Ancient City Found in Mexico; Shows Olmec Influence

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
January 26, 2007
Archaeologists have unearthed a city in central Mexico that is more than 2,500 years old and was influenced by the ancient Olmec culture.

Creators of a pioneering written language and calendar, the Olmec are generally regarded as the first advanced civilization in Mesoamerica, the region stretching from central Mexico to eastern Honduras (map of North and Central America).

Located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Mexico City, the ruins, called Zazacatla, are hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast region generally associated with the Olmec (Mexico map).

The discovery of Zazacatla sheds light on early cultural developments and long-distance trade in ancient Mexico. The find also suggests that the influence of the Olmec was perhaps greater than previously thought.

Zazacatla was found buried under housing and commercial development. Its discovery underlines the extent to which Mexico's heritage remains unexplored and unprotected, archaeologists say.

"The public may think that all the important archaeological sites in Mexico are known. But this is not the case," said David Grove, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has worked in central Mexico for more than 40 years.

"Ninety-five percent of Mexico remains essentially unexplored."

Mother Culture

The Olmec are often called the mother culture of Mesoamerica. They flourished during the so-called formative period of the region's history—about 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C.

The Olmec lived in the Gulf coast area that today makes up the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The most prominent Olmec center was the city of La Venta.

Famed for their colossal sculptures of heads, the Olmec may also have been the first Mesoamerican civilization to develop a writing system.

They may not have been ethnically Olmec, but the inhabitants of Zazacatla seem to have revered Olmec culture.

Two statues and architectural details at the site indicate that the inhabitants of Zazacatla adopted Olmec styles when they changed from a simple, egalitarian society to a more complex, hierarchical one, archaeologist Giselle Canto told the Associated Press.

"When their society became stratified, the new rulers needed emblems … to justify their rule over people who used to be their equals," Canto said of Zazacatla's inhabitants.

Trade Network

The Olmec's influence can be seen farther afield than their traditional area of control, including other cultures' ceremonial-center layouts and artworks, said John Machado, a pre-Columbian art historian at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

"The Olmec need for materials—especially the precious and ritually important jade—developed a broad trade network," Machado said.

"Evidence of this interaction has been discovered as much as 400 miles [640 kilometers] … in Guerrero," a state on Mexico's Pacific coast that is just south of Morelos state.

Numerous Olmec-style rock carvings and statues have been found at Chalcatzingo, a non-Olmec settlement in the eastern part of Morelos state that thrived from about 700 B.C. to 500 B.C.

"However, western Morelos seemed unaffected by such contacts and in fact seemed a backwater during the 900-to-500-B.C. time period," said Grove, the University of Illinois professor emeritus.

"The Zazacatla discoveries change that whole scenario completely," he said. "It now seems that settlements in western Morelos were also involved" with the Olmec.

Unexplored Territory

Zazacatla covered less than 1 square mile (2.6 square kilometers) between 800 and 500 B.C.

The excavation of the site began last year. Since then archaeologists have unearthed six buildings and two sculptures of what appear to be Olmec-style priests, the Associated Press reports.

But much of the site remains buried under housing developments, a gas station, a highway, and a commercial building.

Grove said Mexico doesn't have financial resources for extensive archaeological explorations.

"The forces of modernization" destroy hundreds, maybe even thousands, of unexplored sites every year, he speculated.

"For most of the country there is still a great knowledge void," Grove said. "The further you get from major towns and major highways, the less is known."

"It is usually only serendipitous when building activities bring to light a significant site such as Zazacatla and archaeologists are contacted and are able to study the discovery."

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