Project History

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).

Learn more on the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) website.

Cuauhtémoc Zone Survey & 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 my dissertation 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 a 28 sq km area around Cuauhtémoc.

Future Plans

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.

Drucker, Philip

1948    “Preliminary Notes on an Archaeological Survey of the Chiapas Coast,” Middle American Research Records 1 (11): 151-169.

Gasco, Janine

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.

Lorenzo, José Luis

1955    “Los Concheros de la Costa de Chiapas,” Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia 7: 41-50.

Love, Michael

2007    “Recent Research in the Southern Highlands and Pacific Coast of Mesoamerica,” Journal of Archaeological Research 15: 275-328.

Lowe, Gareth W.

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

1982    Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments. Papers, New World Archaeological Foundation 31. Provo: Brigham Young University.

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.

Orellana, Sandra L.

1995    Ethnohistory of the Pacific Coast. Lancaster: Labyrinthos.

Rosenswig, Robert M.

2000    Some Political Processes of Ranked SocietiesJournal of Anthropological Archaeology 19 (4): 413-460.

2003    Earliest Mesoamerican Human-duck Imagery from Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, MexicoAntiquity 77.

2005    From the Land Between Swamps: Cuauhtémoc in an Early Olmec World, Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, New Haven.

2006    Sedentism and Food Production in Early Complex Societies of the Soconusco, MexicoWorld Archaeology 38 (2): 329-354. 

2006    Northern Belize and the Soconusco: A Comparison of the Late Archaic to Formative TransitionResearch Reports in Belizean Archaeology 3: 9-71.

2007    Beyond Identifying Elites: Feasting as a Means to Understand Early Middle Formative Society on the Pacific Coast of MexicoJournal of Anthropological Archaeology 26 (1): 1-27.

2008    Prehispanic Settlement in the Cuauhtémoc Zone of the Soconusco, Chiapas, MexicoJournal of Field Archaeology, 33 (4): 389-411.

2009    Early Mesoamerican Garbage: Ceramic and Daub Discard Patterns from Cuauhtémoc, Soconusco, MexicoJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16 (1), 1-32.

2010    The Beginnings of Mesoamerican Civilization: Inter-Regional Interaction and the Olmec. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2011    An Early Mesoamerican Archipelago of Complexity. In Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations: Archaic to Formative in the Soconusco Region, pp. 242-271, edited by Richard Lesure University of California Press, Berkeley.

2012    Southern Pacific Coastal Region of Mesoamerica: A Corridor of Interaction from Olmec to Aztec Times. In Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by D. L. Nichols and C. A. Pool, pp. 419-433. Oxford University Press, New York.

2012    The First 1000 Years of Ceramic Use in the Soconusco: Evidence from the Cuauhtémoc Site. In Arqueología Reciente de Chiapas: Contribuciones del Encuentro Celebrado en el 60° Aniversario de la Fundación Arqueológica Nuevo Mundo, edited by L. Lowe and M. Pye, pp. 223-235. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, No. 72. BYU, Provo.

2012    Agriculture and Monumentality in the Soconusco Region of Chiapas, Mexico. In Early New World Monumentality, pp. 111-137, edited by Richard L. Burger and Robert M. Rosenswig. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

2012    Materialism, Mode of Production and A Millennium of Change in Southern MexicoJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19 (1): 1-48.

2016    Olmec Globalization: A Mesoamerican Archipelago of Complexity. In Handbook of Globalization and Archaeology, edited by T. Hodos, pp. 177-193. Routledge, London.

Rosenswig, Robert M., Amber M. VanDerwarker, Brendan J. Culleton, and Douglas J. Kennett.

2015    Is it Agriculture Yet? Intensified Maize-Use at 1000 cal BC in the Soconusco and MesoamericaJournal of Anthropological Archaeology 40 (4): 89-108.

Shook, Edwin M.

1965    “Archaeological Survey of the Pacific Coast of Guatemala,” in Gordon R. Willey, Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, Part 1. Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 2. Austin: University of Texas Press, 180-194.

Voorhies, Barbara

2004    Coastal Collectors in the Holocene: The Chantuto People of Southwest Mexico. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Theses & Dissertations

Marx, Morgan

n.d.      Considerations of Ambiguously-Sexed Figurines From Formative Mesoamerica and Beyond: The Applicability of Anthropometric Correlations to Figural Representations. MA thesis, Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, SUNY, in progress.

Mendelsohn, Rebecca R.

2011    Of Pots and Parties: Tecomates and Feasting Practices of Early Formative Soconusco. MA thesis, Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, SUNY.