Speaking of West Mexico, as I have been lately, Mike Smith links to a very interesting article on the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project‘s work at an urban (or proto-urban) site that predates the Tarascan imperial capital at Tzintzuntzan. As I’ve been saying, I think a lot of recent research like this is showing that West Mexico was a much more important cultural area within Mesoamerica than people have realized. This particular site is especially interesting since it appears to date to between 1000 and 1350 AD, which makes it contemporaneous with Chaco. One of the frustrating things about trying to trace the specific Mesoamerican contacts of the Chacoans is that the Chacoan era corresponds to the Mesoamerican Early Postclassic, which has received much less attention from archaeologists than the Classic and Late Postclassic periods before and after it. It’s hardly surprising that so much research would focus on impressive sites of the Classic (Teotihuacan, Tikal and the other Maya cities, and other large urban centers throughout Mesoamerica) and Late Postclassic (Tenochtitlan and the smaller Aztec cities), but while some Early Postclassic centers are fairly well-known (e.g., Chichen Itza, Tula, and Cholula) they have tended to be overshadowed by the other sites. West Mexico is particularly poorly understood in this period, which is particularly unfortunate for Chacoan studies because it was almost certainly the part of Mesoamerica with the greatest direct influence on the Southwest. This pre-Tzintzuntzan city, then, is very important to understanding Chaco, and it’s good to see that it’s getting some attention.
Another thing to note, although I’m not sure how important it actually is, is that the Lake Pátzacuaro Basin is dominated by volcanic geology (malpaís). In Mesoamerica the main advantage of this kind of location would probably have been control over the obsidian sources associated with volcanoes. It’s been suggested that the rise of Teotihuacan had to do with its control of local obsidian, and the Tarascans seem to have had a big role in the obsidian trade as well. Obsidian was highly valued by Mesoamerican cultures, so control over the supply of it was a big deal. (Interestingly, obsidian is vanishingly rare at Chaco, despite the many Mesoamerican traits there and the presence of several obsidian sources within the plausible Chacoan sphere of influence.) The Tarascans were also noted for their use of copper, which may have been a bigger deal, since there are many sources of obsidian in Mesoamerica but knowledge of copper metallurgy didn’t begin spread from of West Mexico until quite late in the Postclassic. Copper bells, of course, are among the best-known artifacts of definite Mesoamerican origin found at Chaco. It all presumably fits together somehow, but it’s hard to tell exactly how.