Introduction to the Preclassic Period

The Preclassic Period of Mesoamerica is a broad expanse of time measured from roughly 1800 BC – 250 AD (although Central Mexico’s “Classic Period” begins about a century earlier). This is then subdivided into three smaller periods of time: the Early Preclassic from 1800 – 1200 BC, the Middle Preclassic from 1200 BC – 400 BC, and the Late Preclassic from 400 BC – 250 AD. It encompasses many important societal, artistic and cultural advances. In the following weeks, we will address some (although not all) key aspects of the Preclassic Period and interview scholars specializing in this area; in today’s post, we will go over some general points of development that occurred during the Preclassic.

Social Change

The Preclassic bears evidence of significant social change. Perhaps the most important indicator of and impulse for this change is the high level of agricultural development. At this point in Mesoamerican history, domesticates are successfully being grown. These include maize, beans, and squash, among other plants and animals – even chocolate was already in plentiful use!

This successful mastery of agriculture led to changes in settlement patterns. Now that food could be grown reliably from season to season, villages and other long-term settlements could be established. This led to increasingly concentrated living centers, which attracted more people and grew in complexity.

This complexity is seen in the evidence found for the first “ranked” societies in this part of the Americas. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of large “capital” villages large enough to contain roughly a thousand people. Each of these capital villages would have been surrounded by smaller villages and communities, creating a hierarchy between those different areas. This hierarchy is reinforced by valuable objects found in some burials but not in others, indicating growing social complexity. 

The development and use of writing systems begins to appear during the Preclassic Period. Scripts such as that used by the Olmec, as well as the Isthmian script and the early script of Oaxaca make their first appearances, preserved in sculpture and monumental carvings. Next week’s conversation will focus on the Isthmian script, and the different debates regarding whether or not this script has been properly deciphered. 

The final indicator of social change during the Preclassic Period was the establishment of trade routes throughout Mesoamerica. These trade routes were not small, local pathways from one village to another. Instead, they were well-established, well-traveled trade routes running from Central and West Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and down into the Maya area. These trade routes indicate the complexity of life in Mesoamerica at this time, as different groups shared with others their technological advances and artistic styles. 

Technological Advances

The most well-known technological advance of the Preclassic is that of pottery; in fact, it is this advance that is used to distinguish the beginning of the Preclassic Period. During this time, pottery became an invaluable facet of Mesoamerican life. It served not only as cooking ware, but also as a container for liquids and foods. The use of radiocarbon dating, as well as the distinct decorations and potting styles of the ceramics of the Preclassic Period, have allowed for more specific classifications of the ceramics as belonging to a particular region or time period. 

Other crucial technological advancement that we see is in stone working. Stone, glass and other hard materials were knapped and shaped for everyday use in agriculture, domestic and warfare contexts. Some of the most common materials used were flint and obsidian. Careful analysis of these materials can tell us where they originated from; for example, green or gray obsidian can indicate different volcanoes that produced the dark, sharp glass, which was then traded extensively throughout Mesoamerica. 

Gray and green obsidian samples. Photo property of Mesoamerican Studies Online.

Other technologies invented or increased at this time included loom weaving, stitching, woodworking, and, presumably, the creation of paper. Unfortunately, due to the humid environment of the region and the acidic soil, these soft organic materials do not preserve well, and have not lasted through time. However, artistic representations suggest that at this time, such technologies would have been well-developed. 

Artistic Style

The artistic style of the Preclassic Period is distinctive and varied. Some of the earliest art includes fired clay figurines, which were generally female and thought to be associated with fertility and crop success, much like their counterparts in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. We see these figurines in Central Mexico at Tlatilco as well as in the Maya area. Other subjects of figurine art included transformations between humans and animals, conjoined twins, and animals such as crocodiles, birds, and snakes. 

Monumental art and sculpture from this time period focused largely on rulership and deities. Representations of leaders intervening for rain are seen, for example, at Chalcatzingo, a Preclassic site in Central Mexico. Olmec art, which will be discussed more in detail in two weeks, focused on transformation of rulers into powerful supernatural creatures such as the jaguar. 

Drawing of Chalcatzingo Monument 1. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Later Preclassic art, particularly of the Maya region, is known for its curling volutes and busy, “horror vacui” style, in which blank space is not frequently seen. Izapa’s Stela V is an excellent example of this: the scene is filled to the brim with action and iconographic motifs, both above and below the main scene. This particular style would transform into the art of the later Classic period.

As seen here, the Preclassic was a time of transformation and growth. The organization of the state changed through the increasing success of agriculture. The available technologies gave way to multiple means of expression through art and a more complex social structure. In the posts that follow, we will analyze certain aspects of the Preclassic Period that highlight the changes occuring during this time.


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