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Chapter One - Introduction

Early Mesoamerican Cities, Urbanism, and Urbanization in the Formative Period

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2021

Michael Love
California State University, Northridge
Julia Guernsey
University of Texas, Austin


Ancient Mesoamerica was a land of cities (Fig. 1.1). Above all, it was the number and the density of cities that distinguished Mesoamerica from the complex societies in neighboring areas of North America and lower Central America. Further, although ancient Mesoamerican cities interacted to varying degrees with those cultures to the north and south, they interacted most intensively with one another. It was the shared cultural practices produced by those relationships that define Mesoamerica (Kirchoff 1943; R. Joyce 2004a). In short, Mesoamerica is defined by its cities, their interactions with one another, and the cultural patterns created and sustained by those relationships. It is the beginnings of those cities, and their interactions, that form the principal themes of this volume.

Early Mesoamerican Cities
Urbanism and Urbanization in the Formative Period
, pp. 1 - 23
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

Ancient Mesoamerica was a land of cities (Fig. 1.1). Above all, it was the number and the density of cities that distinguished Mesoamerica from the complex societies in neighboring areas of North America and lower Central America. Further, although ancient Mesoamerican cities interacted to varying degrees with those cultures to the north and south, they interacted most intensively with one another. It was the shared cultural practices produced by those relationships that define Mesoamerica (Kirchoff Reference Kirchoff1943; R. Joyce Reference Joyce, Hendon and Joyce2004a). In short, Mesoamerica is defined by its cities, their interactions with one another, and the cultural patterns created and sustained by those relationships. It is the beginnings of those cities, and their interactions, that form the principal themes of this volume.

1.1. Map of Formative period sites.

Map by author

The temporal focus of this volume is the Formative or PreclassicFootnote 1 period, when the earliest Mesoamerican cities came to be and when patterns of interaction were first shaped. Not too long ago, the phrase “Formative period urbanism” would have been viewed as an oxymoron. Formative period settlements in Mesoamerica were described as villages, hamlets, and small towns; they were called anything but cities. The reluctance to embrace Formative period urbanism is unwarranted, as can be seen in Table 1.1, which compares the sizes of the cities of Formative period Mesoamerica with settlements considered to be the earliest cities in other parts of the world. The Mesoamerican examples fit quite comfortably, and we should put to rest any accusations of “city envy.” Moreover, research over recent decades has demonstrated that the Formative period of Mesoamerica (2000 BCE–300 CE) was not a mere prelude to the Classic period (300–900 CE). In fact, for some regions, populations were higher and there was greater sociopolitical complexity during the Formative period than in the ensuing Classic period. Not only were there true cities in the Formative period, but many were larger than those of the Classic (A. Joyce Reference Joyce2009; Love Reference Love, Guernsey, Clark and Arroyo2010, Reference Love, Love and Kaplan2011a, Reference Love, Renfrew and Bahn2014; Pool Reference Pool, Nichols and Pool2012).

Table 1.1. Comparison of the size of Formative period Mesoamerican cities with that of early cities in other parts of the world – Mesoamerican data provided by contributors to this volume

RegionCityArea (hectares)Dates of OccupationReferences
Nagar100Emberling Reference Emberling and Smith2003
Kish550Moorey Reference Moorey1978
Uruk250Nissen Reference Nissen and Rothman2001
Moche135Chapdelaine Reference Chapdelaine, Bawden and Reycraft2000
Tiwanaku600Janusek Reference Janusek2008
Wari600Schreiber Reference Schreiber, Alcock, D’Altroy, Morrison and Sinopoli2001
Gulf Coast
San Lorenzo500–7001450–1000 BCEPool and Loughlin, Chapter 3
La Venta4001000–400 BCEPool and Loughlin, Chapter 3
Cerro de las Mesas146600 BCE – 300 CEPool and Loughlin, Chapter 3
Tres Zapotes500400 BCE – 300 CEPool and Loughlin, Chapter 3
Maya Lowlands
El Mirador450 core, 1600 overallDemarest Reference Demarest2004; Hansen Reference Hansen, Traxler and Sharer2016
Cival70 core, 685 settlement1000 BCE – 200 CEEstrada-Belli Reference Estrada-Belli2006, Reference Estrada-Belli2011
Holmul55 core 1200 settlement1000 BCE – 1000 CEEstrada-Belli Reference Estrada-Belli2011
Yaxuná800–900300 BCE – 200 CEStanton and Collins, Chapter 4
Western Mesoamerica
Río Viejo225700 BCE – 1100 CEJoyce, Chapter 2
Huamelulpan212Joyce, Chapter 2
Yucuita100Joyce, Chapter 2
Cerro Jazmín86Joyce, Chapter 2
Monte Negro78Joyce, Chapter 2
Monte Albán442500 BCE – 800 CEMarcus and Flannery Reference Marcus and Flannery1996
Teotihuacan2000Cowgill Reference Cowgill2015
Southern Maya Region
Chocolá800Kaplan and Valdés Reference Kaplan and Valdés2004
El Ujuxte400 core, 900 overall300 BCE – 100 CELove Reference Love, Guernsey and Lesure2011
Izapa800Love and Rosenswig, Chapter 7
Kaminaljuyu900 in Late PreclassicLove 2011
Tak’alik Ab’aj650 in Late Preclassic100 BCE – 100 CEPopenoe de Hatch et al. Reference Popenoe de Hatch, de Lavarreda, Orrego Corzo, Love and Kaplan2011

Why Think about Urbanism and Urbanization?

Urbanization is a phenomenon that brings into focus many topics of broad interest to all disciplines that investigate the human past; its study is also an enduring interest of anthropological archaeology and kindred disciplines. As a transformational process, urbanization changes the relationships between many social and cultural variables including demography, economy, political structures, and ideology. Urbanization is more than just population growth and nucleation, however; the emergent properties of urbanization create new identities, economic relationships, materialities, and social realities (M. L. Smith Reference Smith and Smith2003, Reference Smith2019; Yoffee Reference Yoffee2005). Analysis of first-generation urbanization therefore offers an important opportunity to achieve a holistic perspective on important changes in the human condition as well as a myriad of issues of interest to the humanities and social sciences.

As one of the limited number of cases in the world where urban centers developed independently, Mesoamerica should play a major role in the worldwide comparative analysis of early cities and the emergence of urbanism in general. Some of the contributions to be made by such engagement are addressed by Monica Smith and Norman Yoffee in their chapters here (Chapters 10 and 11, respectively). Nevertheless, the perception among many scholars, perhaps even most, around the globe is that Mesoamerican cities developed relatively late in comparison to the rest of the world. Major publications discussing early urbanism continue to draw their Mesoamerican case studies from the Classic and Postclassic periods (e.g., Marcus and Sabloff Reference Marcus, Sabloff, Marcus and Sabloff2008; Mastache et al. Reference Mastache, Cobean, Cook and Hirth2008; Sanders et al. Reference Sanders, Mastache and Cobean2003; M. L. Smith Reference Smith and Smith2003; Storey Reference Storey2006). Although recent works focusing on Mesoamerican urbanism increasingly make reference to Formative period cities (e.g., Arnauld Reference Arnauld, Arnauld, Manzanilla and Smith2012; Blanton Reference Blanton, Nichols and Pool2012; Carballo Reference Carballo2016; A. Joyce Reference Joyce2009; Pool Reference Pool, Nichols and Pool2012), they generally do so from a local or regional perspective. Frequently, a case is made for an individual settlement as a Formative period city, but the site under consideration is presented as precocious or unique, and the arguments sometimes peppered with hyperbolic verbiage such as “Mesoamerica’s first city” or the “cradle of Mesoamerican civilization.” The case of Monte Albán is an exception to such exclusion, as that settlement has long been recognized as a Formative period city, and has received extensive attention over the past thirty years or more (Blanton et al. Reference Blanton, Kowalewski, Feinman and Finsten1993; A. Joyce Reference Joyce2009; Marcus and Flannery Reference Marcus and Flannery1996; Spencer and Redmond Reference Spencer and Redmond2004). It has not been discussed, however, as part of the widespread development of cities across Mesoamerica in the Late Formative. Another powerful point of comparison is found in the recent work by David Carballo (Reference Carballo2016), truly a milestone, which makes the case for extensive Formative period urbanism in Central Mexico, but still includes scant reference to that region’s links to other areas. In sum, we might say that while urbanism in Formative Mesoamerica has been recognized by some, a framework for discussing Formative period cities as a pan-Mesoamerican phenomenon has not been developed, or even attempted. More importantly, perhaps, scholars outside of Mesoamerica seem unaware of the extent of urbanism in Mesoamerica prior to the Classic period.

If our collective goal is to engage in the comparative analysis of first-generation cities, scholars of early urbanism must understand the nature of Mesoamerica’s Formative period cities. Conversely, scholars working on early Mesoamerican cities must engage the rest of the world and draw upon theories, models, and data from comparative studies of early cities elsewhere. A first step, however, must be to explicitly address the scale and nature of these cities through empirical studies that use a framework of comparative urban analysis.

Definitions of Urbanism?

It is traditional in an introduction such as this to provide definitions of cities and urbanism.

As Paul Wheatley (Reference Wheatley, Ucko, Tringham and Dimbleby1972: 602) noted, however, definitions vary according to the interests of the scholar and are often adjusted so as to include all cases that a given author intuitively views as cities. For that reason, we should begin with Louis Wirth’s (Reference Wirth1938: 1) simple, yet elegant, statement that “cities are relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of heterogeneous individuals.” That statement can be paired with Wheatley’s (Reference Wheatley, Ucko, Tringham and Dimbleby1972: 601) view that urbanism is “customarily used to denote qualities possessed by certain of the more compact clusters of settlement features that at any particular moment in time represent centroids of continuous population movement.”

Everyone agrees that cities are large and diverse settlements, but beyond that there is little consensus. A larger problem is that definitions are largely retrospective; most archaeological studies take definitions from the modern world and attempt to impose them on the ancient past. So anthropologists and archaeologists adopt models from the Chicago School (e.g., Park Reference Park, Park, Burgess and McKenzie1925; Wirth Reference Wirth1938) or the German School (e.g., Simmel Reference Simmel1950; Weber Reference Weber1962), and ask whether ancient cities fit effectively into such schemes. We express surprise, disappointment, or confident self-congratulation when they do or don’t, depending on our goals. The focus in this volume, by contrast, is forward-looking, in the sense that the chapters seek to understand the emergence of new ways of life during the course of the Formative period or how the emergence of cities changed the way people lived.

One goal of this volume is to debate how cities and urbanism should be defined in Formative period Mesoamerica. Beyond the basic criteria of relatively large and relatively diverse settlements, readers will find a lack of agreement among the authors. To be sure, providing definitions and evaluating data against them can be, at times, enlightening, as shown by Scott Hutson’s (Reference Hutson2016) work on Classic period Maya urbanism. At other times, however, it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong. Arbitrary thresholds can preclude the examination of instructive case studies and worthwhile comparative analysis. As Travis Stanton and Ryan Collins demonstrate in Chapter 5, the processes of place-making and of centralization, critical components of urbanization, can take place at many scales. The events that they discuss for Yaxuná, perhaps the smallest of the cities examined in this volume, are remarkably similar in concept to those of Teotihuacan, the largest addressed in this book (Sugiyama, Chapter 8).

As Yoffee (Reference Yoffee2005: 2) stated, the game of measuring cities against an arbitrary definition is a “relic of disco-era social theory.” Early considerations of urbanism in archaeology focused on a limited set of traits against which a given settlement was judged as “urban” (e.g., Childe Reference Childe1950). Despite the difficulty that archaeologists have in estimating population parameters, many scholars continue to adhere to absolute thresholds of population size or density (e.g., Gates Reference Gates2003; Sanders and Price Reference Sanders and Price1968; Sanders and Webster Reference Sanders and Webster1988). Proponents of such thresholds, however, disagree on where such levels should be set. Some argued forcefully for thresholds in the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. More recently, other scholars have argued that urbanism can be present at a much smaller scale, even under 1,000 people (M. Hansen Reference Hansen, Marcus and Sabloff2008).

Criteria based upon density, following sociologists such as Max Weber (Reference Weber1962) and Wirth (Reference Wirth1938), have been shown to be ethnocentric and premised on idealized European concepts of walled cities (M. E. Smith Reference Smith2010a). In counterpoint, increasingly influential are definitions of dispersed urban settlement that do not require a high density of population but still involve large contiguous populations (Fletcher Reference Fletcher and Smith2012). Roland Fletcher’s model is particularly relevant to tropical climes, such as the lowlands of Mesoamerica, but for Formative period Mesoamerica it is also useful in understanding the first cities in temperate highland zones.

With both absolute size and density proving to be problematic defining characteristics, many recent approaches have focused more on the process of urbanization rather than on strict definitions of cities and/or urbanism. The continuum between early central places, especially economic centers, and large cities has long been recognized (Adams Reference Adams1966; Algaze Reference Algaze2008; Blanton Reference Blanton, Bricker and Sabloff1981; Sanders and Webster Reference Sanders and Webster1988), even by those who favor absolute thresholds for defining urbanism or cities. Michael Smith (Reference Smith and Carrasco2001, Reference Smith, Mastache, Cobean, Cook and Hirth2008a; Smith and Novic Reference Smith, Novic, Arnauld, Manzanilla and Smith2012), for one, has emphasized such functional criteria for urbanism, stressing central place activities that vary in scale and can be present in even small regional centers. In his view, villages, towns, and cities represent a hierarchy of urban forms that all serve central place functions. V. Gordon Childe (Reference Childe1950), too, saw that ancient urban settlements could have small populations, and that it was the degree of difference between settlements within a region that was important.

Another approach emphasizes urbanization as a process by which social relationships are transformed. Monica Smith (Reference Smith and Smith2003: 16) proposed that “the city form represents the physical manifestation of social transformation,” but, she insists, social transformations cannot be matched precisely to a particular population size or areal extent. In this view, the social processes of urbanization often begin in relatively small settlements, even while some of them intensify as social scale increases. Arthur Joyce (Reference Joyce2009: 192) expresses similar views: “Practices and the cultural and material conditions that constitute social formations such as those that characterize different urban landscapes are always negotiations among differently positioned actors – socially embedded individuals and groups – distinguished by varying identities, interests, emotions, knowledge, outlooks, and dispositions.”

Although it is impossible to find consensus in such diverse views, I believe that most scholars, including those in this volume, now view urbanism as a continuum that cannot be cleanly converted into a dichotomy of nonurban and urban. Many attempt to achieve clarity by decoupling “urban” from “city.” This approach distinguishes function from size, using “city” to identify one and “urban” to identify the other (Hutson Reference Hutson2016; M. E. Smith Reference Smith and Carrasco2001, Reference Smith, Mastache, Cobean, Cook and Hirth2008a; see also Christopher Pool and Michael Loughlin, Chapter 3, and Travis Stanton and Ryan Collins, Chapter 5, for overviews of the varying uses of the terms urban, urbanization, and city). Such semantic play may provide some clarity, but it robs us of using the adjective “urban” to describe the demographic aspect of cities and “urbanization” to describe the process of city growth. Many authors in this volume use “urban” in the functional sense to denote central places, but others do not. Julia Guernsey and Stephanie Strauss (Chapter 9) make good use of “urban” to derive “urbanity,” a term that is both sonorous and enlightening; it would be lost if we insisted on limiting “urban” to denote central place functions. So long as an author’s meaning is clear, there is no reason to impose a uniformity of language and definition on contributors to a volume such as this one.

The present volume was created with the hope that the chapters in it would stimulate a discussion of the nature of early cities in Mesoamerica, how they compare to other early cities around the world, and their relationship to later urban manifestations in Mesoamerica. The scholars taking part in this volume do not necessarily share a common viewpoint on these topics nor a single theoretical perspective. As I’ve already noted, they often don’t share common definitions or nomenclature either. This diversity of opinions is welcome, because there is nothing more edifying than a good debate. George Cowgill (Reference Cowgill2004) urged us to “outgrow typological approaches and focus instead on degrees and kinds of urbanism,” and this volume takes Cowgill’s advice to heart.

A Brief History of Urbanism and Urbanization in Mesoamerica’s Formative Period

Over the course of the Mesoamerican Formative period, mobile groups of presumably egalitarian hunter-gatherers became socially stratified city-dwellers with intensive systems of subsistence and robust economies of exchange. The structures of daily action, by which people interacted with one another and by which they defined their identities, were fundamentally altered (Love Reference Love, Grove and Joyce1999a). Social inequality became pronounced, new crafts and trades came into being, and increasing population densities affected the patterns of daily interaction. The intensification of long-distance trade undoubtedly exposed even the most sedentary of individuals to contact with people from distant territories.

The narrative of urbanization in Mesoamerica must begin with the establishment of the first villages. Each of the regional studies in this volume traces the development of urbanism from its roots in the Early Formative. It is the appearance of the earliest villages and the first use of pottery that define the beginnings of the Formative period (ca. 2000–1700 BCE for most regions). The end of the Formative is conventionally placed at about 250 or 300 CE but is no longer linked to cultural traits, such as the use of the Long Count calendar by the lowland Maya, a practice now known to have begun during the Late Formative and outside of the Maya Lowlands.Footnote 2

In the functional sense (see M. E. Smith Reference Smith and Carrasco2001, Reference Smith, Mastache, Cobean, Cook and Hirth2008a), the process of urbanization in Mesoamerica began with the establishment of early regional centers such as San José Mogote in Oaxaca (Joyce, Chapter 2), San Lorenzo in Veracruz (Pool and Loughlin, Chapter 3), and Paso de la Amada in Chiapas (Love and Rosenswig, Chapter 7). As in other parts of the world, the full commitment to horticulture and sedentism eventually brought about both a significant increase in population and the development of economic surpluses that enabled social inequality to be manifested as differences in wealth.

The best evidence for the emergence of inequality and centralization during the Early Formative comes from the Pacific Coast and, in particular, the site of Paso de la Amada in the Mazatán region of Chiapas, Mexico. Covering at least 60 ha, the site had communal features, including the earliest documented ballcourt in Mesoamerica (Hill et al. Reference Hill, Blake and Clark1998). A considerable amount of communal labor was invested in the construction of the ballcourt and other central buildings, which may be either elite residences or public structures. Paso de la Amada was both a sacred place and a political center, and is at present “the earliest known ceremonial center in Mesoamerica” (Clark Reference Clark, Hendon and Joyce2004: 45).

In the latter half of the Early Formative, still larger regional centers arose. San Lorenzo, located in modern Veracruz, is generally accepted as the largest. Regional survey suggests that San Lorenzo may have been as large as 700 ha, although the density of population within that space is uncertain. The center of the site was a plateau covering 50 ha. San Lorenzo has been labeled by some as Mesoamerica’s first city, and it is viewed by many as the point of origin of Mesoamerica’s first “civilization,” the Olmec (see, for example, Clark Reference Clark1997). However, the role of San Lorenzo in relationship to the rest of Mesoamerica remains contentious, and there is no doubt that by 1200 BCE emerging regional centers throughout Mesoamerica were interacting with one another economically and culturally.

In my view, the interaction of major centers and the widespread use of various materials in the “Olmec style” (Coe Reference Coe and Wauchope1965a; de la Fuente Reference de la Fuente1973; Love and Guernsey Reference Love, Guernsey, Uriarte and Lauck2008) represents the earliest establishment of a Mesoamerican “high culture” in the sense defined by John Baines and Yoffee (Reference Baines, Yoffee and States1998), and the instantiation of elite identities that cut across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. These patterns of social stratification and elite interaction were not uniform throughout Mesoamerica, but they represent the beginnings of the kind of “urbanities,” or elite shibboleths, that Guernsey and Strauss (Chapter 9) propose.

The Middle Formative period in Mesoamerica was a critical juncture that saw the formation of large cities through more extensive regional aggregation. It was a time of incipient cities, with denser populations as well as larger overall settlement size. While settlements over 50 ha were rare in the Early Formative, there are many Middle Formative centers over 100 ha. The area of monumental architecture at La Venta, Tabasco, for example, covered 2 km2 at its peak and, with areas of habitation included, may well have extended over 4 km2 (Pool and Loughlin, Chapter 3). Teopantecuanitlan in Guerrero, Chalcatzingo in Morelos, and Tres Zapotes in Veracruz were all well over 1 km2 (Pool Reference Pool2007; Pool and Loughlin, Chapter 3). La Blanca, on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, covered just over 3 km2 (Love and Guernsey Reference Love, Guernsey and Lesure2011; Love and Rosenswig, Chapter 7). Emerging complexity also is evident in the Maya Lowlands, as discussed in this volume by Marcello Canuto and Francisco Estrada-Belli (Chapter 4) and Stanton and Collins (Chapter 5), at sites including Cival in the Northern Petén (Estrada-Belli Reference Estrada-Belli2011), Yaxuná in Yucatan (Stanton Reference Stanton, Nichols and Pool2012), and Ceibal in the Pasión River region (Inomata Reference Inomata, Freidel, Chase, Dowd and Murdock2017). The authors of Chapters 4 and 5 propose that modified landscapes, especially in ceremonial architectural configurations known as E Groups – which are characterized by a long platform, oriented north to south, on the eastern side of a plaza, and by a pyramidal structure on the western side of the plaza (see Stanton and Collins, Chapter 5, Fig. 5.3 for the Mounds 5E-2 and 5E-1 E Group at Yaxuná) – promoted aggregation in the Maya Lowlands. From these beginnings, other late Middle Formative lowland Maya sites, such as Nakbé in the Mirador Basin (R. Hansen Reference Hansen and Powis2005, Reference Hansen, Traxler and Sharer2016), further demonstrate large-scale monumental construction, overall large size, and the dynamics of emerging urbanism.

During the Middle Formative, people engaged in new and expanded efforts to create culturally modified landscapes on a monumental scale. Public buildings reached new heights, quite literally, with construction of monumental temple pyramids at La Venta (Mound C-1) and La Blanca (Mound 1). Public spaces, especially plazas, became increasingly larger and we can speculate that plaza size was linked to population at those centers (Inomata Reference Inomata2006; cf. Ossa, Smith, and Lobo Reference Ossa, Smith and Lobo2017). Horizontal expressions of monumentality, or the construction of massive platforms and artificial plateaus, also characterized this era at some sites (Inomata et al. Reference Inomata, Triadan, Vazquez López, Fernandez-Diaz, Omori, Mendez Bauer, Hernandez, Beach, Cagnato, Aoyama and Nasu2020; Reese-Taylor Reference Reese-Taylor2021; Reese-Taylor et al. Reference Reese-Taylor, Dunning, Flores Esquivel, Anaya Hernández and Walker2018). As Guernsey and Strauss (Chapter 9) discuss, monuments, especially carved stone sculpture, became more numerous, but only at a handful of centers during the Middle Formative period. The monuments served place-making roles in these cities, and distinguished them from their hinterlands. They also communicated important messages about emerging social relationships.

The widespread construction of E Groups throughout eastern Mesoamerica is another sign of the materialization of shared ideas of place-making and community (for the distribution of E Groups in the Maya Lowlands, see Canuto and Estrada-Belli, Chapter 4, Fig. 4.2) (Doyle Reference Doyle2012, Reference Doyle2017). Disputes about where E Groups are found first (Clark and Hansen Reference Clark, Hansen, Inomata and Houston2001; Inomata Reference Inomata, Freidel, Chase, Dowd and Murdock2017) may obscure recognition of a shared history of city planning. The differences among regional centers should not distract from recognition of the emergence of many shared concepts, throughout Mesoamerica as a whole, of what a city should be. We cannot attribute the general trend toward settlement growth and centralization across Mesoamerica to purely demographic factors: there were many attractive forces – religious, political, and economic – which drew people together.

Although both the routes to Formative urbanism and the rates of urbanization varied, the trajectory of increasing social complexity and political centralization climaxed in the Late Formative period with the development of fully urban state polities in most regions of Mesoamerica, before upheavals at the end of the Formative period ended the cycle. Nonetheless, there was significant variation in how these Late Formative polities were constituted. In some regions, such as the Soconusco, Oaxaca, and the Maya Lowlands, there are signs of decidedly hierarchical relationships and the emergence of forms of rulership that endured into the Classic period. In other cases, such as Tres Zapotes in Veracruz and Río Verde in Oaxaca, there are signs of competitive dynamics that mitigated highly centralized forms of government.

Late Formative cities were both larger and more numerous than those of the Middle Formative, occurring over a wide extent of territory that stretches throughout the geographic boundaries of Mesoamerica, from Central Mexico to modern-day El Salvador. Those cities were diverse in their organization, their political basis, and their longevity. In some areas, city plans follow a common template across broad regions. The incorporation of triadic groups in lowland Maya sites is one example. In Veracruz, the Standard Plan, originally defined by Annick Daneels (Reference Daneels2002) for the Classic period, appears at many sites by the Terminal Formative (Pool and Loughlin Chapter 3). On the Pacific Coast, as discussed by Love and Robert Rosenswig (Chapter 7), variations on a common site plan appear throughout much of the Soconusco, and share elements with the Middle Formative Chiapas plan and triadic groups discussed by John Clark and Richard Hansen (Reference Clark, Hansen, Inomata and Houston2001). Less standardized, but nonetheless closely linked principles of site planning in the Valley of Guatemala, are also discussed by Bárbara Arroyo in Chapter 6 (following Shook Reference Shook1952). Similarly, Carballo (Reference Carballo2016) discussed the shared principles of mound placement and orientation in the Basin of Mexico, which provided antecedents for Teotihuacan (also see Sugiyama, Chapter 8).

The Late Formative period is also notable for the intensification of agricultural production, which increasingly relied on irrigation or other water management systems including raised fields constructed on the margins of lakes or swamps (see Arroyo, Chapter 6). These highly productive agricultural systems enabled larger overall populations, higher population densities, and greater surpluses that were ultimately controlled by increasingly wealthy and powerful elites in most regions (Love Reference Love, Renfrew and Bahn2014).

What Mesoamerica Can Show about Urbanism and Early Cities

The Mesoamerican cases presented in this volume demonstrate the difficulty of using rigid criteria to define any aspect of urbanization or cities, and the diversity of forms discussed as cities by the authors herein frustrate simple distillation and concise summary. The cities differ not only in scale, but in the organization of their relationships to sustaining hinterlands and in the type of political dynamics that shaped them. Extreme variations can be found in cities with close proximity, as shown by Joyce in Chapter 2 where he contrasts Monte Albán in the Valley of Oaxaca to Río Verde, on the Pacific Coast, as well as to the Mixteca region of the Oaxacan Highlands. Temporal variations in any sample city can be extreme as well, as shown by Christopher Pool and Michael Loughlin’s (Chapter 3) comparison of urban forms at Tres Zapotes in the Middle and Late Formative periods.

The collective examples in the volume illustrate, too, how important it is to appreciate the longue durée of the Mesoamerican Formative period. There is consensus among the authors that cities were widespread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late or Terminal Formative period (although not all regions are uniform in using, or defining, the period of time designated as Terminal Formative). But the extent of urbanism in prior periods is debatable, and whether they warrant designation as cities is dependent upon the definitional criteria applied. Many political centers of the Middle Formative, such as La Venta, Tres Zapotes, La Blanca, and Izapa, can be viewed as cities or not, depending on definitions. Whatever one’s views about those cases, and even if we conclude that they were not cities during the Middle Formative, they clearly have characteristics that mark them as the direct precursors of later forms that are undeniably cities, a point addressed by almost all contributions here, but most explicitly by Stanton and Collins (Chapter 5).

Theorizing Urbanization

Having arrived at the conclusion that cities developed throughout Mesoamerica in the Formative period, what are we to do with this insight? Does recognizing Formative period settlements as urban improve our understanding of them or the links between them? Clearly it does, first and foremost, because it allows us to engage with bodies of theory about urban societies around the world. Thinking about the Mesoamerican Formative period is still dominated by functionalist and evolutionist models in which analogies are drawn from societies described as chiefdoms in literature concerning Polynesia, North America, and Africa. These models may have some applicability to the Early Formative, but are clearly inappropriate for the latter portions of the Formative period. Instead, for the Late Formative, we should be seeking models, both empirical and theoretical, in the first-generation urban societies of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. Smith (Chapter 10) and Yoffee (Chapter 11) point out some areas of theoretical and empirical engagement, and the chapter by Guernsey and Strauss (Chapter 9) illustrates the fruitful results of such engagement. Perhaps most significantly, the contributions to this volume demonstrate a number of important ways in which viewing Formative period settlements as urban changes our interpretations of them. Here, I will highlight just a few.


By most definitions, cities are characterized not merely by size, but also by the diversity of their populations. The functionalist perspective of neo-evolutionary models stressed biological analogies in which all societies were viewed as integrated totalities. By positing population growth as the driving force of socio-cultural evolution, such models viewed cities as the result of in situ growth and proposed that regional hierarchies in the hinterland were formed as groups branched off to form secondary and tertiary settlements (e.g., Flannery Reference Flannery and Flannery1976a), all hierarchically organized to administer larger populations. Increasingly, and as highlighted by the chapters in this volume, archaeological evidence indicates that most first-generation urban centers form through aggregation: people of different backgrounds come together in an alliance, or consortia, of interests (to use Smith’s term from Chapter 10). Rather than being integrated and homogeneous totalities, cities were fragmented amalgamations of groups and factions. In the concluding chapter to this volume, Yoffee (Chapter 11) suggests that these early cities were “experimental.” That insight helps us understand why so many first-generation cities in Mesoamerica were fragile, and why they often lasted only briefly.

In Formative period Mesoamerica, there are notable cases of cities forming through large-scale aggregation. Teotihuacan, in the Late Formative period, may be the best documented case, as reviewed by Sugiyama in Chapter 8. The first surge of rapid growth at Teotihuacan came about through the aggregation of 80 percent of the population of the Basin of Mexico. As Cowgill (Reference Cowgill2015) has emphasized, it was that first instance of rapid growth that made Teotihuacan a city. The subsequent spurt in growth, placed at about 200 CE by Sugiyama in his chapter, propelled the city to be the greatest metropolis of ancient Mesoamerica.

Oaxaca also shows multiple cases of aggregation. Famously, Monte Albán was formed as a new settlement at the center of the Valley of Oaxaca around 500 BCE, in what Joyce (Reference Joyce2009) describes as the “big bang” of Oaxacan urbanization. In Chapter 2, Joyce further elaborates on Monte Albán and the forces of aggregation in play at that city. He contrasts those forces that formed Monte Albán to those evident at Río Viejo, where he interprets the variability in construction materials and techniques as evidence that people from different communities took part in the building of the acropolis. Joyce links the differing circumstances between these cases to the very different urban forms that resulted, some more successful – or enduring – than others.

In highland Guatemala, during the Late Formative Verbena phase, Kaminaljuyu grew significantly in population at the same time that long established centers such as Naranjo, Santa Isabel, and Virginia declined (Shook and Popenoe de Hatch Reference Popenoe de Hatch, Laporte and Escobedo1999). Arroyo (Chapter 6) posits that people from outside the Valley of Guatemala were drawn to the expanding city as well, and discusses evidence for the existence of neighborhoods in Kaminaljuyu, which demonstrate links to distinct regions of highland Guatemala. The differential distribution of pottery wares and types, she argues, may reflect the maintenance of identities linked to the places of origin for emigrants to the metropolis.

Canuto and Estrada-Belli (Chapter 4) argue that the first southern lowland Maya urban centers were newly formed communities from the outset. In their view, archaeological evidence at many sites shows that open spaces, and the foundational events that transpired in them, provided the “locus for the communal interaction of tribal leaders.” These interactions eventually led to the growth of settlements, which set in motion the process of urban growth.

A major episode of aggregation also took place at La Blanca, on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, around 1000 BCE (Love and Rosenswig, Chapter 7). As surrounding areas lost population, La Blanca was founded and rapidly grew to be a settlement of approximately 300 ha, with a 100 ha central ceremonial precinct boasting some of the largest monumental architecture of the time. Despite this dramatic episode of aggregation, La Blanca was not a homogenous and tightly integrated community. There were distinct districts within it, and at least two of them have small “public” or ceremonial mounds, suggesting that, in addition to whatever community rituals took place in the central precinct and the Great Plaza, there were smaller scale public rituals in districts beyond the ceremonial core.

Several chapters in the volume – Joyce (Chapter 2), Pool and Loughlin (Chapter 3), and Arroyo (Chapter 6) – address diversity, defined in various ways, through the identification of districts and neighborhoods, which M. E. Smith (Reference Smith2010a; Smith and Novic Reference Smith, Novic, Arnauld, Manzanilla and Smith2012) proposed are present in most cities. These examples, along with La Blanca (Chapter 7), call to mind the altepetl model of city-state organization in highland Mexico described by Gerardo Gutiérrez (Reference Gutiérrez Mendoza, Sanders, Mastache and Cobean2003, Reference Gutiérrez Mendoza, Daneels and Mendoza2012) and Kenneth Hirth (Reference Hirth, Sanders, Mastache and Cobean2003, Reference Hirth, Marcus and Sabloff2008). The Gutiérrez/Hirth altepetl model of Postclassic (900–1400 CE) urbanism in Central Mexico stresses that aggregation does not necessarily result in complete integration. According to Hirth (Reference Hirth, Marcus and Sabloff2008), urbanism was the unintentional by-product of political alliances, in which quasi-autonomous social units (called calpolli in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs) coalesced under the rulership of a dominant group; the overall political formation was called the altepetl. The capital of that political system was a city, but the political structure of the altepetl was not coterminous with the city nor was it continuous in extent. Rather, the landholdings of several neighboring altepetls could be interspersed with one another.

The altepetl model reflects an indigenous view of what constitutes a city (Canuto and Estrada-Belli provide another in Chapter 4) and has been used to interpret Classic and Post-Classic urbanism in other regions of Mesoamerica outside the basin of Mexico, including Guerrero (Gutiérrez Reference Gutiérrez Mendoza, Sanders, Mastache and Cobean2003, Reference Gutiérrez Mendoza, Daneels and Mendoza2012) and the lowland Maya region (Arnauld Reference Arnauld, Mastache, Cobean, Cook and Hirth2008; Webster et al. Reference Webster, Silverstein, Murtha, Martínez, Straight, Mastache, Cobean, Cook and Hirth2008). Arroyo, in Chapter 6, also applies the concept to Kaminaljuyu and, although she focuses on the ideological and symbolic dimensions of the altepetl model, its factional and political dimensions are also evident in her identification of neighborhoods.

Corporate groups such as the altepetl may not have existed in the Formative period, but other types of groups, perhaps more kinship based than the Postclassic calpolli, may have emerged, especially as the control of land became more crucial to the economy. For example, Ruud van Akkeren (Reference Akkeren, Des Lauriers and Love2016) has proposed that lineages formed the basis of the alliances that led to the formation of Postclassic cities and states in highland Guatemala. No matter what the basis of group formation and cohesion was, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that many Formative period cities were formed by the aggregation of, and alliance between, diverse groups that did not completely integrate with one another. Certainly, there may have been a strong social hierarchy, and probably rulers in many cases, but there was also a tension between hierarchy and heterarchy. That tension is an essential component of the urban social experience in early cities around the world.

Materiality and the Generative Power of Place

Yoffee (Reference Yoffee2005) emphasizes that cities are not just concentrations of people, regardless of how they got there. Cities are generative, producing new economic relationships, new political dynamics, and new identities (see also M. L. Smith Reference Smith2018, Reference Smith2019). These are just some of the emergent properties of urbanization, unforeseen and unintended. Joyce (Chapter 2) emphasizes this generative power when he says “cities connect people both in the center and hinterland in ways that generate technological, social, and cultural innovations as well as novel identities.” The generative power of cities stems from both the relationships among the individuals and groups that reside there, and the materialities related to place making. Efforts to integrate the diverse populations drawn to cities often emphasized the creation of place, and all of the chapters in this volume address how that was done. In that sense, however, cities are not so different from other spaces where people aggregate. In most of the examples provided by the studies herein, attempts to create places, especially sacred places, precede the emergence of cities. The lowland Maya examples are especially salient in their conclusion that the aggregation of diverse groups at sacred spaces marked on the landscape preceded the establishment of permanent habitation spaces. As the chapters by Canuto and Estrada-Belli (Chapter 4), and Stanton and Collins (Chapter 5) also illustrate, evidence from the Formative period archaeological record can be productively linked to emic understandings of the significance of “place” drawn from the Classic-period hieroglyphic record. These sacred spaces of the lowland Maya became a nexus of habitation and, eventually, came to be dominated by elites. In other regions of Mesoamerica, however, such as the Pacific Coast and the Gulf Coast, the emergence of central places seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of social inequality.

The extent to which cities, as opposed to smaller central places, are generative of new practices and new identifies is key. As Pool and Loughlin (Chapter 3) state, “the making of urban spaces involves more than just the concentration and segregation of population and the construction of impressive architecture.” Guernsey and Strauss (Chapter 9) carry this idea further, arguing that, by the Late Formative, when social inequality was well entrenched, urban spaces became places where people produced knowledge, identities, and ideologies. They focus in particular on the way in which art was used to create urban centers, and assert that it played a generative role. Their arguments, although focused on the Pacific Coast and adjoining highlands, apply more broadly throughout Mesoamerica. Art proliferated in all parts of Mesoamerica during the Late Formative period as urbanism became more common and interaction between cities intensified. Moreover, the differential distribution of art served to mark the status of settlements, distinguishing cities from their hinterlands and their competitors (Guernsey Reference Guernsey2012, Reference Guernsey2020; Love Reference Love, Guernsey, Clark and Arroyo2010). New practices linked to art, such as early hieroglyphic writing, also helped to create elite identities through a shared concept of the “urbane,” and Guernsey and Strauss demonstrate that it was not only in the Old World that the concept of city became linked to elite practices that defined “civilized” behavior (see also Wheatley Reference Wheatley, Ucko, Tringham and Dimbleby1972: 602 on moral evaluations of non-urban dwellers).

Art, texts, and the messages encoded in them most clearly correspond to high culture in the sense originally proposed by Baines and Yoffee (Reference Baines, Yoffee and States1998), in which an aesthetic sensibility served to construct an identity shared by elite members of the same civilization. Cities were places where these new practices and new forms were created. Art not only created cities, but also created elites. Guernsey’s and Strauss’s argument that cities, through their monuments, became places for the production of knowledge and identity, has correlates beyond the domain of art. Late Formative cities generated other forms of practice and knowledge that were just as linked to elite identity. If we broaden the concept of high culture to include other dimensions of elite knowledge, as advocated by Janet Richards and Mary Van Buren (Reference Richards and Van Buren2000), we can note additional important practices. Calendrical knowledge, astronomy, writing, mathematics, and engineering are all examples of the new forms of knowledge – “science” per Aldana (Reference Aldana y Villalobos, y Villalobos and Barnhardt2014) – that were produced in Late Formative cities controlled by emerging elites (Guernsey Reference Guernsey2020: 129–130). The Long Count is one example of knowledge produced in urban settings during the Late Formative period. Long Count calendrical statements first appear on stone monuments during the first century BCE and persisted, through the first century CE, in a wide arc extending from Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, to Chalchuapa, El Salvador. Sugiyama (Chapter 8) details horizon observations at Teotihuacan, in the Central Highlands of Mexico, which also indicate knowledge of the same base date to measure linear time beyond the confines of eastern Mesoamerica.

Knowledge of engineering principles also appears to have been shared among elites of the largest cities. Large-scale water management systems, requiring sophisticated mathematics as well as surveying and construction techniques, appeared throughout Mesoamerica during the Formative era. As Arroyo discusses in Chapter 6, Kaminaljuyu’s ancient engineers constructed a massive aqueduct as well as sophisticated canals that controlled hydraulic rates of flow (Popenoe de Hatch Reference Popenoe de Hatch1997). The first irrigation works at Monte Albán and Amaculán are contemporaneous with those of Kaminaljuyu, as are the water management systems at Tak’alik Ab’aj, Chocolá, and Izapa (Fowler Reference Fowler1987; Gómez Rueda Reference Gómez Rueda, Laporte and Escobedo1995; Kaplan Reference Kaplan2008; Marroquin Reference Marroquín, Laporte, Arroyo and Mejía2005). This contemporaneity cannot be purely coincidental and, wherever such knowledge was created, it seems to have diffused rapidly. The differential forms of cultural and scientific knowledge created at cities simultaneously distinguished them from their hinterlands and linked them to other cities across Mesoamerica.

The development of writing, sophisticated mathematics, astronomy, and engineering expertise may mark the development of a high culture of inner elite of the type defined by Baines and Yoffee (Reference Baines, Yoffee and States1998). The educational structures required to support the transmission of such knowledge are formidable, yet they surely existed by at least the Late Formative period and, just as significantly, appear not to have been supported outside of the largest cities.


Many of the examples just discussed reveal the extent to which intellectual knowledge was shared among early cities in Mesoamerica. Put another way, the Mesoamerican Formative period serves as another demonstration of the fact that cities do not develop in splendid isolation. Cities are most commonly found in networks of interaction; as M. E. Smith noted, “… what is most distinctive and significant about city-states is that they occur in groups or systems of interacting units.” Mogens Hansen (Reference Hansen and Hansen2000) refers to these interacting networks as city-state cultures, while Yoffee (Reference Yoffee2005) refers to them as civilizations.

Economic exchanges, both local and long distance, are clearly a key reason for the existence of cities. Long-distance exchange was undoubtedly a motivation for travel and a means by which ideas spread from region to region. However, there is no single narrative that describes patterns of long-distance exchange in durable goods over the course of the Formative period. In Oaxaca, Joyce (Chapter 2) addresses the importance of prestige goods, derived from distant locales, to early Monte Albán. Sugiyama (Chapter 8) follows many other scholars in acknowledging the importance of ceramic and obsidian production to the growth of Teotihuacan, noting that “highly advanced technologies in ceramic and obsidian production all surged” as Teotihuacan grew. Arroyo (Chapter 6) posits that Kaminaljuyu’s position at a crossroads of trade routes linking the Guatemalan Highlands, the Pacific Coast, and the Maya Lowlands was critical to its development as an urban center. Robert Rosenswig and I (Love and Rosenswig, Chapter 7) argue that within the Southern City-State Culture of the Pacific Coast and piedmont, cities were connected by systems of exchange networks moving both north/south (highlands to lowlands) and east/west (especially along the inland waterway paralleling the coast). In the southern Maya Lowlands, Canuto and Estrada-Belli (Chapter 4) note that the cache at Cival represents “one of the largest concentrations of jade in the Maya area, and reflected craft specialization, long distance trade, and conspicuous consumption …” Stanton and Collins (Chapter 5) also address the “plentiful evidence for long-distance exchange including ceramics and greenstone” during the Late Formative period, when Yaxuná emerged as a city. But, in counterpoint to such evidence linking increasing interaction to increasing urbanization, Pool and Loughlin (Chapter 3) see a decline in long-distance exchange during the Late Formative when compared to the Early and Middle Formative. They note that

[Middle Formative] La Venta was heavily involved in long-distance trade, bringing in obsidian from sources in Guatemala and central Mexico and iron ore from Chiapas and Oaxaca. The amount of greenstone imported to La Venta was particularly impressive … As Tres Zapotes moved into the Late Formative period, the import of exotic materials aside from obsidian declined and ceramic similarities across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec lessened.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is evidence of intellectual and cultural exchange, even more than economic exchange, that seems most salient, especially at the elite level. Joyce (Chapter 2) states forthrightly that “religion during the first several centuries of Monte Albán was also informed by goods and ideas that defined a broadly shared high-culture of Mesoamerican nobility as indicated by patterns of long-distance trade in prestige goods as well as shared styles of architecture, ceramic designs, religious symbolism, and elements of early writing.” In a similar vein, Guernsey and Strauss (Chapter 9) discuss the many “urbane” elements that were shared among early cities of the southern highlands and Pacific slope, including sculptural styles, iconographic representation, and hieroglyphic writing. And, despite the decline in economic interactions, Pool and Loughlin acknowledge many of the same dynamics in Veracruz, where “some of the stone reliefs from Tres Zapotes and lesser centers incorporated elements of the iconography and styles found at Izapa and other sites in the Chiapas-Guatemala Highlands, piedmont, and Pacific Coast” zones.

The widespread similarity of Late Formative art styles across southern Mesoamerica, including the Pacific Coast, the Gulf Coast, the Maya Highlands, and the Maya Lowlands, has long been noted (for recent summaries see Guernsey Reference Guernsey2006, Reference Guernsey2012, Reference Guernsey2020; Love Reference Love, Love and Kaplan2011a; Rosenswig Reference Rosenswig2019). To these summaries we must add patterns of architecture and city planning. Two chapters in this volume (Canuto and Estrada-Belli, Chapter 4; Stanton and Collins, Chapter 5) highlight E Group architectural complexes as the attractive forces that led to aggregation, or agglomeration. The E Group complex, however, is found well beyond the Maya Lowlands, and was an essential component of the Middle Formative Chiapas (MFC) plan (Clark and Hansen Reference Clark, Hansen, Inomata and Houston2001) that is found in the Gulf Coast, the Chiapas highlands, and the Pacific coastal plain. Many sites with the MFC plan date to the late Middle Formative period (ca. 600–400 BCE), but early Middle Formative E Groups (1000–600 BCE) are present at La Blanca (Love and Guernsey Reference Love, Guernsey and Lesure2011) and at Kaminaljuyu (the A-IV group). It is important to recognize as well that E Groups are a subset of “solar orientation patterns” also found in Oaxaca at San José Mogote and Monte Albán (Blake Reference Blake2013).

Highland Central Mexico also participated in broadly shared religious and intellectual traditions. David Grove (Reference Grove, Sharer and Grove1989) identified, at the site of Chalcatzingo, in Morelos, a Middle Formative “southern connection” with the Pacific Coast in addition to more celebrated links with the Gulf Coast. These networks formed part of a widespread Middle Formative high culture of art and religious knowledge, and they endured into later eras. Sugiyama (Chapter 8) notes, for example, that Late Formative Teotihuacan displays an extensive suite of cultural elements shared with the Pacific Coast and the Maya Lowlands, including plain stelae, astronomical expertise, and calendrical knowledge. Sugiyama concludes, in fact, that people were drawn to Teotihuacan as the “result of rather innovative ideological factors that we can productively view as part of a ‘high culture’ system shared with other regions of Mesoamerica.”

Guernsey and Strauss (Chapter 9) make clear that, by the Late Formative, the messages communicated in these religious and artistic expressions of privileged knowledge were not ideologically neutral. They were overtly political strategies birthed concomitantly with the growth of urbanism and social inequality. Moreover, as they explain, while such systems of expression were “at times grounded in a local vernacular, these themes nevertheless reverberated across the landscape of Late Formative Mesoamerica,” evidencing “a vibrant elite communication sphere that transcended linguistic and ethnic boundaries.”

Politics and the Early City

The process of urbanization and the growth of cities is often discussed in the context of state formation (e.g., Childe Reference Childe1950; Yoffee Reference Yoffee2005). Although none of the chapters here focuses explicitly on the development of state-level political institutions, issues of political organization are, nonetheless, foregrounded, and politics are often inferred from city forms. Several contributors argue that framing urbanism in terms of a “cities and states” versus “chiefdoms and villages” dichotomy is far too simplistic. In Formative Mesoamerica there were many distinct types of political integration and governance linked to varieties of urban forms. And, as readers might anticipate, these links defy simple summary and their variety should be seen as an essential element of the complex narrative of urbanism. Likewise, debates as to whether urbanization is driven by “top-down” or “bottom-up” processes construct another false dichotomy and err in proposing a single model for all of Mesoamerica. The chapters in this volume illustrate great geographic and temporal variation, and underscore that all politics are local.

In a related vein, Joyce (A. Joyce et al. Reference Joyce, Bustamante and Levine2001) has argued strongly elsewhere for a consideration of “commoner power” and the agency of all people in a society, beyond just elites. In his chapter in this volume he concludes that many early cities in Oaxaca were initially based on more “communal forms of authority that were characteristic of their founding populations.” But he also acknowledges that Monte Albán seems to have been founded by hierarchical elites who negotiated some form of shared power. The variety of urban forms he sees in Oaxaca, alone, are the differentiated outcomes of political negotiations among the various groups involved in the founding of each city.

Other chapters also explore the relationship between cities and their unique political dynamics. For example, Sugiyama (Chapter 8) presents an argument for an elite-driven process at Teotihuacan as evidenced by the massive renovation of the city ca. 200 CE. Arroyo (Chapter 6) also favors elite driven processes at Kaminaljuyu. She views the economic and the ideological factors that promoted the city’s growth as produced by elite management in the Late to Terminal Formative period. She notes, however, that Middle Formative aggregation at nearby Naranjo, which preceded the rise of Kaminaljuyu, remains enigmatic. The lack of widespread habitation zones at Naranjo may suggest a scenario favored for the Maya Lowlands, in which sacred/ceremonial spaces were created prior to the emergence of rulership and hierarchy. That possibility is muted, however, by the poorly preserved Monument 25 at Naranjo, which may well portray an individual standing in profile on a legged throne or platform (Arroyo, Chapter 6, Fig. 6.3).

On the Pacific Coast, Rosenswig and I (Love and Rosenswig, Chapter 7) interpret monumental Mound 1 at La Blanca as representative of an alliance of factions; its construction was not driven by a top-down process, in other words, but probably by a political alliance of groups drawn from a wide region. The posited districts at La Blanca, each with its own public mound, reflect some kind of heterarchical arrangement despite the probable existence of rulers, whose residence sat on an elevated acropolis adjacent to Mound 1 in the ritual center of the city. By the Late Formative, however, at sites like Izapa and El Ujuxte, elites had gained an upper hand through a combination of economic control and the usurpation of the types of domestic rituals that had, previously, transpired in households at La Blanca and other Middle Formative sites (Guernsey Reference Guernsey2012, Reference Guernsey2020; Guernsey and Love Reference Guernsey, Love, Laporte, Arroyo and Mejía2008). No single political model fits the variety of evidence in this region, although it is clear, as Rosenswig and I conclude, that there was a shift during the Late Formative toward a more centralized and elite-dominated system of governance.

Guernsey and Strauss’s (Chapter 9) evidence reinforces this scenario of increased hierarchy by emphasizing that, by the Late Formative, particular forms of sculpture became the prerogative of elites. Elaborately carved stelae portraying kings and gods, which sometimes include hieroglyphic texts, were very limited in their distribution and found only in the largest cities. Elites, in other words, controlled both the resources and the knowledge needed for the creation of these monuments. Their perspective does not deny the agency of commoners but suggests that, to use Michael Mann’s (Reference Mann1986) phrase, Late Formative commoners were “structurally outflanked” by the economic powers described by Love and Rosenswig (also see Guernsey Reference Guernsey2020; Love Reference Love, Guernsey, Clark and Arroyo2010).

Yet, as Pool and Loughlin (Chapter 3) caution, any “top-down/bottom-up dichotomy … does not quite capture the processes we infer for the Gulf Coast Lowlands …” They conclude that, although “politically strategic negotiations among factions and emergent classes played a role in determining urban form,” so, too, did “the reconciliation of differing politico-economic traditions with contemporaneous realities.” In the Maya Lowlands, the first centers identified by Canuto and Estrada-Belli (Chapter 4) in the south, and by Stanton and Collins (Chapter 5) in the north, were not, apparently, hierarchically structured at all. They concur that the emergence of cities in the Maya Lowlands, as well as rulership, were the unintended outcomes of constructing spaces that were, initially, communal and fundamentally religious in nature. At some point, however, as they address, elites co-opted these spaces and gained control of ritual. As Canuto and Estrada-Belli phrase it, by the beginning of the Late Formative period (ca 350 BCE), lowland Maya “society at large had undergone a significant permutation into something recognizable cross-culturally as an urban center and state capital.”

Concluding Thoughts

The chapters in this volume illustrate the promise of studying early urbanism in Formative period Mesoamerica, but Mesoamerican scholars first need to embrace the investigation of Formative period settlements as cities. Over forty years ago, Kent Flannery (Reference Flannery and Flannery1976b: 5) complained that Mesoamerican archaeologists approached Formative period sites as layer cakes of stratified remains instead of treating them as villages. The challenge today is to recognize that the Mesoamerican Formative period saw the genesis of cities. We need to investigate those sites as urban settlements instead of small villages or ritual centers with a narrow range of activities. The study of urbanism demands recognition of the fact that a diversity of both people and practices is a characteristic of cities.

Too many projects still treat early Mesoamerican cities as if they were just ceremonial centers with small and homogeneous populations. They study the largest mounds in the site core or focus on elite activities at those locales. An entirely new perspective is gained when those elite practices are contrasted with those in more mundane residences (e.g., Guernsey Reference Guernsey2012, Reference Guernsey2020; A. Joyce Reference Joyce2009). Diversity in place of origin is also a possibility that needs to be investigated, given the importance of aggregation in city formation.

In many ways, the chapters in this volume can be considered, collectively, to be a “proof of concept” work. They demonstrate the presence of cities throughout Mesoamerica in the Formative period, as well as the variety of ways in which cities originated and the many forms that they took. We hope these works will spur further research in early Mesoamerican cities and the adoption of new methodologies that recognize the contributions that Mesoamerica can make to the study of urban origins.

A Note on Chronologies

The chronologies for many regions of Mesoamerica are currently a topic of dispute, in both relative and absolute terms. For example, a new chronology for Teotihuacan has been proposed by Nawa Sugiyama et al. (Reference Sugiyama, Sugiyama and Alejandro2013) and adopted here by Sugiyama (Chapter 8). However, as is always to be expected, this new chronology has not been universally accepted and even challenged by some, such as Rebecca Sload (Reference Sload2015). Some continue to favor a chronology that places the critical Patlachique and Tzacualli phases at ca. 150–1 BCE and 1–200 CE, respectively (e.g., Carballo Reference Carballo2016; Cowgill Reference Cowgill2015; Nichols Reference Nichols2016). Cowgill (Reference Cowgill and Stone2007: 263) placed Teotihuacan’s growth primarily in the period 150 BCE–200 CE, stating that after 200 CE “growth probably ceased, and there seems to have been little further change in size until about AD 550, after which there was probably a substantial decline in population …” Sugiyama (Chapter 8), however, sees an already-urban Teotihuacan undergoing its most significant growth beginning ca. 200 CE.

Similarly, a revised chronology was proposed for Kaminaljuyu by Takeshi Inomata et al. (Reference Inomata, Ortiz, Arroyo and Robinson2014), which would push that city’s principal growth to after 100 BCE, with the population maxima coming after 100 CE. In accordance with this revised chronology, Inomata and Lucia Henderson (Reference Inomata, Kurnick and Baron2016) proposed that much of the Izapan-style and early Maya sculptural corpus be placed in this later period. These revisions, and their broader conclusions concerning the cultural climax across the broader highlands and Pacific coastal plains, have been criticized by Love (Reference Love2018) and Rosenswig (Reference Rosenswig2019).

In truth, these controversies remain to be resolved empirically. But even the most radical of the proposed revisions still places the development of urbanism at these sites in the Formative period. The editors of this volume prefer not to adjudicate these matters and, accordingly, have encouraged each author to use the chronological framework they prefer.


1 The editors have respected individual authors’ preferences for the use of the terms “Formative” or “Preclassic,” either of which refers to the same temporal span of roughly 2000 BCE–300 CE. All of the authors in this volume use calibrated dates.

2 The Mesoamerican base-20 Long Count system measures the amount of time that has passed since a starting date of 3114 BCE. The earliest Long Count dates are found on monuments at Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas, Mexico (Lee Reference Lee1969: fig. 60) and at Tres Zapotes, in Veracruz, Mexico (Coe Reference Coe1957).

Figure 0

1.1. Map of Formative period sites.

Map by author
Figure 1

Table 1.1. Comparison of the size of Formative period Mesoamerican cities with that of early cities in other parts of the world – Mesoamerican data provided by contributors to this volume

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  • Introduction
  • Edited by Michael Love, California State University, Northridge, Julia Guernsey, University of Texas, Austin
  • Book: Early Mesoamerican Cities
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  • Introduction
  • Edited by Michael Love, California State University, Northridge, Julia Guernsey, University of Texas, Austin
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  • Introduction
  • Edited by Michael Love, California State University, Northridge, Julia Guernsey, University of Texas, Austin
  • Book: Early Mesoamerican Cities
  • Online publication: 23 December 2021
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats