Research Questions on the History of Mesoamerica
- Referring to specific currently available evidence, approximately when did people first arrive in Mesoamerica? What is known about their geographic origins, and about their way of life during the first few thousand years?
- Did people living in Mesoamerica experience any significant changes in their subsistence patterns before the origins of agriculture in the region?
- The people of ancient Mesoamerica domesticated a number of different cultivated plants. The principal ones were maize, beans, and squashes. What were the other major ones? Also, what cultivated plants were originally domesticated elsewhere but diffused into Mesoamerica during pre-Columbian times?
- Based on what we can see in the archaeological record, what were the effects of plant and animal domestication on the nature of indigenous settlements in Mesoamerica? What kinds of changes in the artifact inventories of Mesoamerican people came along with the advent of an agricultural way of life?
The first people to arrive in Mesoamerica were the Paleo-Indians who migrated to North and South America at the end of the last Ice Age, as early as 5000 B.C., however, more precise dates and times are controversial. The Paleo-Indians inhabited the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico somewhere between 13,000 and 40,000 years. More recent DNA testing argues that these people originally came during the Asiatic migration via the Bering Strait. Not much is known about the Paleo-Indians, also known as the Clovis people, but archaeologists believe that they were nomadic hunter-gatherers (New World Encyclopedia). At some point the people in the Valley of Oaxaca developed a horticultural subsistence pattern without an established hierarchical society prior to the establishment of Monte Alban (Blanton, 50-52, 58).
Before agriculture originated in the region, there were significant changes in their subsistence patterns, particularly with the establishment of Monte Alban as a political capital in the Valley of Oaxaca, an environment abundant with farmable land, however the rainfall variation affected maize yields. Prior to Monte Alban, ancient Oaxacans were able to sufficiently manage the rainfall issue and water resources with small-scale human systems that lacked vertical complexity. The population didn’t significantly increase and any shortfalls in production were easily exchanged horizontally through kinship (Blanton 53-54). This management was sustainable up until around 500 B.C. after new complex stressors and conditions ensued after Monte Alban was established and the population grew. Previous horticultural practices could not sustain the developing population, and the exploitation of the piedmont farming strategy due to the unpredictability of rainfall caused instability that led to deforestation and erosion (Blanton 54-55). This forced the people in the Valley of Oaxaca to transition to an agricultural sedentary society in order to survive.
Pumpkins, camote, tomatoes, tomatillos, chile, chaya, ramon, cashew, zapote, edible palms, mamey, avocado, papaya, anona, guanabana, guava, cocoyol, balche, and cacao were some of the other major crops domesticated by ancient Mesoamericans, some of them domesticated elsewhere but brought into Mesoamerica (Blanton 164).
The domestication of mostly plants, and some animals, enforced a sedentary lifestyle on the indigenous settlements in Mesoamerica. This transition from a nomadic foraging people to an agricultural society in an unpredictable environment in the Valley of Oaxaca led to interregional interaction. These interactions may have influenced a change in social structure, particularly with the Olmec. The Tierras Largas phase does not give any indication that a social hierarchy existed, based on lack of artifacts and nonresidential structures, yet later in the San Jose phase, the start of a social hierarchy seems to form, as residential structures are established, some larger and more embellished than others, as well as the differences in artifacts or lack thereof found in burial spots (Blanton 55-61). Olmec style artifacts are also found in the Valley of Oaxaca during the San Jose phase, but not in the Tierras Largas phase (Blanton 61-63). Olmec portable items such as cups and bowls with “paw wing” motifs of the fire-serpent or jaguar were a mark of rank status of individuals within the society, which were also found on ceramics buried with deceased males in the Valley of Oaxaca during the San Jose phase (Blanton, 61, 166). However, stone carvings and public structures in the Valley of Oaxaca are not similar to that of the Olmec’s Gulf Coast (Blanton 61). Blanton hypothesizes that the transition to a sedentary life coupled with the agricultural off-season caused trading and raiding, which encouraged cross-cultural integration through “wealth” accumulation and exposure to raiding pressure themselves (Blanton 64-65).
Blanton, Richard. Ancient Mesoamerica: A Comparison of Change in Three Regions. Cambridge University Press. 1993. New World Encyclopedia Contributors. “Pre-Columbian Civilization.” Pre-Columbian Civilization – New World Encyclopedia, New World Encyclopedia, 28 May 2015, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Pre-Columbian_Civilization.
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