Origins of Social Inequality

The first evidence of social inequality in Oaxaca appeared in the early village period known as the Formative. By roughly 1000 BC in conventional radiocarbon years (calibrated 1800 BC), it appears that some of Oaxaca’s larger Formative villages were run by elite individuals who had differential access to iron ore mirrors, mother-of-pearl, Spondylus shell, jadeite ornaments, and exotic pottery from other regions. These individuals were also treated differently at the time of their burial, even when they died as children.

Ignacio Bernal’s field notes led the UMMAA project to sites such as San José Mogote, Huitzo, Fábrica San José, and Tierras Largas in the northern Valley of Oaxaca, and Abasolo and Tomaltepec in the eastern valley. These excavations were funded by the National Science Foundation.  

Of all these sites, San José Mogote turned out to have the longest sequence of Formative cultures. It also grew to be the largest village in the valley prior to the founding of Monte Albán, Oaxaca’s first city. Three other villages were excavated by graduate students for their PhD theses: Tierras Largas by Marcus Winter, Fábrica San José by Robert Drennan, and Tomaltepec by Michael Whalen.

UMMAA excavated at San José Mogote for 15 field seasons (1966-1980). The site yielded more than 30 residences and 30 public buildings. In publishing their reports on the site, Flannery and Marcus decided to deviate from the traditional format of site reports. The latter were typically composed of chapters on pottery, chipped stone, ground stone, animal bones, and so on. This format made it tedious to reconstruct all the materials found in a given residence.

Flannery and Marcus decided that the residence should be the unit of analysis. In their first volume on San José Mogote, therefore, they listed the complete contents of every Formative house. This made it possible to identify neighborhoods at San José Mogote and to show which households were involved in chert biface manufacture, press molding of pottery, shell working, or the polishing of iron-ore mirrors.

In their second volume on San José Mogote, Flannery and Marcus presented the layout and contents of every public building recovered. This approach made it possible to reconstruct the evolution of Zapotec ritual and religion.

San José Mogote appears to have been founded during the Espiridión phase, a period for which no 14C dates are available. The undecorated pottery of this phase appeared in a limited number of shapes, all of which resemble the gourd vessels used during the Archaic. 

By the Tierras Largas phase (calibrated 1800-1300 BC), San José Mogote was a village of wattle-and-daub houses covering perhaps 7 hectares. It was defended (at least on its west side) by a palisade of pine posts. The dominant ritual buildings were small (4 x 6 m) men’s houses, oriented 8˚ N of true east. They differed from Tierras Largas residences not only by their orientation but also by multiple layers of lime plaster. Among the burials of this phase were middle-aged men (presumably community leaders) who were buried in a seated, tightly flexed position. This differed from the fully-extended position of most men’s and women’s burials; however, no luxury goods were found even with the seated burials.

Figure 5. The lime-plastered floor of Structure 6, San José Mogote, a men’s house of the Tierras Largas phase.
Figure 6. Burial 29 of San José Mogote, a middle-aged Tierras Largas phase male. He was buried in a seated position— a likely sign of respect—but accompanied only by a nondescript bowl. 

The San José phase (calibrated 1300-950 BC) was a period of spectacular growth. San José Mogote now consisted of a nucleated main village (20 hectares), surrounded by outlying barrios which increased its size to 60-70 hectares. Within 8 km of this large village were 12-14 smaller villages and hamlets which appeared to be satellite communities. So great was this growth that it must have included immigration as well as population increase.

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that San José Mogote had now become a chiefly center. Its main village center now included pyramidal temple platforms, which gradually replaced men’s houses over time. Sumptuary goods included jadeite, iron ore mirrors, mother-of-pearl, and Spondylus shell. The figurines of the period depicted people of rank and people of lower status. Craft specialization differed by residential ward, as did iconographic motifs on the pottery. Some families at San José Mogote received gifts of ceramics from the Basin of Mexico/Morelos, the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific Coast. Iron ore mirrors polished at San José Mogote were sent to elite families in the Olmec area and the Valley of Morelos. 

Figure 7. A pyramidal public building of the San José phase; note the access stairway in the foreground.
Figure 8. A jadeite ornament worn in the earlobe of a high-status San José phase individual.
Figure 9. The use of iron-ore mirrors was restricted to the San José phase elite.
Figure 10. Elite individuals of the San José phase often received burial offerings bearing complex iconographic motifs.

Several San José phase villages featured cemeteries. At Tomaltepec, Michael Whalen discovered a cemetery of roughly 80 adults, including a number of presumed husband-wife pairs. Six men stood out as different — buried in a seated position, so tightly flexed as likely to have been bundled. Although constituting only 12.7% of the cemetery, these six men were accompanied by 88% of the jadeite beads, 66% of the stone slab grave coverings, and 50% of the pottery vessels carved with “Sky” or “Lightning” motifs. Many also had secondary skeletal remains added to their graves, raising the possibility that elite men might have had multiple wives, some of whom preceded them in death. 

The western limits of San José Mogote produced the partial remains of a similar cemetery, most of which had been destroyed by Colonial and recent adobe makers. Finally, the village of Abasolo yielded the burials of infants or children too young to have been initiated. Some were accompanied by elegant vessels with Sky or Lightning motifs, suggesting that the right to such vessels was inherited rather than achieved.

During the subsequent Guadalupe phase (for which we have only a few radiocarbon dates), other chiefly centers arose to challenge San José Mogote’s political influence. Huitzo (to the north) and San Martín Tilcajete (to the south) may have interfered with San José Mogote’s access to some of its favorite iron ore sources, effectively ending the production of iron ore mirrors. The Guadalupe phase seems to have been a period of retrenchment, during which San José Mogote lost population. Notwithstanding this period of “chiefly cycling,” the leaders of San José Mogote built temple platforms of plano-convex adobe bricks, facing onto modest ceremonial plazas. Elite women from San José Mogote may have been sent to marry leaders at satellite communities such as Fábrica San José. There Drennan found elite women, with the same cranial deformation seen at San José Mogote, buried with sumptuary goods. 

Figure 11. An elite Guadalupe phase woman buried at Fábrica San José. In addition to her jade ornaments, she was accompanied by a Delia White beaker. Such elegant vessels, likely imported from outside the valley, were probably used by the elite to drink fermented beverages or hot chocolate during rituals.

During the Rosario phase (calibrated 900-600 BC) San José Mogote returned to prominence, covering 60-70 hectares. A natural hill in the main village became an acropolis for temples on stone masonry platforms of travertine and limestone. At some point in the Rosario phase, public building orientation changed from 8˚ N of East to true North-South. At almost every stage of construction, sacrificed individuals were added to the fill.

Figure 12. The main Rosario phase temple at San José Mogote. Perched on a 13 m-high natural hill, it would have been visible for many kilometers.

At this time period, the Valley of Oaxaca was controlled by three rival chiefly societies. The northern valley was controlled by San José Mogote, the eastern valley by Yegüih, and the southern valley by San Martín Tilcajete. So hostile to each other were these rival societies that a virtually unoccupied buffer zone developed in the central valley.

Late in the Rosario phase, San José Mogote was attacked and its main temple burned. San José Mogote responded by building a new temple nearby and carving a stone monument that depicted an enemy leader whose heart they had removed. The victim’s hieroglyphic name was added, and the stone was placed horizontally in a corridor where the slain enemy’s image could be trod upon.

Figure 13. Monument 3 of San José Mogote depicted an elite captive whose heart had been removed.

The Rosario phase ended when 2000 people from San José Mogote and its satellites left their vulnerable valley floor locations and moved to a 400 meter-tall mountain in the buffer zone. From this new, more easily fortified summit they set about subduing their rivals.

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