Project objectives

The Cerro Jazmin Archaeological Project (CJAP) investigates ancient urbanism and its environmental impact by integrating archaeological and geomorphological methods. The project focuses on Cerro Jazmin, a top-tier Prehispanic urban center in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca, Mexico. The project seeks to expand our understanding of ancient urbanism by learning about how Prehispanic urban centers functioned, how they integrated agricultural and residential terraces, and how urban activity impacted the surrounding landscape. Long-lived urban centers can teach us about successful and failed forms of urbanism.

CJAP Phase I

During Phase I of CJAP archaeological mapping and intensive survey data revealed a long, but intermittent history of urban occupation at Cerro Jazmín. Geomorphic survey and soil data from the area surrounding Cerro Jazmín also revealed a complex history of erosion, deposition, and soil formation. An interesting find was that a period of population and urban growth corresponded with a time of landscape stability and soil formation in the early Postclassic.

Urban occupation at Cerro Jazmín dates back to the Terminal Formative or Early Ramos period (300-100 BC) and it continued, intermittently, for nearly 1800 years until the Postclassic period (15th century), when Cerro Jazmín's political power shifted to the cacicazgo of Yanhuitlán.

The longevity of occupation at Cerro Jazmin suggests a pattern of urbanism capable of supporting a large population for centuries, no small feat even for modern urban standards. Thus, this project focuses on Cerro Jazmin as a valuable case study to investigate a long-lived and potentially sustainable pattern of highland urbanism and agriculture.


The Mixteca Alta and Terraces

The Mixteca Alta region of southern Mexico is a high and mountainous region dotted by small valleys. Here urban centers developed early (around 300 BC) and independently, just as it did in neighboring regions of Central Mexico and the Valley of Oaxaca. However, in the Mixteca Alta, no single primate urban center ever dominated the entire region; instead, many polities developed and each was headed by hilltop city that had smaller satellite communities in their hinterlands. Cerro Jazmin was one of such cities.

In the Mixtec region urban centers included complex systems of contour terraces (terraces following the natural contour of the slope) and lama-bordo terraces (check-dam terraces in adjoining drainages). Given the monumental investment in terracing some researchers have posited that Mixtec urban centers served as centers of agricultural administration and production. This and other questions regarding the nature of ancient Mixtec urbanism will be investigated in Phase II of the Cerro Jazmín Archaeological Project.


For Phase II of the project we propose a series of field seasons devoted to archaeological excavation of residential, civic-ceremonial, production and agricultural areas. The objectives are to learn about the city's political and economic function and prominance (reflected on monumental architecture, production areas and agricultural terraces) and the activities of high- and low-status households. The project will study monumental architecture, craft production areas and foreign good distribution to investigate the city's local and regional function and Cerro Jazmín's involvement in regional trade and socio-political interactions spheres. Some of the research questions pursued by this project are:

  1. What civic-ceremonial, socio-political, and economic activities can be identified through excavation at different sectors of Cerro Jazmín?
  2. What functions did contour and lama-bordo terraces serve within the urban system?
  3. What impact did Mixtec urban centers and their terracing have on surrounding landscapes?
  4. How did periods of urban occupation, abandonment, and re-occupation relate to the changing fortunes of high- and low-status housheolds and to broader transformations in socio-political interaction spheres and trade?
  5. What functions did Cerro Jazmín serve for its surrounding region and how do these functions relate to the city's long history of intermittent, and persistent occupation?

These are ambitious questions to answer and thus we are gearing up for the second stage of a multi-phase program of research. Phase I of the project was conducted with support from the National Science Foundation.

NSF support is pending for Phase II of the project.

Phase I of the Cerro Jazmin Project

In Phase I we fully mapped Cerro Jazmin, conducted an intensive systematic survey of the city, and a geomorphic survey of the surrounding area. The mapping project aimed to record the entire extent and layout of the city while intensive archaeological survey allowed us to identify the various temporal and functional components of the site. The geomorphic survey of the surrounding area recorded stratigraphic sequences and the geomorphology team collected soil samples to identify and date geomorphic events that were related to cultural periods of land use change, settlement expansion, and abandonment. Initial Phase I results are now available in a publication (JFA).

Phase I Results
Cerro Jazmin Maps
CJAP photo gallery
CJAP reports (informes técnicos en español)

Project significance
CJAP Phase I data suggest that the city of Cerro Jazmín engaged in landuse practices that enabled soil formation and landscape stability, at least for a while. These finds and the proposed Phase II research build on a growing number of studies that have found that higher populations need not result in land degradation. Instead, correct land management and targeted labor inputs from large populations are needed to build and maintain anthropogenic landscapes of production associated with complex societies and urban centers.

In our current situation, where the environmental impacts of urban living are becoming incresingly problematic, Cerro Jazmín provides a valuable case study on humanity's urban experience. Throughout the city's occupation different urban strategies were created, adopted, modified, and discarded. Learning about this history of adaptation and innovation may provide valuable insights into what are failed and successful urban strategies for the Oaxaca highlands. Archaeology is strategically poised to make a broad contribution to current socio-natural studies and debates partaining to sustainability and the impacts of human action and urbanism.

CJAP, students of anthropology, and the local communities
This project has provided and will continue to provide research and training opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students from US and Mexican institutions. The objective is to cultivate a new generation of researchers, to conduct solid research, and include underrepresented groups in the sciences. The project's efforts also support applied archaeology efforts to educate the public about archaeology and cultural resource management, especially resources in danger of looting and erosion, such as Cerro Jazmin. The project director, Veronica Perez Rodriguez (CV) is currently working with the community and authorities of Santa Maria Tiltepec to devise a culturally appropriate and effective plan to protect Cerro Jazmin. Phase I results were presented to the community at local meetings and through a poster that is to be posted in agency and municipal buildings (community poster, in Spanish).

Relevance of this project to the Mixtec people today
The Mixteca Alta is losing agricultural soils and people as farmers seek better opportunities elsewhere. The region presents special challenges to farming due to erosion and the constant risk of frost. The archaeological record shows that despite environmental challenges, Prehispanic communities thrived for millennia. The significance of the proposed study is that it begins to investigate: what urban strategies did the ancient Mixtec follow to grow food for dense urban populations in what appears to be a challenging environment? Any efforts directed towards answering this question will produce information that will be of great interest to scholars and Mixtec communities trying to make a living from agriculture in the region today.

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