Anthropology doctoral student's work featured in Science Magazine

  Rebecca Mendelsohn next to row of uncarved stela at Izapa (Photo by R. Rosenswig
  Rebecca Mendelsohn next to row of uncarved stela at Izapa (Photo by R. Rosenswig)

Rebecca Mendelsohn’s dissertation field work at the early Mesoamerican city of Izapa was featured in the May 16th issue of Science Magazine. Izapa was an early urban settlement at the center of an ancient state that flourished between 850 BC and AD 200 in what is now the Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico. Mendelsohn, a doctoral candidate in UAlbany’s Department of Anthropology, is excavating small households on the outskirts of the city to document economic activities of the site’s residents. Known primarily for its massive temples, elite residences and hundreds of carved sculpture, Mendelsohn’s recent work is documenting for the first time how the common people lived at Izapa.

Mendelsohn’s research is part of a larger project undertaken by her advisor, UAlbany Associate Professor of Anthropology Robert M. Rosenswig. Rosenswig led an expedition of UAlbany graduate students, including Mendelsohn, to Chiapas from 2011-2013 on an NSF-funded project to map the city of Izapa using lidar (light detection and ranging) as well as to document the organization of surrounding settlements. Mendelsohn’s dissertation project targeted some of the new settlement documented by Rosenswig’s lidar mapping for excavations to begin documenting how the city was organized.

The article in Science Magazine also discusses UAlbany Professor of Anthropology Marilyn Masson’s  use of lidar to further the understanding of how the late Prehispanic Maya city of Mayapan was organized. Lidar technology is similar to radar or sonar but uses reflected light waves to penetrate thick tropical vegetation and record the archaeological features below. This technology is revolutionizing the speed and accuracy with which archaeologists can map ancient cities and their surrounding sustaining areas.

All of this archaeological research from the Department of Anthropology contributes to a new understanding of low-density urbanism in Mesoamerica. Scholars have traditionally been blinkered by their analogies to modern high-density urbanism and failed to appreciate that many of the world’s ancient states were organized differently. Low-density urbanism has only recently been recognized as a common characteristic of ancient Mesoamerica civilization as well as other societies that developed independently in regions of Africa and Southeast Asia. On-going work at Izapa and Mayapan are helping to provide a more accurate understanding of past urbanism in Mesoamerica and, in doing so, contextualize the organization of modern cities.