Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica: Empirical Approaches to Mesoamerican Archaeology

Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica: Empirical Approaches to Mesoamerican Archaeology

by Nancy Gonlin, Kirk D. French

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607323921
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 18 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Nancy Gonlin is a senior associate professor of Anthropology at Bellevue College, Washington, where she was awarded the Margin of Excellence Award in 2012. She is also co-editor of Commoner Ritual and Ideology in Ancient Mesoamerica and Ancient Households of the Americas and co-author of Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Watch her TEDx talk "Life After Dark in the Ancient World" here.

Kirk D. French is lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on complex societies in Mesoamerica and relies on an analytical approach to better understand human adaptations to environmental change through a combination of field-based archaeology, watershed modeling, and documentary film.

Read an Excerpt

Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica

Empirical Approaches to Mesoamerican Archaeology

By Nancy Gonlin, Kirk D. French

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-392-1


Empirical Archaeology and Human Adaptation in Mesoamerica


Archaeological imagination [is] finding new ways of asking questions that link the most empirical of research projects with innovative social theory.

— Elizabeth Brumfiel (Hauser 2012, 184)

Over half a century ago the deliberate transformation of archaeology into a more scientifically based discipline from its culture-historical period began in North America (Willey and Sabloff 1974). Ten years prior to that time, an innovative explanatory perspective called cultural ecology emerged as a viable theoretical orientation to explain human adaptation and cultural evolution in both contemporary and ancient societies. These separate yet intertwined pursuits created the foundation for a paradigm shift in North American archaeology that was embraced by numerous researchers who were dissatisfied with simply documenting chronology and culture areas and were seeking an explanatory framework such as that provided by the combination of ecology and culture. The New Archaeology was, and still is, the dominant paradigm in North American Archaeology (e.g., McClung de Tapia 2013), although numerous other paradigms have significantly contributed to our understanding of the past. And while it has evolved in recent years with the incorporation of different perspectives, the core commitment of New Archaeology to a comparative anthropological basis, explanatory power, and scientific robusticity remains a key contribution of this perspective. The chapters in this volume highlight the applicability and sustainability of the concept of adaptation within the perspective of cultural ecology in archaeological research in Mesoamerica, and particularly in the Maya area.

The theoretical orientation of the Anthropology Department at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State, or PSU) has emphasized the intersection of ecology and culture, whether in the field of archaeology, biological anthropology (e.g., Baker 1978; Wood 1992), or cultural anthropology (e.g., Johnson 2003). The approaches of anthropological archaeology and human adaptation have been successfully used to orient the investigation of ancient cultures through dozens of Penn State archaeological projects over the last 50 years (figure 1.1) with the production of abundant research that has furthered the knowledge of the human condition (see Milner, this volume). Understanding of sociopolitical evolution and conflict has been advanced through an empirical approach to the studies of settlement patterns, household archaeology, demography, the environment, and mortuary studies, among other topics.

A Genealogical History of Approaches to Human Adaptation and Cultural Ecology

As with the culture-historical approach that preceded the New Archaeology, it seems fitting to begin with a descriptive narrative detailing the background of cultural ecology, human adaptation, and empirical research in archaeology. To better understand these approaches and their relevance to the contributions in this volume, it is informative to present the background as an academic genealogy.

Julian Steward's (figure 1.2) theoretical trajectory was divergent to that of his mentor, Alfred L. Kroeber. Unlike Kroeber's reliance on the historical approach (adopted from his mentor, Franz Boas), much of Steward's energy was devoted to the study of the environmental adaptation of specific societies. Kroeber suggested that cultures in analogous environments would often follow the same developmental stages and formulate similar responses to environmental challenges. However, Steward did not believe that cultures followed the same universal development. Rather, he proposed that cultures evolved in many distinctive patterns depending on circumstances of their environment, referring to his theory as multilinear evolution (Steward 1955). The approach Steward outlined for multilinear evolution involved an area of study he called cultural ecology — the analysis of cultural adaptations formulated by human beings to meet challenges and opportunities created by their environments.

William Duncan Strong, who was also a student of Kroeber's and a classmate of Steward's, conducted exhaustive research in the western United States, eastern Canada, and Peru (Strong et al. 1930; Stewart and Strong 1939; Strong 1957). In 1941 Strong named his student, Gordon Willey (figure 1.3), as his field assistant for the Pachacamac Project in Peru. Strong taught Willey how to command and synthesize large amounts of data. A year after receiving his PhD in 1942, Willey had the opportunity to work for Strong's colleague, Julian Steward, at the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. While there, Willey was assistant editor of Steward's monumental Handbook of South American Indians (Steward 1940–1947). Around the same time, Steward, Strong, and Willey began planning the Viru Valley Project of Peru. Settlement archaeology relies on landscape, ecology, and site recording, but it was the concept of culture that allowed for interpretations of settlement patterns, because ultimately, it is behavior and meaning that are of utmost importance to anthropological archaeologists in understanding the past. It was during this project that Steward suggested to Willey that he make settlement study his top priority (Billman and Feinman 1999). Willey joined the faculty in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard in 1948, and in the following year he accepted William T. Sanders (figure 1.4) as his graduate student.

Bill Sanders (1957) was undoubtedly influenced by Willey's settlement pattern and cultural ecology studies, as evidenced in his dissertation: Tierra y Agua: A Study of Ecological Factors in the Development and Personality of Mesoamerican Civilizations. In 1959, Sanders was hired as an assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State. Over the next three decades Sanders directed projects in the Basin of Mexico, Highland Guatemala, and northern Honduras (Sanders and Michels 1969; Sanders et al. 1979; Sanders 1986–1990; inter alia).

In 1972, a fresh PhD out of the University of Minnesota, David Webster (figure 1.5) arrived at Penn State and became a colleague to Sanders. Although he studied under Richard E. W. Adams (a student of Willey), the majority of Webster's cultural ecology background came from a semester he spent at the University of Chicago in 1967 as a participant in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). The CIC is a consortium of the Big Ten universities (plus Chicago) that provides opportunities for students to enroll in courses offered at any of their member institutions. A class taught by Robert Braidwood and titled "The Human Career," dealing with the evolution of complex societies, made an early impression on Webster. While at Chicago, Webster also took a class from Pedro Armillas (whose teaching assistant was Henry Wright!).

As a graduate student Webster worked for Bill Sanders on the Kaminaljuyu Project in Guatemala in 1969. As a young professor at Penn State, Webster worked together with Sanders on many projects, such as the Proyecto Arqueológico Copán (PAC) and the Out of the Past video series (Sanders and Webster 1978, 1988; Webster et al. 1993; inter alia). While Webster was never directly a student of Sanders's, he undoubtedly was influenced by him as a colleague. As the reader will see in the chapters that follow, Webster has had a lasting influential effect on each of the contributing authors of this volume.

Human Adaptation and Mesoamerican Archaeology

Alfred V. Kidder, Jesse D. Jennings, and Edwin M. Shook's work at Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, between 1936 and 1942 is one of the earliest examples of an expressively scientific and multidisciplinary project concerned with cultural adaptation in Mesoamerica (Kidder, Jennings, and Shook 1946). A few years later in the early 1950s, Gordon R. Willey et al. (1965) initiated archaeological research in the Belize Valley, relying heavily on the framework of cultural ecology. Their volume, Prehistoric Maya Settlements in the Belize Valley, is a cornerstone of regional archaeology because of its documentation of numerous house mounds and the consideration of these mounds for implications related to associated population density for the Classic Maya. For the majority of early states, subsistence economy is generally commensurate with settlement densities and the cultural and technological achievements of a society. Prior to Willey's work in the Maya area, few scholars focused on the study of settlement patterns, primarily because Mayanists concentrated their energies on the core of major sites, prioritizing the lives of royal elites as most central to the history of the region. Willey's settlement pattern survey of Belize also revolutionized population estimates, which were previously calculated by assessing the carrying capacity of land for slash-and-burn agriculture. When settlement surveys began to identify residential units, their counts became a preferred and more accurate method for estimating population. These ancient landscapes showed a general trend for the frequency of residential house mounds to decrease with greater distances from the centers, but documentation of house mounds scattered throughout the intervening territories in between centers suggested significantly larger populations than previously claimed. The new population estimates necessarily advocated for different and more-intensive cultivation methods to support dense populations, such as terracing and the use of raised-field wetland agriculture. Many of these alternate methods were eventually confirmed (Turner 1978).

For Willey, settlement pattern studies contained more than just insights into human adaptation to the environment. He saw those studies as vehicles through which to see human behaviors that were influenced by both cultural and ecological dynamics. He believed that a settlement reflects not only a society's natural environment and technological achievements, but also the influence of various institutions of social interaction and control (Willey 1953, 1). In this vein, Binford (1962, 218) stated, "it is consistent to view technology, those tools and social relationships which articulate the organism with the physical environment, as closely related to the nature of the environment."

In the study of ancient hierarchical civilizations, analysis of ruins over large areas reveal geographical locations of centers of varying sizes that reflect organizational features and sociopolitical processes. Permeating all levels of cultural development is ideology, interpreted from the material remains that reflect subsistence, settlement patterns, and sociopolitical organization. It is an oft-cited criticism of the cultural ecological perspective that it lacks concern for ideology; however, the full recognition of the infusion of ideology into this perspective has been present from its inception (see chapter 2, this volume, for a particularly elegant example of the combination of cultural ecology and ideology). Willey's (1980, 1982) research uncovered a connection between the basic concerns of trade, warfare, and ideology. Because of this correlation, he was a proponent of a holistic approach that does not necessarily perceive a significant divide between science and humanism in archaeology.

Willey's holistic approach made cultural ecology and settlement studies applicable and appealing to later archaeologists, who still rely on spatial analyses in an attempt to explain the human past. The use of predictive modeling in archaeology began with the settlement studies performed by Willey (1953, 1975) in the 1950s and 1960s. Following Willey's Viru Valley project, several archaeologists begin adopting Willey's methodology. Bill Sanders applied his mentor's ideas in Kaminaljuyu (1968), the Basin of Mexico (1979), and later at Copan (1990). Robert Santley (1994), a student of Sanders, initiated the Matacapan Archaeological Project in 1979 that led to useful population profiles generated by regional survey. Charles Stanish (BA in Anthropology, Penn State) conducted vast settlement surveys throughout the Juli-Pomata area of Peru (Stanish 1990). Two of David Webster's recent PhD students used GIS to study settlement patterns: Timothy Murtha (2002) at Caracol, Belize, and more recently Robert Griffin (2012) at San Bartolo, Guatemala. These examples illustrate how Gordon Willey's pioneering work provided a strong methodological foundation that has been greatly enhanced by the new spatial analytical approaches.

While this approach focuses on culture, rather than the individual, as the unit of adaptation, and makes use of an ecological and materialist model of culture (Ashmore and Sharer 2014, 45–52), it profoundly contributes to our understandings of how societies have interacted with their environments through time and of the implications of these relationships for culture change. Cultural ecology is often misconstrued by some archaeologists as environmentally deterministic, even though proponents view environment as only an influencing factor, not a determining one. Unfortunately, Steward incorrectly saw humans as separate from the environment, and this view no doubt fueled the fire of many later naysayers. Unlike cultural ecology, strict determinism fails to consider the role of culture. Over time, as cultural institutions and technology gradually became more complex, the environment played a decreasing role in limiting human responses to adaptation. Further critiques of the cultural ecological perspective with its focus on culture is that groups within a culture and the tensions and dynamics of these groups are not considered (Brumfiel 1992), however this approach does not preclude the investigation of gender, class, or faction. In fact, more recent work has effectively incorporated these aspects of adaptation (see Barlow 2002; Boone 2000; Gonlin 2012; Kelly 2001; MacDonald 2001).

Smith (1991) argued against the usefulness of cultural ecology by claiming that "it predicts nothing specific." However, many of these critics (e.g., culture historians, structuralists, post-processualists) have undeniably been influenced by Stewardian cultural ecology (Sutton and Anderson 2004, 28). David Webster further explains:

Seen as a pervasive and dynamic point of view rather than an identifiable discipline or school, culture ecology's legacy includes the convictions that humans and their cultures are integral parts of larger, natural systems, that causal, scientific explanations of cultural phenomena are possible, and that the enterprise of archaeology requires strong linkages not only with the other subfields of anthropology, but with the hard sciences as well. (Webster 1996, 156)

Scientific Approaches to Mesoamerican Archaeology

The late 1960s witnessed a new development in archaeology that allowed for sizable data sets to be statistically analyzed. For American archaeology as a whole, these shifts in direction were being vehemently driven by the fire and brimstone of Lewis Binford (1962) and his "New Archaeology" (Binford and Binford 1968). Interestingly, New Archaeology (known today as Processual Archaeology) had its roots with Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips's publication of Method and Theory in American Archaeology, where they declared, "American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing" (Willey and Phillips 1958, 2). This paradigm stood firmly behind the use of the scientific method to utilize the archaeological record (cataloguing, describing, and creating timelines), rather than simply recording it, to learn and explain how people of the past lived.


Excerpted from Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica by Nancy Gonlin, Kirk D. French. Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Cover Contents List of Figures List of Tables Foreword Preface SECTION I: Introduction 1. Empirical Archaeology and Human Adaptation in Mesoamerica SECTION II: Water and Land 2. Water Temples and Civil Engineering at Teotihuacan, Mexico 3. Measuring the Impact of Land Cover Change at Palenque, Mexico 4. Complementarity and Synergy: Stones, Bones, Soil, and Toil in the Copan Valley, Honduras SECTION III: Population and Settlement Studies 5. Chronology, Construction, and the Abandonment Process: A Case Study from the Classic Maya Kingdom of Copan, Honduras 6. The Map Leads the Way: Archaeology in the Mixteca Alta, Oaxaca, Mexico SECTION IV: Reconstruction and Burial Analysis 7. The Excavation and Reconstruction of Group 8N-11, Copan, Honduras: The Process of Discovery and Rediscovery 8. The Maya in the Middle: An Analysis of Sub-Royal Archaeology at Copan, Honduras SECTION V: Political Economy 9. Life under the Classic Maya Turtle Dynasty of Piedras Negras, Guatemala: Households and History 10. The Production, Exchange, and Consumption of Pottery Vessels during the Classic Period at Tikal, Petén, Guatemala SECTION VI: Reflections and Discussion 11. Forty Years in Petén, Guatemala: A Hagiographic Prosopography 12. Two-Katun Archaeologist List of Contributors Index

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews