The Lesser Archaeological Cultures of Mexico and Central America

American Collections The Ancient Civilizations of Middle America

By: J. Alden Mason

Originally Published in 1943

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TO the northwest of Mexico City, in the state of Michoacan and around Lake Patzcuaro, lived and live the Tarascan Indians. These had the most variant culture of any of the more important Mexican peoples. Their language, apparently unconnected with any other, and the archaic aspect of their art, suggest that they were one of the most autochthonous peoples of Mexico. No intensive archaeological excavations have yet been done in the center of their habitat, Tzintzuntzan, but diggings some fifty miles away suggest that this region was not occupied by a sedentary agricultural people until Toltec limes. The hand-modeled figurines have a superficial resemblance to those of the Middle Cultures of the Valley of Mexico, and one might guess that that was their original home. Most strikingly characteristic of Tarascan archaeology are the large naturalistic figures of animals, and of humans in dynamic poses. (Figure 29)

Pottery objects, including figurines of animals and multiple decorated pots
Figure 33. Chiriquí pottery vessels, ocarinas and stand from western Panama, a few of several thousands in The University Museum. Many types of ware are distinguished. Unpainted vessels greatly outnumber the decorated
Museum Object Numbers: 29-52-1002 / 29-55-1121 / 29-53-1684
Image Number: 19781

The Tarascan was the northwesternmost of the important cultures of Mexico. A little further west and north in Colima and Jalisco the culture, as evidenced by the archaeological remains, was about equally high, but the affiliation of the ancient peoples are unknown. Nothing whatever was known of the archaeology of the West Coast until the last decade when the excavations of Isabel Kelly and Gordon Ekholm in Sinaloa for the University of California and the American Museum of Natural History revealed pottery and other objects of a quality equal to any in Mexico. Though of course showing local styles, they evidently link up with the later periods in the Valley of Mexico, and apparently this region was occupied only by tribes on a relatively low plane until about the seventh or eighth century. The spread of the higher cultures into the north central states of Zacatecas and Durango was probably even later. Here are found some impressive sites such as the great masonry fortress at La Quemada, and the ceremonial center at Chalchihuites, both in Zacatecas. Nothing is known of the affiliations or history of the peoples who built these structures. North from Chalchihuites the cultural level sinks slowly until, around Zape in northern Durango, the last traces of any high culture disappear. Between here and the southern limits of the Pueblo Culture of our southwestern stales, which are found in the interesting region of Casas Grandes in northwestern Chihuahua, there is a band where no trace of any sedentary agricultural pottery-making people has been found.

In the neighborhood of the city of Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico, and a short way north into Tamaulipas, south into Vera Cruz, and west into San Luis Potosi, lived and live the Huaxtecs. These are of especial interest because their language is akin to Mayan. However, they have few of the Mayan cultural characteristics, and it is likely that they migrated north from the main group of the Maya before the latter had evolved much of the superior qualities that later characterized them. This migration probably occurred in about the third century of the Christian era, and it, or its influence, apparently continued north and east into the lower Mississippi Valley. However, the recent excavations of Dr. Gordon F. Ekholm show that the earliest pottery-making people here were about as early as anywhere in Mexico. The culture at the time of the Spanish Conquest was comparable to that of the Aztecs, though of course with its local peculiarities, and less well known.

Variety of pottery from Cocle, plates and jars, a few figurines
Figure 34. A few of the many pottery vessels excavated by The University Museum expedition at Coclé in central Panama. Painted designs in polychrome and effigy forms are characteristic
Museum Object Numbers: 40-16-810 / 40-15-355
Four small animal figurines made of whale teeth, with gold onlay
Figure 35. Small dainty figurines of carved whale-tooth ivory and of copal resin with applied features of gold. Coclé, Panama
Museum Object Numbers: 40-13-118 / 40-13-126 / 40-13-121 / 40-13-119
Image Number: 19731

Not far southeast of the great city of Copan near the Ulua River in Honduras, just over the border from Guatemala, the Maya region ends. Buildings of masonry cease before central Honduras is reached, and are not met again north of Peru. The lowland jungles of the Atlantic coast never felt the urge of higher civilization, and were inhabited by tribes of South American affinities who lived on an economic plane like that of the Indians of the tropical forests, with as much dependence on hunting and fishing as on agriculture.

In the highlands closer to the Pacific coast, however, agricultural peoples of higher status, though hardly comparable to the Maya and Aztec, occupied the Central American region to Panama. Their work in pottery and small stone ornaments was scarcely inferior to any. Those in San Salvador were almost on the Maya plane, with masonry structures and city planning, and pottery that shows close connections with the Mayan Ulua Valley. They were apparently genetically connected with the Toltecs rather than with the Maya, as were also the Pipil of the Pacific coast of Guatemala. (Figure 31)

Jaguar shaped pendant with an emerald set in the back
Figure 36. Pendant ornament of cast gold in the shape of a crocodile with an emerald inset in its back. Coclé, Panama
Museum Object Number: 40-13-27
Image Number: 19707

The highlands of Nicaragua and Costa Rica were occupied by a number of peoples, each with its archaeological peculiarities, but two groups of these are outstanding, the Chorotegans of the Pacific coast, and the Güetar of central Costa Rica. Their economic life probably differed in little from that of the people of highland Guatemala, but in the higher esthetic and scientific phases of knowledge they seem to have been inferior, though less is known of them. Their pottery and other manufactures differ from region to region, and are classified in many categories by the archaeologist. Much of the pottery is admirable; the work in jade and other semi-precious hard stones is excellent, especially on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Larger stone sculptures were also admirably carved. Most characteristic are metates for grinding corn which were often made in the form of jaguars supported by four legs, and often ornately decorated; probably these were for ceremonial rather than for utilitarian purposes. Human figures are also very typical. Probably all of these are on a relatively late horizon, probably not before the second millennium of the Christian era. (Figure 32 and page 3)

In the small region of Panama west of the Canal there are three archaeological zones. The economic basis of life of the people must have been very similar, and much like that of the Mexicans, but the manufactured objects of pottery, stone and gold are very different in details of form and decoration. The languages were probably dissimilar but, like the culture, basically South American rather than North American. The archaeological characteristics are the quantities of pottery vessels and gold ornaments deposited in the graves, doubtless together with many perishable objects. The amount of gold led to the result, unfortunate from a scientific point of view, that the graves have been searched for and despoiled ever since the Spanish Conquest, without any scientific records being made. Except in the Coclé region little or no scientific excavation has been done, and the sequence of cultures is not well known. The known graves are presumably all of a late period, approaching the time of the Conquest. No scientific search has ever been made for early horizons here, but the probability is that the region was occupied by hunting peoples in a relatively low stage of culture until at least the end of the first Christian millennium.

Several small gold ornaments and bells, often including animal motifs
Figure 37. Small pendants, bells and other cast gold ornaments from Coclé, Panama, excavated by the Museum expedition. Those in the lower half are on a larger scale
Museum Object Numbers: 40-13-177 / 40-13-226 / 40-13-178 / 40-13-103 / 40-13-198 / 40-13-33 / 40-13-28 / 40-13-96

Not far west of the Panama Canal is the region of Coclé, the archaeology of which was entirely unknown until the beginning of the present century, but which is now best known of the three cultures, through the several expeditions of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University and The University Museum’s expedition in 1940. A burial-ground, dating from probably about the years 1300 to 1500, had escaped the searches of Spaniards and later treasure-hunters. The graves, large and deep, probably contained the bodies of chiefs, together with other sacrificed persons. Up to twenty-five interments are found in the largest graves together with hundreds of pottery vessels and gold ornaments, in addition to the many perishable objects that must have disappeared. The pottery is of many varieties, but generally painted in polychrome. Among the gold objects, great plaques with figures of gold in repousse ornamentation which were worn on the breast and back are most striking. Dainty carvings in whale-tooth ivory and resin, with certain features in gold onlay, are also characteristic. (Figures 34-38)

Hammered gold plaque depicting a human figure and two symmetrical demons
Figure 38. Plaques of hammered repoussé gold from the pre-Columbian cemetery at Coclé, Panama. The figures probably represent native deities
Museum Object Number: 40-13-26
Image Number: 19703

The culture of Veraguas, west of Coclé, is very slightly known. The gold work has its affinities with Chiriquí, but the pottery resembles that of Coclé.

The region of Chiriquí on the borders of Panama and Costa Rica has long been famous for the enormous quantities of pottery vessels which treasure-hunters have excavated from the stone-capped graves in their search for gold. These are generally intact in the graves, while those of Coclé are almost always found in a broken condition, probably due to the mourners dancing or trampling upon them. The pottery of Chiriquí has been carefully studied and classified. Among the typical wares are vessels decorated with negative painting, an interesting technique found sporadically from Peru to Ohio. Akin to batik work on textiles, the design was painted on the vessel in wax, the uncovered background given a black wash, and the wax then melted off, so that the design appears in negative. A thin buff-colored ware with conventionalized animal figures in relief is also prominent. The gold work is typically of small ornaments in the shape of conventionalized eagles with outspread wings, frogs or toads with large feet, and other animals. (Figure 33)

Gold hammered plaque with symmetrical design of two figures with bird heads
Figure 38. Plaques of hammered repoussé gold from the pre-Columbian cemetery at Coclé, Panama. The figures probably represent native deities
Museum Object Number: 40-13-2
Image Number: 19695

Cite This Article

Mason, J. Alden. "The Lesser Archaeological Cultures of Mexico and Central America." Museum Bulletin X, no. 1-2 (June, 1943): 49-56. Accessed July 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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