FORT COLLINS – The sublime sounds of a jingling rattle silenced for more than 500 years helps tell the story of an ancient civilization in western Mexico and ties together more than seven years of discovery by a team of researchers led by a Colorado State University archaeologist.
The copper and bronze rattle was discovered in an ancient cemetery by Chris Fisher, associate professor of anthropology, and a team at Angamuco, a pre-Hispanic city in the Mexican state of Michoacán and associated with the ancient Purépecha culture of western Mexico. Fisher’s team also discovered the complete skeletal remains of 37 individuals and many partial burials of both genders ranging from infants to adults.
“The discovery of this mortuary complex provides a unique lens through which we can examine changes in health, status and well-being during a period of rapid social change that is associated with the formation of the Purépecha Empire,” Fisher said. “This is the key to putting all of this research together – like almost eight years of survey and excavation. It’s a representative sample of the population that can be dated and examined, so it really completes our view of this ancient civilization and the occupation of the site.”
Ceramic vessels, copper-arsenic alloy
rattles and other artifacts found with the burials indicate the cemetery dates primarily to the middle to late Postclassic period (A.D. 1000-1520). Hear a soundfile of one of the rattles here.
“This is a period of reorganization and social change on the cusp of the late Postclassic Purépecha Empire,” said Fisher, project director. “Individuals recovered represent an impressive cross-section of the ancient Purépecha population at the city during a period of dramatic social and environmental change.”
The discovery of the cemetery provides new insights into the funerary practices of the ancient Purépecha. The burials were discovered within a large plaza dominated by a traditional Purépecha keyhole-shaped pyramid and associated large altars. Most of the burials – numerous incomplete skeletons, along with evidence of cremations – were discovered in “flexed” positions either in formal small tombs or in pits.
“Many of the remains exhibit pathologies and stress indicators consistent with social stratification and possible environmental change,” said Cinthya Cardenas, lead bioarchaeologist and a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatán (UADY). “The minimum number of remains documented at the Angamuco cemetery this season – including complete and partial inhumations – represents 61.”
Though the contents of the ceramic vessels discovered during excavation are in the process of being systematically tested at least one contains the remains of small fish. The excavations are part of “Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project,” which is a long-term multidisciplinary effort to understand the development of complex societies in the region.
Angamuco was first documented in 2007 by the Legacies project and has undergone over three years of intensive ground survey that has documented over 7,000 ancient buildings and landscape features. In addition Fisher, with Colorado State University Geography Professor Stephen Leisz, used ground-breaking LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to help map the city from the air. The LiDAR survey revealed more than 20,000 architectural features and a highly organized city that is far more complex and included more people than previous research in the region has suggested.
Contemporaries, rivals of Aztecs
The Purépecha were contemporaries and rivals of the Aztecs in central Mexico. The Purépecha were considered the most advanced metalsmiths and created some of the finest crafts in Mexico. Like the Aztec, the Purépecha Empire was destroyed following European occupation in the early 1500s.
The ancient city, which covers more than 12 square kilometers, is located at 7,000 feet above sea level, four hours northwest of Mexico City.
This work is part of “Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeology Project,” a long-term program of research by archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico that is funded by a grant to Fisher and Leisz from the National Science Foundation, a grant to Fisher from the National Geographic Society, and private donors. The Legacies project is based at Colorado State University and the Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos (CEMCA) in Mexico City.
Thanks much to Curt Hopkins for writing about the project at ARS Technica!!
Long-term consequences of climate change
Satellite imagery from NASA will help CSU Geographer Stephen J. Leisz and colleague Christopher T. Fisher examine the long-term consequences of climate change on ancient societies in Mexico and model long-term human and environment interaction in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin in Michoacán, Mexico.
The high resolution ALOS PRISM satellite data provided to the team through the NASA grant will be integrated with ongoing archaeological and paleoenvironmental investigations to examine relationships between climatic fluctuation, landscape development, land degradation and the formation of complex societies in the west central highlands of Mexico, as part of the Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project.
Remote sensing data
The project uses remote sensing data to better model the ancient landscape in ways not possible with data otherwise available. It is expected that the development of high-resolution, large-area, elevation models from the satellite data will represent an important archaeological tool for the research team.
“This research will allow us to create and test high spatial resolution models of linked human and environmental development and collapse over long periods of time that will in turn help current and future conservation efforts throughout Latin America,” said Leisz.
New and innovative technique
Researchers will examine the impact of the Medieval climatic anomaly (A.D. 950-1250) and the subsequent ‘Little Ice Age’ on Central Mexico.
By integrating ALOS PRISM satellite data into their research, Leisz and Fisher are offering a new and innovative technique, with potential for use by other scientists.
“The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin is an important example of coupled human and environmental change,” said Fisher, director of the Legacies project.
“A key aspect of the Legacies project is to create explanatory models to help explain changes in ancient lake level, distribution of agricultural lands and the location of ancient settlements. We want to see how people in the past responded to climate change as examples that can help modern policy.”
Fisher and Leisz will specifically look at the impact of the Medieval climatic anomaly (A.D. 950-1250) and the subsequent ‘Little Ice Age’ on Central Mexico.
“For the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, the Medieval climatic anomaly likely lowered lake levels and increased the agrarian potential of the region, while the opposite may have occurred during the Little Ice Age,” said Fisher. “This is the opposite impact expected by many researchers.”
How ancient peoples modified their landscape
“Through the NASA-supported research we hope to better understand how ancient peoples modified their landscape to mitigate the impact of climatic fluctuation,” Leisz said. “As societies become larger, they have access to increasing amounts of labor that they often invest in the landscape to mitigate environmental change.”
One important outcome of the project will be a better understanding of the timing, form, and function of intensive agricultural features such as terraces that are found throughout the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.
“Ultimately we hope to focus on environmental change as a long-term process rather then a trigger for social complexity,” said Fisher.
Collect ground reference data in conjunction with satellite
CSU graduate student Jason Bush surveying with Trimble equipment in Michoacán, Mexico.
Fisher and Leisz begin field work on the two-year, $155,591 grant in summer 2010. The researchers will use TrimbleRecon rugged handheld computers as well as the GeoXH and GeoXT GPS receivers, to accurately map every cultural feature they encounter as well as collect ground reference data that will be used in conjunction with the satellite imagery to create high-resolution elevation models of the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.
Fisher and his team recently discovered the ruins of an ancient urban center in the heart of the Purépecha Empire in Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, located in the central Mexican state of Michoacán.
Multidisciplinary research project
The multidisciplinary Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project includes archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico. They explore prehistoric sites to better understand the development of prehistoric societies and relationships between humans and climate change.
Fisher is a fellow with CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability.
Contact: Kimberly Sorensen
Phone: (970) 491-0757
Here is a recent article on the summer 2009 work from an amazing writer and blogger Daniel Hernandez. Daniel also is the author of an incredibly insightful blog called Intersections focusing on “the intersections that exist between art, society, the sublime, and the streets.”
As a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States Daniel’s work often invokes cultural fusion, borderlands, and all things Mexico – please check it out. And thanks again to Daniel for his interest in the work.