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 Epiclassic Period (ca. A.D. 700-900) and Early Postclassic Period (ca. A.D. 900-1200)

Mesoamerica underwent fundamental cultural and political changes during the millennium before the Spanish conquest, many of which originated during the Epiclassic period (Diehl and Berlo 1989). Some of the new traits were simply minor elaborations of pre-existing features, while others had profound consequences. Among the most important transformations are the following: (1) the emergence of new political centers; (2) population movements; (3) new trade relationships; and, (4) innovations in religion and architecture. In Mesoamerica, virtually all the centers of power of the early Classic period were abandoned during the eighth century A.D., but were promptly replaced by new communities. The processes that brought about these changes are still not well understood. Something that is clear, however, is that Teotihuacán's collapse (at ca. A.D. 750) was not a unique event; none of the regional centers such as Monte Albán, Matacapan, Kaminaljuyú, Cobá, Tikal and others, survived Teotihuacán's demise (Diehl and Berlo 1989:3).

The Epiclassic period was characterized by political instability. The fragmentary ethnohistorical traditions that some scholars believe originated in this time confirm archaeological evidence of frequent migrations throughout the area. These small-scale movements of people must have been quite common in Mesoamerica at all times, but during these two centuries there were dramatic changes in the size of the populations and the distribution of their settlements. Long-distance commerce in Mesoamerica suffered important modifications after A.D. 700, as some trade routes became more popular at the expense of others. Teotihuacán's networks of routes towards the Occidente and northern México were eclipsed by other regional powers, and the restoration of commercial ties with these areas during the 10th and 11th centuries under the Toltecs followed different routes and directions (Diehl and Berlo 1989:3-4).

During the tenth century A.D., the Teuchitlán tradition suffered a total and definitive collapse, which was preceded by several centuries of apparent decline (Teuchitlán II phase, ca. A.D. 700/900-1000). The downfall of the Teuchitlán tradition is reflected in its entire cultural inventory; most important was the abandonment of the architectonic configuration of five circular elements, which had been the tradition's principal diagnostic trait. The changes in this cultural system are so dramatic and absolute, and apparently happened so rapidly, that it is reasonable to suppose that they were generated from outside the region, perhaps in association with the emergence of the Tarascan empire. Whether directly or indirectly, the presence of such a powerful new actor in the Occidente's political milieu must have completely altered the socioeconomic and political structures in the entire area (Weigand 1990:215, 220). The collapse of the Teuchitlán tradition has been described in the following terms:

…the core of western Mesoamerican civilization moved definitively out of the western lake districts, not to return until the flowering of Guadalajara in the colonial and modern periods. The activities that characterize a core (such as the construction of a key economic area, demographic implosion, rare resource 'monopolies', etc.) collapsed conclusively in the Ahualulco-Teuchitlán-Tala region. Eventually, a core re-emerged in the eastern lake districts of western Mesoamerica during the Late Postclassic period. The rise of the Tarascan Empire chronicles this transformation… (Weigand 1996:210).

During the Early Postclassic period (ca. A.D. 900-1200), the Occidente experienced a considerable increase in cultural influences from central México. Shaft tombs had not been used for several centuries, and a new tradition can be seen in the Jalisco-Colima-Nayarit area (Figures 41 and 42). These strong influences emanating from central México had appeared in the Occidente by the seventh century, if not before (Meighan 1976:161), as evidenced by the introduction of planned mound-plaza complexes oriented towards the cardinal directions (Figures 43, 44, and 45).

In several areas of the Occidente during the Postclassic period it is common to find pottery with stylistic traits pertaining to the Mixteca-Puebla tradition. This ceramic evidence indicates cultural influences from ca. A.D. 900 that originated in central México and may have been in part religious, in part military and in part mercantile. Although it is not possible to speak of an "empire", the pottery, iconography, community patterns and most of the manufactured objects certainly reveal influences from the central Mexican highlands (Meighan 1974:1259). According to Nicholson (1982:229), the Mixteca-Puebla tradition is a "horizon-style", as it had a limited temporal distribution and a broad geographical distribution, as well as stylistic complexity and certain unique general attributes. The Mixteca-Puebla tradition was a pan-Mesoamerican phenomenon that was present from northern México as far south as Nicaragua (Nicholson 1981:253; Nicholson and Quiñones Keber 1994).

One of the best-known examples of the Mixteca-Puebla presence in the Occidente is the Aztatlán complex of Guasave, Sinaloa. According to Gordon Ekholm (1942), considering the number of cultural traits shared by the Aztatlán complex and several central Mexican cultures, there can be no question as to the cultural links between the two areas (Ekholm 1942:126). Other examples of ceramic styles in the Occidente similar to Mixteca-Puebla come from Amapa, Nayarit (Meighan 1976) and from Chametla (Kelly 1938, Figures 1, 8) and Culiacán (Kelly 1945, Figures 19-37) both in Sinaloa. During the Early Postclassic period, Mixteca-Puebla traits were being exported to the Occidente along a well-organized trade route via the Lerma and Santiago River basins. This route may have appeared as early as 600 B.C., and its origin may have been linked to the spread of metallurgy along the Pacific Coast (Publ 1986:26). Charles Kelley mentions the existence of a "copper route", which would indicate the systematic exploitation and distribution of copper, turquoise, cotton, textiles, lead, tin, parrots and probably gold (Kelley, unpublished manuscript cited in Publ 1986:46-47; see also Kelley 2000).

According to Mountjoy, Aztatlán was the most widespread archaeological culture in the Occidente, and it was associated with the development and spread of advanced technologies such as metallurgy and the production of obsidian prismatic blades, as well as ceramic pipes and spindle whorls. The decoration of pottery vessels with "codex-style" designs, as well as the presence of Plumbate pottery and the use of Mazapa-style figurines, indicate links with the Postclassic cultures of the central-Mexican highlands (Mountjoy 1990:543). The Aztatlán complex has been dated to ca. A.D. 800-1400 and diagnostic materials pertaining to it have been found in the modern states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Michoacán, as well as in areas as far away as Durango, Chihuahua and New México (Mountjoy 1990:542, 1994b).

Kelley (2000) writes that the different segments of the Aztatlán trade route participated in regional trade systems as early as the Classic period and, in some cases, even the Formative period. During the Epiclassic and early Postclassic Periods there is evidence of a trade route that originated in the Valley of México and followed the Lerma River, crossing the Bajío and reaching all the way to Nayarit, with another branch that stretched to the Tomatlán river (Jalisco) and along the Pacific coast to Nayarit. This branch was incorporated at an early date into the Aztatlán trade system (Kelley 2000:142). However, in the Lake Chapala area this trade system was interrupted around 1450-1500, when Tarascan expansionism cut off its main routes (Kelley 2000:153; see also Foster 1999).

It was roughly during this time (A.D. 1200/1300 to the Spanish invasion), that the second period of metallurgy emerged in the Occidente. Both the knowledge and repertoire of western-Mexican metalsmiths expanded considerably during this time, as they began to experiment with a variety of copper alloys, including bronze (copper-tin and copper-arsenic), copper-silver, copper-silver-gold, and others. The improved physical and mechanical properties of these new materials allowed the artisans to refine and redesign artifacts that had formerly been made out of copper. New minerals were also exploited and processed, while new techniques were invented to extract them from ores. This technological complex was subsequently exported to other areas of Mesoamerica (Hosler 1994b:127).

Archaeological surveying in the Sayula basin of Jalisco (Valdez et al. 1996a; Ramírez et al. 2004) has revealed over 60 sites with abundant Prehispanic materials, as well as a similar number of zones with dispersed evidence of ancient activities. These sites probably reflect the area's general settlement pattern, as well as specific activity areas (Valdez 1994:28-29). The Sayula basin also holds one of the richest salt deposits in highland Mesoamerica. In colonial times, and probably earlier as well, salt was the most important resource in the basin, although not the only one: this area also has copper, gold and silver deposits, which may have been exploited before the Spanish conquest (Valdez and Liot 1994:289). The abundant salt produced in the region probably was not destined solely for local consumption, but was exported to other areas of the Occidente, such as the Lake Pátzcuaro basin (Williams 2003).

The early Postclassic period is also known in other areas of the Occidente, such as the Balsas River basin. Postclassic material in this area includes Mazapa figurines, which may indicate a "Toltec horizon" in the area. The abundant presence of copper objects indicates an important metallurgical industry in the region, which may have had its roots in the final Classic period (Cabrera 1986:133; see also Hosler 2004). During the Postclassic period there was a large population living along the Balsas River. The largest settlements were established in the delta region, while other sites along the river's course were limited in size because the mountains and the canyon dug by the river limited the available flat terrain. Some of the population centers were politically dominant over others, which may have been their tributaries. Ceremonial buildings consist of rectangular mounds made of stone and earth, many of which had a funerary function (Cabrera 1986:134-137).

During the early Postclassic period we see in central Michoacán the appearance of what would become the most powerful empire in the Occidente: the Tarascan state. According to Pollard (1995), during this period an important transformation took place among the populations of the central Michoacán highlands. For the first time, formerly autonomous communities were unified politically and the Lake Pátzcuaro basin became the geographical core of an expansionist state. Excavations carried out by Pollard (1995, 1996) at Urichu, an important site in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin, have shed new light on this period and on the processes of state formation in the area. According to Pollard (1995), between the years 1000 and 1200 there were 10 autonomous communities in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin, each one internally stratified and ruled by a small elite. These societies varied in terms of the size of their populations and territory, as well with respect to access to fertile soil and their degree of economic specialization and political complexity. At some point during this period, climatic changes made the lake level rise, probably because of an increase in precipitation and a decrease in evaporation. As a consequence, the amount of irrigable land was reduced (Pollard 1995, Table 1).

The two settlements in the basin that were most dependent on irrigable land were Pátzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan, so the warrior elites of those two centers led their respective populations in conquests of neighboring settlements, thus securing for themselves additional resources and intensifying the process of political differentiation between and within these communities. Finally, by ca. A.D. 1350, all tribute and booty from military campaigns was flowing toward Tzintzuntzan and the entire basin was unified under the political control of that city's elite (Pollard 1995), as Tzintzuntzan became the capital of the Tarascan Empire.

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