9. Early State Development at San Martín Tilcajete

Authors: Jennifer Beckmann, Charles S. Spencer, Elsa M. Redmond

Over the past three decades, Dr. Charles Spencer and Dr. Elsa Redmond have completed archaeological field projects in the Tehuacán Valley and Cañada de Cuicatlán in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the western Venezuelan state of Barinas. Their research interests have covered such topics as the development of ancient Mesoamerican chiefdoms and early states, militarism and resistance, and water-management techniques and strategies. Having published extensively on these projects and research topics, Spencer and Redmond have since turned to a relatively unexplored area of the Oaxaca.

San Martín Tilcajete
Map of Oaxaca Valley. Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer and Elsa M. Redmond.
San Martín Tilcajete
Ceramic chronology, Oaxaca. Adapted from Redmond and Spencer 1992:5.

The San Martín Tilcajete Project

In 1993, Spencer and Redmond began a new project at the site of San Martín Tilcajete, a multi-phase occupation located in the Ocotlán/Zimatlán subregion of the Oaxaca Valley. Located in 1978 by the Oaxaca Settlement Pattern Project, the site remained unexcavated. Along with Dr. Christina Elson, who joined the project in 1995, they have conducted nine field seasons of comprehensive survey and excavation focused on three different sites: El Mogote, El Palenque, and Cerro Tilcajete. Spencer and Redmond directed excavations at El Mogote and El Palenque from 1995-1999. Elson directed excavations at Cerro Tilcajete from 1999-2001. Although the data analysis is still in progress, some preliminary results primarily focus on site development, the rise of militarism, and Tilcajete's resistance against Monte Albán's expansion.

San Martín Tilcajete
Valley of Oaxaca with key archaeological sites, including San Martín Tilcajete.Spencer and Redmond 2001:204
San Martín Tilcajete
Map of San Martín Tilcajete, showing the sites of El Mogote (SMT-11a), El Palenque (SMT11-b), and Cerro Tilcajete (SMT-23), Ocotlán, Oaxaca.Spencer and Redmond 2001:217

San Martín Tilcajete has a long history, with its first occupation pre-dating 750 B.C. Spencer and Redmond have chosen to focus on the Early to Late Monte Albán I periods (500-300 B.C. and 300-100 B.C., respectively), while Elson's work focuses on the Monte Albán II period (100 B.C.-A.D. 200) It was during MAI that the Zapotec state developed in the Oaxaca Valley. Based in the Etla/Central subregion of the Oaxaca Valley at the urban center of Monte Albán, its rulers attempted to expand the territory of the state throughout the Valley, conquering and subjugating lesser-developed areas in a sporadic manner. The Ocotlán/Zimatlán subregion of the Oaxaca Valley, however, resisted subjugation by the state until the Monte Albán II period. The AMNH researchers thus seek to further understand how the Ocotlán/Zimatlán subregion stood up to Monte Albán's militaristic aggressions for centuries and what happened to Tilcajete once it finally was conquered. The archaeological evidence, from which some preliminary conclusions have been drawn, provides information regarding the development of the Ocotlán/Zimatlán subregion as a rival polity, as well as its strategies of resistance against the expansion of Monte Albán.

Selected Archaeological Evidence: El Mogote

San Martín Tilcajete
El Mogote from trail to Cos Mogotes.Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer

Excavations at the 52.8-ha Early Monte Albán I settlement of El Mogote found a variety of informative structural remains. The large 2.2-ha plaza identifies the site as a key subregional center for the Ocotlán/Zimatlán area and a rival to Monte Albán. The plaza layout and the ceramic remains are distinct from Monte Albán's. El Mogote's plaza and buildings are oriented 17 degrees east of magnetic north. Its ceramic remains largely consist of locally-made wares, not the cremas made at Monte Albán. Thus it appears that El Mogote was the center of an independent polity.

El Palenque's 'Palatial Digs'

Between the Early and Late Monte Albán I periods, the El Mogote plaza was burned and abandoned, and the inhabitants of the site moved to El Palenque. A new 1.6-ha plaza was built in the same style and with the same orientation as El Mogote's. Excavations around the plaza in 1997-2000 uncovered an extraordinary palace and multi-room temple. The remains have been radiocarbon dated to 300-100 B.C. and are the earliest of their kind to be excavated in the Oaxaca Valley thus far.

San Martín Tilcajete
Schematic map of El Palenque, showing the plaza and major mounds. Area I (Mound I) is where the palace is located; the multi-room temple is located in Area G (Mound G).Spencer and Redmond 2001:220
San Martín Tilcajete
Schematic plan of the palace at El Palenque, Structure 7, Area I.Spencer and Redmond 2001:222
San Martín Tilcajete
Schematic plan of the multi-room temple at El Palenque, Structure 16, Area G.Spencer and Redmond 2001:223

The layout of the palace is similar to later palaces, with eight rooms surrounding an interior patio. The palace and multi-room temple are both made with stone foundations and adobe bricks. The temple consists of two large rectangular rooms, with a smaller room at each end. In addition to these outstanding structural remains, an informative array of ceramic artifacts, lithics, and ecofacts were collected. El Palenque, too, was attacked and burned circa 100 B.C. The occupation then moved to Cerro Tilcajete. There, research uncovered that the MAII occupation shrunk to 24.5ha and was centered around a plaza much smaller than its predecessors. The palaces and temples found at Cerro Tilcajete conform to types known from Monte Albán. It is clear that by this time, the Ocotlán/Zimatlán subregion was under Monte Albán's control and served as a secondary center of the Monte Albán II state.


Lawrence, Jenny (Ed.)
2000-2001 An Expedition Notebook, 1900-200. A Supplement to Natural History Magazine 12/00 - 1/01:21.
Redmond, Elsa M. and Charles S. Spencer
1992 The Prehistoric City and State of Monte Albán: A View from its Frontier. In La ciudad y el campo en la historia de Mxico: memoria de la VII reunion de historiadores mexicanos y norteamericanos, Tomo I, edited by R. Snchez, E. Van young, and G. von Wobeser, pp. 3-24. Instituto de Investigationes Histricas, Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico, Mxico, D.F.
Spencer, Charles S.
1999 Palatial Digs. Natural History 108(2):94-95.
2003 War and Early State Formation in Oaxaca, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(20):11185-11187.
Spencer, Charles S. and Elsa M. Redmond
2001 Mutilevel Selection and Political Evolution in the Valley of Oaxaca, 500-100 B.C. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20:195-229.
2003 Militarism, Resistance, and Early State Development in Oaxaca, Mexico. Social Evolution & History 2(1):25-70.
2004 Primary State Formation in Mesoamerica. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:173-199.
  A Late Monte Albán I Phase (300-100 B.C.) Palace in the Valley of Oaxaca. Latin American Antiquity 15:441-455.
2005 Institutional Development in Late Formative Oaxaca: The View from San Martín Tilcajete. In New Perspectives on Formative Mesoamerican Cultures, ed. by Terry G. Powis, pp. 171-182. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1377. Archaeopress, Oxford, UK.
2006 Resistance Strategies and Early State Formation in Oaxaca, Mexico. In Intermediate Elites in Precolumbian States and Empires, ed. by Christina Elson and R. Alan Covey, pp. 21-43. Univ. of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Additional Reading

Blanton, Richard E.
1978 Monte Albán: Settlement patterns at the ancient Zapotec capital. New York: Academic Press.
Marcus, Joyce (Ed.)
1990 Debating Oaxaca Archaeology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Papers 84.