Soconusco Archaeological Project
Robert M. Rosenswig, Principal Investigator
The Soconusco is the name given to the coastal plain and piedmont between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre mountains of southeast Chiapas and an adjacent section of Guatemala. The focus of this paper is the southeastern half of the Soconusco that is approximately 60 km long and 30 to 40 km wide. This region is defined on all sides by geographic barriers. To the southwest is the Pacific Ocean, to the northeast are the Sierra Madre Mountains and to both the northwest and the southeast are two large estuary-lagoon systems: the Cantileña and Guamuchal Manchon swamps (see Voorhies 2004: 6-13, 20-21). The relatively small area between the two swamp systems contain the greatest concentration of fertile land on the Pacific coast of Mexico and Guatemala and today is used to grow a variety of fruit crops. The area to the northwest contains poor gravelly soils with lower rainfall and is less productive agricultural lands (Lowe 1977: 202). In fact, the area between Pijijiapán and Tonalá was called the despoblado del Soconusco in colonial times due to its extremely low population (Orellana 1995: 11). Today the area is still sparsely populated and used mainly to graze cattle. To the southeast of the land between these swamps, the coastal plain becomes wider and the piedmont is further from the ocean. In this region, there are no swamp systems and the soils contain so much clay that maize is still not grown today (Neff et al. 2006: 397). It is thus not surprising that a disproportionate quantity of significant developments on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica transpired in the southeast part of the Soconusco between these two large swamp systems (see Rosenswig in press).
Four major rivers transect the land between these two swamps. From north to south these rivers are the Coatán, the Cahuacán, the Suchiate, and the Naranjo. These rivers originate on the piedmont and drain the watersheds of the Tacaná and Tajamulco volcanoes. A number of smaller streams originate on the coastal plain and form a series of mangrove estuary systems parallel to the ocean where water flow is insufficient to break through the barrier beaches. These rivers create a dynamic set of microenvironments. There are a number of detailed descriptions of the Soconusco environment (Coe and Flannery 1967: 9-15; Lowe et al. 1982: 55-62).
Cuauhtémoc Zone Survey and Excavations
No previous work has been published from the Cuauhtémoc zone of the Soconusco. Philip Drucker (1948) passed through this area and conducted some of the first reconnaissance in the area. From 1963 to 1974, Carlos Navarette conducted reconnaissance in this part of the Soconusco and the Early Formative sites of Capulin and Dorado are shown on New World Archaeological Foundation publications (e.g., Lowe 1975: fig. 1). In addition, employees of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia (INAH) national registry of sites revisited sites reported by Navarette and carried out survey in the estuary region between Puerto Madero and the Suchiate River (Clark 1994: 95). No excavations were carried out at any sites in the region, nor were sites encountered during reconnaissance published.
The site of Cuauhtémoc had long been known by Antonio Arazate (of the Museo Regional del Soconusco in Tapachula) and visited by John Clark and Michael Blake in the 1980s. In 1996, the site was trenched to begin cultivating bananas. This disturbance revealed layers of artifact rich middens and numerous burials. The site’s 5 m high central mound was leveled at this time. That year, Alejandro Tovalín of the Centro Regional INAH, Chiapas spent two weeks excavating four test pits in the site. John Clark also visited the newly disturbed site at that time, made surface collections and drew a number of sketch maps of artifact distribution. Clark documented occupations dating to many Early Formative phases and numerous surface remains from the early Middle Formative Conchas phase. Based on this information, and at the suggestion of Clark, I selected the Cuauhtémoc site and surrounding area for research (Rosenswig 2005).
Cuauhtémoc was systematically surface-collected in 2001 to test the survey methodology and a 220 m section of one of the deep drainage canals that cut through the site was profiled. In 2002 and 2003, excavations documented how the site was built on a raised sand levee that would have kept inhabitants above the level of the seasonal flooding. This desirable location would have originally attracted people to settle at the site during the Barra phase. The Cuauhtémoc site was occupied until the end of the Conchas phase and never reoccupied. In 2002, two months of systematic surface survey was carried out in the area around Cuauhtémoc.
In order to provide a more complete settlement history of the area, an expanded program of survey in the Cuauhtémoc zone will undertaken beyond the coastal plain. More of the coastal plain will be surveyed in the manner discussed above to increase the 28 sq m coverage. Second, the estuary swamp system between the Suchiate and Cahuacán Rivers will be surveyed The low hills behind the costal plain, that begins 14 km from the Pacific Ocean, form the fourth environmental land-use zone planned for surveyed. In this zone, a large number of late Middle Formative and Late Formative sites and a large Late Postclassic period site have been documented in unsystematic reconnaissance. Systematic survey will be undertaken here without the sub-surface exposure provided by trenching that has occurred on the coastal plain. The piedmont, which has been heavily impacted by modern development, is the fifth zone where survey is planned. In large areas, especially around Tapachula and along the Pan-American Highway, many square kilometers have been paved. In this zone, urban survey methods will have to be adopted and large tracts of land excluded from consideration.
Clark, John E.
1994 “The Development of Early Formative Rank Societies in the Soconusco, Chiapas, Mexico,” unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Clark, John E. and Mary E. Pye
2000 “The Pacific Coast and the Olmec Question,” in John E. Clark and Mary E. Pye, ed., Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 217-251.
Coe, Michael D. and Kent V. Flannery
1967 Early Cultures and human ecology in South Coastal Guatemala. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 3, Washington: Smithsonian Institute.
1948 “Preliminary Notes on an Archaeological Survey of the Chiapas Coast,” Middle American Research Records 1 (11): 151-169.
2003 “Polities of the Soconusco,” in Michael E. Smith and Francis F. Berdan, eds., The Postclassic Mesoamerican World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 50-54.
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1975 The Early Preclassic Barra Phase of Altamira, Chiapas: A Review with New Data. Papers, New World Archaeological Foundation 38. Provo: Brigham Young University.
Lowe, Gareth W., Thomas A. Lee Jr., E. M. Espinoza
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Neff, Hector, Deborah M. Pearsall, John G. Jones, Barbara Arroyo de Pieters, and Dorothy E. Freidel
2006 “Climate change and population history in the Pacific Lowlands of Southern Mesoamerica,” Quaternary Research 65: 390-400.
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Rosenswig, Robert M.
in prep. “An Early Mesoamerican Archipelago of Complexity: As Seen from Changing Population and Human Depictions at Cuauhtémoc,” Los Angeles: Cotsen Institution, University of California.
2010 Early Mesoamerican Civilizations: Inter-Regional Interaction and the Olmec. Cambridge University Press, New York, in press.
2009 Early Mesoamerican Garbage: Ceramic and Daub Discard Patterns from Cuauhtémoc, Soconusco, Mexico. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16 (1), 1-32
2008 Prehispanic Settlement in the Cuauhtémoc Zone of the Soconusco, Chiapas, Mexico. Journal of Field Archaeology, 33 (4): 389-411.
2007 Beyond Identifying Elites: Feasting as a Means to Understand Early Middle Formative Society on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26 (1): 1-27.
2006 Northern Belize and the Soconusco: A Comparison of the Late Archaic to Formative Transition. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 3: 9-71.
2006 Sedentism and Food Production in Early Complex Societies of the Soconusco, Mexico. World Archaeology 38 (2): 329-354.
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2004 Coastal Collectors in the Holocene: The Chantuto People of Southwest Mexico. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.