La Quemada

The prehispanic center of La Quemada, in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, dominates the small, alluvial Malpaso Valley in the foothills of the Western Sierra Madre, about 1,000 km south of El Paso, Texas. Our work examines the period AD 450–1050. The initial phase of transformation—the colonization of a desert stream by agriculturalists from semitropical settings, presumably with incorporation or expulsion of the local population—began ca. AD 250 as the frontier of Mesoamerican civilization expanded northward.

Settlement clusters may have formed by AD 400, a ritual center was established by 500 and, within 100 years, ballcourts, temples, pyramids, roads, and other monumental architecture were constructed. By 900, the area was abandoned, and the population ultimately relocated to the south. The greater social infrastructure at La Quemada—sociopolitical hierarchy, which likely involved the repression of some local groups and the establishment of regional alliances and massive labor and material investments in the form of monumental architecture—compared with other cases, would have produced different kinds of vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, there was little investment in irrigation or subsistence-related infrastructure, other than terraces that appear to have supported agave fields. Vulnerabilities may have included: diminished wild-resource availability and soil productivity declines resulting from land clearing and disturbance of riparian habitat; susceptibility to droughts and floods; changes in or failure of regional alliances; and resistance from servile classes or tribute providers.

Decorated figure, part of handle of resist-ware vessel fromLa Quemadaa

La Quemada

La Quemada, Zacatecas

Staircase connecting levels of terraced architecture at La Quemada

Colonnaded hall at La Quemada



Related Publications by Research Team

Anderies, John M., Ben A. Nelson and Ann P. Kinzig. (2008) Analyzing the Impact of Agave Cultivation on Famine Risk in Arid Pre-Hispanic Northern Mexico. Human Ecology 36:409–422. [download pdf]

Nelson, B. A. (1997) Chronology and stratigraphy at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico. Journal of Field Archaeology 24:85-109. [download pdf]

Nelson, B. A. (1995) Complexity, hierarchy, and scale: A controlled comparison between Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and La Quemada, Zacatecas. American Antiquity 60:597-618. [download pdf]