The Late Formative Period (ca. 500 B.C.- A.D. 0)
For this period we have a broader data base, which permits systematic comparisons with other areas of Mesoamerica, including ceramic styles and other cultural manifestations such as settlement patterns, subsistence strategies, social stratification, and so on. The best-known site for this period in the Occidente is Chupícuaro, which was located in the southeastern area of the Lerma River basin (this site was destroyed when a dam was built in the area several decades ago). The people of Chupícuaro built few structures, seldom more elaborate than simple houses made of wattle-and-daub with earthen floors and a few stone-lined drains. According to Beatriz Braniff (1989), the few extant examples of civic architecture pertaining to this archaeological complex are found in southern Guanajuato. Consisting of rectangular platforms with superimposed constructions that remind us of those at Tlapacoya in the valley of México, this structure shows a four-sided geometric pattern, although one of the sides is missing. The building could certainly be considered monumental, since its sides measure between 80 and 120 m. There is also a circular pyramid in Chupícuaro, as well as another circular structure in nearby Salvatierra, Guanajuato (Braniff 1989:108).
Chupícuaro was a habitation site in which the presence of manos and metates (grinding stones) indicates the common method for processing maize. Hunting was probably also important, although stone artifacts or weapons were not abundant. Apparently, life for the region's inhabitants was not devoid of strife, as indicated by the "trophy skulls", decapitated skeletons and burials of isolated skulls found at the site (Porter Weaver 1969:8).
The Chupícuaro ceramic tradition is one of the best-known in Mesoamerica. It includes anthropomorphic figurines decorated with geometric motifs (Figures 11, 12, and 13), as well as vessels in a great variety of shapes, including unusual forms such as the "stirrup-spout" (Figure 14). Chupícuaro culture played a very important role in central México's Tezoyuca or Cuicuilco IV phase (ca. 200-100 B.C.). Its influence in the Valley of México is evidenced by large amounts of figurines of the "H-4" and "slanted-eyes" types, as well as the aforementioned polychrome vessels. Chupícuaro exerted great pressure on the basin of México, perhaps even contributing to the collapse of Cuicuilco (Porter Weaver 1969:9). Human occupation of this area of the Bajío (i.e. the mid-Lerma river basin, in the current state of Guanajuato) probably ended around the beginning of the Christian era, although the Red-on-Buff ceramic tradition that persisted in the much later "Toltec horizon" preserved some motifs, styles, and techniques that are remarkably similar to those of Chupícuaro, though they are applied on objects of different shapes (Porter Weaver 1969:14; see also Braniff 1972, 2000). Chupícuaro-style pottery has been found over a very wide area of Mesoamerica, from La Quemada, Zacatecas in the north, to Gualupita, Morelos, in the south (McBride 1969:33).
The Lerma River forms a natural corridor between central México and the Occidente. Because this river offers a well-defined and easily navigable line of communication, it is reasonable to suppose that the initial settlements in the Lerma basin were located on the margins of the river itself. Besides easy communications, the tributary streams presented a unique ecological niche, one well-suited for agriculture (Florance 1985:43). Another quality of this river that may have attracted settlers was its potential for agricultural works similar to the chinampas (raised fields surrounded by water in shallow marshes or lakes), of the basin of México. This lazy river covered vast areas with alluvial deposits and created a series of lakes and marshes (Boehm 1988).
The occupation of the Lerma basin during the late to terminal Formative period was based on a sedentary, agricultural way of life. After considering the environmental factors, there is no doubt that the village sites were chosen for their proximity to micro-niches where agricultural productivity could be maximized and the agronomic risks minimized (Florance 1989:565).
Comparisons of late Formative settlements in southwestern Guanajuato with those in the basin of México reveal that the smallest type of site in the basin -modest hamlets and single family loci - predominates in this part of the Occidente. Formative settlements in southwestern Guanajuato, far from representing a dominant cultural system in the region, were simple farming hamlets with little sociopolitical complexity. They can be understood as components of an autochthonous cultural system, centered on one of the lake basins associated with the Bajío (Florance 1989:683-685; Braniff 1989).
Establishing a firm chronology for Chupícuaro has been very problematic, due to a lack of stratigraphic excavations and reliable C14 dates. Recent research in the area, however, has produced new data (based on stratigraphy at the La Tronera, Guanajuato, site and several C14 dates), that suggest a chronological placement for Chupícuaro between ca. 400 and 100 B.C. (Darras and Faugere 2004).
The Middle Formative period is also represented in the lake district of Jalisco (San Felipe phase, ca. 1000-300 B.C.). Sites pertaining to this period in the area consist of circular or oval-shaped funerary mounds and platforms, the latter built on hillsides. Mounds are usually located on the upper end of the lake shore or on the terraces immediately above it. They are dispersed at regular intervals around the lakes and their spatial organization seems to indicate that they were ceremonial centers and villages, with little evidence of a higher level of political integration (Weigand 1989:42). The archaeological remains associated with these centers include fragments of metates (querns/hand-mill), olla (jar) sherds and obsidian flakes. The density of these elements is light, but the archaeological evidence suggests that these centers included residential areas for at least part of the population of each polity.
The next archaeological phase in Jalisco's lake district, known as El Arenal (ca. 350/300 B.C.-A.D. 150/200), seems to indicate the culmination of the funerary cult associated with the Formative period in the region, as well as the consolidation of the basic patterns and associations of architecture seen in the following phases, pertaining to the Classic period (Weigand 1989:42).
The Occidente's other large river, the Balsas, also saw important cultural developments in Prehispanic times. The Formative period in this region is characterized by the Infiernillo phase (ca. 1200 B.C.-A.D. 500), in which several social groups established permanent settlements or villages along the river. Archaeological remains such as grinding tools and pottery fragments suggest that agriculture was practiced in the area, complemented by hunting and collecting wild foods. Funerary customs are characterized by extended primary interments (Cabrera 1986:126).
Some ceramic styles of the lower Balsas area (Michoacán and Guerrero) are closely linked to those of coastal groups not only in Guerrero, but also further down the Pacific littoral, all the way to Guatemala. The inhabitants of the lower Balsas area during this period were in contact not only with peoples toward the south: conch-shell trumpets and other artifacts from the Caribbean attest to the widespread communication networks between these two coasts (Cabrera 1986:127).
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