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Student Considers Mound a Key Archaic Site

UW student considers mound a key archaic site

In the middle of a swampy island inhabited by some of the most dangerous cocaine runners in the Americas, there lies an ancient Garden of Eden.

Ancient Mound Discovered

Discovered and uncovered by John Hodgson, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this archaeological site may prove to be a crucial piece of the puzzle known as the late archaic period of Mesoamerica - a time period about 5,000 years ago in a region that includes Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

And it may shed light on the factors that prompted a transition from a purely hunting and gathering society to one more complex.

"This could reshape a whole set of questions that I've been asking for the last 30 years," said John Clark, a professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and a collaborator of Hodgson's.

In addition, the site, which is on an island along the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico, may indicate that civilization, at least in this region, was not borne on the back-breaking bones of environmental hardship, overpopulation and hunger, but within a resource-enriched paradise of bountiful food, fish, plants and raw materials.

"That goes against the traditional framework" of how civilizations rose, Clark said.

Other researchers, however, think the leap from this find - a large shell mound - to the dawn of Mesoamerican civilization may be a bit premature.

The discovery of Alvarez del Toro - the name Hodgson gave the site, in honor of a famous Mexican zoologist - was announced by UW officials.

And because nobody other than Hodgson has seen the site (although he did take photographs of it that Clark and a few others have seen) - nor has it been evaluated in a peer-reviewed journal - many researchers are remaining circumspect about the find.

Alvarez del Toro can best be described as a very large shell mound.

And although other shell mounds have been found in the region - which are thought to be either huge garbage dumps, called middens, or evidence of successive "clam-bakes" - Hodgson and Clark said this late archaic shell mound is unique.

More than 240 feet long, 90 feet wide and 21 feet tall, this 5,000-year-old structure appears to have layers of flooring that were laid down every 20 to 30 years over a 500-year period.

"Regardless of whether or not this turns out to be a sedentary site occupied year-round, it is still potentially important for a variety of reasons," said Jason Yaeger, a professor of anthropology at UW who was not involved in the project but has seen Hodgson's photographs.

Yaeger said the early date of the mound, which Hodgson has verified at two different laboratories using half a dozen samples, combined with its long occupancy and the "significant and unprecedented" amount of labor involved in its construction all contradict current ideas of how people were living in this region around 3,000 B.C.

The common understanding is that people were hunter-gatherers - an anthropological description of a society that is generally on the move, hunting and collecting food. This find, Yaeger said, indicates that these people had "long-term ties to this particular place on the landscape."

"We know that structures like this are the basis for later Aztec and Mayan" ritual buildings - such as the Maya pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala, Yaeger said.

However, he cautioned that Hodgson's find is more than 1,000 years older than these later structures and not necessarily indicative of a sudden rise to civilized society.

"There are other contemporaneous or earlier examples of formalized ritual spaces in Mesoamerica," he said, citing Gheo Shin, a large, flat open space surrounded by boulders, discovered in Oaxaca, Mexico.

"There is no sign of habitation or debris in it," he said - just like Alvarez del Toro - and it is believed to have been an open-air dance site where groups of hunter-gatherers would gather to perform ritual dances, exchange marriage partners and trade goods.

"It's possible that Alvarez del Toro is also a long-term meeting place for mobile hunter-gatherer groups, although clearly more formalized than Gheo Shin," he said.

But, "that would be the least-exciting possible interpretation," said Yaeger.

Instead, the most exciting possibility, he said, is that it ends up being a permanent village.

More data needed
But all of these scenarios will have to wait until more data can be collected.

Barbara Voorhies, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and an expert in the late archaic period of the Pacific region, agrees.

"I have been working on the Chiapas shell mounds since the 1960s and have investigated them in considerable detail," she said.

In the shell mounds she has excavated, she has interpreted the layers as being sequential clam bakes. These may be different from the layers Hodgson has found, but it's too early to tell.

"It is impossible to say" from a UW news release whether this "new shell mound is like the ones I have studied in detail, or not," she said.

If post holes can be found - areas where structural supports were put in the ground to construct a wooden building - "the new mound would prove to be different from the known ones," she said.

But it seems premature to say anything too definitive about the site at this time, she said, especially in light of the information available for the "clam-bake" sites.

At the same time, however, "it would be wrong to think that site structure at the new site must be the same as the nearby shell mounds since site structure and contents do vary," she said.

Hodgson is planning to return this fall to see if he can unearth more of the structure, search for post holes and possibly find other structures nearby.

Brigham Young's Clark believes Hodgson will find these things.

"It makes sense to look for the origins of Mesoamerican civilization in marshes," such as the one Hodgson's mound is in, said Clark. "I consider investigating the potential of this site to be the number one priority" for archaeologists in the region.
Posted by BrigantesNation
20th April 2004ce
Edited 20th April 2004ce

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