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Archaeological Research


Research Goals

Continuation of Project

Background and Significance

The Project (PACH)

2003 Field Season

2004 Field Season

2005 Field Season




Chocolá Archaeology: The Project (PACH)

From 2003-2005 PACH completed three field seasons of several months each at Chocolá, seizing on the site’s great potential for fundamental advances in Maya scholarship, and particularly for a better understanding of the origins of Classic Maya civilization. In ethnohistorical accounts the Bocacosta is described as a great pre-Conquest and colonial center of surplus agriculture, and is known particularly for the production of high-demand export food commodities, including, anciently and in colonial times, cacao.

Particular hypotheses of our research are that Chocolá, conceivably with Tak’alik Ab’aj, Izapa and other large to very large Maya and Zoque sites in the region, developed into highly influential centers based on large-scale or intensive cultivation of cacao, a high-demand product of pan-Mesoamerican importance with ramifications as a sumptuary commodity for the development of social stratification in Mesoamerica. Given that the Southern Maya Zone and, even more critically, within this area the Guatemalan Bocacosta, are so little investigated and yet from all evidence were of profound importance in the development of one of the world’s greatest ancient cultures, PACH’s investigations must be considered essential to even the most minimally adequate understanding of the origins of high culture in pre-modern times.

The potential of Chocolá to provide new and fundamental information was manifest during the first days of informal reconnaissance by the project director in 2000, and was dramatically confirmed during the first weeks of the first field season, which was realized over three months, from June through August, in 2003. PACH discovered quickly 1) within the context of the Preclassic, the apparent great size of the site, at least 4 by 2 k, 2) despite its location in, beneath, and around the small farm town of Chocolá, its near intact condition, 3) as represented by its dense Preclassic architectural pattern and sophisticated hydraulics, its ancient high social and cultural achievements, and 4) the great age and apparent longevity of its occupation/s, spanning, conceivably, from 1200 BC into the Postclassic or after AD 1000. Chocolá once contained well over 100 mounds—representing ancient structures—many of which were 20 m in height or larger (Shook, personal communication, 1992).

While many of these mounds have been erased by modern activities, on this basis and other evidence researchers have assumed that Chocolá was an ancient regional capital. Yet more intriguingly, as mentioned, the site is located in the heart of the long-presumed seminal Southern Maya area. Chocolá is surrounded by the earliest hieroglyphically literate Maya centers, and the site produced sculpture crafted in what art historians have called one of Mesoamerica’s greatest art styles, the the early Maya “Miraflores” (e.g., Miles 1965:255, Parsons 1986:50). Attesting to explicit political connections and, possibly, to a precocious “core-periphery” state system, the fragmented Chocolá Monument 1 was carved in almost identical fashion to Stela 10, a giant Late Preclassic throne from the greatest southern Maya city, K’aminaljuyu, the latter which bears two lengthy aboriginal hieroglyphic texts (Parsons 1986:70, and see Kaplan 1995:190-191, 2000:195, 2002:328-333). Furthermore, Chocolá is located equidistantly between K’aminaljuyu and Izapa, the great non-Maya (probably Mixe-Zoque) site on the southwest coast of Mexico, and also near La Blanca and Ujuxte, two other major probably Mixe-Zoque sites on Guatemala’s west coast (Love 1990, 1991, 1999). Mixe-Zoque was the probable language of the primordial Olmec culture (Clark, Hansen, and Perez n.d.:7, cf. Campbell 1988, Justeson and Kaufman 1993, Justeson, et al. 1985:4). Maya peoples at first were believed to have originated from the southern highlands (Diebold 1960:10, Kidder 1940, 1948:228, cf. Lowe 1977:199, Morley, Brainerd, and Sharer 1983:501-2, Willey 1977).

More recently, many scholars ascribe the origins of high Maya culture to autochthonous events and processes in the central lowlands (Clark, Hansen and Perez n.d., W. Coe 1965, Freidel 1986, Freidel and Schele 1988a, 1988b, 1989, Hammond 1982, 1986, Hansen 1990, 1991, 1994a, 1994b, Howell and Copeland 1989, Justeson and Mathews 1983, Matheny 1987, Matheny and Matheny 1990, Grube 1992). While Maya civilization certainly cannot be considered to have had its origins in a single place and time, nevertheless, in many ways, discussions of critical, early developments are relevant to investigations in the southern Maya zone because, despite decades in which the great predominance of available sponsor funds were expended on research in the lowlands, the temporal primacy of several hallmark traits of Classic Maya civilization must still be attributed to the south (see, e.g., Demarest 1986, Kaplan 2002:312-313, 1988:340, Morley, Brainerd and Sharer 1983:63-77, Parsons 1986:95-96, Riese 1988:67, Sharer 1994:105-108, 125, Sharer and Sedat 1987:452-454). Chocolá is situated strategically in the center both of the area of the earliest Maya writing and also in an ethnically heterogeneous ancient interaction sphere.

Given that most synthetic accounts of Maya civilization assert that key high traits of ancient Maya culture are traceable, in part, to Olmec stimuli (e.g., Sharer 1994:58-59, Coe 1999:50), and, further, that Chocolá apparently had explicit political as well as other connections to K’aminaljuyu, the greatest southern area center, it seems plausible to assume that Chocolá took part in seminal developments in the southern Maya area during the dynamic and influential Late Preclassic period. In addition to filling in key events in the early history of Maya civilization, it is not unrealistic to expect that fundamental anthropological questions having to do with the critical roles that economics, political systems, and ethnicity have played in the emergence of high, complex social and cultural systems in early Mesoamerica and, indeed, in the origins of Classic Maya civilization, may thus find some basic answers from the Chocolá project.

A distinct research direction focuses on the possibility that Chocolá and its apparent sister city, the great early Maya and possibly mixed Maya-Zoque site of T’akalik’ Ab’aj, were centers that arose on the strength of their cultivation of and trade in cacao. It is even possible that project research at Chocolá will shed light on an ancient tier of cacao city-states, or “kingdoms of Chocoláte,” including the great Zoque site of Izapa, progenitor of some of the great art styles and ideologies that later were of significant influence in Classic Maya civilization.



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