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Interregional Trade and the Formation of Prehistoric Gateway Communities

Author(s): Kenneth G. Hirth

Source: American Antiquity, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1978), pp. 35-45
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Interregional exchange of commodities appears to have been important in the formation of complex societies.
The transition from reciprocal to redistribution economies involved an institutionalization of long distance
exchange. Large and important settlements called gateway communities emerged along natural trade routes at
key locales for controlling the movement of commodities. A model is constructed that relates long distance trade
and regional economics to the emergence of market centers in Formative Mesoamerica. The gateway commun-
ity model depicts early interregional trade more efficiently than central place formulations. This model is
examined in light of data collected from Chalcatzingo in Morelos, Mexico, a community that maintained an
important position in both local and long distance trade during the first half of the Mesoamerican Formative.

The emergence of stratified societies with perpetual leadership appears to have been
closely related to control over the production and redistribution of resources. In
Mesoamerica, we find an early stimulus for trade in the differential distribution of key
resources (Rathje 1971) and the unpredictability of maize yields (Flannery and
Schoenwetter 1970). In areas such as the Central Mexican highlands, the juxtaposition of a
number of distinct ecological zones stimulated regional symbiosis that provided a strong
economic basis for later state level society (Sanders 1956).
The process of stratification appears to have begun by the second millenium B.C., and is
in part an outcome of independently emerging economic systems in different subareas of
Mesoamerica. Early exchange networks are evident throughout the Gulf Coast by 1500
B.C., along the Pacific coast of Chiapas at about 1600 B.C., and in the Valley of Oaxaca
and the Central Mexican highlands by 1400 B.C. Initially these early exchange networks
dealt with the movement of local goods throughout each of their specific subregions.
These networks were relatively isolated cells of economic activity, with most of the
exchanges governed by reciprocity. After 1400 B.C. we see interregional trade in which
large quantities of both raw and finished utilitarian and nonutilitarian materials were
moved over very long distances. Included in these exchanges were such scarce resources
as obsidian, shell, hematite, mica, jade, turquoise, and serpentine.
The long distance movement of goods is documented for the neolithic and archaic
cultures of both the Old and New Worlds (Gabel 1967). An increase in long distance trade
occurs, however, with the appearance of incipient chiefdom societies, thus suggesting
that trade is an important factor in the process of social stratification. The raw materials
used in enhancing and reinforcing the statuses of ranked societies were obtained through
trade. During the Early Formative (Table 1), status goods were probably exchanged
through a ritual network that linked high status members of different lineages (Flannery
1968). As the number of ranked individuals in the early societies increased, there was a
rise in demand for the exotic goods that served as indicators of rank. During the Early
Formative commodities probably moved via reciprocal exchange between trading
partners located in different regions. A problem with such a system is that the supply of
goods is unpredictable. In emergent chiefdom societies where part of the headman's
responsibility is the accumulation, storage, and redistribution of resources, fluctuation in
the flow of important commodities could lead to his overthrow (Pires-Ferreira and

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36 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 43, No. 1, 1978

Table 1. Chronological Sequence for Central Mexico.



600 I A C LA
D 0 E
L R _ _ _ _ _ _ _EL

E C _ _ _ _ _ _ _ A B
1000 E A N
L I laeB
Y F N H late A
() G A earl 0 NEVADA
R 0 5 early
1400 T A


Flannery 1976:291). Consequently the need for a dependable flow of goods may have been
an important stimulus to the institutionalization of trade within society.
Institutionalization of trade also helped to reinforce regional redistribution systems
because the newly acquired goods were allocated locally through the old networks.
Subsistence commodities no doubt moved between regions along with the more exotic
goods. As the collection, preparation, and movement of goods between regions became
more complex, greater sophistication was required to direct economic activities. It was at
this point that long distance exchange began to figure prominently in the process of
cultural evolution. The intensification of interregional exchange stimulated the emergence
of new forms of socioeconomic organization. Trade specialists appeared and certain
communities located along key trade routes prospered with increased interregional
The Olmec culture of southern Veracruz and Tabasco was heavily involved in long
distance trade during the Early and Middle Formative. Artifacts fashioned in the Olmec
style such as figurines, plaques, and pendants made of jade and serpentine were traded
widely throughout Mesoamerica (Grove 1974a). In the Central Mexican highlands the
concentration of Olmec style art in the states of Morelos and Guerrero suggests contact
with the Gulf Coast. Source analyses of obsidian and hematite samples, primarily from the
site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz points to a number of important commercial
trade areas during the Early Formative (Pires-Ferreira 1975, 1976). Approximately 63% of
all analyzed obsidian came from the highland source of Guadalupe Victoria at
'Citlaltepetl' or Pico de Orizaba, Puebla; an additional 28% came from a variety of
Guatemala sources. Long distance trade with Oaxaca is documented by the occurrence of
Oaxacan magnetite and hematite in the Gulf Coast and a few documented sites in Central

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Mexico. Sea shells were also widely traded. One Gulf Coast variety, Barynaias, is found
at San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca and at San Pablo, Morelos (Grove 1974b:46).
The occurrence of Gulf Coast iconography throughout Central Mexico implies the
existence of an 'Olmec corridor" and an established trade route with the highlands
(Jimenez Moreno 1966; Grove 1968a). Coe (1968) has suggested that the Olmec established
an integrated trade network to obtain the jade, jadeite, and serpentine used in the
manufacture of cult and status paraphernalia. Rathje (1971, 1972) claims that the demand
in the Maya area for essential utilitarian resources stimulated highland-lowland
interaction. These resources included salt and volcanic rock for the manufacture of stone
cutting and grinding tools. Whatever the reasons, the exchange of status goods helped to
stimulate the appearance of more complex forms of social organization and the
appearance and growth of specialized sites referred to as gateway communities.
Whenever trade is important to the growth of a region, the most influential communities
will tend to develop and be situated at strategic locales for controlling the flow of
merchandise. These communities flourish at the passage points into and out of distinct
natural or cultural regions and serve as "gateways" which link their regions to external
trade routes (Burghardt 1971). These networks are structurally similar to 'dendritic'
market networks (Johnson 1970; Smith 1976; Kelley 1976).
This study examines the relationship between increased interregional trade and the
growth of gateway communities using as examples the Early and Middle Formative phases
of Central Mexican prehistory (1200-500 B.C.). The intent is to examine the structural
relationships that exist between interacting groups during the growth of interregional
exchange systems. No pretense is made to identify how the economics of the exchanges


Gateway communities develop either as a response to increased trade or to the settling

of sparsely populated frontier areas. They generally are located along natural corridors of
communication and at the critical passages between areas of high mineral, agricultural, or
craft productivity; dense population; high demand or supply for scarce resources; and, at
the interface of different technologies or levels of sociopolitical complexity. They often
occur along economic shear lines where cost factors change and where there are economic
discontinuities in the free movement of merchandise. The function of these settlements is
to satisfy demand for commodities through trade and the location of these communities
reduces transportation costs involved in their movement.
In contrast to "isolated states" (Hall 1966) and "central places" (Christaller 1966;
Losch 1954), which are hierarchically dominant settlements at the center of symmetrical,
compact service areas in the shape of circles or hexagons, gateway communities are
located to one side of their hinterland (Fig. 1). These hinterlands look much like elongated
fans, which radiate outward from their respective gateways. Individual communities
throughout the hinterland are linked to the gateway community via a linear or dendritic
market network. Dendritic networks are characteristic of many primitive economic sys-
tems and frequently are found in areas where the population is dispersed, transportation is
difficult or underdeveloped, and where there is a strong external economic orientation. In
these systems, individual centers are linked directly to the gateway by exchange relation-
ships. Dendritic networks may transcend political boundaries; the centers within them
may be completely autonomous and may interact very little with other centers in the
hinterland. Burghardt conceptualizes the position of the gateway community in the follow-
ing way:
(The gateway community) could be likened to the power boxes or valves which connect a house with the
greater urban utility network. Seen in the organizational sense, they may be referred to as "head-links"

The dendritic settlement pattern is the most efficient structure to connect the gateway

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38 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 43, No. 1, 1978

Fig. 1. The dendritic market network.

community with its hinterland. Since the movement of goods in primitive economic sys-
tems incurs high and inflexible transportation costs, site location is important to hold
transportation cost to a minimum.
Dendritic market networks are hierarchically organized (Johnson 1970, Vance 1970)
with all markets ultimately oriented to a gateway community. They contrast with typical
central place systems which, in addition to their vertical organization, maintain strong
connections horizontally between centers of equivalent rank (Fig. 2). Smith has studied the
movement of commodities through dendritic systems and finds that their markets:
form a linear arrangement that is inclusively vertical . . . Collecting points at different levels of the system link
to several smaller places, but to only one major high-level center. (Commodity) flows are direct, linking levels
of hierarchies, but not the local systems that surround each level of the hierarchy which eliminates competi-
tion among high-level markets for a producing hinterland. Thus while many places are connected, they
connect to only one price-setting ,iiar-ket ( 1976:319).

The control of resources at the point of redistribution in a redistributive economy can be

thought of as roughly analogous to a price-setting market. When dendritic market patterns
are studied using archaeological materials caution must be taken not to interpret the
presence of similar trade goods at all centers as indicative of a mutual interaction sphere.
Interaction spheres are often characterized by horizontal connectivity matrices. These
interfere with the vertical integration of dendritic networks and would cause gateway
communities to decline in importance and be replaced by central places that stimulate
greater specialization in local economic activities.
Central places differ from gateway communities in a number of very important ways.
While central places are characterized by a high percentage of retail economic activity
(Vance 1970), gateway communities operate as commercial middlemen involving more
"'wholesale" activities (Burghardt 1971). Although gateway communities may function as
the redistributive central place within their own physiographic region, it is long distance
trade which creates the dendritic hinterland and their dominant hierarchical position
within it. Unlike central places, gateway-dendritic networks are based upon the kinds of
natural irregularities found in the real world. Most important among these are the differen-
tial distribution of natural resources and population, variable agricultural productivity,
and barriers to trade and communication.

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o @ A. The Central Ploce-

o 0 Hierarchy

B. The Gateway

Community trad. Od.O dritic

1,ink d hitrln

gateway 1

C. The Multiple
\gateway 2 (core
trea Gateway Case

qateway 3

Fig. 2. A comparison of Central Place and Gateway Community hierarchies.


The site of Chalcatzingo is located 120 km southwest of Mexico City in the eastern
quarter of the modern state of Morelos. To date it is the only site in Central Mexico with
Middle Formative civic-ceremonial architecture and bas-relief carvings (Grove et al.
1976). The reliefs are well known because they contain Gulf Coast Olmec iconography
(Grove 1968b). Recent research indicates that there was little Gulf Coast contact prior to
1000 B.C.
The earliest developments at Chalcatzingo occur between 1600 and 1000 B.C. Around
1150 B.C. Chalcatzingo was included within the expanding radius of the Early Forma-
tive Tlatilco culture. Tlatilco populations were densest in regions where high annual mean
temperature permitted year-round farming and where there was prime agricultural land
and a high subsurface watertable (Tolstoy 1975). During this phase Chalcatzingo was a
small village community probably not exceeding several hundred inhabitants. The sur-
rounding Amatzinac Valley was lightly populated and only four sites have been identified
throughout a 550-km2 area. The region appears to have been on the marginal edge of
strong Tlatilco interaction; Chalcatzingo has Tlatilco-style vessels but they are much more
abundant along the Rio Cuautla, 25 km to the west (Grove et al. 1976).
The greatest number of Tlatilco sites reported thus far are from the Valley of Mexico
(Tolstoy 1975). The majority of these are found in the southern half of the valley near the
main route of communication leading south into Morelos. Grove (1971) suggests that the
greatest Early Formative population densities in Central Mexico may be found in central

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40 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 43, No. 1,1978

* Strong Tiotilco Infiluence r v ; a b z M

* Morganol Tiotilco Influence ( t! X /4 J<

| contour antervol opprox. 330 meters |i 7 @<

Fig. 3. Early Formative sites in the Central Mexican highlands.

and southern Morelos where communities were spaced at regular intervals every one to
two km along major rivers (Fig. 3). The important site of Las Bocas, Puebla had only
limited contact with the Tiatilco culture. The presence, however, of an extremely rare
ceramic of Pueblan origin at both Las Bocas and Chalcatzingo suggests that Chalcatzingo
was in contact with both culture areas simultaneously (Cyphers 1975).
Intermediate and long distance exchange intensified in many areas of Mesoamerica at
the start of the Middle Formative. In the face of increased competition for relatively
scarce resources, settlement prospered in areas of balanced regional subsistence
economies, often at equitable locations along natural trade corridors. Prior interaction with
the Tlatilco culture gave Chalcatzingo access to an established trade network extending as
far west as the Balsas depression of central Guerrero that could be used to procure scarce
highland resources in demand by culture groups to the south and east. Its location on the
marginal edge of its acquisition network at the convergence of natural corridors of com-
munication which linked southern Puebla with central Morelos placed Chalcatzingo in an
opportune position for controlling east-west trade throughout southwestern Central

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Fig. 4. Natural routes of communicat

Mexico (Fig. 4). Kaolin, cotton, lim

zinac Valley and were probably tra
demand along the eastern trade rou
Valley of Mexico; agricultural prod
ern Morelos; and jadeite, magnetit
Guerrero. Source analysis is being u
tron activation indicates that obsidian recovered from workshop debris is from
Teotihuacan Valley sources (Grove personal communication). The variety of iron ores
recovered from the site are not from Oaxacan sources; iron ore deposits from western
Morelos and eastern Guerrero are presently being sampled. Jade and serpentine, presum-
ably from Guerrero was also manufactured into small portable artifacts on the site.
Chalcatzingo's new role as a gateway community within Central Mexico is reflected in
its rapid growth during the first half of the Middle Formative, or phase B of the Chalcat-
zingo chronology. Site population increased and we see evidence of large scale public
works including the construction of a 70 m platform structure, hillside terraces, diversion

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42 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 43, No. 1, 1978

dams for controlling rainfall run-off and its first bas-relief carvings (Grove et al. 1976).
Evidence for contact with the Gulf Coast during phase C is found in the erection of at least
one platform stela, the rededication of a large stone altar and a variety of typically Olmec
artifacts in burials. Burial offerings include jade artifacts in the form of tubular and gad-
rooned beads, jaguar toothed pendants, and a serpentine were-jaguar figure, concave
hematite mirrors, and sting-ray spines (Cyphers 1975:113-114). While phase C ceramics
are dissimilar to contemporary Gulf Coast ceramics there was an increase in shared form
and design attributes with the Valleys of Tehuacan and Oaxaca.
Economic prosperity helped support the most complex regional settlement system
presently reported from Central Mexico (Hirth 1974a; Grove et al. 1976). The Rio
Amatzinac Valley was characterized by: (1) regional economic integration with a
centralized point of redistribution and specialized production activities; (2) dense
population and its sociopolitical integration as a regional chiefdom; and (3) population
nucleation and hamlet clustering in and around Chalcatzingo (Hirth 1974a, 1974b).
All long distance trade with the Gulf Coast may have been conducted through a series of
scattered gateway communities. Chalcatzingo, Chalchuapa-Las Victorias, San Miguel
Amuco, Padre Piedra, Pijijiapan, Xoc, Techaya, Oxtotitlan, and Juxlahuaca all have
monumental art which incorporated Olmec iconography. All of these sites, including the
Valley of Oaxaca, are located along important natural trade routes and/or in prime locals
for controlling the movement of trade into and out of highly productive regions. Pijijiapan
is located within the rich cacao-producing areas of the Pacific coast while Chalchuapa is
located directly east of an important natural corridor where "entry from the Pacific coast
could have been easily controlled" (Sharer 1974:170). The advantages of this type of
system are clear. Gateway communities have acceptance in local commercial networks.
Overall transportation costs are minimized since only a few trade connections are
maintained and costs involved in assembling commodities are absorbed by indigenous


Gateway communities provide secure lines of supply since their own prosperity is
dependent upon the maintenance of external trade route connections and the continuity of
economic relationships throughout their hinterlands. Because of a low level of transporta-
tion technology, gateway systems tend to be brittle and resistant to economic change.
Competition with other centers may arise when the hinterland of a gateway community
extends over a large geographic area. Central places may appear which can function as
alternative gateways for areas further into the hinterland and can weaken the vertical
movement of commodities. Competition from hinterland central places may generate one
of a number of predictable changes:

(1) The gateway community will lose portions of its original hinterland and will undergo
an economic decline regressing to a level concomitant with that of its new com-
(2) The former gateway community will undergo slight economic decline but will retain
some control over its former hinterland.
(3) There may be an intensification of economic interaction within unaffected portions of
its hinterland and new areas may be brought under the gateway's control.
(4) It may force a shift in its major emphasis from the control of interregional trade to the
tighter integration of economic activity within its own physiographic region. There
would be an increase in central place activities to insure the survival of the existing
social organization.
(5) It may evoke more complex forms of sociopolitical authority with which to combat
increased economic competition.

It is this last response that carries the greatest potential stimulus for cultural evolution. An
increase in political authority and militarism on the part of the gateway community could

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lead to an elimination of competit

responses such as the emergence of
rotating periodic markets might allow the hinterland to expand.
Competition along the trade route which connects the gateway community with its
external sources of supply and demand would hinder the free movement of merchandise
and much of its locational advantage would be lost. The unilateral location of the gateway
makes any sort of central place function for all portions of its dendritic hinterland impossi-
ble. The use of alternative trade routes is not always feasible because rerouting may
increase overall transportation costs. It is natural therefore to find ties and mechanisms to
facilitate the continual movement of merchandise, such as strong cultural affiliations,
between the gateway community and the culture groups that lie along its external trade
At about 500 B.C., Chalcatzingo ceased to function as an important gateway community,
the site was abandoned, and the regional Amatzinac settlement pattern underwent a
marked reorganization. An important factor appears to have been the cessation of long
distance trade with Oaxaca, the Gulf Coast, and the Valley of Puebla. The decline in long
distance trade at the end of the Middle Formative coincides with increased competition
from larger and more complex systems of regional redistribution. Large chiefdoms and
competing central places appear at this time in locations that could have strangled Middle
Formative dendritic networks. This occurs in Central Mexico where we find the growth of
such Late Formative centers as Cuicuilco at the southern entrance into the Valley of
Mexico, Tlalancaleca along the trade route into Puebla from the north, and Amalucan in
the Valley of Puebla along the trade route leading to Oaxaca via the Tehuacan Valley.


Use of the gateway community model has a number of advantages over

formulations for examining the growth and expansion of early interreg
networks. The central place model is based upon conditions that do not ex
world. These include the existence of an isotropic plane with a uniform d
population, resources, and purchasing power. The gateway community mo
hand, sees environmental discontinuities such as natural corridors of trad
cation as important variables in the growth of settlement. In central plac
are "unnatural" anomalies that are thought to distort rather than help exp
of regional settlement.
In this author's opinion, Flannery (1968) has offered the best model for explaining how
interregional trade was initiated during the Early Formative in Mesoamerica. He suggests
that differential access to prestige goods was an important factor in the definition of
rank-status positions within society. Prestige goods were scarce and moved over long
distances through a series of trading partner exchanges. Exchanges took place between
the headmen of different lineage groups who could redistribute the goods as they pleased
throughout their individual lineage groups. This pattern is a forerunner to the formation of
gateway systems. The operation of trade between headmen of distinct regional lineages
supplies, in the organizational sense, the link-link structure of the dendritic market net-
work. Control over the flow of scarce resources establishes the vertical hierarchy so
characteristic of gateway systems. Whereas traditional central place models stress the
growth of economic activity within socioeconomic regions, the gateway community model
can account for the growth of hierarchical networks between previously autonomous
By the end of the Early Formative interregional trade became so complex that simple
reciprocal exchange gave way to resource pooling and redistribution of goods on a re-
gional level (Flannery 1976, Pires-Ferreira and Flannery 1976). The pooling of resources
drastically affected the free movement of goods, and important redistributive centers with
large populations emerged at locales best able to control trade. These settlements have

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44 AMERICAN ANTIQUITY [Vol. 43, No. 1,1978

been called gateway communities in this study and are characterized by a complex level of
sociopolitical integration and a strong commitment to interregional commerce.
Gateway communities first appeared throughout the Central Mexican highlands during
the Middle Formative. They grew as the dominant communities in interregional exchange
networks as a result of their control over the production or movement of scarce resources.
Some of these sites have been classified as Olmec trading colonies because Gulf Coast
iconography is occasionally found in their monumental art. The highly controversial "01-
mec trade route" may have been a system of integrated gateway communities involved in
the procurement and movement of scarce resources into the Gulf Coast. No direct politi-
cal control is necessarily implied in this arrangement, either on the part of the Olmec over
their regional gateways or the gateway communities over their respective hinterlands; the
structuring of ties may have been along ritualistic and economic lines alone. Indirect
evidence suggests the existence of merchant specialists at Chalcatzingo. Several of the
large structures excavated in the ceremonial zone may have been specialized trade-related
warehouse facilities as well as serving ritual, ceremonial, and workshop purposes (Grove
et al. 1976:1205).
Major factors in the formalization of Middle Formative gateway communities appear to
have been an overall increase in regional population, internal social stratification, and the
demand for increased resources. Chalcatzingo illustrates the formation of such a market
center in the Central Mexican highlands. Located at the intersection of natural communi-
cation corridors connecting Morelos, Guerrero, Puebla, and the Valley of Mexico, Chal-
catzingo exploited the established Early Formative trade connections that linked the
populations of Central Morelos with those of the Valley of Puebla. Contact with areas of
Tlatilco culture to the west gave Chalcatzingo access to an extensive resource procure-
ment network. Contact with areas of Puebla to the east connected it with the long distance
trade routes running south and southeast. Although its monumental art is strong evidence
for Gulf Coast contact, it should be stressed that Olmec elements, both at Chalcatzingo
and other sites outside the Gulf Coast, are normally only a very small percentage of the
total cultural assemblage. As a result of a variety of factors, Chalcatzingo flourished as an
important node in the interregional movement of scarce resources in the Mexican Alti-
plano prior to 500 B.C. Most important of these appear to have been its control of interre-
gional trade moving throughout the southcentral highlands and its maintenance of long
distance trade contacts with the Gulf Coast and Valley of Oaxaca.

Acknowledgments. I wish to thank those of my colleagues who helped during the initial stages of formulating a
problem. I am indebted to the Proyecto Chalcatzingo and the National Science Foundation grant GS-31017 for
providing the opportunity and funding to begin my research. A special thanks to Jorge Angulo (INAH), David
Grove (Illinois-Urbana), and Carol Smith (Duke) for their reading of, and comments on an earlier draft of this
manuscript, presented at the 41st annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis. I would
also like to thank the editor and anonymous reviewers of American Antiquity who have helped me to remedy a
portion of my scholastic myopia.

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