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Political Organization and Social Identity in Western Mexico

Chris Beekman began participating in archaeological projects in 1986, initially including fieldwork in California, Ecuador, and Egypt. By 1989 he had decided to focus on Mesoamerican archaeology, and projects in Guatemala and El Salvador led him to direct his research towards political organization and scales of social identity. He received his Ph.D. in 1996 from Vanderbilt University, where his dissertation had pursued the issue of political boundaries and their relationship to forms of rulership and elite interaction in western Mexico. Much of his research has since focused on the central highland valleys of Jalisco, Mexico, where the archaeological record suggests the independent emergence of social complexity and political hierarchy.

There are relatively few areas in the world in which complex sociopolitical systems emerged independently and established themselves as regional powers. Archaeologists and other social scientists are extremely dependent upon these examples for developing broader theories about the origins of politics. The Teuchitlán culture of western Mexico is one of the most recent case studies to be identified, and it contradicts many of the assumptions about how these processes begin. It therefore provides a counter-example to the comparative literature that will allow archaeologists to critically evaluate existing models in ancient Mexico and beyond.

Prior research has documented a political system in which power was shared by elite families (ca. 300 BC - AD 500) instead of being concentrated in the hands of a single quasi-divine ruler, as known elsewhere in ancient Mexico and many other areas of the ancient world. The valleys of central Jalisco therefore provide a fresh point of comparison outside the canon of better studied trajectories from highland Mexico and the tropical lowlands of eastern Mesoamerica. The project examines the independent emergence, expansion, collapse, and reorganization of social complexity in a corner of Mesoamerica that has received comparatively little attention despite its potential for filling a gap in known variations on social complexity.

In collaboration with Dr. Verenice Heredia of the Colegio de Michoacán, Chris will soon begin work in the Magdalena lake basin. This research will be conducted through integrated archaeological and geomorphological survey of the Magdalena lake basin of highland Jalisco. The archaeological survey will establish the location and chronological sequence of settlements from the Early Formative period through the Spanish Conquest (1500 BC - AD 1600). A geomorphological survey by Dr. Kirk Anderson will evaluate the fluctuations of Lake Magdalena over time, providing an integrated assessment of climatic changes and the ancient use of lake resources. Project members will map the internal organization and architectural forms of sites located, a procedure which allows an analysis of the specific political institutions present and the degree of centralization that occurred.

This project continues international collaborations with researchers from the Colegio de Michoacán, and builds a framework within which graduate students from both the United States and Mexico will receive training in laboratory and field methods. The project takes a long term view towards archaeological conservation, by raising community awareness of cultural remains and training graduate students. The greatest threat to archaeological sites is lack of interest, and project members will give talks at the local level to raise community awareness and appreciation for archaeology. Training graduate students produces archaeologists who are capable of carrying out future studies that will aid in data and site conservation, which the western Mexican states as a whole sorely need.