Archaic Period Subsistence And Settlement Data

Much of the Archaic Period archaeological record is deeply buried below alluvium and thus fragmentary (Michaels and Voorhies 1999; Voorhies 1996; Voorhies and Kennett 1995), but the data available generally support the central place foraging model proposed here. The archaeologically detectable Archaic Period occupation of the Soconusco coastal plain coincides with the stabilization of sea level between 9000 and 7000 B.P. (Fairbanks 1989). The best evidence for the presence of people during the Archaic Period comes from a series of six large shellmound sites positioned in a line along the coast (Clark 1994; Drucker 1948; Kennett and Voorhies 1996; Lorenzo 1955, Navarrete n.d.; Voorhies 1976, 2000b, 2004). Five of these sites are located in the Acapetahua Estuary, and the other site, Cerro de las Conchas, is situated near the inland margin of the El Hueyate swamp (see Figure 6.1). Shell deposits at Cerro de las Conchas date to between 7500 and 5500 B.P. and currently provide the earliest evidence for human occupation of the Pacific coast of tropical Mexico (Voorhies 2000a; Voorhies et al. 2002). The shellmounds in the Acapetahua Estuary

date later, between 5500 and 3500 B.P., but are similar in character to Cerro de las Conchas. Although these shellmounds represent the earliest recognizable human occupation of the coast, earlier sites were probably covered by sediments deposited during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene marine transgression or subsequently by the actively prograding coastline (Voorhies and Kennett 1995). It is likely that small groups of people were living along the coast from the onset of the Holocene. This suspicion is based on clear evidence for human occupation of other parts of Middle America during the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene (Cooke 1998; Cooke et al. 1996; Cooke and Ranere 1992; Brown 1980; Ranere and Cooke 1991; Piperno and Pearsall 1998; Zeitlan 1984; Zeitlin and Zeitlin 2000).

Work completed at the shellmounds along the Soconusco coast suggests that they were special purpose locations used for exploiting littoral resources, rather than permanently occupied settlements (Kennett and Voorhies 1996; Michaels and Voorhies 1999; Voorhies 1996, 2004; Voorhies et al. 1991). The shellmounds are impressive prehistoric features that form artificial islands within this wetland environment (Figure 6.4). They range in size from 0.20 to 1.17 hectares and are between 3 and 11 meters in

FIGURE 6.4. Photograph of a Late Archaic Period shellmound (El Chorro) in the littoral zone of the Acapetahua region.

height (Voorhies 2004). Relative to other early sites in the region, they are highly visible in aerial photographs because they are periodically cleared and used in a variety of ways by people living in the littoral zone today. Excavations at these shellmounds indicate that they consist of densely packed layers of marsh clam shell (Poly-mesoda radiata) dating to the aceramic Archaic Period, with an overlying stratum of dark soil containing artifacts, principally ceramics, from later time periods. The Archaic Period deposits are distinctively bedded, with alternating burned and unburned layers of marsh clam shell, that we have interpreted as representing periodic use, rather than continual settlement (Kennett and Voorhies 1996; Michaels and Voorhies 1999; Voorhies 2004). This interpretation is also supported by the general absence of domestic features such as house floors and formal hearths,5 a very low diversity of tools, faunal assemblages showing an intensive focus on shallow water lagoonal systems (fish, clams, and possibly shrimp; Kennett and Voorhies 1996; Michaels and Voorhies 1999; Voorhies et al. 1991; Voorhies 1996, 2004). Seasonality data indicate that early in the Middle Archaic Period littoral resources were procured throughout much of the year with an emphasis during the dry season months (Voorhies et al. 2002).

A sediment core placed in the wetlands adjacent to the Chantuto shellmound revealed that the mound extends well beyond its present base. Repeated excavations, and in one case coring, have failed to reach the bottom of any one of these massive accumulations of shell. Terminal dates for these shellmounds fall between 3500 and 3000 B.P. appearing to be coeval with a settlement shift to residential bases positioned just inland of the permanent wetlands, perhaps in the seasonally flooded zone.

Based on the seemingly logistical nature of these shellmounds, we have hypothesized that interior basecamps were positioned on the coastal plain, probably in forest clearings close to surface water and to wild and possibly domesticated food plants (Kennett and Voorhies 1996; Michaels and Voorhies 1999; Voorhies 1996, 2004), as predicted by our central place foraging model. Unfortunately rapid sedimentation rates on this flat coastal plain, associated with seasonal flooding, have obscured much of the record for early interior settlement in the region. A pedestrian survey of the region revealed few sites on the inner slope of the coastal plain that predated the Late Formative Period (Voorhies 1989b). In 1991, we surveyed rivers between Pijijiapan and Tapachula in order to discover deeply buried Archaic Period deposits (Voorhies and Kennett 1995). During this survey we discovered one aceramic cultural deposit buried between two and two and a half meters below the surface, but exposed in a natural river cut on the Cacaluta River. Subsequent excavations of this site (Vuelta Limón, see Figure 6.1) unearthed a variety of tools, including groundstone, hammerstones, flakes, and fire cracked rock, suggesting that it was a basecamp (Michaels and Voorhies 1999; Voorhies 1996, 2004). Unfortunately bone and charred seeds were not preserved in these alluvial deposits. However, the absence of ceramics and a single radiocarbon date place the site's terminal occupation at 3800 B.P., near the end of the Archaic Period. Vuelta Limón is located upstream from the Chantuto shellmound in the Acapetahua Estuary, which also dates to the end of the Late Archaic Period, and we suspect that foragers based at this interior location collected and processed shellfish at Chantuto for transport back to Vuelta Limón. Pollen and phytolith data from the site suggest that palms were in heavy use as building material, and possibly a food source, and that maize pollen was present at very low levels indicating the use of this cultigen by the terminal Archaic Period (see below; Jones and Voorhies 2004). Phy-tolith data from Vuelta Limón and Tlacuachero, a shellmound site positioned in the coastal littoral, both show evidence for forest disturbance during the Late Archaic Period (after 5000 B.P.).

Although the record is fragmentary, the available data suggest that pre-village foragers in the Soconusco established settlements in forest clearings on the coastal plain and foraged lo-gistically in the littoral zone. It is also likely that these people foraged logistically in the piedmont zone for larger animal taxa, and at other locations on the coastal plain. The material record from the shellmounds strongly supports this hypothesis, as does the more limited evidence for stable interior settlement from Vuelta Limón. Intensive exploitation of highly localized marsh clams from the shallow lagoons in the estuary, combined with large-scale processing through cooking and drying, is also in line with the expectations of central place foraging theory: investment in processing was economically viable given the costs of transporting heavy shells back to interior settlements. Intensive exploitation of shellfish in this way also suggests that diet-breadth was relatively broad starting as early as 7500 B.P., as evidenced at Cerro de las Conchas. This suggests to us that populations of larger animal species were low on the coastal plain due either to predation pressure or because the environment would not support high populations. As a response, human dietary breadth was wide enough to include small marsh clams. The available data also suggest that these settlement and subsistence strategies were remarkably stable for thousands of years (7500 to 3500 B.P.). It was in the context of wide diet breadth and stable subsistence settlement strategies that maize was first introduced to and experimented with in the region. We now turn to the current state of knowledge regarding the domestication and dispersal of maize as a first step in modeling the incorporation of this culti-gen into the Soconusco dietary regime.

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