Link to Anthropomorphic hollow clay figure of the "shaft-tomb tradition" representing a horned individual with an object in his hand. Eduardo Williams
Prehispanic West México: A Mesoamerican Culture Area
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Table of Contents
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The Geographical Setting
The First Inhabitants of the Occidente
The Early Formative Period
The Late Formative Period
The Classic Period
The Epiclassic and Early Postclassic Periods
The Tarascan Empire in the Protohistoric Period
Prehispanic Urbanization at Tzintzuntzan
The Tarascan Empire within the Mesoamerican world system
Final Remarks
List of Figures
Sources Cited
Eduardo Williams' Vita


The first archaeologists that wrote about western and northwestern México pointed out that this region was in some way or ways connected to Mesoamerica. Later scholars thought that the region's archaeology belonged to the area of Mesoamerican studies, while most recent writers think it should be incorporated into a newly-defined Mesoamerica (Gorenstein 1996:89). Over the last two or three decades, the pace of archaeological work in western and northwestern México has accelerated, and archaeologists have made discoveries of new sites and offered new interpretations that have shown the pronounced cultural complexity of the area in Prehispanic times. At first, these archaeologists expected to have their work noted in the publications of Mesoamericanists but to their surprise, this was not, and has not been, the case with the expected frequency and regularity. Mesoamericanists, many of whom still work from the perspective of central México and points south, could not see the relevance of such studies to what they considered the "Mesoamerican nuclear area". In some sense, archaeologists of western and northwestern México were operating as if looking through a one-way mirror through which they could see out but were not visible to their associates on the other side. It is astonishing to scholars working in West México to see that their increasingly radical arguments have not been recognized or taken up by other Mesoamericanists, and that the archaeology of this region has had little influence in defining Mesoamerica and Mesoamerican high culture (Gorenstein 1996:89). The present article includes an up-to-date summary of West-Mexican archaeology, that will allow scholars and lay readers alike to gain access to recent information and viewpoints on one of the most important and fascinating areas of Mesoamerica (for recent contributions to West Mexican archaeology, see Williams 1992, 1994, 1996, 2003, 2004; Williams and Weigand 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001; Williams et al. 2004).

The area we now know as West México, (henceforth called Occidente), covers a vast geographical region, presently occupied by the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit, Sinaloa and part of Guanajuato (Figures 1 and 2). In the Prehispanic past, this area was characterized by great ecological diversity and a wide variety of cultural manifestations. The Occidente also had a great number and variety of ecological niches, which propitiated different forms of behavior; that is to say, a multiplicity of cultures. As evidence of this great cultural diversity we can mention the large number of Indian languages spoken in the western regions of México at the time of the conquest, as well as the diversity seen in the area's archaeological record. The Occidente's peculiar cultural configuration, as well as its geographical location, gave this area an important role as a corridor through which ideas were exported (even to such distant areas as the southwestern United States). Goods such as turquoise and metals flowed through this area, and many human groups traversed it during their migrations, transforming earlier ways of life (Schöndube 1994:19).

It is also clear that West Mexican peoples interacted with their Mesoamerican neighbors and contributed in important ways to the enrichment of the Mesoamerican world system. According to Clement Meighan (1974), several authors have pointed out that this area lay outside the basic Mesoamerican cultural tradition, but this idea is more accurate for some periods than for others, and applies with full strength only to the shaft tomb tradition (discussed below). During the millennium preceding the arrival of the Spanish, West México was a regional variant of the Mesoamerican tradition (Meighan 1974:1260). These ideas have been expanded upon by Weigand and Foster (1985:2), who affirm that Mesoamerican civilization had several nuclear areas or "cultural hearths", each one flowering in a distinctive regional style. The Occidente was one such nuclear area.

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