La Quemada

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La Quemada

La Quemada, one of the principal settlements of Mesoamerica's northern periphery, located in central Zacatecas, Mexico, on the grasslands bordering the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The main occupation of La Quemada apparently dates to the Epiclassic period (600–900 ce), although earlier and later dates have been recovered. The site was established atop the dominant peak in the valley, a readily defensible location. By construction of numerous terraces, many of which are interconnected by stairways and causeways, the peak was transformed into an imposing architectural space. It contains perhaps fifty patio complexes, one central ball court that is among the longest in Mesoamerica, at least two smaller ones, thirteen or more pyramids, a large colonnaded hall, and a massive wall that encloses the central parts of the site that are not protected by natural cliffs. In the valley below are numerous present-day villages, many of which are linked by a system of ancient roads that centered on La Quemada. Archaeologists assume that La Quemada was the elite administrative and religious center of this group of settlements.

In virtually all parts of the site excavated to date, extensive human skeletal deposits have been found, including piles of disarticulated, cut, and burned bone, suspended skulls and long bones, and sub-floor burials. Some of the bones are probably those of revered ancestors, and others belonged to enemies. All apparently were displayed to symbolize a social order rooted in violence.

Archaeologists have varying opinions about the causes of growth and decline of La Quemada, as well as whether it should be included in the Chalchihuites culture. Some perceive colonization by more sophisticated societies to the south as an important force, whereas others see the developments as indigenous. The new chronological evidence that places La Quemada's occupation within the Epiclassic Period does not support the previously popular notion that La Quemada was built to serve as an outpost for Toltec (900–1150 ce) trade in turquoise with the American Southwest. By the time the Toltecs were in their ascendancy, La Quemada was apparently abandoned or much reduced in size. The late dates obtained from the nucleus of the site may represent its occasional, postoccupational use as a camp or shrine.

See alsoPrecontact History: Mesoamerica .


J. Charles Kelley, "Settlement Patterns in North-Central Mexico," in Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the New World, edited by Gordon R. Willey (1956), pp. 128-139.

Phil C. Weigand, "The Prehistory of the State of Zacatecas: An Interpretation," in Anthropology 2, no. 1 (1978): 67-87, and no. 2 (1978): 103-117.

Marie-Areti Hers, Los toltecas en tierras chichimecas (1989).

Peter Jiménez Betts, "Perspectivas sobre la arqueología de Zacatecas," in Arqueología 5 (1989): 7-50.

Charles D. Trombold, "A Reconsideration of the Chronology for the La Quemada Portion of the Northern Mesoamerican Frontier," in American Antiquity 55, no. 2 (1990): 308-323.

Ben A. Nelson, J. Andrew Darling, and David A. Kice, "Mortuary Practices and the Social Order at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico," in Latin American Antiquity 3, no. 4 (1992): 298-315.

Additional Bibliography

Foster, Michael S., and Shirley Gorenstein, eds. Greater Mesoamerica: The Archaeology of West and Northwest Mexico. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000.

Nelson, Ben A. "A Place of Continued Importance: The Abandonment of Epiclassic La Quemada," in The Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment in Middle America. Takeshi, Inomata, and Ronald W. Webb, eds. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003.

Strazicich, Nicola M. "Manufactura e intercambio de cerámica en la región de Alta Vista y La Quemada, Zacatecas (400–900 d.C.)," Estudios cerámicos en el occidente y norte de México edited by Williams, Eduardo, and Phil C. Weigand. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán; Morelia: Instituto Michoacano de Cultura, 2000.

Wells, E. Christian. "Pottery Production and Microcosmic Organization: The Residential Structure of la Quemada, Zacatecas." Latin American Antiquity Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar. 2000): 21-42.

                                                     Ben A. Nelson

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La Quemada

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