Apúpato (LORE-LPB)

The Archaeological Survey of the island of Apúpato: A specialized Purepécha (Tarascan) ritual center.

Fisher, C.T. 2009. Interim Report: Un Reconocimiento de Campo de la Isla Apúpato, Michoacán, México. Informe Técnico Parcial, Temporada 2007/2008. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico. 43 pp.

Apúpato as it appears today


Apúpato is a former island that has long been thought to be an important prehistoric location, most notably as the site of one of the royal Purépecha (Tarascan) treasuries, but it has never been archaeologically investigated. During the summer of 2006 a short reconnaissance of Cerro Apúpato yielded evidence for at least one large settlement (~30 ha), agricultural terraces, platforms and room blocks on the summit that may be the remains of the treasury, and paleo-shorelines (strand-lines).

For most of the post-contact period Apúpato existed as an island limiting accessibility and serving to preserve the Prehispanic landscape to a much higher degree then the heavily impacted/eroded terrestrial portions of the Lake Basin.

Aerial view of Apúpato courtesy of Google Earth Pro

Thus Apúpato can serve as an analog demonstrating the form and function of land-use and settlement in the region at the time of European contact (~A.D. 1520).

During the winter of 2007/2008 we intensively surveyed Apúpato recording every cultural feature we encountered on the former island including settlements, ancient architecture, and terraces. Using a TDS-Way Recon ruggedized PDA with an Invicta Starlink DGPS we were able to achieve incredible accuracy (>1m horizontal, >1.5m vertical). These data were uploaded to a laptop and analyzed using ESRI ARCGIS software. Full coverage archaeological survey allowed us to discern changes in settlement distributions, reconstruct ancient populations, position settlements and other constructions relative to land degradation, and to evaluate the effects of changing environmental conditions on human populations.

Through this research we will be able to address several important questions concerning the relationship between prehistoric Purépecha society, climatic fluctuation, and landscape modification.


Animation of settlement and lake level change from the Classic – Modern Periods on Apúpato.

Over the course of our survey we documented 16 archaeological sites that span the Classic-Early Colonial Periods in three distinct episodes. First, during the Classic-Middle Postclassic periods (A.D. 300-1350) settlement is focused on the lakeshore primarily on the southern portion of the island. The population of the island during these periods ranges from a minimum of between 88-120 persons to a maximum of between 200-300 persons distributed over five settlements. Aside from small platforms (extended terraces) little architecture is associated with these occupations. Site sizes are small with the largest barely encompassing 4 ha Fig.

During the Late Postclassic (A.D. 1350-1520) settlement shifts to the northern (Tzintzuntzan side) and north eastern portion of the island. The population of the Island increases dramatically with a minimum of 298 persons and a maximum of 419 persons by the time of European Contact (A.D. 1520) distributed over 8 settlements. Intact architecture during this period includes a Tarascan ritual complex (ritual house with an associated pyramid), stone terraces, and a large platform that probably contained additional buildings. Site sizes are significantly larger including one over 5 ha. For the Prehispanic period site sizes, architecture, and small populations confirm Apupáto’s use as a specilized ritual center rather then a larger, multi-use center.

During the Early Colonial period the focus of settlement again shifts to the south, for the first time away form the lakeshore on the piedmont. Given the low density of ceramic and other cultural material, and our limited understanding of Early Colonial landuse and settlement – especially dispursed field occupations – population estimates and measures of landuse intensity are not possible.


Small pyramid associated with the Purépecha (Tarascan) ritual house.

Prehispanic Landscape

During our survey we were able to document hundreds of Prehispanic terraces that completely encircle the island in a contour-fashion. This landesque capital represents a ‘ refugia for the built environment’ yielding a window into a Basin-wide landscape that was certainly highly modified by humans. Though not especially labor-intensive individually the density, distribution, and multitude of these features suggests that 1) they were built in several related episodes in a relatively short period of time, 2) the labor required for construction was certainly beyond the small, specialized, occupation of Apúpato, 3) the artifacts associated with them suggest they were created during the Late Postclassic. We feel strongly that the construction of these features was initiated by the Tarascan Empire using corvee or donated labor. We also are pursuing the possibility that the terraces may have functioned as maquey or metapantli style features. Our terrace work is ongoing including more detailed mapping using satellite photos, remote sensing, and other techniques.

View of Prehispanic terraces on Apúpato.

Aerial and perspective view of Prehispanic terraces on Apúpato courtesy of Google Earth Pro.

Aerial and perspective view of Prehispanic terraces on Apúpato courtesy of Google Earth Pro.


Our work on Apúpato is on-going and we hope to return to the island in Dec. 2009.