Archaeological Investigations at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Northern Mexico

For over 15 years, Mexican and American archaeologists and students have dug ancient ruins, walked the high desert landscape, and worked in laboratories to understand the rise and fall of La Quemada, Zacatecas. We want to know why societies become complex, developing social hierarchies with specialized economic, political, and religious roles for their members. Why do civilizations expand? Northern Mexico’s ancient past is an ideal context for studying these questions.

During the period A.D. 400-1500, La Quemada and several other monumental ceremonial centers arose and collapsed in the region, coinciding with a geographic expansion and retraction of the cultural patterns of Mesoamerica. La Quemada (A.D. 500-900) is a monumental fortress and ceremonial center; its ruins include colonnaded halls, ball courts, causeways, grand staircases, and ordinary houses. Agricultural terrace systems and villages dot the surrounding valley. Archaeologists have proposed that La Quemada was a trading outpost on the turquoise trail to the American Southwest, or the castle of a central Mexican feudal lord who came to take advantage of improved climatic conditions, or a fortress to protect central Mexico from incursions from this northern territory, or a way station for marauding tribes who ultimately became the Mexica (Aztecs). Project members, in contrast, believe that the local indigenous populations played a large role in La Quemada’s transformation.

We have conducted seven seasons of excavation and numerous studies of sites, artifacts, and excavated materials to evaluate these propositions. The work continues with specialized analyses of polished stone mirrors, cut marks on human skeletons, animal bones, as well ethnoarchaeological, linguistic, and paleoenvironmental analysis. A comprehensive monograph on the excavations and analyses is in preparation.

While the earlier explanations for cycles of social complexity in the region emphasized conquest and domination by foreign forces, the new evidence indicates that La Quemada grew as local religious leaders attracted followers and assumed regional importance. In doing so, they interacted with other similar actors across great distances, adopting and inventing key Mesoamerican practices, including ancestor veneration, monument-building, warfare, crafting, feasting, and long-distance exchange.

Note: This project may no longer be externally funded, but collaborative research opportunities may still exist.

Berney, Christine (2002)
Trade on the Mesoamerican Frontier: Evaluating the Significance of Blue-green Stones at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico. M.A. Thesis, University of British Columbia.

Darling, J. Andrew (1993)
Notes on Obsidian Sources of the Southern Sierra Madre Occidental.Ancient Mesoamerica 4(2):245-253.

Dvorak, Sara Anne (2000)
Faunal Consumption at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico. M.A. Thesis, Arizona State University.

Elliott, Michelle (2005)
Evaluating Evidence for Warfare and Environmental Stress in Settlement Pattern Data from the Malpaso valley, Zacatecas, Mexico.Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (in press, corrected proof available online as of 14 June 2005).

Kantor, Loni (1995)
Lithic Specialization and Exchange at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico. M.A. Thesis, State University of New York.

Millhauser, John K. (1999)
Ritual, Social, and Economic Dimensions of Obsidian Use in the Malpaso Valley, Zacatecas, Mexico,A.D. 500-900. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, Arizona State University.

Nelson, Ben A. (1990)
Observaciones Acerca de la Presencia Tolteca en La Quemada, Zacatecas. InMesoamérica y Norte de México Siglos IX-XI,edited by F. Sodi Miranda, pp. 521-540. vol. 2. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Nelson, Ben A. (1992)
El Maguey y Nopal en la Economía de Subsistencia de La Quemada, Zacatecas. InOrigen y Desarollo de la Civilización en el Occidente de México,edited by B. Boehm de Lameiras and P. C. Weigand. Colegio de Michoacán, Zamora, Michoacán.

Nelson, Ben A. (1995)
Complexity, Hierarchy, and Scale: A Controlled Comparison Between Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and La Quemada, Zacatecas.American Antiquity 60(4):597-618.

Nelson, Ben A. (1996)
La Quemada. InEncyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture,edited by B. A. Tennenbaum, pp. 364. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

Nelson, Ben A. (1997)
Chronology and Stratigraphy at La Quemada, Zacatecas, Mexico.Journal of Field Archaeology24(1):85-109.

Nelson, Ben A. (2003)
A Place of Continued Importance: The Abandonment of Epiclassic La Quemada. InThe Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment in Middle America,edited by T. Inomata and R. W. Webb, pp. 77-89. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Nelson, Ben A. (2004)
Elite Residences in West Mexico. InAncient Palaces of the New World: Form, Function, and Meaning,edited by J. Pillsbury and S. T. Evans, pp. 60-81. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Nelson, Ben A. (2004)
Urbanism Beyond the City: La Quemada, Zacatecas, Paper presented at the Fourth Meeting of the Project of Investigation on Urbanization in Mesoamerica, jointly sponsored by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia and the Department of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, September 19-25, 2004.

Nelson, Ben A., J. Andrew Darling and David A. Kice (1992)
1992 Mortuary Patterns and the Social Order at La Quemada, Zacatecas. Latin American Antiquity 3(4):298-315.

Perez, Ventura (2002)
Tool-Induced Bone Alterations: Cutmark Differences.Archaeology Southwest16(1):10.

Schiavitti, Vincent W. (1994)
La Minería Prehispánica de Chalchihuites.Arqueología Mexicana 1(6):48-51.

Strazicich, Nicola M. (1998)
Clay Sources, Pottery Production, and Regional Economy in Chalchihuites, Mexico, A.D. 200-900.Latin American Antiquity9(3):259-274.

To, Denise (1999)
Bioarchaeology of a Disarticulated Multiple Burial, Los Pilarillos, Zacatecas, Mexico. M.A. Thesis, Arizona State University.

Turkon, Paula (2004)
Food and Status in the Prehispanic Malpaso Valley, Zacatecas, Mexico.Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23:225-251.

Wells, E. Christian (2000)
Pottery Production and Microcosmic Organization: The Residential Structure of La Quemada, Zacatecas. Latin American Antiquity 11(1):21-42.

Team Members:

  • Ben A. Nelson, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Principal Investigator

Faculty Associates:

  • Peter Jiménez Betts
  • Chris Fisher
  • Debra Martin
  • Roberto Molina
  • Margaret Nelson, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change/Barrett Honors College


  • Marisol Aranda
  • Christine Berney
  • Jeffrey Bonneville
  • David Bild
  • Oralia Cabrera
  • John Carpenter
  • Andrew Darling
  • Sandra Dunaven
  • Sandra Norvell
  • Sara Dvorak
  • Michelle Elliott
  • Bradley Ensor
  • Glenn Stuart
  • Maren Hopkins
  • Odile Hoogzaad
  • Loni Kantor
  • David Kice
  • Kolleen Kralick
  • John Millhauser
  • Hugo Moedano (ck.)
  • Ramón Ortiz
  • Ventura Perez
  • Michael Rizo
  • Ian Robertson
  • Pablo Sereno
  • Vincent Schiavitti
  • Nicola Strazicich
  • Victoria Quiroz
  • Carl Shields
  • Steve Swanson
  • Denise To
  • Paula Turkon
  • Federico Vargas
  • Victoria Vargas
  • Christian Wells

Funding Sources:
National Science Foundation
National Endowment for the Humanities
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies
Faculty of Social Sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo
College of LIberal Arts and Sciences of Arizona State University
Anonymous Donor

Centro Regional Zacatecas, Institución Nacional de Antropología e Historia
Hampshire College
Escuela de Antropología, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas
Unidad de Geosciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Kent State University
Colorado State University, Ft. Lewis