Along the Street of the Dead in land of jaguars

Ancient Mexico and Central America
March 4, 2005

Khristaan Villela admires a Mesoamerican survey that delivers a broad and compelling narrative

Social sciences publishing is overpopulated with encyclopedias, dictionaries and guides, especially in the sub-fields of North, Central and South American antiquity. The spate of such synthetic works seems, in part, to be the result of publishers' desire to sell expensive multivolume sets to university libraries. Unlike many of these works, Susan Toby Evans's An cient Mexico and Central America seems appropriate for both archaeology students and for non-specialists. The work is one of the best attempts to date to sketch a moving target: the fast-changing field of Mexican and Central American archaeology. The book also stands out because it was written to be read. Most other surveys of ancient Mexico have evolved from edition to edition to the point where they are drained of authorial voice and better resemble dictionaries, tomes that students consult but do not read. Evans writes in clear prose that is generally free of jargon.

The ancient cultures that fall under the term Mesoamerica form the core of this work. Mesoamerica, which was coined by Paul Kirchhoff in 1943, refers to a geographical entity wherein all the ancient cultures shared a complex of traits, among them agriculture based on maize, beans and squash, ritual calendars, the ballgame, markets, warfare and complex pantheons. The term allowed researchers to focus on similarities between cultures in the core areas of Mexico and Guatemala. Evans's wider focus on Mexico and Central America is a fresh way to slice the pie of American antiquity. Her treatment of northern Mexican and southwestern US cultures is welcome in the climate of overspecialisation.

Evans organises her survey chronologically, beginning with the earliest hunter-gathering groups of the Archaic period, from 8,000 to 2,000BC. Then follow chapters on the Formative, Classic, Epiclassic, Postclassic and Conquest eras. Each section surveys the broad geographical sweep from northern Mexico to Central America, with special chapters dedicated to the Olmec, Monte Alb n Zapotec, Teotihuac n, Mayan and Aztec cultures. The challenge for writers who survey a large region is balancing the big picture with the myriad stories of small sites. Which is more important? Which is more interesting to readers? In reading this work, one might wonder why it was necessary to include paragraphs on scores of small sites that are of interest only to professionals. Why not instead expand the chapters on the Maya, Aztec, Teotihuac n or Zapotec cultures, about which we know a great deal more?

Although the survey format of this work does not usually lend itself to promoting new information, Evans nevertheless presents some major new data on the ancient cities of Teotihuacán and Chichen Itzá. In each case, these advances have the potential to revolutionise our understanding of Mexican antiquity. For the past half century, most archaeologists have accepted that the Teotihuac n civilisation and its eponymous capital city met its demise between AD650 and AD750, when the great buildings along the Street of the Dead burnt in a series of unexplained episodes. Now, after re-examining the carbon 14 dating samples, the true date of Teotihuacán's Götterdammerung seems to lie closer to AD500. The new date better explains some mystifying aspects of the archaeological record, especially as regards Teotihuacán's relations with other peoples in Mexico and Guatemala.

At the end of the 4th century AD, according to precise dates recorded in Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions, Teotihuacán made contact with the Maya kingdoms of Tikal and Kaminaljuyú, both in what is now Guatemala. Non-Maya imagery and costume appear on monuments commissioned by Maya elites, and many of the same individuals filled their tombs with objects painted or carved with imagery derived from Teotihuacán precedents. Archaeologists have proposed many theories to account for the nature of this cross-cultural contact, including conquest, warfare, trade and marriage alliance. But everyone agrees that the archaeological and hieroglyphic record shows that Teotihuac n contact with the Maya ceased within 50 years of the initial date of AD378. If Teotihuacan was at its apogee in the 5th and 6th centuries, we should expect more contact with the Maya and other peoples of Mesoamerica. The revised dates help explain the silence - the central Mexican metropolis suffered some stupendous calamity around AD500.

Evans also gives the latest information on the great Maya city of Chichen Itzá; again, the recent advances bear on chronology. Any book on Mexican or Maya archaeology written in the past 80 years is likely to contain the idea that Chichen Itzá had two main occupations, beginning during the Late Classic era, about AD600-900. Writers such as Sylvanus Morley and Eric Thompson believed that in the 11th and 12th centuries Toltecs, or Mexicanised Maya from the Gulf Coast, invaded Yucat n and conquered the Chichen Itzá Maya. The main evidence for this Toltec period at Chichen is a large collection of buildings and sculptures that seem to combine central Mexican design principles and artistic motifs with those found at native Maya sites. Key Mexican elements included spear-throwers, types of nose jewellery, the Feathered Serpent motif, the use of columns and supposed non-Maya racial types depicted in the sculpture. These combined with a mass of confusing native Maya historical records - the Chilam Balam books, which describe foreign invasions of Yucatán - to convince writers that the Chichen Itzá Maya were conquered.

As early as the mid-1980s, some researchers had suggested that the meagre ceramic studies of Chichen did not support a Toltec invasion. Recent excavations by the Mexican archaeologists Peter Schmidt, Rafael Cobos and others have fairly proven that there is no evidence for a Mexican period at Chichen Itzá or for a Toltec invasion. The new archaeology seems to show that virtually all the visible architecture at Chichen Itzá was built before AD1000, and perhaps in as short a span as 100 years. The so-called foreign traits at Chichen were likely the product of conscious stylistic and iconographic choices on the part of Maya patrons and artists.

In a text as extensive as this one, some errors inevitably slip through.

Most seem to cluster around the identification of motifs in art objects.

Also, there is no evidence that the ancient Maya Long Count calendar predicted the world's end on December 23, 2012. The Long Count is a continuous count of days from a mythological starting point, set by the Maya in August 3114BC, used to fix in time the histories of Maya kings, queens and cities, but also to cast dates deep into the past and far into the future.

This book is richly illustrated. In addition to excellent maps and illustrations accompanying the chapters, it contains a useful appendix of detailed maps. Evans also includes many useful textbook-style sidebars throughout the work, on themes as diverse as calendrics, metalworking, the ballgame, jaguars, sex and marriage.

All told, Evans has written a comprehensive and compelling narrative of more than 5,000 years that ranges from the earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants up to the invasion by the Spanish in the 16th century. No other text surveys this material with such authority.

Khristaan Villela is associate professor of art history, College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, US.

Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History

Author - Susan Toby Evans
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 608
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 500 28440 7

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