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 Early Formative Period (ca. 1500-500 B.C.)

Until some 30 years ago, our knowledge of the Formative period in West México was very limited indeed. Although there are still many unknowns and numerous archaeological puzzles to solve, our understanding of this period is improving slowly thanks to recent research. Fieldwork carried out by Joseph Mountjoy on the Occidente's coastal plain has revealed important information that could be considered illustrative of the area as a whole during this period. According to this author, the pattern of adaptation during the Formative period was successful in part because it included farming in combination with a broad exploitation of natural resources: a great variety of wild animals and plants. The cultures of the Formative period never advanced beyond a social, political and economic level characterized by a settlement pattern based on a major town with associated villages, and a religion focused on a cult of the dead (Mountjoy 1989:22).

In other areas within the Occidente, cultural developments during the early Formative period are represented by El Opeño, a village site located in northwestern Michoacán (Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7). The only archaeological information we have about this culture consists of several tombs and the offerings found within them (Oliveros 2004). These tombs could be the forerunners of the "shaft tombs" that are so characteristic of the Occidente (discussed below). The El Opeño tombs might also have functioned as family crypts, since they house multiple burials, and there is evidence that they were reutilized in antiquity (Oliveros 1974:195). Pottery from El Opeño consists of plain bowls and small pots decorated with linear incisions, punching and appliqué, quite similar to the ones found at Tlatilco in the valley of México, a site more or less contemporaneous with El Opeño. The pots are decorated with negative paint (red or black), which may be the oldest predecessor for Tarascan (i.e. Postclassic) pottery decorated using the same technique (Oliveros 1989:126-127). This is one of the earliest archaeological cultures so far documented in the Occidente, with C14 dates from ca. 1500 B.C. This timeframe apparently coincides with a period of high volcanic activity in this part of Michoacán, which covered the tomb sites and, presumably, the dwelling areas as well, with ash, making it extremely difficult for archaeologists to locate them (Oliveros 1992:241-244).

Another important archaeological culture of the Occidente during the early Formative period is known as Capacha, in the state of Colima (Figures 8, 9, and 10). Capacha was contemporaneous with El Opeño, and the two sites appear to have been culturally linked. Capacha materials have been radiocarbon dated to around 1450 B.C.; a date confirmed by similarities with El Opeño ceramics (Kelly 1970:28). According to Greengo and Meighan (1976:15), Capacha is doubly important for the archaeology of the Occidente, since it contains the earliest ceramic horizon for the Jalisco-Colima-Nayarit area, and includes among its characteristic pottery types such vessel forms as the "stirrup-spout", which suggests affinities with similar items found in archaeological contexts pertaining to the Formative period in both México and the Andean region. Capacha pottery has been found over a relatively wide area that includes, aside from Colima, the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Michoacán and Guerrero (Kelly 1980:22).

According to Kelly (1980:29), the similarities between Capacha and other ceramic styles are slight, although, as mentioned above, there are evident ties with El Opeño, as well as with the still poorly-defined Tlatilco style. 1  Aside from these two instances, there is little basis for comparing Capacha with other, strictly Mesoamerican ceramic assemblages that may pertain, more or less, to the same timeframe. The Capacha pottery style, therefore, is not wholly Mesoamerican, but neither can it be defined as South American, although it has some features that suggest links with northwestern South America. Capacha's peculiar pots with triple stirrup spouts are unique, and certain missing elements may also be of importance, though hard to explain, such as the scarcity of bottles with a single thin neck and the absence of shell and rocker stamping. Lastly, Capacha figurines are totally unlike South American styles that may be contemporaneous (Kelly 1980:37). Archaeological materials pertaining to the Capacha and El Opeño ceramic complexes have been found over a wide geographical area, including the Michoacán coast (Cabrera 1989:138); the Tomatlán River basin in Jalisco (Mountjoy 1982:325), and the following sites also in Jalisco: San Juanito, Teuchitlán, El Refugio, and Citala (Weigand 1992:221, and personal communication).

According to Mountjoy (1994a:40), "there are many problems or enigmas still to be solved in relation to the interpretation of the archaeological remains that have been called Capacha". The following are the main doubts cited by this author: (1) whether Capacha was a pre-Olmec development, or coexisted with this Formative culture (ca. 1200-300 B.C.); (2) whether the Capacha folk used shaft tombs for burying their deceased, which would be an important link with the El Opeño culture; and, (3) the meaning and significance of iconographic similarities between Capacha and the Olmec, which were not recognized in Kelly's original work. In conclusion, Mountjoy hypothesized that the Capacha culture was derived from several cultural roots, and served, in turn, as the basis for several later Prehispanic developments in the Occidente (Mountjoy 1994a:40).

The early Formative period is not well documented in Jalisco, but research carried out by Phil Weigand (1989) has produced data that provide at least a partial idea of developments in that area during this period. The highland lake district of Jalisco has produced at least four sites that unquestionably date to the Formative period, although the extant information is of a purely funerary nature. Two shaft tombs discovered (unfortunately by looters, not archaeologists), in the piedmont area around the town of Teuchitlán show similar characteristics to those of El Opeño, while others near El Refugio and Tala may pertain to the same period, though this is difficult to determine with certainty because they were found in a very deteriorated condition.

Several figurines found in this general area - currently in the hands of local collectors - reaffirm the ties with El Opeño, while two sites with looted tombs (San Juanito and San Pedro), seem to pertain to the Capacha complex (Weigand 1989). In the first site, researchers found crisacola beads, quartz crystals, pyrite, and obsidian blades; while in San Pedro a funerary mound of middle Formative date had an altar-like structure measuring 6 m. in diameter and 1 m. in height. This is the earliest evidence of architecture reported for the Jalisco Lake District, although unfortunately it has not been well preserved. According to local informants, long bones and skulls were deposited near the base of the altar, including those of at least four individuals. The altar fill contained Capacha pottery, found in a partially-looted pit below the altar (Weigand 1989:41).


  1. According to David Grove (2003), it is clear that there was interaction between the Occidente (at least Michoacán and Colima) and the Tlatilco area. This is suggested not just by the ceramics, but also by other materials, such as obsidian. However, we still know very little about the nature and magnitude of this interaction between the Occidente and the Central Highlands during the Formative period (Grove 2003).

Previous Page  |  Table of Contents  |  Next Page

Return to top of page