With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Robert Rosenswig will investigate the history of the Izapa state by collecting regional settlement data from the Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico. The resulting data will help document the emergence of hierarchical society centered at Izapa by at least the Late Formative period (350-100 BCE), and determine the political nature of the polity's persistence until the Early Postclassic period (CE 1000-1350). The research will contribute theoretically to an understanding of the origins and development of state-level society by documenting the important and poorly understood Izapa polity during its rise, florescence and eventual collapse. The project will implement a survey strategy that compares changes between three environmental zones in the Soconusco. Survey efforts will be complemented with limited test excavations from a site dating to each the Formative, Classic and Postclassic periods.

At its most basic level, the proposed research asks: how did our stratified world evolve from the egalitarian hunter-gatherers that constitute most of human history? After over 100,000 years of the existence of modern humans on earth, hierarchical forms of political organization emerged around the world less than ten millennia ago. Power and hierarchy are fundamental issues addressed by many social sciences and archaeologists are in a unique position to explore the origins and development of the institutionalized hierarchy that permeates modern life. In contrast to most regions of Mesoamerica where Classic period states are the primary focus of study, the Soconusco provides a case where early political innovations are currently far better understood than the subsequent rise of the Izapa state. Izapa is surprisingly poorly understood considering that it is one of the largest sites on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica and it has been well-known since the 1940s when its mounds and sculptures appeared in the pages of the National Geographic Magazine. Despite the high-quality maps of monumental architecture at its core, the full extent of Izapa is unknown. Further, the overall demographic patterns of Izapa's sustaining area are unknown as are the number and distribution of lower-tier centers from any time in the site's long occupation. This project will document these demographic and political patterns, and how they changed over time.

The broader impact of this research is to document the political history of Izapa, and thereby increasing awareness of archaeological resources in the region. Izapa is the only site in the Soconusco open for tourism and expanding what is known of its political history will contribute to local as well as Mexican national cultural heritage. One of the most enduring ways in which this will be done is by initiating a program of outreach to local schools through the development of teaching materials. University of Albany graduate student Marx Navarro was born and raised in Tapachula and he will spearhead this endeavor and provide an example of what local school children could aspire to. Two other University of Albany gradate students will base their dissertations research on data collected by this project and two Costa Rican students will participate in the research.

Project Report

With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Robert Rosenswig undertook three seasons of archaeological survey to document the ancient state of Izapa in the Soconusco region of Mexico. Izapa has long been recognized as an important cultural center that flourished between 850 BC- AD 200. Izapa was first brought to world attention in the 1940s when the site’s urban core, consisting of a dozen plazas formed by mounds up to 20 m high and 100s of carved stone monuments, was published in the pages of National Geographic Magazine. The research undertaken by Dr. Rosenswig is the first to document Izapa from a regional perspective and to explore how political power resulted in demographic changes such as the formation of the first urban centers. Modern states and cities have their origins in the ancient world and undestanding how centralized urban societies coalesced provides insight into social and administrative problems faced today. The Izapa Regional Settlement Project combined pedestrian survey with the collection of lidar (light detection and ranging). Lidar is a new and exciting technology that employs pulses of light to penetrate thick tropical vegetation and map terrestrial features below. This research documented the full extent of the Izapa urban center for the first time. NSF support also allowed the documentation of changing overall occupation levels in three adjacent environments and provided a glimpse of regional political organization through eight lower-order monumental centers. Population levels are documented to have shifted from the coastal plain to the piedmont around Izapa, an environment that receives four times as much rainfall, and so, would have helped feed newly concentrated populations. Izapa is a protected center of Mexican heritage and open for tourism. Overshadowed by the Maya sites in Chiapas, there is increasing local interest in Izapa and frustration with the lack of investigation at the site. During the course of three seasons of field work from 2010-2013, Dr. Rosenswig established relationships with many local communities in Chiapas and has presented results at local universities, community centers and attended economic development panels organized by local business interests. In addition to helping document the shared cultural heritage of our planet these outreach activities garnered good-will for the project and for the United States. The Izapa Regional Settlement Project has also provided training for students. UAlbany graduate students Marx Navarro and Yaihaira Nuñez have written their PhD dissertation and MA thesis based on data collected for the project. Further, after participating on each season of field work, UAlbany graduate student Rebecca Mendelsohn launched her own dissertation project at Izapa. Mendelsohn’s dissertation project was featured in Science Magazine (16 May 2014) and targeted some of the new settlement documented by Rosenswig’s lidar mapping to begin documenting how the city was organized. Project results were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2013, a second article is currently in press with Anthropological and Archaeological Sciences and two additional articles are in preparation. Results were also presented at professional conferences in the US in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and in Guatemala in 2012 as well as in Canada in 2013. Further presentations are scheduled for Nov. 2014 in Calgary, Canada as well as at the International Congress of Americanists in El Salvador in July 2015.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
John E. Yellen
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Suny at Albany
United States
Zip Code