Oaxaca temple complex hints at archaic Mexican state

Much of what we know about past civilizations in Mexico comes from the writings of colonial Europeans -- Spanish conquerors and priests -- who arrived in the Americas in the 1500s. But archaeological evidence from recent excavations at a site called El Palenque in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, shows that temple precincts similar to the ones the Europeans encountered had existed in the region some 1,500 years earlier.

Married archaeologists Elsa Redmond and Charles Spencer, both of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, reported the discoveries Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Redmond and Spencer have been studying the remains of ancient civilizations in Oaxaca since the 1970s, when both were undergraduates at Rice University. Interested in learning how early states arise, they have been working in the area around El Palenque since 1993. The research they described in the new paper was initiated 15 years ago at the eastern edge of the site, where three symmetrically aligned, multiroom temples faced a public plaza. Behind the temples stood two residences that the archaeologists believe were used by priests.

What is important about the location, Redmond said, is the proliferation of building types there. Such diversity is a sign of specialization of roles in a ruling culture and is a hallmark of early states. Archaeologists have noted similar variety in buildings of earlier societies too -- including the culture that emerged in Mesopotamia more than 6,000 years ago. There, people built the temples known as ziggurats on the banks of the Euphrates River, which “loomed over the community,” Redmond said.

Similarly, the buildings at El Palenque were monumental, and set apart from the rest of the settlement by large enclosure walls. Redmond said that she and Spencer were particularly excited to find that the temples in the El Palenque complex seemed to share attributes that Spanish priests described in the civilizations they encountered in the 16th century. They faced into the plaza, but had another staircase on the back for staff -- priests -- to maintain privacy and secrecy.


“It separated the sacred and the secular,” Redmond said, explaining that the staircases “indicated there’s more back there. These aren’t just temples that face the plaza. There’s a significant temple staff.”

Carbon dating indicated that the buildings were in use between 300 and 100 B.C., making them the oldest known temple precinct in Mesoamerica, the study reported.