followed essentially separate courses of development. There are fundamental differences between the two cultural traditions. Thus, in Mesoamerica there was, from early on, a profound interest in hieroglyphic writing and calendar making. Religious ideology, judged from art and iconography, was more highly developed in Mesoamerica than in the Andean region. In Mesoamerica the market was a basic institution; it does not appear to have been so in the Andes, where the redistributive economy of the Inca empire—with such features as its government warehouses and a system of highways—must have had deep roots in the past. On the other hand, in the early development and deployment of metallurgy and in governmental institutions and empire-building, the ancient Peruvians were much more efficient than their Mesoamerican contemporaries.
The term Mesoamerica denotes the part of Mexico and Central America that was civilized in pre-Spanish times. In many respects, the American Indians who inhabited Mesoamerica were the most advanced native peoples in the Western Hemisphere. The northern border of Mesoamerica runs west from a point on the Gulf coast of Mexico above the modern port of Tampico, then dips south to exclude much of the central desert of highland Mexico, meeting the Pacific coast opposite the tip of Baja (Lower) California. On the southeast, the boundary extends from northwestern Honduras on the Caribbean across to the Pacific shore in El Salvador. Thus, about half of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador are included in Mesoamerica.
Geographically and culturally, Mesoamerica consists of two strongly contrasted regions: highland and lowland. The Mexican highlands are formed mainly by the two Sierra Madre ranges that sweep down on the east and west. Lying athwart them is a volcanic cordillera stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The high valleys and landlocked basins of Mexico were important centres of pre-Spanish civilization. In the southeastern part of Mesoamerica lie the partly volcanic Chiapas–Guatemala highlands. The lowlands are primarily coastal. Particularly important was the littoral plain extending south along the Gulf of Mexico, expanding to include the Petén-Yucatán Peninsula, homeland of the Mayan peoples.
Agriculture in Mesoamerica was advanced and complex. A great many crops were planted, of which corn, beans, and squashes were the most important. In the highlands, hoe cultivation of more or less permanent fields was the rule, with such intensive forms of agriculture as irrigation and chinampas (the so-called floating gardens reclaimed from lakes or ponds) practiced in some regions. In contrast, lowland agriculture was frequently of the shifting variety; a patch of jungle was first selected, felled and burned toward the end of the dry season, and then planted with a digging stick in time for the first rains. After a few years of planting, the field was abandoned to the forest, as competition from weeds and declining soil fertility resulted in diminishing yields. There is good evidence, however, that the slash-and-burn system of cultivation was often supplemented by “raised-field” cultivation in the lowlands; these artificially constructed earthen hillocks built in shallow lakes or marshy areas were not unlike the chinampas of the Mexican highlands. In addition, terraces were constructed and employed for farming in some lowland regions. Nevertheless, the demographic potential for agriculture was probably always greater in the highlands than it was in the lowlands, and this was demonstrated in the more extensive urban developments in the former area.
The extreme diversity of the Mesoamerican environment produced what has been called symbiosis among its subregions. Interregional exchange of agricultural products, luxury items, and other commodities led to the development of large and well-regulated markets in which cacao beans were used for money. It may have also led to large-scale political unity and even to states and empires. High agricultural productivity resulted in a nonfarming class of artisans who were responsible for an advanced stone architecture, featuring the construction of stepped pyramids, and for highly evolved styles of sculpture, pottery, and painting.
The Mesoamerican system of thought, recorded in folding-screen books of deerskin or bark paper, was perhaps of even greater importance in setting them off from other New World peoples. This system was ultimately based upon a calendar in which a ritual cycle of 260 (13 × 20) days intermeshed with a “vague year” of 365 days (18 × 20 days, plus five “nameless” days), producing a 52-year Calendar Round. The religious life was geared to this cycle, which is unique to them. The Mesoamerican pantheon was associated with the calendar and featured an old, dual creator god; a god of royal descent and warfare; a sun god and moon goddess; a rain god; a culture hero called the Feathered Serpent; and many other deities. Also characteristic was a layered system of 13 heavens and nine underworlds, each with its presiding god. Much of the system was under the control of a priesthood that also maintained an advanced knowledge of astronomy.
Some seven Mesoamerican language families and three language isolates were found in Mesoamerica. Garífuna, a later import, is an Arawakan language. Most Mesoamerican languages are grouped in one of four families: Uto-Aztecan, Mayan, Mixe-Zoquean, and Otomanguean. A dominant role was played by Uto-Aztecan, particularly by speakers of the Nahua groups of which Náhuatl, official tongue of the Aztec empire, was the most important. The Mayan family contains a number of mutually unintelligible languages, at least some of which were spoken by the inhabitants of the great Maya ceremonial centres. The modern Mexican state of Oaxaca is now the centre of the heterogeneousOtomanguean phylum; but the only linguistic groups of that family that played a great part in Mesoamerican civilization were the Mixtec and Zapotec, both of which had large, powerful kingdoms at the time of the Spanish conquest. Tarascan, mother tongue of an “empire” in western Mexico that successfully resisted Aztec encroachments, is now considered a language isolate; that is, it has no known relatives. Huave and Cuitlatec are also language isolates.
Pre-Classic and Classic periods
Early hunters (to 6500 bce)
The time of the first peopling of Mesoamerica remains a puzzle, as it does for that of the New World in general. Until recently it was widely accepted that groups of peoples entered the hemisphere from northeastern Siberia, perhaps by a land bridge that then existed, at some time in the Late Pleistocene, or Ice Age. But radiocarbon dating and other relatively recent tools have complicated the story. Perhaps they entered the West Coast from the sea at multiple points. There is abundant evidence that, at least by 11,000 bce, hunting peoples had occupied most of the New World south of the glacial ice cap covering northern North America. These peoples hunted such large grazing mammals as mammoth, mastodon, horse, and camel, armed with spears to which were attached finely made, bifacially chipped points of stone. Finds in Mesoamerica, however, confirm the existence of a “prebifacial-point horizon,” a stage known to have existed elsewhere in the Americas, and suggest that it is of very great age. In 1967 archaeologists working at the site of Tlapacoya, southeast of Mexico City, uncovered a well-made blade of obsidian associated with a radiocarbon date of about 21,000 bce. Near Puebla, Mexico, excavations in the Valsequillo region revealed cultural remains of human groups that were hunting mammoth and other extinct animals, along with unifacially worked points, scrapers, perforators, burins, and knives. A date of about 21,800 bce has been suggested for the Valsequillo finds.
More substantial information on Late Pleistocene occupations of Mesoamerica comes from excavations near Tepexpan, northeast of Mexico City. The excavated skeletons of two mammoths showed that these beasts had been killed with spears fitted with lancelike stone points and had been butchered on the spot. A possible date of about 8000 bce has been suggested for the two mammoth kills. In the same geologic layer as the slaughtered mammoths was found a human skeleton; this Tepexpan “man” has been shown to be female and rather a typical American Indian of modern form. While the association with the mammoths was first questioned, fluorine tests have proved them to be contemporary.
The environment of these earliest Mesoamericans was quite different from that existing today, for volcanoes were then extremely active, covering thousands of square miles with ashes. Temperatures were substantially lower, and local glaciers formed on the highest peaks. Conditions were ideal for the large herds of grazing mammals that roamed Mesoamerica, especially in the highland valleys, much of which consisted of cool, wet grasslands not unlike the plains of the northern United States. All of this changed around 7000 bce, when worldwide temperatures rose and the great ice sheets of northern latitudes began their final retreat. This brought to an end the successful hunting way of life that had been followed by Mesoamericans, although humans probably also played a role in bringing about the extinction of the large game animals.
Incipient agriculture (6500–1500 bce)
The most crucial event in the prehistory of Mesoamerica was the human capture of the food energy contained in plants. This process centred on three plants: Indian corn (maize), beans, and squashes. Since about 90 percent of all food calories in the diet of Mesoamericans eventually came from corn, archaeologists for a long time have sought the origins of this plant—which has no wild forms existing today—in order to throw light on the agricultural basis of Mesoamerican civilization.
The search for Mesoamerican agricultural origins has been carried forward most successfully through excavations in dry caves and rock shelters in the modern southern Mexican states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Sequences from these archaeological sites show a gradual transition from the Early Hunting to the Incipient Cultivation periods. At the Guila Naquitz cave, in Oaxaca, there are indications that the transition began as early as 8900 bce; finds from caves in the Tehuacán valley of Puebla, however, offer more substantial evidence of the beginnings of plant domestication at a somewhat later time. There, the preservation of plant remains is remarkably good, and from these it is evident that shortly after 6500 bce the inhabitants of the valley were selecting and planting seeds of chili peppers, cotton, and one kind of squash. Most importantly, between 5000 and 3500 bce they were beginning to plant mutant forms of corn that already were showing signs of the husks characteristic of domestic corn.
One of the problems complicating this question of the beginnings of early corn cultivation is related to a debate between paleobotanists on wild versus domesticated strains. One school of thought holds that the domesticated races of the plant developed from a wild ancestor. The other opinion is that there was never such a thing as wild corn, that instead corn (Zea mays) developed from a related grass, teosinte (Zea mexicana or Euchlaena mexicana). In any event, by 5000 bce corn was present and being used as a food, and between 2,000 and 3,000 years after that it had developed rapidly as a food plant. It has been estimated that there is more energy present in a single kernel of some modern races than there was in an ear of this ancient Tehuacán corn. Possibly some of this was popped, but a new element in food preparation is seen in the metates (querns) and manos (handstones) that were used to grind the corn into meal or dough.
Beans appeared after 3500 bce, along with a much improved race of corn. This enormous increase in the amount of plant food available was accompanied by a remarkable shift in settlement pattern. In place of the temporary hunting camps and rock shelters, which were occupied only seasonally by small bands, semipermanent villages of pit houses were constructed on the valley floor. Increasing sedentariness is also to be seen in the remarkable bowls and globular jars painstakingly pecked from stone, for pottery was as yet unknown in Mesoamerica.
In the centuries between 3500 and 1500 bce, plant domestication began in what had been hunting-gathering contexts, as on the Pacific coast of Chiapas and on the Veracruz Gulf coast and in some lacustrine settings in the Valley of Mexico. It seems probable that early domesticated plants from such places as the Tehuacán valley were carried to these new environmental niches. In many cases, this shift of habitat resulted in genetic improvements in the food plants.
Pottery, which is a good index to the degree of permanence of a settlement (because of its fragility it is difficult to transport), was made in the Tehuacán valley by 2300 bce. Fired clay vessels were made as early as 4000 bce in Ecuador and Colombia, and it is probable that the idea of their manufacture gradually diffused north to the increasingly sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica.
The picture, then, is one of growing human control over the environment through the domestication of plants; animals played a very minor role in this process, with only the dog being surely domesticated before 1500 bce. At any rate, by 1500 bce the stage was set for the adoption of a fully settled life, with many of the sedentary arts already present. The final step was taken only when native agriculture in certain especially favoured subregions became sufficiently effective to allow year-round settlement of villages.
Early Formative period (1500–900 bce)
Early village life
It is fairly clear that the Mexican highlands were far too dry during the much warmer interval that prevailed from 5000 to 1500 bce for agriculture to supply more than half of a given population’s energy needs. This was not the case along the alluvial lowlands of southern Mesoamerica, and it is no accident that the best evidence for the earliest permanent villages in Mesoamerica comes from the Pacific littoral of Chiapas (Mexico) and Guatemala, although comparable settlements also have been reported from both the Maya lowlands (Belize) and the Veracruz Gulf coast.
The Barra (c. 1800–1500 bce), Ocós (1500–1200 bce), and Cuadros (1100–900 bce) phases of the Pacific coasts of Chiapas and Guatemala are good examples of early village cultures. The Barra phase appears to have been transitional from earlier preagricultural phases and may not have been primarily dependent upon corn farming; but people of the Ocós and Cuadros phases raised a small-eared corn known as nal-tel, which was ground on metates and manos and cooked in globular jars. From the rich lagoons and estuaries in this area, the villagers obtained shellfish, crabs, fish, and turtles. Their villages were small, with perhaps 10 to 12 thatched-roof houses arranged haphazardly.
Ocós pottery is highly developed technically and artistically. Something of the mental life of the times may be seen in the tiny, handmade clay figurines produced by the Ocós villagers. These, as in Formative cultures generally throughout Mesoamerica, represent nude females and may have had something to do with a fertility cult. The idea of the temple-pyramid may well have taken root by that time, for one Ocós site has produced an earthen mound about 26 feet (8 metres) high that must have supported a perishable building. The implication of the site is that, with increasing prosperity, some differentiation of a ruling class had taken place, for among the later Mesoamericans the ultimate function of a pyramid was as a final resting place for a great leader.
Eventually, effective village farming with nucleated settlements occupied throughout the year appeared in the highlands. But perhaps from the very beginning of Formative life there were different cultural responses directed toward both kinds of environment. In the highlands, divided into a number of mutually contrasting environments no one of which could have provided sufficient resources for the subsistence of a single settlement, villages were presumably linked to each other symbiotically. In the lowlands, particularly in the littoral, one especially favourable environment, such as the lagoon–estuary system, may have been so rich in resources that villages within it would have been entirely self-sufficient. In effect, the former would have resulted in a cultural integration based upon trade, while the latter would have been integrated, if at all, by a unity of likeness. The two kinds of civilization that eventually arose in each region—the highlands definitely urban, the lowlands less so—reflect the same contrast.
Early religious life
Early religious phenomena can only be deduced from archaeological remains. Numerous clay figurines found in tombs afford little evidence of religious beliefs during the agricultural Pre-Classic periods of Zacatenco and Ticomán (roughly 1500 to the 1st century bce). It is possible, however, that terra-cotta statuettes of women were meant to represent an agricultural deity, a goddess of the crops. Two-headed figurines found at Tlatilco, a site of the late Pre-Classic, may portray a supernatural being. Clay idols of a fire god in the form of an old man with an incense burner on his back date from the same period.
The first stone monument on the Mexican plateau is the pyramid of Cuicuilco, near Mexico City. In fact, it is rather a truncated cone, with a stone core; the rest is made of sun-dried brick with a stone facing. It shows the main features of the Mexican pyramids as they were developed in later times. It was doubtless a religious monument, crowned by a temple built on the terminal platform and surrounded with tombs. The building of such a structure obviously required a protracted and organized effort under the command of the priests.
The final phase of the Pre-Classic cultures of the central highland forms a transition from the village to the city, from rural to urban life. This was a far-reaching social and intellectual revolution, bringing about new religious ideas together with new art forms and theocratic regimes. It is significant that Olmec statuettes have been found at Tlatilco with late Pre-Classic material.
The rise of Olmec civilization
It was once assumed that the Formative stage was characterized only by simple farming villages. Scholars now realize, however, that coexisting with these peasantlike cultures was a great civilization, the Olmec, that had arisen in the humid lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco, in Mexico.
The Olmec were perhaps the greatest sculptors of ancient Mesoamerica. Whether carving tiny jade figures or gigantic basalt monuments, they worked with a great artistry that led a number of archaeologists to doubt their considerable antiquity, although radiocarbon dates from the type site of La Venta showed that Olmec civilization was indeed Formative, its beginning dating to at least 1,000 years before the advent of Maya civilization.
San Lorenzo is now established as the oldest known Olmec centre. In fact, excavation has shown it to have taken on the appearance of an Olmec site by 1150 bce and to have been destroyed, perhaps by invaders, around 900 bce. Thus, the Olmec achieved considerable cultural heights within the Early Formative, at a time when the rest of Mesoamerica was at best on a Neolithic level. The reasons for its precocious rise must have had something to do with its abundant rainfall and the rich alluvial soil deposited along the broad, natural levees that flank the waterways of the southern Gulf coast. Thus, the ecological potential for corn farmers in this counterpart of Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent was exceptionally high. The levee lands, however, were not limitless, and increasingly dense populations must inevitably have led to competition for their control. Out of such conflicts would have crystallized a dominant landowning class, perhaps a group of well-armed lineages. It was this elite that created the Olmec civilization of San Lorenzo.
In appearance, the San Lorenzo site is a compact plateau rising about 160 feet (about 49 metres) above the surrounding plains. Cutting into it are deep ravines that were once thought to be natural but that are now known to be man-made, formed by the construction of long ridges that jut out from the plateau on the northwest, west, and south sides. Excavations have proved that at least the top 25 to 35 feet (about 8 to 11 metres) of the site was built by human labour. There are about 200 small mounds on the surface of the site, each of which once supported a dwelling house of pole and thatch, which indicates that it was both a ceremonial centre, with political and religious functions, and a minuscule town.
San Lorenzo is most noted for its extraordinary stone monuments. Many of these, perhaps most, were deliberately smashed or otherwise mutilated about 900 bce and buried in long lines within the ridges and elsewhere at the site. The monuments weighed as much as 44 tons and were carved from basalt from the Cerro Cintepec, a volcanic flow in the Tuxtla Mountains about 50 air miles to the northwest. It is believed that the stones were somehow dragged down to the nearest navigable stream and from there transported on rafts up the Coatzacoalcos River to the San Lorenzo area. The amount of labour involved must have been enormous and so would have the social controls necessary to see the job through to its completion.
Most striking are the “colossal heads,” human portraits on a stupendous scale. Several of these are now known from San Lorenzo, the largest of which is nine feet (more than 2.5 metres) high. The visages are flat-faced, with thickened lips and staring eyes. Each has a headgear resembling a football helmet, and it is entirely possible that these “helmets” were in fact protective coverings in a rubber-ball game that is known from Olmec figurines to have been played at San Lorenzo.
The central theme of the Olmec religion was a pantheon of deities each of which usually was a hybrid between jaguar and human infant, often crying or snarling with open mouth. This “were-jaguar” is the hallmark of Olmec art, and it was the unity of objects in this style that first suggested to scholars that they were dealing with a new and previously unknown civilization. There is actually a whole spectrum of such were-jaguar forms in Olmec art, ranging from the almost purely feline to the human in which only a trace of jaguar can be seen.
These Olmec monuments were generally carved in the round with great technical prowess, even though the only methods available were pounding and pecking with stone tools. Considerable artistry can also be seen in the pottery figurines of San Lorenzo, which depict nude and sexless individuals with were-jaguar traits.
Exotic raw materials brought into San Lorenzo from distant regions suggest that the early Olmec controlled a large trading network over much of Mesoamerica. Obsidian, used for blades, flakes, and dart points, was imported from highland Mexico and Guatemala. Most items were obviously for the luxury trade, such as iron ore for mirrors and various fine stones such as serpentine employed in the lapidary industry. One material that is conspicuously absent, however, is jade, which does not appear in Olmec sites until after 900 bce and the fall of San Lorenzo.
There is evidence that the Olmec sent groups from their Gulf coast “heartland” into the Mesoamerican highlands toward the end of the Early Formative, in all likelihood to guarantee that goods bound for San Lorenzo would reach their destination. San Lorenzo-type Olmec ceramics and figurines have been found in burials at several sites in the Valley of Mexico, such as Tlapacoya, and in the state of Morelos. The Olmec involvement with the rest of Mesoamerica continued into the Middle Formative and probably reached its peak at that time.
San Lorenzo is not the only Olmec centre known for the Early Formative. Laguna de los Cerros, just south of the Cerro Cintepec in Veracruz, appears to have been a large Olmec site with outstanding sculptures. La Venta, just east of the Tabasco border, was another contemporary site, but it reached its height after San Lorenzo had gone into decline.
Middle Formative period (900–300 bce)
Once ceramics had been adopted in Mesoamerica, techniques of manufacture and styles of shape and decoration tended to spread rapidly and widely across many cultural frontiers. These rapid diffusions, called horizons, enable archaeologists to link different cultures on the same time level. Good horizon markers for the Early Formative are colour zones of red pigment set off by incised lines; complex methods of rocker stamping (a mode of impressing the wet clay with the edge of a stick or shell); the tecomate, or globular, neckless jar; and Olmec excised pottery. The beginning of the Middle Formative over much of Mesoamerica is marked by the diffusion of a very hard, white pottery, decorated with incised lines, and by solid pottery figurines with large, staring eyes formed by a punch. The people who replaced and probably overthrew the Olmec of San Lorenzo about 900 bce had such pottery and figurines, the ultimate origins of which are still a puzzle.
During the Middle Formative, cultural regionalism increased, although the Olmec presence can be widely detected. The transition to fully settled life had taken place everywhere, and burgeoning populations occupied hamlets, villages, and perhaps even small towns throughout Mesoamerica, both highland and lowland.
Olmec civilization at La Venta
La Venta was located on an almost inaccessible island, surrounded at that time by the Tonalá River; the river now divides the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. As San Lorenzo’s fortunes fell, La Venta’s rose, and between 800 and 400 bce it was the most important site in Mesoamerica.
At the centre of La Venta is a 100-foot (30-metre)-high mound of earth and clay that may well house the tomb of a great Olmec ruler. Immediately north of the Great Mound is a narrow north–south plaza flanked by a pair of long mounds. Beyond the plaza is a ceremonial enclosure surrounded by a “fence” made entirely of upright shafts of columnar basalt. A low, round mound on the north side of the ceremonial enclosure contained several tombs, one of which was surrounded and covered by basalt columns. In this tomb were found the bundled remains of two children, accompanied by magnificent ornaments of jade. Offerings were not only placed with the dead but were also deposited as caches in the site, especially along the north–south axis of the ceremonial centre.
Among the most beautiful objects manufactured by the Olmec were the concave mirrors of iron ore, which were pierced to be worn around the neck. These could throw pictures on a flat surface and could probably start fires on hot tinder. Olmec leaders at La Venta, whether they were kings or priests, undoubtedly used them to impress the populace with their seemingly supernatural powers. Olmec sculptors continued to produce the basalt monuments, including colossal heads and “altars,” that have been found at La Venta. Significantly, an increasing number of monuments were carved in relief, and some of these were stelae with rather elaborate scenes obviously based upon historical or contemporary events.
Olmec colonization in the Middle Formative
From the Middle Formative there are important Olmec sites located along what appears to have been a highland route to the west to obtain the luxury items that seemed to have been so desperately needed by the Olmec elite—e.g., jade, serpentine, iron ore for mirrors, cinnabar, and so forth. Olmec sites in Puebla, the Valley of Mexico, and Morelos are generally located at the ends of valleys near or on major passes; they were perhaps trading stations garrisoned by Olmec troops. The largest of these sites is Chalcatzingo, Morelos, a cult centre located among three denuded volcanic peaks rising from a plain. On a talus slope at the foot of the middle peak are huge boulders on which have been carved Olmec reliefs in La Venta style. The principal relief shows an Olmec woman, richly garbed, seated within the mouth of a cave; above her, cumulus clouds pour down rain.
Similar Olmec reliefs, usually narrative and often depicting warriors brandishing clubs, have been located on the Pacific plain of Chiapas (Mexico) and Guatemala. Since about 1960, spectacular Olmec cave paintings have been found in Guerrero, offering some idea of what the Olmec artists could do when they worked with a large spectrum of pigments and on flat surfaces.
Olmec culture or civilization did not spread eastward from its Veracruz–Tabasco centres into the Maya lowlands, but occasional Olmec artifacts have been found in Formative Maya contexts, such as at Seibal, in southern Petén, Guatemala. Maya Formative Period occupations, represented by settled farming villages and well-made ceramics, date to c. 1000 bce in the lowlands of Guatemala and Belize. It seems reasonably certain, however, that at this early date great ceremonial centres, comparable to those of Olmec San Lorenzo or La Venta, were never constructed in the Maya lowlands.
It was formerly thought that the Olmec worshiped only one god, a rain deity depicted as a were-jaguar, but study has shown that there were at least 10 distinct gods represented in Olmec art. Surely present were several important deities of the later, established Mesoamerican pantheon, such as the fire god, rain god, corn god, and Feathered Serpent. Other aspects of mental culture are less well-known; some Olmec jades and a monument from La Venta have non-calendrical hieroglyphs, but none of this writing has been deciphered.
To sum up the Olmec achievement, not only was this the first high culture in Mesoamerica—one that had certainly achieved political statehood—but either it or cultures influenced by it lie at the base of every other Mesoamerican civilization.
Early Monte Albán
Monte Albán is a prominent series of interconnected hills lying near Oaxaca, Mexico. One of these was completely leveled off in Middle Formative times to serve as the base for a site that was to become the Zapotec people’s most important capital. Prior to that time, the Early Formative ancestral Zapotec had lived in scattered villages and at least one centre of some importance, San José Mogote. San José Mogote shows evidence of Olmec trade and contacts dating to the time of San Lorenzo.
At Monte Albán, during the earliest, or Monte Albán I, epoch of that site’s history, a peculiar group of reliefs was carved on stone slabs and affixed to the front of a rubble-faced platform mound and around a contiguous court. The reliefs are usually called danzantes, a name derived from the notion that they represent human figures in dance postures. Actually, almost all of the danzante sculptures show Olmecoid men in strange, rubbery postures as though they were swimming in honey. From their open mouths and closed eyes, it is assumed that they are meant to represent dead persons. On many danzantes one or more unreadable hieroglyphs appear near the heads of the figures, most likely standing for the names of the sacrificed lords of groups beaten in combat by the Zapotec. Several slabs also bear calendrical notations, and it can be stated that the Middle Formative elite of Monte Albán were the first in Mesoamerica to develop writing and the calendar (at least in written form).
The Valley of Mexico in the Middle Formative
The cultures of central Mexico tended to lag behind those of southern Mexico in the development of political and religious complexity. The presence of Olmec figurines and ceramics in Early Formative burials in the Valley of Mexico has been noted, but the local communities of that time were of a modest village sort, as were those of the succeeding Middle Formative. On the western shores of the great lake filling the Valley of Mexico, for instance, remains of several simple villages have been uncovered that must have been not unlike small settlements that can be found in the Mexican hinterland today. The people who lived at El Arbolillo and Zacatenco had simply terraced off village refuse to make platforms on which their pole-and-thatch houses were built. Metates and manos are plentiful; pottery is relatively plain—featuring the abundant hard, white-slipped ware of the Middle Formative—and small female figurines are present by the thousands. Subsistence was based upon corn farming and upon hunting. In some Middle Formative sites, however, such as Tlatilco, there is evidence of Olmec influence, as in the previous Early Formative Period. There are also indications that ceremonial pyramid construction began in the latter part of the Middle Formative at Cuicuilco, a site in the southern part of the valley, which was to become a major centre in the succeeding Late Formative Period.
The Maya in the Middle Formative
In the Maya highlands, the key archaeological region has always been the broad, fertile Valley of Guatemala around present-day Guatemala City. The earliest occupation is known as the Arevalo phase, a village culture of the Early to Middle Formative. It was followed by Las Charcas, a Middle Formative culture known largely from the contents of bottle-shaped pits found dug into the subsoil on the western edge of the modern city. Extremely fine ceramics have been excavated from them, including red-on-white bowls with animal figures, effigy vessels, three-footed cups, and peculiar three-pronged incense burners. Solid female figurines are also present.
The earliest Middle Formative cultures of the Maya lowlands are called, collectively, the Xe horizon. They apparently developed from antecedent Early Formative cultures of the Maya lowlands that have been discussed above. The problem of the origin of the Mayan-speaking people has not been solved. It may be that they were Olmec people who had been forced out of their homeland to the west by the collapse of San Lorenzo. There were already peoples in the Maya lowlands in Early Formative times, however, and if the early Maya were Olmec, they brought little of their Olmec culture with them. Another hypothesis is that the earliest Maya descended to their lowland homelands from the Guatemalan highlands.
In the Maya lowlands the Mamom cultures developed out of those of Xe times. Mamom shares many similarities with the highland Maya at Las Charcas: pottery is almost entirely monochrome—red, orange, black, and white—and figurines are female with the usual punched and appliquéd embellishments. Toward the end of the Middle Formative, or after about 600 bce, Mamom peoples began building small ceremonial centres and modest-sized pyramidal platforms.
Late Formative Period (300 bce–100 ce)
Probably the most significant features of the Late Formative are (1) the transformation of Olmec civilization in southeastern Mesoamerica into something approaching the earliest lowland Maya civilization and (2) the abrupt appearance, toward the end of the Late Formative, of fully urban culture at Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico. Most of the distinctive cultures that were to become the great Classic civilizations began to take shape at this time. There was no unifying force in the Late Formative comparable to the earlier Olmec; rather, regionalism and local cultural integration were the rule. There were, however, horizon traits, particularly in pottery, that were almost universal. Ceramics became elaborate in shape, often with composite or recurved outlines, hollow, bulbous feet, and flangelike protrusions encircling the vessel. The use of slips of a number of different colours as pottery decoration at times approached the elaborate polychromes of Classic times.
The idea of constructing temple-pyramids was probably also a general trait. It was a Mesoamerican custom to bury a dead person beneath the floor of his own house, which was often then abandoned by the bereaved. As an elite class of noble lineages became distinguished from the mass of the people, the simple house platforms serving as sepulchres might have become transformed into more imposing structures, ending in the huge pyramids of the Late Formative and Classic, which surely had funerary functions. The deceased leader or the gods from which he claimed descent, or both, would then have been worshiped in a “house of god” on the temple summit. These pyramids became the focal point of Mesoamerican ceremonial life, as well as the centres of settlement.
Valley of Mexico
The Cuicuilco-Ticomán culture succeeded the Middle Formative villages of the valley but retained many of their traits, such as the manufacture of solid handmade figurines. Of considerable interest is the type site of Cuicuilco, located on the southwestern edge of the valley. Lava from a nearby volcano covers all of Cuicuilco, including the lower part of the round “pyramid” for which it is best known. Ceramic analysis and radiocarbon dating have proved that the flow occurred at about the beginning of the Common Era. Rising up in four tiers, the Cuicuilco pyramid has a clay-and-rubble core faced with broken lava blocks. The summit was reached by ramps on two sides. Circular temples were traditionally dedicated in Mesoamerica to Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, and he may have been the presiding deity of Cuicuilco.
In the Valley of Teotihuacán, a kind of side pocket on the northeastern margin of the Valley of Mexico, Cuicuilco-Ticomán culture eventually took on a remarkable outline, for there is evidence that by the beginning of the Common Era a great city had been planned. There is little doubt that by the Proto-Classic stage (100 ce–300) it had become the New World’s first urban civilization (see belowTeotihuacán).
Valley of Oaxaca
Occupation of the Monte Albán site continued uninterrupted, but ceramic evidence for Monte Albán II culture indicates that cultural influences from southeastern Mexico were reaching the Zapotec people. On the southern end of the site’s main plaza is a remarkable stone structure called Building J, shaped like an arrow pointing southwest and honeycombed with galleries. Some believe it to have been an astronomical observatory. Incised slabs are fixed to its exterior; these include some older danzantes as well as depictions of Zapotec place glyphs from which are suspended the inverted heads of dead chiefs—surely again the vanquished enemies of Monte Albán. Dates are given in the 52-year Calendar Round, with coefficients for days and months expressed by bar-and-dot numerals, a system that is first known for Monte Albán I and that became characteristic of the Classic Maya. Throughout its long Formative and Classic occupation, the dominant ware of Monte Albán is a fine gray pottery, elaborated in Monte Albán II into the usual Late Formative shapes.
Veracruz and Chiapas
La Venta suffered the fate of San Lorenzo, having been destroyed by violence around 400 bce. Olmec civilization subsequently disappeared or was transformed into one or more of the cultures of the southeastern lowlands.
One centre that retained a strong Olmec tradition, however, was Tres Zapotes, near the Tuxtla Mountains in the old Olmec “heartland.” Its most famous monument, the fragmentary Stela C, is clearly epi-Olmec on the basis of a jaguar-monster mask carved in relief on its obverse. On the reverse is a column of numerals in the bar-and-dot system, which was read by its discoverer, Matthew W. Stirling, as a date in the Maya calendar corresponding to 31 bce; this is more than a century earlier than any known dated inscription from the Maya area itself. Thus, it is highly probable that this calendrical system, formerly thought to be a Maya invention, was developed in the Late Formative by epi-Olmec peoples living outside the Maya area proper.
Izapa, type site of the Izapan civilization, is a huge temple centre near modern Tapachula, Chiapas, on the hot Pacific coast plain. Its approximately 80 pyramidal mounds were built from earth and clay faced with river boulders. A large number of carved stone stelae have been found at Izapa, almost all of which date to the Late Formative and Proto-Classic. Typically, in front of each stela is a round altar, often crudely shaped like a toad.
These stelae are of extraordinary interest, for they contain a wealth of information on Late Formative religious concepts prevalent on the border of the Maya area. Izapan stelae are carved in relief with narrative scenes derived from mythology and legend; among the depictions are warfare and decapitation, ceremonies connected with the sacred world tree, and meetings of what seem to be tribal elders. Many deities are shown, each of which seems derived from an Olmec prototype.
Sites with Izapan-style sculpture are distributed in a broad arc extending from Tres Zapotes in the former Olmec region, across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into coastal Chiapas and Guatemala, and up into the Guatemalan highlands. Izapan civilization is clearly the intermediary between Olmec and Classic Maya in time and in cultural content, for the following early Maya traits are foreshadowed by it: (1) the stela–altar complex, (2) long-lipped deities, (3) hieroglyphic writing and Long Count dates on some monuments, (4) such iconographic elements as a U-shaped motif, and (5) a cluttered, baroque, and painterly relief style that emphasizes narrative. An important site pertaining to this Izapan culture is Abaj Takalik, on the Pacific slopes of Guatemala, to the east of Izapa. Three sculptural styles are represented there: Olmec or Olmecoid, Izapan, and Classic Maya. Among the latter is one stela with a date read as 126 ce, earlier than any monuments discovered in the Maya lowlands.
Perhaps it was not Izapa itself but the great site of Kaminaljuyú, on the western edge of Guatemala City, that transmitted the torch of Izapan civilization to the lowland Maya. This centre once consisted of more than 200 earth and clay mounds, most of which have been destroyed. The major occupation is ascribed to the Miraflores phase, the Late Formative culture of the Valley of Guatemala. Some of these huge Miraflores mounds contained log tombs of incredible richness. In one, the deceased lord was accompanied by sacrificed followers or captives. As many as 340 objects were placed with him, including jademosaicmasks, jade ear spools and necklaces, bowls of chloriteschist, and pottery vessels of great beauty. Also present in the tombs are peculiar “mushroom stones,” which may actually have been used in rites connected with hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The earliest Maya civilization of the lowlands
By the Late Formative, the lowland Maya had begun to shape a civilization that was to become the greatest in the New World. The Petén-Yucatán Peninsula lacks many raw materials and has a relatively low agricultural potential. But what it does have in limitless quantities is readily quarried limestone for building purposes and flint for stonework. Cement and plaster could easily be produced by burning limestone or shells.
The heart of the Maya civilization was always northern Petén, in Guatemala, where the oldest dated Maya stelae are found, although this presents something of a problem in cultural-historical interpretation, since the earliest prototypes for these stelae—as mentioned above—have been found in Pacific-littoral and highland Guatemala. The Late Formative culture of Petén is called Chicanel, evidence of which has been found at many Maya centres. Chicanel pottery includes dishes with wide-everted and grooved rims, bowls with composite silhouette, and vessels resembling ice buckets. Figurines are curiously absent.
Architecture was already quite advanced and had taken a form peculiar to the Maya. Temple platforms were built by facing a cemented-rubble core with thick layers of plaster. At the site of Uaxactún, Structure E-VII-sub affords a good idea of a Chicanel temple-platform. It is a four-sided, stucco-covered, stepped pyramid with pairs of stylized god masks flanking stairways on each side. On its summit was a thatched-roof temple. At Tikal, the giant among Maya ceremonial centres, the so-called Acropolis was begun in Chicanel times, and there was a great use of white-stuccoed platforms and stairways, with flanking polychromed masks as at Uaxactún. Most importantly, there is evidence from Tikal that the Maya architects were already building masonry superstructures with the corbel vault principle—i.e., with archlike structures the sides of which extend progressively inward until they meet at the top. The large sizes of Chicanel populations and the degree of political centralization that existed by this time are further attested to by the discovery in the 20th century of the huge site of El Mirador, in the extreme northern part of Petén. The mass of El Mirador construction dwarfs even that of Tikal, although El Mirador was only substantially occupied through the Chicanel phase.
Chicanel-like civilization is also known in Yucatán, where some temple pyramids of enormous size are datable to the Late Formative. An outstanding site is the cave of Loltún in Yucatán, where a relief figure of a standing leader in pure Izapan style is accompanied by a number of unreadable hieroglyphs as well as a notation in the 260-day count. This inscription raises the question of writing and the calendar among the lowland Maya in the Late Formative. In the early 21st century archaeologists discovered Maya hieroglyphs—in addition to stunning polychrome murals—dating from as early as c. 100 bce at the site of San Bartolo in northeastern Guatemala. The finding suggests that several important intellectual innovations considered to be typically Mayan were developed beyond the Maya area proper and appeared there before the close of the Formative. Izapan civilization nevertheless appears to have played a crucial role in this evolutionary process.
EarlyClassic period (100–600 ce)
Definition of the Classic
In the study of the Classic stage, there has been a strong bias in favour of the Maya; this is not surprising in view of the fact that the Maya have been studied far longer than any other people in Mesoamerica. But the concept of a “Classic” period is a case of the Maya tail wagging the Mesoamerican dog, since the usual span given to that stage—250–900 ce—is the period during which the Maya were erecting dated stone monuments. This brackets the Maya apogee, but for most areas of non-Maya Mesoamerica only the first half of the period may be accurately called a “golden age.” While the famous and yet mysterious Maya collapse took place at about 900 ce, in many other regions this downfall occurred almost three centuries earlier.
Qualitatively, there is little to differentiate the Classic from the Late Formative that preceded it. Various tendencies that were crystallizing in the last centuries before the Common Era reached fulfillment in the Classic. Two cultures stand out beyond all others. One is that of Teotihuacán, which during the Early Classic played a role in Mesoamerica similar to that which Olmec had performed in the Early Formative. The second is the lowland Maya civilization, which during its six centuries of almost unbroken evolution in the humid forests reached cultural heights never achieved before or since by New World natives. The contrast between the two—one urban and expansionist, the other less urban and non-expansionist—exemplifies well the cultural results of the ecological possibilities offered by highland and lowland Mesoamerica.
Teotihuacán, which was located in the Valley of Teotihuacán, a pocketlike extension of the Valley of Mexico on its northeastern side, was probably the largest city of the New World before the arrival of the Spaniards. At its height, toward the close of the 6th century ce, it covered about eight square miles and may have housed more than 150,000 inhabitants. The city was divided into quarters by two great avenues that crosscut each other at right angles, and the entire city was laid out on a grid plan oriented to these avenues. The Avenue of the Dead, the main north–south artery of the city, is aligned to a point 16° east of true north, which may have had astrological meaning.
Because irrigation plays some part in the present-day agricultural economy of the Valley of Teotihuacán, it has been suggested that the Early Classic city also was based upon this subsistence system. It is almost inconceivable, however, that a city of such proportions could have relied upon the food production of its own valley or even upon the Valley of Mexico, whether irrigated or not.
Planning and construction of Teotihuacán began, according to radiocarbon dates, about the beginning of the Common Era, in the Tzacualli phase. At this time, the major avenues were laid out and construction of the major ceremonial structures along the Avenue of the Dead began. Figurines and potsherds extracted from fill inside the 200-foot (61-metre)-high Pyramid of the Sun, the most prominent feature of Teotihuacán, prove that this was erected by the end of the Tzacualli phase. The pyramid rises in four great stages, but there is a fifth and much smaller stage between the third and fourth. An impressive stairway rises dramatically on its west side, facing the Avenue of the Dead. Reexamination suggested the presence of a huge tomb at its base, but this has never been excavated.
On the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead is the Pyramid of the Moon, very similar to that of the Sun but with an additional platform-temple jutting out on the south. This exhibits the talud-tablero architectural motif that is typical of Teotihuacán culture: on each body or tier of a stepped pyramid is a rectangular frontal panel (tablero) supported by a sloping batter (talud). The tablero is surrounded by a kind of projecting frame, and the recessed portion of the panel usually bears a polychrome mural applied to the stuccoed surface.
Near the exact centre of the city and just east of the Avenue of the Dead is the Ciudadela (“Citadel”), a kind of sunken court surrounded on all four sides by platforms supporting temples. In the middle of the sunken plaza is the so-called Temple of Quetzalcóatl, which is dated to the second phase of Teotihuacán, Miccaotli. Along the balustrades of its frontal stairway and undulating along the talud-tablero bodies of each stage of this stepped pyramid are sculptured representations of Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent. Alternating with the Feathered Serpents on the tableros are heads of another monster that can be identified with the Fire Serpent—bearer of the Sun on its diurnal journey across the sky.
The moment when the hunter-gatherers laid down their spears and began farming around 11,000 years ago is often interpreted as one of the most rapid and significant transitions in human history – the ‘Neolithic Revolution’.
By producing and storing food, Homo sapiens both mastered the natural world and took the first significant steps towards thousands of years of runaway technological development. The advent of specialist craftsmen, an increase in fertility and the construction of permanent architecture are just some of the profound changes that followed.
Of course, the transition to agriculture was far from rapid. The period around 14,500 years ago has been regarded as the point at which the first indications appear of cultural change associated with agriculture: the exploitation of wild grains and the construction of stone buildings. Farming is believed to have begun in what is known as the Fertile Crescent in the Levant region, which stretches from northern Egypt through Israel and Jordan to the shores of the Persian Gulf, and then occurred independently in other regions of the world at different times from 11,000 years ago.
Recent evidence, however, has suggested that the first stirrings of the revolution began even earlier, perhaps as far back as 19,000 years ago. Stimulating this reinterpretation of human prehistory are discoveries by the Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project (EFAP), a group of archaeologists and bioarchaeologists working in the Jordanian desert comprising University of Cambridge’s Dr Jay Stock, Dr Lisa Maher (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr Tobias Richter (University of Copenhagen).
Over the past four years, their research has uncovered dramatic evidence of changes in the behaviour of hunter-gatherers that casts new light on agriculture’s origins, as Dr Stock described: “Our work suggests that these hunter-gatherer communities were starting to congregate in large numbers in specific places, build architecture and show more-complex ritual and symbolic burial practices – signs of a greater attachment to a location and a changing pattern of social complexity that imply they were on the trajectory toward agriculture.”
Working at the fringes of the Fertile Crescent, at sites in the Azraq Basin and the marshlands of Jordan, the EFAP team is excavating the archaeological remains of the hunter-gatherers who occupied the region. Such sites have been under studied, said Dr Stock: “Because these early hunter-gatherers have been perceived as building only transient camp sites, they have been largely disregarded in explanations of the development of agriculture. Instead, excavations have focused on the later ‘Natufian’ period, beginning around 14,500 years ago, since this period more clearly shows cultural precursors of the transition to agriculture.”
Today, the Azraq Basin is a 12,000 sq km area of dusty, wind-blown desert, and a very challenging place to work. Temperatures can soar to 45°C, requiring the researchers to start field work at 5 am and finish by midday when the heat and winds become too strong to allow work to continue.
But when the first humans were leaving Africa, the open grasslands and lush marshlands of the Fertile Crescent teemed with gazelle, antelope and plant life. Given this region is situated at the crossroads between Africa and the rest of the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that it should be the site of regional agricultural innovation.
Few previous archaeological excavations have been carried out in this inhospitable terrain, most instead focusing on regions closer to the Mediterranean. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the researchers set out four years ago to redress the balance.
Dr Stock’s expertise lies in the analysis of hunter-gatherer bones. Over the past 15 years, he has analysed over 1,400 skeletons from around the world to understand what it is about early humans that made them such successful colonisers of the natural environment.
One of the most startling of the researchers’ findings in Jordan has been the hunter-gatherer graves. Evidence suggests that, far from simple burials, the hunter-gatherers had elaborate mortuary and sociocultural practices. In one grave in ʻAyn Qasiyya, an adult male was placed in marshland in a sitting position, and was likely to have been tightly wrapped in cloth. A previous finding by another archaeologist at Kharaneh IV was a burial of an older man underneath a hut floor, his age suggesting that he would have required the care of others in life.
At another site, ‘Uyun-al-Hammam, a University of Toronto-based project led by Dr Maher has excavated a total of 11 burials, some of which show elaborate mortuary treatments. Indeed, one grave that includes a human buried together with a fox, said Dr Maher: “suggests a close emotional or symbolic tie between humans and foxes prior to the first domesticated animal – the dog – and shows continuity in burial and social practices with the later Neolithic”. Dr Stock’s study of the human remains demonstrates that these people were ancestral to the later farmers.
The researchers argue that these examples may represent an increasing cultural sophistication and a greater complexity in the relationship between humans and animals – trends that had only previously been identified in later time periods.
Mega camp site
A major focus of the work of the EFAP team over the past four years has been the excavation of the site of Kharaneh IV, in the Azraq Desert of eastern Jordan. The site is much more than the sort of temporary camp site normally ascribed to hunter-gatherer groups. Covering almost two hectares, the 19,000-year-old site was occupied for 1,200 years and is, as Dr Stock described, “so huge, it’s the earliest sign of human activity that is large enough to be visible on Google Earth.”
“To produce the debris of stone tools and bones, in some places almost 3 m deep, we believe that many groups of hunter-gatherers would meet and live together for several months of the year before splitting into mobile groups at other times.”
The team is researching the area in astonishing detail – in a technique known as 100% flotation, every square centimetre excavated is floated to check for plant remains and charcoal. As Dr Richter pointed out: “even very small remains are providing very important clues towards our understanding of the relationship between prehistoric humans and their habitat”.
To date, they have found plant remains, animal bones carved with repeated incised motifs, stones carved with geometric patterns, stone tools in their thousands, hearths, pierced shells and, just recently, oval hut structures. As the work continues, all indications point towards an advanced cultural and technological complexity in the exploitation of bone, shell, plants and architecture. “The size of the site, combined with evidence for huts and other symbolic goods, imply that Kharaneh IV was long-term and repeatedly occupied,” said Dr Stock. “It could be regarded as a precursor to later farming villages.”
The revolution that wasn’t
The team’s discoveries extend many aspects of the behavioural complexity associated with the Neolithic to about 10,000 years earlier, pushing back the true roots of the transition to agriculture.
“On evolutionary timescales, the transition to agriculture can undoubtedly be regarded in revolutionary terms,” said Dr Stock. “But, we can now see this as a culturally dynamic process that began much earlier than previously thought.”
“This picture would not have come together through the excavation of one site alone,” he added. “The burial complexity of ʻUyun-al-Hammam and ʻAyn Qasiyya, together with the architecture and size of the settlement at Kharaneh IV, collectively offer glimpses of a protracted period in which humans worked through the cultural and biological changes that needed to happen before village life and the systematic exploitation of grain could emerge.”