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City by the Sea Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
By Jennifer Pinkowski

Early urban planning on Mexico's Pacific coast


"Downtown" Ojo de Agua, a possible ceremonial center with pyramids and a rectangular central plaza in Chiapas, Mexico (courtesy New World Archaeological Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE]

Cantón Corralito is just one of many archaeological sites in the Mexican state of Chiapas, best known for its spectacular Maya ruins: the towering pyramids of Palenque and the murals at Bonampak-. (Black-masked Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the 1994 indigenous uprising that put the plight of Mexico's Indians on the international stage, brought Chiapas fame as well.) But these are hundreds of miles north of Cantón Corralito, which lies in an archaeologically rich area little visited by tourists.

The Soconusco is a resource-rich region dominated by an estuary system of rivers and swamps that runs along the Pacific coast for about 350 miles to southern Guatemala, separating farmland and beach. In prehistory, it was the main travel route through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which connects the mainland of Mexico to the Yucatán Peninsula and Central America. While agriculture first arose in Oaxaca, the state bordering Chiapas to the northwest, and the Olmec (1250-500 B.C.) created Mesoamerica's first civilization just north, on the Gulf of Mexico, it is in the Soconusco that archaeologists have documented the earliest permanent villages, ranked societies, and sophisticated pottery in Mesoamerica, all of which arose during a period known as the Early Formative (1800-900 B.C.).

The Soconusco's archaeological record has long been overshadowed by the dramatic monuments created by later Mesoamerican cultures, such as the colossal heads of the Olmec or the pyramids of the Teotihuacanos or Maya. The sticky tropical climate quickly destroys organic material, and the constantly shifting rivers often bury sites under deep alluvial deposits. Malaria and dengue fever thrive here as much as chocolate, bananas, sesame, and cotton.

But its resources have drawn people for at least 9,000 years, and archaeologists have followed them. Since the early twentieth century, some have studied the region's Archaic period (7000-1800 B.C.), when nomadic populations lived in small mobile bands and relied on the swamps for fish, clams, and shrimp, while the majority have worked on the many Formative Period sites that grew along the coast from at least 1600 B.C. Much of this work has been supported by the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) based at Brigham Young University, now headed by John Clark, who is considered one of the foremost authorities on this period. Recently, Clark and John Hodgson, an NWAF archaeologist and Ph.D candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, revisited a Formative site called Ojo de Agua, a settlement possibly founded by people relocating from Cantón Corralito, which was flooded out about 1000 B.C. Ojo de Agua was first investigated by the NWAF decades ago but has remained largely unexcavated until now.

While the research is still in beginning stages, what Hodgson found in the 2005 field season is promising. Ojo de Agua may be a planned ceremonial center in Mesoamerica with pyramids, the earliest one found so far.

Jennifer Pinkowski is associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America