This is my first time summarizing notes, and it takes a long time, hopefully I’ll get faster at this over time.
The study of Mesoamerica, that region nestled between North and South America, yields the study of a pristine state, the Olmec. They were one among few, China, Indus, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Inka, that developed from the ground up to a complex society with the following characteristics – durable architecture, extensive labor projects, large sites, commensalism, mortuary programs near structures, and rebuilding of structures in place. All markers of sedentism, complexity is also indicated by hierarchy and exotic trade goods. The area in which Olmec culture is expressed is known as Olman, encompassed by the areas of the Isthmian Saline Basin, the lower Coatzacoalcos River Basin, and the Tuxtla Mountains of Lower Mexico and Western Guatemala.
But what does Olmec really mean – was it a contiguous culture, a nation-state existing from 1500 BC to 500 BC, or rather was Olmec an expression of thought passed down over time by less organized groups of people? Clark and Pye (2000) claim Olmec was a way of life embodied by a set of people with various elasticities and languages. Generally Olmec is defined by an art style of first giant basalt heads, then a transition from high relief to low relief murals. Through trade, an “Olmecization” of the lower Mesoamerica occurred, with local leaders emulating Olmec to gain legitimacy. But Olmec was not ubiquitous, contemporary coastal Chiapas sites like Mokaya show some proto-Olmec traits but never seem to be fully Olmec (Clark 1991).
Architectural complexes most commonly seen in the area are stepped pyramids, buildings around plazas, I shaped ballcourts (the earliest one was found at Paso de la Amada) – buildings were made with stone masonry. Extensive roads were built. The most famous sites are San Lorenzo, La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, and Tres Zapotes. Domestic buildings were most likely wattle and daub with thatched roofs.
The earliest ceramics in the region, Pox ware, date to around 2500 BC and are low fired, salt glazed, and poorly made – they are then succeeded a thousand years later by Barra and Purron ceramics, which are very finely made. They were most often serving wares and in jar-type forms, often with polychrome finishes.
While corn was most likely domesticated somewhere in the Mexican highlands, it was in lowland pacific coastal Mexico that it really took off (Neff et al 2006) – this is where the earliest innovations in sedentism, ceramics, monumentality, art and writing took place. In this highly fertile environment, people most likely congregated first, and hence, population pressures increased here faster. In addition, even the slightest modifications to the jungle environment were rewarded tenfold – hence, efforts towards agriculture, a labor intensive effort, would be most likely here. Looking at desert Archaic adaptations versus wetland Archaic adaptations, it is possible to see the signs of complexity much earlier for the latter. It is in this setting that inequity and difference can develop, enabling what Geertz described as “allowing difference to enchant”. Differences in material culture among peoples happens because of the social and political needs of the community – big men, or aggrandizers, initially work for the benefit of the people they represent, but eventually come to compete with each other for status and prestige.
Roots of Western Civilization
The beginnings of the Occident begin in the Near East – the Levant, Mesopotamia, Northern Africa, and Anatolia all comprise the region in which agriculture was first started and civilizations first built. Before sedentary hamlets develop in the area, the Near East was populated by the Kebaran people, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They are eventually supplanted/transform into the Natufian peoples at around 15000 – 12000 BP. During this time, climatic amelioration allows for population increase and the beginnings of sedentism. At about 12000 BP, at climatic event known as the Younger Dryas makes things colder and dryer, worsening living conditions in the area, and forcing a more nomadic style of living on the peoples in the area who have already started to settle down. Full sedentary living doesn’t occur until much later, possibly around the PPNC.
Natufian – some large settlements, semisubterranean pit houses, larger and more diverse stone tools, bed rock mortars, bows and arrows, some evidence of storage pits.
The site of Eynan (Ain Mallaha) is an important Natufian settlement in an ecotonal setting — pit houses with hearths were found – in the second stage of construction at the site many more buildings were built, with public and ritual buildings possible. No domesticates were found, but wild foods that would eventually become domesticated were. Abu Hureyra is another such important site, found in a marginal setting with round pithouses, gazelle, sheep and cattle (wild).
The Neolithic is characterized by larger villages, rectangular mud brick houses (roof entrances), lots of rebuilding in place, some domesticated cereals and caprines (sheeps/goats). The PPNA, 10500 to 9200 BP, has evidence of tells, and is characterized by Khiam points and Hagdud truncations. Ground stone tools are common at these sites, as are grinding stones. Important sites are Jericho (of biblical fame), Netiv Hagdud, Bad ed Dhra, Mureybit, Nahal Oren, and Hallan Cemi. PPNA architecture is most often circular and is rarely located in fortified sites. Jericho is the exception, with walls around the site and a large tower. Sites do have clear evidence of storage facilities and burials, as well as figural art.
Making stones tools is hard.
This will be an excellent course!
It is important to know that we have been thinking about man/environment dialectics since the time of the Greek and Romans. Of course, other philosophical doctrines globally have also focused on the environment, but since this is a class on western concepts and a western discipline, we are staying grounded in this particular paradigm. There is a significant difference in how we think about the environment starting in the Enlightenment. Previous to that time, nature was thought to have a divinely oriented design, what is called the “great chain of being” – it was thought that the world as it exists was ordered and perfect, made so by a perfect maker. Plato conceived of this world, our world, as the material world, full of life, and opposed it to an other, shadow, world.
During the enlightenment, Divinity falls behind but the old testament notion that man is the steward of the land continues.
Taking a break, will continue soon.