A Tale Of Two Cities: Religion In Ancient Mexico

It’s generally thought that religion contributed to political and social unification in ancient times, but research in southern Mexico indicates that wasn’t always the case.

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Carved stone slabs from a building on Monte Albán’s Main Plaza show people performing autosacrifice and invoking their ancestors. Credit: Arthur Joyce.
Carved stone slabs from a building on Monte Albán’s Main Plaza show people performing autosacrifice and invoking their ancestors. Credit: Arthur Joyce.

Fall 2016: By Kristin Ohlson.

During the dry season, when they weren’t tending their crops, thousands of people left their villages in what is now the Río Verde Valley in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and headed towards Río Viejo, a larger community situated near the Verde River and the Pacific Ocean. Beginning around A.D. 50, they built what would become one of the largest structures in all of prehispanic Oaxaca: a massive earth-and-stone acropolis the size of seven football fields. It rose some twenty feet above the surrounding plain and supported two structures more than fifty-feet high.

Archaeologists Arthur Joyce of the University of Colorado Boulder and Sarah Barber of the University of Central Florida have uncovered the distinct construction styles of at least five work groups at the acropolis who are thought to have hailed from different villages. Someone had clearly succeeded in forging alliances and winning allegiances within the region, marshaling the kind of labor needed to build this magnificent structure.

But their power waned quickly. Other Mesoamerican urban centers with monumental architecture on Río Viejo’s scale—such as Monte Albán in the Valley of Oaxaca, now a day’s drive from Río Viejo—became regional sites of great power and authority that lasted many centuries. However, Río Viejo dwindled into obscurity in 100 years. Joyce and Barber’s investigations have led them to a surprising conclusion as to why. In the Río Verde Valley, they argue, vibrant religious practices in the villages—especially communal burials of the dead under the floors of public buildings—rooted people to the villages and prevented Río Viejo’s elites from consolidating power in the urban center.

Summary. Read More in our Fall 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 3. Browse Content of this Issue: Fall 2016.

Browse Articles Summaries from our last issue, Summer 2016 .

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