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

The Classic Period (ca. A.D. 300-900)

Until recently, there was very little knowledge about this period in the Occidente, compared with central and southern Mesoamerica. Recent research, however, is slowly shedding more light on this area's cultural developments during the Classic period. Among recent projects is the excavation of the sites known as "Las Lomas" in the marshland and lake area around Zacapu, Michoacán (Figures 15, 16, and 17). These sites were occupied approximately during the first eight centuries of our era (Protoclassic-Classic periods), and were permanently abandoned afterwards. The abundance of funerary evidence in the area has led some scholars to believe that the populations that lived here reserved the Las Lomas sites for funerary purposes and other ritual activities, although it is possible that the people who went there to honor the dead would have also taken advantage of the plentiful lake and marsh resources (Arnauld et al. 1993:208; Carot 1994).

Loma Alta, the largest of the Lomas, was built for the most part of earth and rocks, supported by dozens of meters of walls. Loma Alta is a truly unique site: a ceremonial center of primary importance from a sociopolitical and religious perspective. The complex building methods employed at this site suggest the existence of a large, highly-skilled work force (Arnauld et al. 1993:209-210). Ceramics from this site, particularly the negative types, show great quality and technical skill in their manufacture, as well as a complex iconography (Carot 1992, 1994).

Carot and Susini (1989) reported on a funerary custom found at Loma Alta that has never been seen in other areas of the Occidente, and perhaps nowhere else in Mesoamerica: the pulverization of skeletons that were first cremated at high temperatures and then placed in ceramic funerary urns that were buried in pits. Finds included a total of 31 vessels (28 urns and three semi-spherical bowls), which contained 100 kilograms of ashes created by first cremating and then finely grinding the bones. However, it is difficult to tell whether these remains are human or animal in origin. It is possible to suggest that cremation was carried out in open-air ovens like the ones used in Snaketown, Arizona (Carot and Susini 1989:112-115).

In the Lake Cuitzeo basin the Classic period is represented by pottery from Queréndaro that shows a decorative technique not widely known elsewhere in Mesoamerica, which involved applying pigments after firing the vessels and then scraping them off to produce geometric designs. Figurines from this site are very similar to those from Chupícuaro, which has led some scholars to believe that they represent a cultural tradition with roots in the Formative period (Macías Goytia 1989:174).

Archaeological excavations at Loma Santa María -a site on the outskirts of the present-day city of Morelia- has produced very valuable information about local developments in Michoacán during the Classic period (Figures 18 and 19). The local sequence of human occupation probably began with a Preclassic culture whose techniques of pottery decoration show links with the Red-on-Cream and polychrome ceramics of Chupícuaro. Furthermore, the archaeological remains found at this site suggest a close interaction with central México. Pottery excavated here pertains to the Teotihuacán tradition, mainly the II, IIA and III phases. These links with central México may have made it possible for the local population to acquire items from other Mesoamerican areas as well, such as pottery from Morelos and Thin Orange ceramics (apparently produced in Puebla), as well as vases and "toys" that may have come from as far afield as the Gulf of México (Manzanilla 1988:153-155). The building methods found at the site, albeit simple, are very similar to the typical Teotihuacán talud-tablero (Cárdenas 1999a, Figure 4).

Another site in Michoacán where Teotihuacán materials have been found is Tres Cerritos, in the lake Cuitzeo basin (Macías Goytia 1994). The excavation of one of the mounds at this site uncovered a tomb with offerings that show stylistic features very similar to those of central Mexican materials. The tomb's excavation brought to light 19 primary burials, two human skulls with signs of decapitation and 11 secondary burials. Among the objects found in the tomb were 120 clay items, over 4,000 shell beads, jade, turquoise and rock crystal, as well as several conch shells and numerous obsidian ornaments and tools. A mask made of obsidian in a clear Teotihuacán style was also found in the tomb, as were abundant ceramic vessels identical to the ones from Teotihuacán. All of the above seems to indicate that the inhabitants of Tres Cerritos were somehow linked to the central Mexican highlands, specifically to the great city of Teotihuacán (Macías Goytia 1994:34-35).

Cultural contact between Michoacán and central México during the Classic period appears to have been a "two-way street" in which ancient michoacanos (as the inhabitants of the state of Michoacán are known), traveled to Teotihuacán and even resided in that great city. This is suggested by recent research at Teotihuacán, which has uncovered burials with ceramic evidence (figurines and vessels) that pertain stylistically to Michoacán (Gómez Chávez 1998). Teotihuacán was occupied by peoples from many areas of Mesoamerica, some of them living in ethnically-defined enclaves or "barrios" (Millon 1981). A significant proportion (29%) of the residents at Tlajinga 33, an apartment compound in this city, were immigrants, and the stable oxygen isotope values obtained from their skeletons seem to indicate that they came from at least two different regions, one of them likely Michoacán (White et al. 2004).

Another site that pertains roughly to the time period under discussion is Tinganio, located in the municipality of Tingambato, Michoacán. This site apparently had two periods of occupation, the first one between ca. A.D. 450 and 600, and the second one between A.D. 600 and 900. During this latter stage, an architectural style was introduced which has been described as similar to the one at Teotihuacán. The site's location apparently was chosen not only because it is in a privileged area with ample access to water and good soils (the site is at present surrounded by avocado orchards and the area has some of the most fertile land in all of Michoacán), but also because it is a strategic location between two ecological niches: the cooler highlands and the warmer lowlands. Tingambato may have served in Prehispanic times as a link between these two areas, as it did during colonial times. The evidence for exchange recovered at the site includes seashells from the Pacific, as well as turquoise from northern Mesoamerica, pyrite, jade and other resources (Piña Chan and Oi 1982:93-99).

The extant archaeological data seem to indicate that the Occidente beyond Michoacán -in particular the Jalisco-Colima-Nayarit area- was not as strongly influenced by central Mexican cultures during the Classic period as other areas of Mesoamerica, such as the valley of Oaxaca, the Gulf coast or the Guatemalan Highlands; this is evidenced by the distribution of Teotihuacán features throughout Mesoamerica (Santley 1983, Table 2). Finds of Teotihuacán ceramics in the Occidente, apart from the ones already discussed, have been few and far between, limited to a few sites in Colima (McBride 1975; Meighan 1972; Matos and Kelly 1974; Jarquín and Martínez 2002) (Figure 20). Archaeological data from Jalisco and Nayarit seem to indicate that during the Formative period the Occidente was free of Olmec influence, and during the Classic period it lacked a strong presence of cultures from central México (Weigand 1992:227-228).

The following extract from Michelet (1990:288) summarizes our knowledge of Michoacán during the Classic period:

It has been said that during the pre-Tarascan horizon Michoacán was characterized by a strong geo-cultural fragmentation. Today we… believe that this image of Michoacán during the Classic was simply a product of the scarcity of archaeological research…Although there was no strong centripetal force before the emergence of the Tarascan empire, certain unifying tendencies are evident through the first millennium A.D… [and] the Zacapu region… even attained some of Teotihuacán's prestige.

The period under discussion is still not well known in the Bajío region of Guanajuato, so we cannot speak of a "Classic period" in the same sense that we do in central México. It is preferable to simply refer to the chronological period (ca. A.D. 250-900), without implying anything about cultural evolution. Although this region had some similarities with central México and other areas, it had its own identity. The area's cultural roots in Chupícuaro were enriched by other traditions arriving by way of the Lerma River corridor (Sánchez and Marmolejo 1990:269; see also Cárdenas 1996, 1999b).

In the Bajío during the Classic period several civic-ceremonial centers were established on hilltops and slopes with defensive attributes, which may indicate some degree of political instability due to the presence of war-like groups in the region. These sites may have been used as refuges by the population that lived in the valley. They show an elaborate architecture and were established in locations with good access to, and control of, important resources. The archaeological sites found so far have pyramid-like structures located around plazas or patios, as well as platforms, "sunken patios" and, in some cases, circular buildings as well as causeways and columns. The distribution of these architectural features varies according to the topography, but the main pyramidal structure usually sits on the eastern part of the main plaza or patio (Sánchez and Marmolejo 1990:269).

During the second part of the Classic period, this region had its own cultural tradition, although certain instability is also discernible in the area, perhaps linked to the first incursions of "nomadic" groups from the neighboring northern regions (Sánchez and Marmolejo 1990:276; see also Faugere 1988). Prehispanic settlements in the Bajío are characterized by large clusters of civic and religious buildings, which are clearly set apart from the habitation areas. These clusters of buildings may have served as ruling centers of several political-territorial units. The architectural complexes are distributed over the landscape according to a formal pattern, oriented towards the four cardinal directions. They were built atop great platforms and included pyramidal structures, ball courts, elite dwellings, storage facilities, plazas, open spaces and causeways. (Brambila and Castañeda 1993:73; Cárdenas 1999b).

Turning now to the lake district of Jalisco, the Classic period is best represented by the Teuchitlán tradition (Weigand 1985, 1990a, 1994, 1996) (Figure 21). There, the Ahualulco phase (ca. A.D. 200-400) witnessed the intensification of cultural processes that were already underway during the Late Formative. The Teuchitlán people built monumental ball courts, usually associated with platforms or pyramids, as well as great architectural circles with high mounds. The lake area's center of gravity began to shift during the Classic period towards the Ahualulco-Teuchitlán-Tala valleys, with a decrease in sites in neighboring areas. This suggests that the demographic implosion of the Teuchitlán I phase (ca. A.D. 400-700) began in the Early Classic period (Weigand 1990a:29).

During this period, in the area under discussion, there was a two-tier hierarchy of ceremonial centers; the most complex of which (Teuchitlán) had ball courts and complexes with rectangular plazas and patios that may have served as elite residences. There were three types of non-ceremonial archaeological sites: (1) small villages with many plazas and patios with burial areas; (2) small villages with many plazas and patios without burial areas; and (3) small villages with at least two plaza-patio complexes, also without burial areas.

Weigand (1990a:31) has reported a complex settlement system in the Teuchitlán area with at least four levels of magnitude. All settlements share one particularly important trait: strategic locations with easy access to good agricultural lands. Indigenous agricultural infrastructure around Lake Magdalena, Jalisco, included large-scale works similar to the chinampas of central México or the "raised fields" of the Maya area. This sophisticated agricultural technology must have provided food for a large population in Prehispanic times, mainly during the Classic period (Stuart 2004).

One of the most important cultural manifestations in the Occidente is the "shaft-tomb tradition" (Galván 1991; Townsend 1998), which developed in the present-day states of Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit during the late Formative and early Classic periods (ca. 300 B.C.- A.D. 300) (Figures 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31). Until the discovery in 1993 of an intact shaft tomb in Huitzilapa, Jalisco, practically all of our knowledge about these archaeological features and the objects found in them derived from the activity of looters. In fact, looting is a very serious threat to archaeological sites throughout the Occidente. This illicit activity is driven by the fact that many artifacts, in particular the figurines found inside shaft tombs, can bring very high prices in the international antiquities trade.

The excavation of the Huitzilapa tomb by Jorge Ramos and Lorenza Lopez Mestas shed new light on this period in the Occidente (Figures 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, and 39). Huitzilapa was an important ceremonial site during the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 1-300), with several architectural units, such as plazas, mounds, ball courts, terraces, cruciform residential units and circular complexes, the latter apparently linked to the Teuchitlán tradition (Lopez and Ramos 1998; Ramos and Lopez 1996). Huitzilapa was also one of many sites that flourished in the Jalisco-Colima-Nayarit area during the Classic period. Most of these sites are characterized by shaft tombs and circular architecture, the precise features that have been used to define the Teuchitlán tradition in the Occidente (Ramos and Lopez 1996; Weigand 1996).

Excavations at this site in 1993 uncovered the most important shaft tomb found to date in unlooted condition in the Occidente. This two-chambered shaft tomb, 7.6 m. in depth, contained six individuals -three in each chamber- who had been buried together with rich offerings. Osteological analysis of the individuals has revealed that they may have been related, so this tomb may have been a crypt for a group of relatives or members of a specific lineage. A male individual approximately 45 years of age is by far the most important person interred in this tomb, judging by the quality and quantity of the offerings associated with his skeleton. His body had been elaborately adorned with jade and shell bracelets, nose-rings, earrings, greenstone beads, carved jade pendants and a cloth sewn with thousands of shell beads. Conch shells ornamented with painted stucco had been placed on his loins and at his sides, along with atlatl hooks. Two female skeletons were found in association with artifacts that pertain to the feminine sphere of life: pottery spindle whorls and metates (grinding slabs) made of volcanic stone. The tomb offerings also include pottery figures that represent ball players, as well as clay vessels decorated with geometric and zoomorphic designs, which when excavated still contained food remains (Lopez and Ramos 1998; Ramos and Lopez 1996).

One of the most important innovations in Mesoamerica during the Late Classic or Epiclassic Periods was, without a doubt, metallurgy (Figures 40a and 40b). According to Hosler (1994a), this technology flourished in the Occidente for some 900 years. West Mexican metal smiths incorporated into their techniques some elements introduced from Central and South America, and developed from them new forms of working the various metals at their disposal (copper, bronze, gold, and silver). During the first stage of the development of metal-working in this area (ca. A.D. 600-1200/1300), copper was the primary metal used in the elaboration of a wide array of objects, using the following techniques: lost-wax casting, cold-hammering and annealing. Western Mexican artisans were primarily interested in making artifacts that would express sacred symbolism and status, rather than in the utilitarian applications of metallurgical technology (Hosler 1994b:45).

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