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Domesticating an ancient 'temple town.' (excavation at La Venta site in Mexico)

Domesticating an ancient 'temple town'

Many anthropologists have assumed that the vast temples and ceremonial structures attributed to the Olmec society, which flourished in Mexico's gulf coastal lowlands between 1150 and 500 B.C., were occupied by a small group of priestly elites who ruled over farmers in surrounding areas. According to this view, people occasionally assembled in the ceremonial centers fore religious function and to perform labor for the elites.

But the "ceremonial center" model is wrong, at least at one major Olmec site, say William F. Rust and Robert J. Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In the Oct. 7 SCIENCE, they report the first evidence of domestic structures, including house floors and storage pits, amid the temples of an Olmec site.

Excavations at the La Venta site indicate it was a "temple town," Rust and Sharer contend, with a group of civic and ceremonial structures surrounded by permanent housing.

The researchers also uncovered remains of nine settlements near La Venta, lying along the banks of an ancient, twin-channeled river now clogged with silt. Traces of the river, as well as elongated former levees on which the settlements are located, were first noticed by Rust on aerial photographs.

The earliest of the settlements dates to between 1750 and 1400 B.C., before the Olmec civilization arose. Material at other levee sites and some household remains from La Venta fall in the time range from 1400 to 1150 B.C.

But major social and environmental changes occurred between 1150 and 800 B.C., the time of La Venta's rise as an Olmec ceremonial center. A massive buildup of river-borne sediments caused waters to rise, and levees were raised to nearly twice their former height to support settlements. Material from this period, including polished, incised ceramics, polished stone chisels and ceramic figurines, reflects a more complex society and the introduction of ceremonial rituals at La Venta, say the researchers.

At La Venta's peak, between 800 and 500 B.C., two types of levee setteements appear: those with central earthen mounds and a variety of ritual artifacts and food remains; and those without mounds, yielding few ceremonial remains. This is the first direct evidence of a range of social groups in the Olmec culture, Sharer says.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 15, 1988
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