Long Term Social Stability in the Tres-Zapotes Region

Grants and Contracts Details


A critical question for social scientists is, how do societies and their political and economic institutions overcome disruptions in their social and natural environments? To address this question we examine the origin, expansion, and eventual decline of Tres Zapotes, an unusually resilient complex polity in the ecologically and politically dynamic setting of the Eastern Lower Papaloapan Basin (ELPB) of southern Veracruz, Mexico. The proposed regional survey continues the third phase of a multi-stage research program to investigate the evolution of the political and economic system centered at Tres Zapotes and follows intensive archaeological survey of the Tres Zapotes site to document its extent and occupational history and excavation of selected contexts to test a model of changing political organization suggested by the intra-site survey. Our previous investigations indicate that Tres Zapotes became a regional capital of the elaborate Olmec culture early in the Middle Formative period (1000-400 cal. B.C.). Whereas other Olmec polities experienced cycles of growth and collapse of a few centuries, culminating in the collapse of La Venta and its regional polity about 400 B.C., Tres Zapotes flourished, becoming the largest epi-Olmec site of the Late Formative and Protoclassic periods (400 B.C.-A.D. 300) in southern Veracruz before its gradual decline and eventual abandonment by A.D. 900. Tres Zapotes is the only major center in the southern Gulf lowlands to show such persistence and continuity from Olmec, through epi-Olmec and into Classic period times, despite documented volcanic eruptions in the region around 250-300 B.C. and the second century A.D. and heightened political competition in the Protoclassic period. 1. Intellectual Merit. We propose that a critical factor in the resilience of the Tres Zapotes polity was the ability of its leaders to enact variant political and economic strategies at the factional, polity, and interpolity scales, as contingencies demanded, while maintaining effective articulation between those different scales. We further suggest that increasing access of subjects to alternative sources of wealth and power eventually resulted in the decline of Tres Zapotes as a regional capital. Changes in sculptural themes, the location and products of craft production, and the redundant adherence to a distinctive layout of administrative-ceremonial complexes at Tres Zapotes suggest that polity-level governance shifted from an emphasis on a single Olmec ruler who monopolized sources of power to power sharing among a confederation of epi-Olmec factions. At least one "Tres Zapotes Plaza Group" is replicated outside of Tres Zapotes at El Mesón, suggesting its incorporation into the Tres Zapotes territory. Late Formative and Protoclassic sculpture from El Mesón and elsewhere, however, suggest more exclusionary politico-economic strategies than are evident in the regional capital. Therefore, practices for accumulation of wealth and governance within factions and subject communities may have differed from polity-wide governance. Regional survey will be used to evaluate these propositions and a hypothesized sequence of development for the Tres Zapotes polity. Survey will sample approximately 40% of an 800 km2 study area. Pedestrian survey and surface collection will be employed in combination with advanced remote sensing (LiDAR and polychromatic satellite imagery) to record and date administrative-ceremonial centers, mounded and non-mounded residential occupation, crafting loci, and aceramic loci of early occupation and extractive activities. Full-coverage pedestrian survey will focus on the piedmont and higher passes of the Tuxtla Mountains on the east side of the survey area and an area of paleodunes and shallow lakes to the north. LiDAR will sample the alluvial plain in a series of bands totaling 125 km2 to identify the mounds and elevated features that provide the only surface evidence of ancient activity in the deep deposits and sugar cane fields of that area, and target them for surface collection. Multispectral satellite imagery will extend remote sensing over the entire study area and provide environmental data as well as identify additional archaeological features. Remote sensing is planned for the spring of Year 1 and pedestrian survey in the summer of Year 1, to be completed in Year 2. Artifact classification and data analysis will run concurrently with pedestrian survey and continue through the summer of Year 3. 2. Broader Impacts include the training of Mexican and North American students in field and analytical techniques and remote sensing interpretation as well as enhancement of the local research infrastructure through needed expansion to the project laboratory on the grounds of the Tres Zapotes Museum (managed by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) and documentation of cultural heritage. The project will contribute to public education by (1) providing materials for museum displays (2) allowing museum visitors to observe laboratory activities and (3) giving public talks to schools and civic organizations in the region. Information from the project will be widely disseminated through professional publications, graduate dissertations and theses, and a project web page, with due consideration given to the appropriate level of information for professional and public audiences.
Effective start/end date9/1/132/28/18


  • National Science Foundation: $240,000.00


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