Vaillant, George C.

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Vaillant, George C.



George Clapp Vaillant (1901-1945) was an American anthropologist who combined the methods, techniques, and findings of ethnology, ethnohis-tory, and especially archeology in the study of problems of the development of the American aboriginal high civilizations. The bulk of his work, in both quantity and significance, concerns the cultures of Central Mexico, from the villages of the Early Formative to the brilliant, highly complex Aztec civilization. His major publications, although not lacking in theoretical import, are noteworthy primarily for the extensive and original field research they reflect.

Graduate study at Harvard under A. M. Tozzer fostered Vaillant’s interest in the civilization of the ancient Maya, an interest which developed into his doctoral dissertation, “The Chronological Significance of Maya Ceramics” (1927). The sequence postulated by Vaillant for the site of Holmul, Guatemala, formed the basis for the refinements of subsequent scholars. Although this important work was not published in its entirety during his lifetime (a major section, revised in collaboration with R. E. Merwin, appeared in 1932), it was privately circulated and its significance immediately appreciated by scholars in the field; the Holmul sequence was the first ceramic chronology of the Maya area.

Vaillant’s Maya researches include field work at the Toltec Maya site of Chichen Itza, Yucatan, in 1926, sponsored by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and directed by S. G. Morley. The stratigraphic midden excavations made by Vaillant provided the basis for later ceramic studies by H. B. Roberts and G. W. Brainerd. After his pioneering Maya studies, however, Vaillant’s interest came to focus chiefly upon the Central Mexican area.

During the first decade of the twentieth century a tentative relative chronology of three general cultural stages had been established for Central Mexico. Based on chance discoveries of Archaic figurines beneath the lava flow of the Pedregal in the Distrito Federal, the chronological priority of that stage had been suggested by Nuttall and confirmed by stratigraphic excavations by Boas and Gamio in 1910 and subsequently by Tozzer. The sequence was Archaic (Formative, or Pre-Classic, in later terminology), Toltec, Aztec. The chronological as well as typological priority of the Archaic suggested to Spinden and others that this stage represented the basis from which all the advanced cultures of the New World derived. However. American anthropological theory as a whole, including archeological theory, was, during the first three decades of the twentieth century, in reaction against the universal generalizations of the nineteenth-century evolutionists. In ethnology the reaction took the form of historical particularism; in archeology one aspect of this reaction was the position that none of the cultures of the New World had any great time depth. The entire known Mexican sequence was therefore compressed into a period of time beginning only shortly before the birth of Christ. Archeologists maintained this exceptionally conservative absolute chronology in spite of the clear evidence of the depth of the refuse deposits and the complexity of the sequence of cultures represented. Further archeological evidence suggesting a far longer duration had already been provided by Cook, who in 1927 discovered at Folsom, New Mexico, human artifacts in association with extinct Pleistocene fauna.

By the mid-1930s, largely on the basis of Vaillant’s extensive stratigraphic work on the Formative cultures of the Valley of Mexico, an expanded system of nomenclature was established. The Archaic was revealed to be not a single stylistic unit, as Spinden’s Archaic Hypothesis had postulated, but rather a complex series of cultures. Variants of this stage, identified in many parts of Meso-america, confirmed it as indeed basic to the entire area, although far from completely uniform in all its manifestations. Vaillant conducted a series of important excavations at several rich Formative sites: El Arbolillo (1935a), Zacatenco (1930), Ticoman (1931), and Gualupita (Vaillant & Vaillant 1934). On the basis of the rich stratified refuse deposits at these sites, he recognized Early, Middle, and Late phases of the Formative. His relative chronology was founded generally on ceramics and specifically on figurine types, of which his descriptive classification still stands as a definitive work (1935b). In much of this work Vaillant was assisted by his wife, Suzannah Beck Vaillant, whom he married in 1930. Although recent research has demonstrated the greater complexity of the Pre-Classic sequence, the basic chronological framework for the Valley of Mexico remains that of Vaillant. His conservative absolute chronology has, however, been superseded by more reasonable dates (supported by the evidence of radiocarbon) for the beginnings of the Early Formative of at least 1500 and perhaps 2000 B.C.

It was also evident to Vaillant that the Archaic cultures were themselves far too complex and too technologically sophisticated to represent the true beginnings of culture in Mesoamerica. Vaillant’s recognition of this fact is reflected in his adoption of the term “middle cultures” for this stage and his postulation of the existence of simpler, earlier antecedents, unknown at the time. Recent excavations have confirmed this hypothesis and are still bringing to light these pre-Formative cultures.

Vaillant’s interests encompassed later as well as earlier stages of Mexican cultural development. He initiated field studies at the primarily Aztec sites of Nonoalco, Chiconauhtla, and Azcapotzalco and at the Classic city of Teotihuacan, then considered to be Toltec. At Teotihuacan he identified the Mazapan complex and recognized it as postdating the fall of the city. Unfortunately, his findings at these sites have never been published in full, although some of the data are summarized in his Aztecs of Mexico (1941). This volume is far broader in scope than its title implies; it correctly views Aztec culture not as a civilization without antecedents but rather as the end product of long cultural development in the Valley of Mexico—a cultural development more complex and of longer duration than Vaillant himself apparently suspected. Much of the work’s methodological importance lies in its reliance upon ethnohistorical and ethnological materials to supplement purely archeological data.

In 1927 Vaillant had joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and much of his research was supported and published by that institution. He also taught at Columbia University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. In 1941 he became director of the University Museum in Philadelphia. The following year he organized a research program in Central America and South America for the Institute of Andean Research. He served in 1943-1944 as cultural attache of the United States Embassy in Peru; he had been appointed to a similar post in Spain at the time of his death by suicide.

Despite the fundamental soundness of much of Vaillant’s original field data, more recent research has rendered essentially untenable many of his theoretical positions and his interpretations of much substantive data. Even in the Aztecs, his last book, Vaillant still maintained his unduly compressed absolute chronology. His view of Aztec sociopolitical organization, which was essentially that first put forth by Bandelier and Morgan, has been superseded. Aztec society is now viewed not as an egalitarian “primitive democracy”—a more complex League of the Iroquois—but instead as a true political state based upon stratification into social classes.

Perhaps the principal substantive weakness of the Aztecs, however, is the erroneous identification of the enormous site of Teotihuacan with the Toltec capital of Tollan. In Aztec legend, the Toltecs were considered the civilizers of ancient Mexico, and the existence of an entire cultural stage—the Classic—*.“tedating the Toltec, had not been suspected. Painstaking ethnohistorical research by the Mexican scholar Jimenez Moreno identified Tollan as Tula, Hidalgo—as already suspected by Desire Charnay in the late nineteenth century. Jorge Acosta’s subsequent excavations at Tula confirmed the identification beyond any doubt and revealed the Toltec identity of the Mazapan complex found at Teotihuacan overlying Classic materials. Strong resemblances were also noted between Tula and the Toltec Maya settlement at Chichen Itza, further substantiating the identification of Tula with the legendary Tollan.

Vaillant’s careful stratigraphic excavations of Formative sites in the Valley of Mexico remain his most enduring contribution to Mexican archeology. This pioneer research stimulated the work of later scholars who refined Vaillant’s framework; but the principal outlines of that framework stand essentially as he himself conceived them.

Many of Vaillant’s predictions have been confirmed by later research. Earlier antecedents of the Formative are presently being excavated and described. The Middle Formative complex he recognized as distinctive at Gualupita, Morelos, was subsequently termed Olmec when related materials were recovered by later work in Veracruz and Tabasco. More recently the Gualupita collections have been found to be most closely related to those from other Middle Formative sites in the Mexican Highlands—Tlatilco, Las Bocas, Tlapacoyan, Chalca-tzingo. While this Highland complex shows certain stylistic affiliations with the contemporary Olmec of the Gulf Coast, the two have been clearly distinguished; the Highland group has been designated Amacusac (Sanders & Price 1968), with the term Olmec reserved for the Lowland Gulf Coast complex.

S. K. Lothrop and Barbara J. Price

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Vaillant’s ideas, see Urban revolution, article onearly civilizations of the new world; and the biographies of Kidderand Tozzer.]


1927 The Chronological Significance of Maya Ceramics. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard Univ.

1930 Excavations at Zacatenco. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 32, part 1. New York: The Trustees.

1931 Excavations at Ticoman. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 32, part 2. New York: The Trustees.

1932 Merwin, Raymond E.; and Vaillant, George C. The Ruins of Holmul, Guatemala. Harvard Univ., Pea-body Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Memoirs, Vol. 3, no. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum. → Part of this book consists of Vaillant’s 1927 dissertation, revised in collaboration with Merwin.

1934 Vaillant, George C; and Vaillant, SuzannahExcavations at Gualupita. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 35, part 1. New York: The Museum.

1935a Excavations at El Arbolillo. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 35, part 2. New York: The Museum.

1935b Early Cultures of the Valley of Mexico: Results of the Stratigraphical Project of the American Museum of Natural History in the Valley of Mexico, 1928-1933.

American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 35, part 3. New York: The Museum. (1941) 1962 Aztecs of Mexico: Origin, Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation. Rev. ed. American Museum of Natural History, Science Series, Vol. 2. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday. → A paperback edition was published in 1950 by Penguin.


Kidder, A. V. (compiler) 1945 Bibliography [of George C. Vaillant’s works]. American Anthropologist New Series 47, no. 4:598-602.

Sanders, William T.; and Price, Barbara J. 1968 Mesoamerica: The Evolution of a Civilization. New York: Random House.