Book Review: TradiciónTeuchitlán

Landmark publication on Teuchitlán Tradition defies old archeological assumptions

By John Pint

TradiciónTeuchitlán / Phil C. Weigand, Christopher Beekman, Rodrigo Esparza, editors. – Zamora, Mich. : El Colegio de Michoacán: Secretaría de Cultura del Estado de Jalisco, 2008. 334 p.: il + gráficos; 23 cm – Colección Occidente).


Curiously, it was the Colegio de Michoacán which encouraged and backed archeological studies in the neighboring state of Jalisco, eventually leading to the discovery of a complex civilization which once dominated western Mexico. Now, in celebration of the Colegio’s 30th anniversary, comes the publication of a major compendium of papers by 13 international experts in the archeology of what has been called the Teuchitlán Tradition. The arguments of these authors are so overwhelming that future publications will likely refer to the builders of the Guachimontones as “The Teuchitlán Civilization.”

Visitors to Teuchitlan at Equinox - Photo by J. Pint

This 345-page, soft-cover book, entitled TradiciónTeuchitlán and jointly published by the Colegio de Michoacán and the Jalisco Secretariat of Culture, is written entirely in Spanish and lists Phil C. Weigand, Christopher Beekman and Rodrigo Esparza as editors. It includes 95 figures.

The Foreword to this book is fascinating. Eduardo Williams of the Colegio de Michoacán summarizes the long and difficult struggle which Weigand and his associates went through to present their discoveries to the proponents of the “official Mexican archeological establishment” who steadfastly held that western Mexico was of little importance in the study of Mesoamerican archeology. “It was,” states Williams, “as if the archeologists in the west were looking through a one-way mirror. They could see their colleagues on the other side, but those colleagues could not see them.”

Many skeletons and offerings have been found buried at Teuchitlán

Photo by J. Pint

Williams goes on to describe another point of contention among archeologists in Mexico. He cites Austrian-born anthropologist and historian Eric Wolfe who complained in 1976 that the field was firmly in the hands of “shardists” and “pyramidiots” whose archeological horizons were limited to dating and classifying pieces of pottery or restoring pyramids for tourism. Williams lauds the archeologists of western Mexico who dared to use anthropology, architecture, settlement patterns and other procedures and sciences in an effort to discover “the Indian behind the shard.”

Tradición Teuchitlán brings together for the first time papers by experts in various fields all contributing to an overview of the unique people of the Teuchitlán tradition.

Dr. Phil Weigand - Photo by J. PintIn the first chapter, Phil Weigand describes the excavations of ten concentric circular structures (locally known as Guachimontones) located just above the town of Teuchitlán, 40 kilometers west of Guadalajara. These structures cover an area of 20 hectares and surround a ball court 111 meters long which, for 1000 years, was the biggest in all Mesoamerica. Weigand began investigating this area in 1970 but the excavations only took place between 1999 and 2005. During this period, offerings, figurines, shaft tombs and burials were found, as well as evidence that the monuments were originally plastered and painted and that a pole for volador (Flying Bird Man) ceremonies was typically set at the top of each pyramid. So much was found that Weigand must have found it difficult to summarize it all in 26 pages.

Rodrigo Esparza introduces the obsidian deposits of western Mexico which sustained the Teuchitlán civilization economically and which represented the third largest such deposits in the world. Esparza lists the locations and exact measurements of 217 obsidian mines in the most important deposit, that of El Pedernal, which covers four square kilometers and from which 40,000 cubic meters of obsidian were extracted by the Teuchitlán nation. These studies of Teuchitlán’s obsidian deposits are important in light of Esparza’s previous work on chemical analysis by neutron activation, which makes it possible to determine where a given obsidian artifact originally came from.

Christopher Beekman discusses the sociopolitical organization of the area. He relates the ruins of Teuchitlán to the architecture, customs and cosmic vision of the Huicholes of Jalisco and Nayarit, many of whom still follow their ancient traditions. Beekman’s questions regarding lineage and loyalty will keep archeologist-anthropologists busy for years.

Left: "Teuchitlán, place of the first god" depicted on a clay vessel

Right: Profile showing a circular pyramid, platforms and tombs (sketch by Phil Weigand)

Several contributors to this volume examine and group the large number of monumental circles of western Mexico in an attempt to understand them in terms of influence and manpower. Another study focuses on the social significance of banquets and fiestas held at the circles by examining the types and numbers of ceramic containers used for holding food and drink. In addition, there is a quite different article on the wanton destruction of various important archeological sites in the valleys around Tequila Volcano by members of the tequila industry. This is tragic and ironic in light of the U.N.’s decision to declare this area a World Heritage Site, simultaneously honoring the archeological ruins and the tequila business.

In the final chapter, Beekman and Weigand bring together chronological evidence based on artifacts and radiocarbon dates and suggest how this data might best be organized. They propose a new synthesis, which follows the Teuchitlán tradition from the middle Formative period to the middle Classical.

Copy of a 2000-year-old clay model showing everyday life near the buildings surrounding one of the circular pyramids.

clay model of circular pyramid - Photo by J. Pint

Without a doubt, the impressive scholarship documented in Tradición Teuchitlán will convince even the strongest proponents of centralism in Mexican archeology that something important happened in western Mexico, beginning over 2000 years ago. It will also hopefully attract the attention of a new generation of archeologists. In the words of Dr. Weigand, “We hope this volume will explain—both to researchers working in other parts of Mesoamerica as well as to those studying West Mexico—where we find ourselves at the moment, and that it will serve as a departure point for the next wave of research.”

Teuchitlan Pyramid - Photo by J. Pint