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Discovering the Occidente Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Robert B. Pickering

[image] Until now, the Prehispanic culture of West Mexico has been known primarily for the large variety of well made and expressive figurines, such as these musicians, found in the region's shaft tombs. (Courtesy Denver Museum of Natural History) [LARGER IMAGE]

The prehistory of West Mexico is so poorly known that scholars have no name for the people who created the region's monumental architecture and exquisite artifacts of ceramic, jade, and stone. Known for its characteristic shaft tombs, West Mexico's Prehispanic culture shared many traits with other Mesoamerican cultures, including worship of deities like Tlaloc, the rain god, and Ehecatl, the wind god. Yet it stands apart from the civilizations of central Mexico. There is great artistry in the design and manufacture of a wide range of artifacts found in the Occidente, as West Mexico is often called, as well as strong evidence for trade in raw materials and finished products with distant regions. There is architectural sophistication in the design and construction of the massive settlements in the area. Stepped platform pyramids, sunken courts and raised house platforms, and ballcourts are well known throughout the rest of Mesoamerica, but in the Occidente, some of them have a curious twist; the pyramids and courts and platforms are circular rather than square in design.

Today, archaeology in West Mexico is about where Maya archaeology was 30 to 50 years ago. Within the next few years, archaeologists will be able to answer some of the basic questions about West Mexican societies. Already the data from site surveys and the excavation of habitation and mortuary sites are showing that the sociopolitical and religious development of the region's people was complex and that their technological development was sophisticated. For those studying the ancient culture of West Mexico, there is much to be done. It is a time of great discovery.

Robert B. Pickering is chairman of the department of anthropology of the Denver Museum of Natural History.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America