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ASU research in Mesoamerica focuses on the dynamics of social complexity. Mesoamerica is one of a handful of world regions that independently invented agriculture, cities, states and empires. The actors who emerged in these places were linguistically and ethnically diverse farmers, merchants, seafarers, priests, metallurgists and other craft workers, astronomers, politicians and warriors. Social developments were underpinned by a cosmology as rich and distinctive as those of other major world religions. Mesoamerica connected with the American Southwest, eastern North America and South America, not only in the spread of domesticated plants but also in other elements of worldview and technology. Mesoamerica had a striking diversity of urban forms, from the compact capitals of the highlands to the dispersed ones of the tropical lowlands, plus a range of complex social formations neither tribal nor urban.

Current and future directions

Recent research shows that Mesoamerican societies do not conform to previously devised explanations of the origins of states and empires. While networks of commerce were part of the picture, increasing appreciation of the importance of historically situated, self-interested actors has produced a new round of questions and approaches. Social changes were driven by a complex dynamic of households, factions, communities, classes and the conflicts and cooperation between provinces, imperial seats of power, and independent polities. Important current research themes include the origins of cities, states, and empires. To gain understanding of these dynamics, faculty and graduate students at ASU examine Mesoamerican ritual systems, sculptural communications, market systems, urban processes, and political economies across some very different systems.

School strengths

ASU is well positioned to address the fascinating issues of Mesoamerica with active fieldwork in central Mexico, the Gulf Coast, Northwest Mexico and the Maya area. Our field projects involve advances in current archaeological methods, including household excavations, intensive settlement mapping and surface study and regional survey. ASU owns and administers the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory in San Juan Teotihuacan, Mexico, and has been at the forefront of Teotihuacan studies for more than two decades. The School of Human Evolution and Social Change also maintains several other labs in Mexico devoted to Mesoamerican archaeology.


All Mesoamerican faculty members have strong professional ties to numerous colleagues and institutions in Mexico, facilitating graduate student fieldwork. Emily Umberger in the School of Art—a leading scholar of Aztec sculpture—works closely with Mesoamericanist faculty and students, as does John Chance, a colonial ethnohistorian, and Miguel Aguilera, a Mayanist social anthropologist in the Religious Studies Department.

Key school archaeology faculty

Jane Buikstra, Regents' Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Founding Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research

Christopher Morehart, Assistant Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Ben Nelson, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Michael E. Smith, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Teotihuacan Research Laboratory
Affiliated Faculty, Biosocial Complexity Initiative
Affilated Faculty, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Affiliated Faculty, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning
Saburo Sugiyama, Research Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Other key ASU faculty

Miguel Aguilera

Miguel Aguilera, Associate Professor & Associate Director, Graduate Studies, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies