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Early Olmec obsidian trade and economic organization at San Lorenzo

Kenneth Hirth
, Ann Cyphers
, Robert Cobean
c, 2
, Jason De Len
d, 3
, Michael D. Glascock
e, 4
Department of Anthropology, Penn State University, 409 Carpenter Building, University Park, PA 16802, USA
Instituto de Investigaciones Antropolgicas, Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico, Circuito Exterior C.U., Mxico D.F. 04510, Mexico
Direccin de Estudios Arqueolgicos, Instituto Nacional de Antropologa e Historia, Lic. Verdad #3, Colonia Centro, Mxico D.F. 06060, Mexico
Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1107, USA
University of Missouri Research Reactor, 1513 Research Park Drive, Columbia, MO 65211, USA
a r t i c l e i n f o
Article history:
Received 29 November 2012
Received in revised form
14 January 2013
Accepted 27 January 2013
San Lorenzo
Obsidian source analysis
a b s t r a c t
The Olmec were the rst complex society to develop in Mesoamerica between 1800 and 600 cal B.C. The
earliest large Olmec center during this period was the archaeological site of San Lorenzo which emerged
as Mesoamericas rst large ritual and political center between 1400 and 1000 cal B.C. San Lorenzos
growth as a prominent center included the development of long distance trade relationships with
adjacent areas of Guatemala and highland Mexico. High precision chemical analysis of obsidian imported
for use in the fabrication of cutting tools is used to reconstruct the growth, size and extent of San Lor-
enzos interregional exchange networks with areas of Mexico and Guatemala where obsidian occurs as
raw material. A total of 852 obsidian artifacts were analyzed to reconstruct changes in obsidian pro-
curement between 1800 and 800 cal B.C. This represents one of the largest samples of sourced obsidian
from a Mesoamerican site and it provides a comprehensive picture for the development of interregional
trade networks for Mesoamericas rst large Olmec center.
2013 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
1. Introduction
Research conducted over more than seven decades has estab-
lished that the Olmec were Mesoamericas rst great civilization
(Coe and Diehl, 1980; Diehl, 2004; Pool, 2007). The Olmec were
located inthe humidcoastal plains of Veracruz andTabasco between
1800 and 400 cal B.C. Contact between the Olmec and their neigh-
bors can be seen in the spread of religious iconography along with
the movement of a range of trade goods into and out of the Olmec
heartland. The earliest Olmec center is the archaeological site of San
Lorenzo, Veracruz, which was occupied continuously between 1800
and 800 cal B.C. (Table 1) and developed into Mesoamericas rst
large ritual andpolitical center between1400and1000cal BC(Fig. 1).
Complex society at San Lorenzo was supported by a highly
diversied subsistence base tailored to its surrounding wetland
environment. Despite a rich resource base, San Lorenzo lacked easy
access to building stone and the lithic resources needed for both
cutting and grinding tools. The San Lorenzo Olmec solved part of
this problem by importing basalt from the Tuxtla Mountains
located 60 km away which was used for grinding implements and
large stone monuments so important for their public displays of
religious and political ideology. Stone for cutting implements,
however, was not locally available which they resolved by
importing obsidian from distant sources. The focus of this study is
this long distance obsidian procurement network and its implica-
tions for the development of early Olmec economic networks. The
goal of this study is to provide a comprehensive view of the evo-
lution of obsidian provisioning at San Lorenzo over a 1000 year
period between 1800 and 800 cal BC.
A total of 852 artifacts were analyzed using high precision
neutron activation and X-ray uorescence techniques which form
the basis for reconstructing obsidian procurement networks. These
artifacts were drawn from 50 different occupation contexts
collected by the Proyecto Arqueolgico San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan
(PASLT) over six eld seasons (Fig. 2). The large number of contexts
available for study ensured that only artifacts from securely dated
single component contexts were used in this analysis. These ana-
lyzes document the extent and diversity of San Lorenzos early
economic obsidian networks and provide a glimpse into the
complexity of economic interactions involved in the development
of Mesoamericas rst complex society.
* Corresponding author. Tel.: 1 814 867 0005; fax: 1 814 863 1474.
E-mail addresses: kgh2@psu.edu (K. Hirth), cyphers@unam.mx (A. Cyphers),
cobean_robert@hotmail.com (R. Cobean), jasonpatrickdeleon@gmail.com (J. De
Len), glascockm@missouri.edu (M.D. Glascock).
Tel.: 55 5644 7822.
Tel.: 55 5522 4446.
Tel.: 1 734 764 7274.
Tel.: 1 573 882 5270.
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Journal of Archaeological Science
j ournal homepage: ht t p: / / www. el sevi er. com/ l ocat e/ j as
0305-4403/$ e see front matter 2013 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798
2. Previous studies of San Lorenzo obsidian procurement
Obsidian source analysis has played an important role in
reconstructing past economic systems in Mesoamerica for three
reasons. First, obsidian is the only material resource that permits
highly accurate reconstructions of raw material movement from its
source to its nal point of consumption. Furthermore, the reductive
technology used to transformobsidian into usable tools is both well
known and can be studied with a high level of analytical precision
(Clark and Bryant, 1997; Collins, 1975, 1993; Hirth, 2003, 2006;
Sheets, 1975). Second, obsidian was used for cutting tools in many
areas of Mesoamerica where local silicates such as chert or rhyolite
were unavailable. In these instances the control over the production
and distribution of obsidian tools, particularly prismatic blades has
been argued to have been a critical element in the rise of complex
society in Mesoamerica (Clark, 1987) and the foundationof the early
Teotihuacan state (Santley, 1984, 1989; Sanders and Santley, 1983;
Spence, 1981, 1984). Third and nally, obsidian is one of the few
materials that can withstand the highly corrosive effects of the Gulf
Coast environment. Obsidian tools not only preserve, but they
constitute more than 98% of the aked stone tool inventory recov-
ered at San Lorenzo. As such, they provide a comprehensive viewof
the procurement system for one indispensable material resource.
San Lorenzo holds a special place in the history of obsidian
research in Mesoamerica because two pioneering studies used San
Lorenzo collections to test the feasibility of chemical characteriza-
tion studies for the study of obsidian trade (Cobean et al., 1971,
1991). These studies made two very important contributions to
obsidian research in Mesoamerica. First, they provided the chem-
ical characterization of 25 major obsidian sources in Mexico and
Guatemala (Fig. 1) using data from Robert Cobeans (2002) sys-
tematic reconnaissance of obsidian source areas. In the process
Cobean et al. (1991) demonstrated that archaeological quarries and
outcrops should not be sampled as individual points but as com-
ponents of large ow systems that often cover 100 sq km or more.
The second important contribution of Cobeans initial studies
was that it demonstrated the feasibility of identifying the source
provenance of archaeological artifacts. A sample of 65 obsidian
artifacts was compared to 208 characterizations of 25 sources
(Cobean et al., 1991:69). Chemical analyzes linked the obsidian
artifacts recovered at San Lorenzo to ten geological obsidian sour-
ces: Guadalupe Victoria, Pico de Orizaba, Otumba, Paredon,
Pachuca, Ucareo, Altotonga, and ZaragozaeOyameles, Mexico, as
well as El Chayal and Ixtepeque, Guatemala (Footnote
). This
research established the value of obsidian source analysis for
reconstructing prehistoric exchange networks in Mesoamerica
(Pires-Ferreira, 1975, 1976).
Unfortunately, these early studies did not report the complete
source determinations of the archaeological sample examined from
San Lorenzo. The research was structured as a qualitative study
intended to identify the range of obsidian sources used at San
Lorenzo rather than a quantitative study of phase-by-phase
changes in the obsidian sources used over time. The artifacts
analyzed were selected to sample the widest possible differences
in color and in surface appearance in the hopes of obtaining sam-
ples from most or all of the obsidian sources used (Cobean et al.,
1971:667). As a result, while this early study established the exis-
tence of extensive exchange networks at San Lorenzo, it did not
identify changes in the frequency of obsidian sources used over
time. Only 63 of the 65 analyzed artifacts could be identied to
source (Cobean et al., 1991:84) which precluded a comprehensive
viewof obsidian exchange operating at San Lorenzo throughout the
length of its occupation. Nevertheless, these analyzes identied
that Guadalupe Victoria supplied 73% of the obsidian during the
Chicharras and San Lorenzo phases, followed in turn by El Chayal
(22%) and Otumba (5%) (Cobean et al., 1991: Fig. 5).
3. The analytical sample and research methodology
The goal of the current study was to develop a comprehensive
model for obsidian procurement at San Lorenzo between 1800 and
800 cal B.C. Obsidian samples used for source analysis rarely are
constructed on the basis of technological and social variables that
affected the quantity of material used from different sources.
Instead, samples often are drawn from a small number of contexts
and analyzed as if they were representative of the entire site. To
avoid this problem a large multi-dimensional sample of 852 pieces
of obsidian were analyzed from 50 components that spanned the
six major occupations between 1800 and 800 cal B.C. The sample
was stratied by production technology and artifacts were selected
using non-redundant, unique elements analogous to the identi-
cation of minimum number of individuals (MNI) used in osteo-
logical studies. Table 2 summarizes the quantity of obsidian
analyzed for each of the analytical contexts used in this study.
Stratifying the sample by technology was designed to obtain a
representative view of the obsidian sources used at San Lorenzo.
Archaeologists have long recognized that the manufacture of
pressure blades requires high quality obsidian with few impurities,
while percussion aking can utilize less pure obsidian. Since
obsidian sources vary in the workability of the glass, it means that
the obsidian used in percussion industries could come from
different sources than those used in pressure blade production.
Artifacts were selected for analysis using criteria analogous to the
identication of MNIs to avoid redundant analysis (double-count-
ing) of obsidian fragments from the same artifact. Lithic artifacts at
San Lorenzo were never used as complete blades or akes, but were
broken into anywhere from 3 to 6 segments that were hafted or
used as hand-held cutting tools. To avoid double representation of
the same artifact in the study sample, proximal sections or striking
platforms were used since they are both easily recognizable and
occur as single elements on all akes and blades. This insured that
individual akes and blades were the minimal unit of analysis.
Excavation levels were regularly sampled as complete units to
insure a representative sample of the obsidian consumed. The
whole-level sampling of non-redundant artifacts often reduced the
sample to only 1e2 artifacts per collection context. Archaeologists
often select for diversity when choosing obsidian (e.g. Cobean et al.,
1971) or do not specify the parameters used to select samples for
analysis. This is unfortunate because it adds selection bias and
Table 1
San Lorenzo Chronology.
Phase Uncalibrated dates Calibrated dates
Nacaste 850e700 BC 1000e800 cal B.C.
San Lorenzo B 1000e850 BC 1200e1000 cal B.C.
San Lorenzo A 1150e1000 BC 1400e1200 cal B.C.
Chicharras 1250e1150 BC 1500e1400 cal B.C.
Bajio 1350e1250 BC 1600e1500 cal B.C.
Ojochi 1600e1350 BC 1800e1600 cal B.C.
Note: Uncalibrated dates based on Cyphers et al. 2008-2007: Fig. 3.
Subsequent analysis at Yale and MURR after the publication of Cobean et al.
(1971) identied several of the sources for San Lorenzo artifacts which were orig-
inally reported as Unknown. These include Group A which is the Paredon source,
Groups B/B
which correspond to Ucareo-Zinapecuaro, Michoacan; and Groups C/C
which correspond to ZaragozaeOyameles, Puebla (Cobean, 2002: 53,64,169). All
artifacts in the 1971 report attributed to El Paraiso, Queretaro actually correspond
to the Ucareo-Zinapecuaro source area. This identication error was caused by the
inclusion in the initial Yale source analysis program of samples supposedly from El
Paraiso that were not collected personally by our project (Cobean, 2002:71).
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2785
Fig. 2. Location of all contexts sampled at San Lorenzo.
Fig. 1. Location of San Lorenzo in Mesoamerica with obsidian sources.
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2786
diminishes the representativeness and interpretability of the re-
sults. Flakes and blades were selected for analysis in proportion to
their occurrence within study levels. Because of their scarcity, all
ake and blade cores were analyzed since they were the objects
from which multiple akes were produced. It is felt that high pre-
cision analysis of samples from a large number of contexts is
essential for distinguishing the multiple paths through which raw
material like obsidian could enter and circulate throughout a large
multi-component site like San Lorenzo.
All of the 852 obsidian artifacts discussed here were submitted
to the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Missouri for
analysis. During the course of this multi-year project, the
analytical methods employed were changed to take advantage of
improvements in equipment and technology. The rst 50 samples
were analyzed by neutron activation analysis (NAA) using a short-
irradiation procedure described by Glascock et al. (1994). This
method measures seven elements (Al, Ba, Cl, Dy, K, Mn, and Na)
and is very powerful but has the disadvantage of being destruc-
tive. The remaining 802 samples were analyzed non-destructively
by X-ray uorescence (XRF) which measures a different suite of
elements (the best of which are Rb, Sr, Y, Zr, and Nb). Two
different spectrometers operating at 40 kV and 17 microamps
were used for XRF. A table-top Elva-X spectrometer with tungsten
anode was used for 594 samples and a handheld portable Bruker
IIIeV spectrometer with a rhodium anode and copper lter was
used on the remaining 208 samples. All of the NAA and XRF re-
sults were compared to chemical data for obsidian sources from
Mexico and Guatemala previously analyzed in the Archaeometry
Laboratory (Cobean et al., 1991; Glascock et al., 1988, 1998;
Glascock, 2010). Two of the obsidian samples analyzed by XRF did
not agree with the source data and were further tested by the
destructive NAA procedure. One of these (SL-482) could not be
matched to a known source while the other (SL-509) was iden-
tied as Ucareo, Michoacan.
4. Trade network reconstructions by phase
4.1. The Ojochi phase (1800e1600 cal BC)
This was the initial occupation phase at San Lorenzo. The Ojochi
population occupied and initiated landscape modication across
the San Lorenzo landform that consisting of lling, leveling and
initial terracing. The sites early occupation was identied across
the central site area and on some terraces. San Lorenzo was a large
village community and the primary settlement in a 3-tier settle-
ment hierarchy (see Symonds et al., 2002: Figure 4.1). Its in-
habitants also built small earthen platforms known as islotes in the
wetlands to assist in exploiting wetland resources (Cyphers and
Zurita-Noguera, 2012). Differentially red ceramics, often consid-
ered an Olmec hallmark, are present at this time. No public archi-
tecture or monumental sculpture has been identied at the site,
although one elite area (SL-53) was excavated. The presence of
obsidian at San Lorenzo, together with jade and other imported
resources identied at the nearby site of El Manati (Ortiz and del
Carmen Rodriguez, 2000) indicate that interregional exchange
networks were already well established and functioning by
1800 cal B.C.
Fifty obsidian artifacts were analyzed fromthe ve Ojochi phase
deposits identied at San Lorenzo (Fig. 3b) which consisted of 49
percussion akes and one percussion ake core. Kenneth Hirths
analysis of the complete obsidian assemblage reveals that an
expedient ake industry predominated. Obsidian was brought into
the site as irregular st-sized nodules which were used to produce
razor sharp akes that were broken into small sections or employed
as is in cutting tasks.
Analyzes reveal that 92% of the obsidian at San Lorenzo during
this phase originated from Guadalupe Victoria source located
312 km northwest of San Lorenzo on the western slope of the
Orizaba volcano (Fig. 1, Table 3). At this source small irregular
nodules are exposed in ravines and gullies in a 20 km radius
around the modern town of Guadalupe Victoria (Cobean, 2002).
These data conrm the earlier identication of this source as a
major supplier of obsidian for the early percussion industries at
San Lorenzo (Cobean et al., 1971, 1991). Two other sources also
were identied in small amounts. These include the Pico de Ori-
zaba source (6%) located in the Ixtetal Valley (Cobean, 2002) on
the northern slope of the Orizaba volcano, and the important
source of El Chayal (2%) in the highlands of Guatemala (Table 4).
Table 2
Contexts analyzed at San Lorenzo (SL), Loma de Zapote (LZ), Las Camelias, El Bajio
and islote site of RSLT-116a.
Contexts Single component
No. of pieces
San Lorenzo
SL: A4 Ilmenitas CHE 4 14
SL: A4 Ilmenitas JZN 2 20
SL: A4 Ilmenitas LGL 2 10
SL: A4 Platos 1 4
SL: B. Jobo CW 3 20
SL: B. Jobo EHG 3 24
SL: B. Jobo ESLE 1 18
SL: B. Jobo MVG 2 10
SL: C5-6 3 24
SL: C5-6, Sondeo 1 1 3
SL: D4 Plan 2 26
SL: D4-7 1 1
SL: D4-22 1 16
SL: D5-9 1 9
SL: D5-9W 1 4
SL: D5-31 1 13
SL: Grupo C, Col A 4 29
SL: Grupo C, Col B 2 5
SL: Grupo C, Col C 1 1
SL: Grupo D, B3-5 2 8
SL: Grupo D, B3-11 2 40
SL: Grupo D, B3-17 2 31
SL: Grupo D, SL-30 3 25
SL: Grupo D, Sondeos 1 1
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 3 49
SL: Grupo E, SL-73 2 16
SL: P. Camilo Dgz 3 27
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col A 2 3
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col F 1 2
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col H 2 19
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez LO 4 61
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez TV 1 50
SL: P. Simon HDZ DRH 1 19
SL: P. Simon HDZ PS 2 11
SL: SL-53 4 89
SL: SL-112 2 16
SL: Trans 1W, Sondeo 2 1 2
SL: Trans 1W, Sondeo 3 1 1
SL: Trans 2S, Sondeo 1 1 2
SL: Zanja La Mina 1 7
Loma de Zapote
LZ: Malpica U 1 19
LZ: P. S. Salomon 2 16
LZ: PN, S. Bernal 2 7
LZ: PN, S. Diego Osorio 1 4
LZ: PN, S Vasconcelos 1 11
LZ: Represa Azuzul 1 4
LZ: S. Aguilar 3 12
Other regional sites
El Bajio 1 26
Las Camelias 1 14
RSLT-116a 1 9
Total N 50 91 852
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2787
The presence of El Chayal obsidian in even small amounts is
important because it demonstrates that obsidian was already
moving over 613 km across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to reach
San Lorenzo (Tables 3 and 4). The SL: D4-Plan excavation area is
the only context where obsidian from all three sources was
recovered together.
4.2. The Bajo phase (1600e1500 cal BC)
San Lorenzo grew during this phase and expanded beyond
the plateau to include settlement along the sites periphery.
Monumental construction in the form of landscape modication
was initiated on the summit of the natural landform. These
Fig. 3. Obsidian distributions at San Lorenzo. A) The location of San Lorenzo, B) The Ojochi phase obsidian distribution, C) The Bajo phase obsidian distribution, D) The Chicharras
phase obsidian distribution.
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2788
architectural modications formed the rst construction phase
of what was to become the largest public earth work constructed
in Mesoamerica during the Early Formative period (Cyphers,
1996:70; Cyphers et al. 2008-2007). Increasing intra-site social
differentiation is suggested by the presence of two elite areas,
one containing a low earthen stepped platform (Coe and Diehl,
1980: I: 105). Differentiation in regional settlement patterning
suggests that San Lorenzo exerted its inuence over its sur-
rounding population (Cyphers, 2012). It is during the Bajo phase
that hollow gurines and decorative motifs in the Olmec style
appear in local ceramic assemblages and San Lorenzo became the
major source of Olmec inuence in Mesoamerica.
Obsidian continued to be imported into the site as irregular
nodules that were manufactured into usable akes using percus-
sion techniques. Seventy-eight pieces of obsidian were analyzed for
this phase and were drawn fromeight Bajo phase contexts (Fig. 3c).
This sample consists of 64 percussion akes, ve worked nodules,
three ake cores, and six ake tools. Source analysis reveals that the
same sources used in the Ojochi phase continued to be exploited
throughout the Bajo phase.
Obsidian from Guadalupe Victoria again dominated the assem-
blage representing 71% of the material entering the site (Table 4).
Nevertheless, several important trends are noticeable during this
phase. The rst is an increase in obsidian from the Pico de Orizaba
and El Chayal sources. El Chayal obsidian represents 11.5% of the
collections and nowis as prevalent as material fromPico de Orizaba
even though it is 321 km further away (Table 3). Second, there is
greater variability in the distribution of these sources within San
Lorenzo. For example, SL: D4-Plan is the only site area sampled
where all three obsidian sources were recovered. This is the same
pattern observed for the Ojochi phase, although the obsidian at SL:
D4-Plan from Pico de Orizaba and El Chayal is now as prevalent as
that from Guadalupe Victoria. The variability in obsidian sources
between the different areas of San Lorenzo suggests the operation
of multiple independent sources of supply rather than a single
centralized procurement mechanism.
4.3. The Chicharras phase (1500e1400 cal BC)
During this phase there was intensied development at San
Lorenzo. Large scale terrace and earthwork construction continued
across the plateau. We know that the entire upper plateau was
probably occupied and the initial stages of the elite GD-1 structure
(known as the Red Palace) in Group D were built. Whatever the
internal structure, the sites political and religious institutions were
centered on the elite who claimed to be descendants of deied
ancestors (Clark, 2007:41; Cyphers, 1997b:233). Evidence for long
distance trade increased and included the importation of green-
stone, iron ore mirrors, and mica into the site.
The complete obsidian analysis indicates that the majority of the
obsidian cutting edge at San Lorenzo was again supplied by expe-
dient akes produced from small irregular nodules. It was during
this phase, however, that obsidian pressure blades began to appear
in low frequencies, often as single artifacts in Chicharras phase
deposits. A total of 100 pieces of obsidian was selected for analysis
from 15 separate deposits (Fig. 3d). These included 93 percussion
artifacts (78 akes, ve worked cobbles and ake cores, 10 ake
tools) and seven obsidian prismatic pressure blades. Chemical
analysis reveals widening trade relationships with obsidian from
four newsource areas arriving at the site for the rst time (Table 5).
Percussion aking continued to dominate the Chicharras phase
assemblage with obsidian from Guadalupe Victoria supplying 74%
of the raw material used. The Guatemalan source of El Chayal was
the second most commonly used source providing 20% of the
obsidian used for quotidian activities. The Pico de Orizaba source
which supplied 6e12% of raw material during the Ojochi and Bajo
phases all but disappeared, supplying little more than 2% of the
obsidian used in percussion aking. Notably obsidian nodules from
two new highland sources (Ucareo and Paredon) appeared at San
Lorenzo in trace amounts for the rst time (Table 5).
Prismatic pressure blades are little more than 2% of the total
obsidian assemblage. The seven blades (Table 5) are an opportu-
nistic sample analyzed to obtain a preliminary identication of the
sources exploited. Although the number analyzed is small, a notable
diversity was observed in the sources used to manufacture obsidian
blades. The sources represented include the three Mexican sources
of Paredon(N3), Otumba (N1) and ZaragozaeOyameles (N1),
along withEl Chayal, Guatamala (N2). There is no evidence for on-
site manufacture of obsidian blades (sensu De Len et al., 2009) so it
is likely that these materials reached San Lorenzo as a result of trade
in nished blades (Jackson and Love, 1991).
Table 3
Distance to obsidian sources used at San Lorenzo.
Obsidian source Distance from San
Lorenzo (km)
Phases present at
San Lorenzo
El Chayal, Guatemala 577 Ojochi, Bajio, Chicharras,
SL-A, SL-B, Nacaste
Guadalupe Victoria, Puebla 320 Ojochi, Bajio, Chicharras,
SL-A, SL-B, Nacaste
Ixtepeque, Guatemala 656 SL-A, SL-B, Nacaste
Otumba, Mexico 464 Chicharras, SL-A, SL-B,
Paredon, Puebla 440 Chicharras, SL-A, SL-B,
Pico de Orizaba, Veracruz 303 Ojochi, Bajio, Chicharras,
Pachuca, Hidalgo 490 SL-B, Nacaste
Ucareo, Michoacan 669 Chicharras, SL-A, SL-B,
Zacualtipan, Hidalgo 521 SL-A, SL-B
ZaragozaeOyameles, Puebla 370 Chicharras, SL-A, SL-B,
Zinapecuaro, Michoacan 681 Nacaste
Note: Distances are in direct air kilometers. Actual travel distances would be
much further under prehispanic conditions.
Table 4
Ojochi and Bajio obsidian source determinations.
Area Guadalupe
Pico de
El Chayal,
No. No. No. No.
Ojochi phase percussion, N 50
SL: A4 Ilmenitas CHE 1 0 0 1
SL: D4 Plan 8 2 1 11
SL: Grupo C, Col A 5 0 0 5
SL: Grupo C, Col B 1 0 0 1
SL: SL-53 31 1 0 32
Total 46 3 1 50
Percent 92 6 2 100%
Area Guadalupe
Victoria, Ver
Pico de
Orizaba, Ver
El Chayal,
No. No. No. No.
Bajio phase percussion industry, N 78
SL: A4 Ilmenitas CHE 1 0 0 1
SL: A4 Ilmenitas LGL 2 0 0 2
SL: D4 Plan 7 4 4 15
SL: Grupo C, Col A 7 4 0 11
SL: Grupo C, Col B 0 0 4 4
SL: Grupo B, B3-5 4 0 1 5
SL: P. Perfecto Dominguez LO 19 1 0 20
SL-53 20 0 0 20
Total 60 9 9 78
Percent 71% 11.5% 11.5% 100%
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2789
4.4. The San Lorenzo A phase (1400e1200 cal BC)
San Lorenzo emerged as the largest site in Mesoamerica during
this phase growing to more than 690 ha (Cyphers, 1996:70;
Lunagmez Reyes, 1995; Cyphers et al. 2008-2007). It is now and
during the following San Lorenzo B phase that the site reached the
height of its cultural development. Massive lling operations
created a monumental construction in the shape of a terraced
earthen plateau. Large public buildings were constructed and there
were sculpture workshops in the central plateau that produced
colossal heads and medium sized stone monuments used in ritual
displays and to reinforce the dynastic authority of San Lorenzo
rulers (Cyphers, 1997b, 2012). San Lorenzo was the most inuential
center in the southern Gulf Coast and its location on the ancient
Coatzalcoalcos river system provided a locational advantage for
participation in regional and interregional trade. Both Loma de
Zapote and Laguna de los Cerros developed into secondary centers
(Cyphers, 2012; Symonds et al., 2002) and household inventories
reveal differences in wealth indicative of status differences both at
San Lorenzo and throughout sites in the surrounding region
(Cyphers, 1996, 1997a).
The complete lithic analysis shows that percussion aking of
blocky nodules continued to supply most of the cutting edge used
at San Lorenzo. Nevertheless, there was a clear increase in the
number of prismatic pressure blades used in both domestic and
non-domestic contexts across the site. A total of 193 pieces of
obsidian were sourced that consisted of 156 percussion akes and
ake tools and 37 prismatic pressure blades (Table 6). This sample
was drawn from 19 well preserved San Lorenzo phase A deposits
(Fig. 4). Chemical analysis reveals that exchange intensied along
the trade routes established during the Chicharras phase and two
newareas were exploited which raised the number of sources used
at San Lorenzo to nine (Table 6).
The bulk of obsidian exchange remained focused on the pro-
curement of small irregular and blocky nodules for the production
of usable akes. Eight sources supplied these nodules with Gua-
dalupe Victoria providing 71.2% of the akes, cores, and ake tools
in the sample. El Chayal, Guatemala (18.6%) and Paredon, Mexico
(4.5%) were the next most used sources, following the pattern
established in the previous Chicharras phase. The remaining sour-
ces exploited (Pico de Orizaba, Ucareo, ZaragozaeOyameles,
Zacualtipan, and Ixtepeque) occur in trace amounts of only 0.6e
1.9%. Two new sources were exploited at this time: Zacualtipan,
Hidalgo, situated 555 km northwest of San Lorenzo and Ixtepeque,
Guatemala, located 647 km to the southeast (Table 3). The
appearance of these new sources is signicant because they reect
the continued broadening of trade connections with San Lorenzo.
Prismatic pressure blades were manufactured from six different
sources and comprise 6% of the obsidian recovered during this
phase. Nearly 90% of these blades come from the four highland
Mexican sources of Paredon (27.1%), Otumba (21.6%), Ucareo (21.6%)
and ZaragozaeOyameles (18.9%). The other two sources used were
El Chayal, Guatemala (8.1%) and Guadalupe Victoria (2.7%). That
Guadalupe Victoria obsidian also was used to manufacture pressure
blades is surprising given its high level of inclusions which impede
blade removal. Particularly striking is the variable consumption of
obsidian blades across the site. Blades comprise 80% of the obsidian
sample from the non-elite residential area of P. Camilo Domnguez
(N 11) and 37% of the samples from the GD-1 or Red Palace
structure (areas SL:B3-11 and SL:B3-17) in Group D. Conversely,
blade consumption is lowat both monuments SL: SL-53 (6%) and in
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 (8%). All indications are that pressure blades
reached San Lorenzo through blade trade (De Len et al., 2009).
4.5. The San Lorenzo B phase (1200e1000 cal BC)
San Lorenzo reached its maximumsize and inuence during this
phase. Regional population grew to its maximum size and there is
the possibility that large sites like Laguna de los Cerros became
more independent, eventually competing with San Lorenzo
(Borstein, 2001, 2008; Cyphers, 2012). Many of the public monu-
ments found at San Lorenzo date to this phase and it is likely that
there were changes in the sites ruling dynasty. Evidence for
monument recycling suggests that either rulers were losing the
Table 5
Chicharras phase obsidian source determinations.
Area Guad.
Pico de
El Chayal,
Chicharras phase percussion (N [93)
SL: A4 Ilmenitas CHE 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: B. Jobo CW 0 0 3 1 0 0 0 4
SL: B. Jobo EHG 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: B. Jobo MVG 2 0 4 0 0 0 0 6
SL: C5-6 2 0 2 0 0 0 0 4
SL: Grupo C, Col A 5 0 1 0 0 0 0 6
SL: Grupo C, Col C 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1
SL: Grupo D, B3-5 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Grupo D, SL-30 13 0 3 0 1 0 0 17
SL: Grupo D, Sondeos 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
SL: Grupo E, SL-73 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez LO 10 1 2 0 0 0 0 13
SL: Simon Hdz DRH 15 0 3 0 0 0 0 18
SL: P. Simon Hdz PS 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: SL-53 18 1 0 0 0 0 0 19
Total Percussion 69 2 19 1 2 0 0 93
Percentage of Percussion 74.2% 2.15% 20.4% 1.1% 2.15% 0% 0% 100%
Pressure Blades
SL: B. Jobo MVG 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Grupo D, B3-5 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 2
SL: Grupo D, Sondeos 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1
SL: P. Simon Hdz DRH 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
SL: SL-53 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 2
Total Pressure Blades 0 0 2 0 3 1 1 7
Total Obsidian 69 2 21 1 5 1 1 100
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2790
ability to command the labor necessary to import large basalt
blocks from the Tuxtla mountains and/or older monuments were
defaced and recycled to remove the images of earlier rulers from
public spaces. The quantity and diversity of imported goods indi-
cate that San Lorenzo was at the center of an extensive trade
network that included green stone, ilmenite, mica and polished
magnetite mirrors. The massive deposits of drilled ilmenite blocks
date to this phase and indicate both high levels of interregional
trade and the on-site manufacture of exotic craft goods (Cyphers,
1996; Di Castro Stringher, 1997).
A signicant change also occurred in the organization of San
Lorenzo lithic assemblages. While percussion akes still accounted
for most of the lithic artifacts recovered (68.6%), obsidian pressure
blades rose sharply in popularity accounting for 31.4% of all the
obsidian artifacts recovered at San Lorenzo. This was a transitional
period for blade use at San Lorenzo with blade frequencies soaring
from6% during the preceding phase. Of course, 31.4% is the average
level of blade consumption for the entire phase. Since blades
represent only 6% at the start of this phase, usage rates would have
had to be very high by the end of San Lorenzo phase B to produce an
average usage rate of 31% for the entire phase.
A total of 331 obsidian artifacts were chemically analyzed which
were drawn from 34 well preserved deposits at San Lorenzo and
the nearby sites of Loma de Zapote and El Bajo (Figs. 2 and 5). This
sample was composed of 177 percussion akes, cores and ake
tools, and 154 pressure blades (Table 7). Obsidian continued to
move into the site along previously established trade routes.
Obsidian from the Sierra de Pachuca is recovered in collections for
the rst time and represents the only new source exploited during
this phase.
Procurement networks were remarkably stable from the pre-
ceding phase with the same eight sources supplying raw material
for the percussion industry. The nearby source of Guadalupe Vic-
toria supplied the bulk of this material (58.7%) although in lower
amounts than during the preceding phase. El Chayal (19.2%), Par-
edon (10.2%) and Ucareo (7.9%) also provided signicant amounts of
nodular material. The remaining four sources (Pico de Orizaba,
Otumba, ZaragozaeOyameles, Ixtepeque) contributed only trace
amounts of obsidian in the range of 0.6e1.1% for percussion aking.
The increase in nodular material from Ucareo and Paredon from
previous phases was very likely a side product of the large number
of pressure blades entering the region from these sources.
Prismatic blades occur in obsidian from nine different sources.
Three sources supplied over 80% of these blades. The most impor-
tant of these was Ucareo (37.6%) followed by Paredon (27.3%) and
Otumba (16.2%). The sources of ZaragozaeOyameles (6.5%) and El
Chayal (5.2%) also supplied a small but important quantity of
blades. Blades also appeared for the rst time from three new
sources in trace amounts: Ixtepeque (3.2%), Zacualtipan (1.3%) and
Sierra de Pachuca (0.7%).
4.6. The Nacaste phase (1000e800 cal BC)
The Nacaste phase witnessed the waning of San Lorenzo as a
major center in the Gulf Coast. Its political inuence declined
sharply along with its on-site population. A dispersed population
Table 6
San Lorenzo A phase obsidian source determinations.
Area Guad.
Pico de
El Chayal,
Zacualtipan, Hid Ixtepeque,
SL: A4 Ilmenitas CHE 10 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 11
SL: A4 Ilmenitas JZN 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: A4 Ilmenitas LGL 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 8
SL: B. Jobo CW 8 0 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 11
SL: B. Jobo EHG 12 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 14
SL: C5-6 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3
SL: Grupo C, Col A 5 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 7
SL: Grupo D, B3-11 7 0 3 0 1 0 1 0 0 12
SL: Grupo D, B3-17 6 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 8
SL: Grupo D, SL-30 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 19 0 4 0 0 0 0 0 1 24
SL: Grupo E, SL-73 3 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 2 8
LZ: PN, S. Bernal 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
LZ: S. Aguilar 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
SL: P. Camilo Domnguez 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
SL: P. Miguel Rosas 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez LO 8 0 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 15
SL: SL-112 6 0 4 0 3 0 0 0 0 13
SL: SL-53 15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 15
Total Percussion 111 3 29 1 7 0 1 1 3 156
Percentage of Percussion 71.2 1.9 18.6 0.6 4.5 0.0 0.6 0.6 1.9 99.9
Area Guad. Victoria El Chayal, Guat Ucareo, Mich Paredon, Mex Otumba, Mex Zaragoza, Pue Total
Pressure blades
SL: B. Jobo CW 0 0 0 1 0 0 1
SL: Grupo D, B3-11 0 2 2 0 1 0 5
SL: Grupo D, B3-17 0 0 2 3 2 0 7
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 1 0 0 1 0 0 2
SL: Grupo E, SL-73 0 1 0 1 0 5 7
LZ: PN, S. Bernal 0 0 0 1 1 0 2
LZ: S. Aguilar 0 0 1 0 0 0 1
SL: P. Camilo Domnguez 0 0 3 2 2 2 9
SL: SL-112 0 0 0 1 1 0 2
SL: SL-53 0 0 0 0 1 0 1
Total Pressure Blades 1 3 8 10 8 7 37
Percentage of Pressure Blades 2.7 8.1 21.6 27.1 21.6 18.9 100
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2791
continued to live on the plateau but there is no evidence for major
architectural construction across the plateau either in the form or
terracing or the construction of monumental public buildings.
Nevertheless, San Lorenzo shared ceramic and gurine styles with
other sites in the Gulf Coast (Coe and Diehl, 1980:188; Lowe,
1989:53e57) even though it was eclipsed by La Venta and other
sites in the Gulf Coast after 1000 cal BC.
Despite changes in the internal organization of San Lorenzo, the
total obsidian analysis indicates that blades continued to increase
in frequency, constituting almost one-half of the lithic assemblage
(47.5%) compared to percussion akes and ake tools (52.5%).
Although the frequency of blades to akes was about equal, akes
were smaller than they were during all previous phases. It is likely
that prismatic blades provided the majority of the cutting edge
used at San Lorenzo at this time.
A sample of 100 pieces of obsidian was chemically analyzed for
this phase that consisted of 38 percussion akes and 62 pressure
blades (Table 8). This sample was collected fromnine Nacaste phase
contexts at San Lorenzo (Fig. 6). The major source for obsidian
blades was the highland source of Otumba, Mexico (40.3%). Other
important sources used for blades were Ucareo-Zinapecuaro (29%),
Paredon (11.3%), ZaragozaeOyameles (8.1%), and El Chayal (8.1%).
Blades were also identied in trace amounts from the Ixtepeque
(1.6%) and Pachuca (1.6%) sources. The disappearance of obsidian
from Pico de Orizaba and Zacualtipan reects a slight shrinkage in
procurement patterns. Zinapecuaro obsidian appeared in trace
amounts for the rst time and probably entered the site through
the same channels as material from its neighboring source of
Changes can be observed in the procurement networks that
supplied small nodules for percussion aking. There was a sharp
decrease in the quantity of material from Guadalupe Victoria from
nearly 59% during the preceding phase to only 36.9% during
Nacaste. The decrease in Guadalupe Victoria obsidian was offset by
increases in raw material from both El Chayal (34.2%) and Paredon
(15.8%). Obsidian fromUcareo (7.9%), Otumba (2.6%) and Zaragozae
Oyameles (2.6%) supplied the remainder of nodular raw material
used at the site.
5. Discussion
The results of this study expand on the pioneering in-
vestigations conducted of obsidian procurement at San Lorenzo
(Cobean et al., 1971, 1991). This investigation conrms that the
obsidian used at San Lorenzo came from a large number of sources.
Furthermore, it adds new information by analyzing a large sample
of obsidian artifacts fromeach of the six phases of site development
from 1800 to 800 cal B.C. The results allow us to identify the
structure of obsidian procurement networks by recognizing which
sources supplied raw material and nished goods in different
quantities over the life of the site. Eleven obsidian sources were
identied that are distributed across the greater breadth of Meso-
america (Fig. 1, Table 8). San Lorenzo had access to, and drew ma-
terial from, most of the major obsidian source areas in the Mexican
and Guatemalan highlands before 1000 cal BC. This has important
implications for understanding the structure of early trade and
procurement networks that need to be explored in greater depth in
future studies.
Obsidian supplied the primary cutting edge at San Lorenzo and
had to be transported long distances to reach the site. The in-
habitants of San Lorenzo had established contact with two major
source regions by 1800 cal BC. These were: 1) the slopes of the
Fig. 4. San Lorenzo A phase obsidian distribution.
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2792
Orizaba volcano where the Guadalupe Victoria and Pico de Orizaba
sources were located, and 2) the Valley of Guatemala with its
important obsidian source at El Chayal (Fig. 1). Guadalupe Victoria
and Pico de Orizaba are the closest sources to San Lorenzo. Located
300 km northwest of San Lorenzo, these sources supplied the
majority of the hand-sized obsidian nodules used to produce akes
at the site. The earliest use of Orizaba obsidian is an obsidian pro-
jectile point recovered from El Riego phase deposits in the Tehua-
can Valley (Cobean et al., 1971:668) which predates its appearance
at San Lorenzo by nearly 4000 years. This underscores the early
importance of obsidian and its movement over long distances to
supply quotidian cutting tasks.
What is more surprising is that obsidian from El Chayal,
Guatemala, occurs at San Lorenzo during the Ojochi and Bajo
phases. El Chayal is more than 600 kmfromSan Lorenzo, fully twice
the distance of the two sources near the Orizaba volcano. While El
Chayal obsidian is a higher quality of glass than obsidian from
Guadalupe Victoria, it provides no real technological advantages for
expedient percussion aking. All three sources provide razor sharp
akes suitable for hand-held cutting tasks. The greater distance to
the El Chayal source should have precluded its use at San Lorenzo
because of its higher transportation costs (Drennan, 1984; Hassig,
1985). Clearly resource provisioning was not structured purely in
energetic terms. Instead, resource procurement more likely oper-
ated through multiple, nested interregional social networks that
moved material over space irrespective of the distances involved.
Interregional procurement networks operating during the Ojo-
chi and Bajo phases expanded dramatically during the Chicharras
phase around 1500 cal BC. Two important developments occurred
at this time. First, the quantity of obsidian moving through the
Guatemalan source network increased substantially, indicating an
expansion and intensication of long distance relationships
through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and into the Guatemalan
highlands (sensu Zeitlin, 1982). Second, there is the expansion of
source networks north and west into the Mexican highlands
reaching as far west as the Cuitzeo Basin in eastern Michoacan. This
highland Mexican route represents a third procurement network
that provided obsidian from four new sources. These new sources
included: ZaragozaeOyameles in the eastern Puebla highlands,
Otumba and El Paredon in the northeastern Basin of Mexico, and
Ucareo in the Cuitzeo Basin of Michoacan. The direct line distances
to these sources range from 360 km to ZaragozaeOyameles to over
660 km to Ucareo (Table 3).
The obsidian that moved through this new highland network
was small in quantity and relatively insignicant in terms of pro-
visioning San Lorenzo residents with usable cutting edge. The
importance of the obsidian data is that it documents the creation of
network relationships that linked San Lorenzo to highland Mexico.
These contacts provided the linkages for the reciprocal movement
of people, ideology, technology and material goods. It was along
this corridor and at least a century later that Gulf Coast ceramics
moved into the Basin of Mexico (Blomster et al., 2005; Neff et al.,
2006) and West Mexico. Likewise it was through this network
that highland goods including obsidian blade technology reached
the Gulf Coast. Obsidian pressure blades manufactured from
Otumba, Paredon, and ZaragozaeOyameles obsidian reached San
Lorenzo during the Chicharras phase. Although Ucareo obsidian
moved across the highland route as small nodules, blades and other
goods appear to have followed this network as trade expanded
after 1400 cal BC.
Fig. 5. San Lorenzo B phase obsidian distribution.
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2793
Table 7
San Lorenzo B phase obsidian source determinations.
Area Guad.
Pico de
El Chayal,
Unknown Total
SL: A4 Ilmenitas JZN 1 0 10 0 1 0 0 0 0 12
SL: A4 Platos 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
SL: B. Jobo CW 3 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 4
SL: B. Jobo EHG 6 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 8
SL: B. Jobo MVG 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: C5-6 6 0 1 0 2 0 0 0 0 9
SL: D4-22 1 1 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 5
SL: D5-9 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3
SL: D5-9W 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: D5-31 5 0 1 0 5 0 0 0 0 11
SL: Grupo D, B3-11 6 0 5 1 0 0 0 0 0 12
SL: Grupo D, B3-17 2 0 1 0 3 0 1 0 0 7
SL: Grupo D, SL-30 1 0 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 5
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 8
Las Camelias 0 0 0 2 1 0 1 0 0 4
LZ: Malpica U 0 0 0 7 0 0 0 0 0 7
LZ: P. S. Salomon 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 3
LZ: PN, S. Diego Osorio 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
LZ: S. Aguilar 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: P. Camilo Domnguez 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col A 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col F 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez LO 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 4
SL: Perfecto Domnguez TV 27 0 4 0 3 0 0 0 0 34
RSLT-116a 9 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 9
SL: Trans 1W, Sondeo 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
SL: Trans 2S, Sondeo 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Zanja La Mina 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
El Bajio 10 0 1 4 0 0 0 0 1 16
Total Percussion 104 2 34 14 18 1 2 1 1 177
Percentage of Percussion 58.7 1.1 19.2 7.9 10.2 0.6 1.1 0.6 0.6 100%
Area Guad.
El Chayal,
Unknown Total
Pressure blades
SL: A4 Ilmenitas JZN 0 1 1 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 7
SL: A4 Platos 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 3
SL: B. Jobo EHG 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: B. Jobo MVG 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2
SL: C5-6 0 0 0 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 8
SL: C5-6, Sondeo 1 0 0 0 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 3
SL: D4-22 0 0 4 2 3 1 1 0 0 0 11
SL: D4-7 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: D5-9 0 0 4 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 6
SL: D5-9W 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 0 0 0 3
SL: D5-31 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2
SL: Grupo D, B3-11 1 2 3 3 0 1 1 0 0 0 11
SL: Grupo D, B3-17 0 0 5 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 9
SL: Grupo D, SL-30 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 2
Las Camelias 0 1 5 1 1 1 0 1 0 0 10
LZ: Malpica U 0 1 10 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 12
LZ: P. S. Salomon 0 0 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 5
LZ: PN, Diego Osorio 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 3
LZ: Represa Azuzul 0 0 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0 4
LZ S. Aguilar 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
P Camilo DGZ 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col F 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: P. M. Rosas, Col H 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 3
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez LO 0 0 4 2 0 3 0 0 0 0 9
SL: P. Perfecto Domnguez TV 0 0 7 6 1 1 0 0 0 1 16
SL: SL-112 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Trans 1W, Sondeo 3 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Trans 2S, Sondeo 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
SL: Zanja La Mina 0 0 2 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 5
El Bajio 1 1 4 0 2 0 0 2 0 0 10
Total Pressure Blades 2 8 58 42 25 10 2 5 1 1 154
Percentage of Pressure Blades 1.3 5.2 37.6 27.3 16.2 6.5 1.3 3.2 0.7 0.7 100%
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2794
Fig. 6. Nacaste phase obsidian distribution.
Table 8
Nacaste phase obsidian source determinations.
Area Guad. Victoria El Chayal, Guat Ucareo, Mich Paredon, Mex Otumba, Mex Zaragoza, Pue Total
SL: B. Jobo ESLE 3 1 1 2 0 0 7
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 5 2 1 1 0 0 9
LZ: P. S. Salomon 0 0 0 1 0 0 1
LZ: PN, S. Bernal 0 0 0 1 0 0 1
LZ: PN, S. Vasconcelos 1 7 0 0 0 0 8
LZ: S. Aguilar 2 1 0 1 0 0 4
SL: P. Camilo Domnguez 1 1 0 0 0 0 2
SL: P. M. Rosas 0 0 1 0 0 1 2
SL: P. Simon Hdz PS 2 1 0 0 1 0 4
Total percussion obsidian 14 13 3 6 1 1 38
Percentage percussion obsidian 36.9 34.2 7.9 15.8 2.6 2.6 100%
Area El Chayal,
Pressure blades
SL: B. Jobo ESLE 2 4 3 0 1 1 0 0 11
SL: Grupo E, SL-14 0 2 0 1 2 0 0 1 6
LZ: P. S. Salomon 0 5 1 1 0 0 0 0 7
LZ: PN, S. Bernal 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 2
LZ: PN, S. Vasconcelos 0 0 0 2 0 0 1 0 3
LZ: S. Aguilar 0 0 2 1 1 0 0 0 4
SL: P. Camilo Domnguez 3 4 1 0 1 0 0 0 9
SL: P. M. Rosas 0 2 0 12 0 0 0 0 14
SL: P. Simon Hdz PS 0 0 0 6 0 0 0 0 6
Total Pressure Blades 5 17 7 25 5 1 1 1 62
Percentage of Pressure Blades 8.1 27.4 11.3 40.3 8.1 1.6 1.6 1.6 100%
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2795
San Lorenzo reached its cultural apogee during San Lorenzo
phases A and B. Between 1400 and 1000 cal BC it was the primary
Olmec center and a source of cultural inuences throughout the
Gulf coast and possibly beyond (Footnote
). The obsidian infor-
mation indicates an increased volume of raw material and nished
blades moving along trade circuits across Guatemala and the
Mexican highlands. The same also was true for ceramic and other
goods (Blomster et al., 2005; Herrera et al., 1999; Neff et al., 2006;
Pires-Ferreira, 1975). Most notably the increased consumption of
obsidian blades at the beginning of the San Lorenzo A phase
continued well into its decline during the Nacaste phase. Blades
constituted 6% of the obsidian assemblage during the San Lorenzo A
phase, 31% during the San Lorenzo B phase, and nearly one-half of
the assemblage (47.5%) during the Nacaste phase. During these
three phases fully 90% of all blades consumed at San Lorenzo were
produced from obsidian from highland sources (Footnote
). Four
new highland sources (Zacualtipan, Ixtepeque, Pachuca, Zinape-
cuaro) were added during these three phases, all of which occur as
prismatic blades by the San Lorenzo B or Nacaste phase.
It is important that the frequency of obsidian blades continued
to increase unabated into the Nacaste phase. Blade use in domestic
contexts continued to rise to 47.5% throughout the Nacaste phase
despite San Lorenzos political decline and the decreased impor-
tance of the site elite. This high level of blade use differs from that
reported near La Venta where pressure blades constitute only 28%
of the obsidian assemblage at the Middle Formative site of San
Andres (Doering, 2002:72; see also Raab et al., 2000). Clearly eco-
nomic systems operated independently of the political events that
engulfed San Lorenzo during its decline. The economic needs of San
Lorenzo domestic units were too important to have political dis-
ruptions interfere with them. Obsidian blades reached Nacaste
phase households well after the elite had departed or declined in
regional importance at San Lorenzo.
Clark (1987) has suggested that blade technology spread
throughout Mesoamerica as a direct result of elite action. This
proposed involvement took two forms: 1) the procurement of
obsidian cores from distant sources, and 2) sponsorship of the ar-
tisans with specialized skills to produce obsidian blades (Clark,
1987:278). Elite involvement is assumed to be motivated by the
control over unique or preferred goods that they could selectively
distribute to individuals for elite political advantage (sensu
Brumel and Earle, 1987; Clark, 1987:280).
The San Lorenzo data expands our understanding of obsidian
procurement in two ways. First, obsidian was the dominant mate-
rial used for cutting tools during the Ojochi phase indicating that it
moved readily through interregional exchange networks by
1800 cal BC. This obsidian moved into San Lorenzo in nodular form
and probably reached the site through the same type of reciprocal,
down-the-line exchange networks through which obsidian nod-
ules had moved across Mesoamerican since the Archaic period
(Clark and Lee, 1984:241; Nelson and Voorhies, 1980; Voorhies,
1976). Second, if the spread of obsidian blade technology and the
distribution of prismatic pressure blades was a political process as
Clark (1987) suggests, then the frequency of blades should have
decreased during the Nacaste phase with the decrease in elites and
their inuence over a reduced population. This is not what
happened. Rather blade consumption at San Lorenzo continued to
rise into the Nacaste phase. What these data imply is that neither
the procurement of obsidian, nor the production of blades,
depended completely upon the presence of elite. Instead the rst
obsidian blades probably arrived as trade goods moving through
the same networks as obsidian nodules (De Len, 2008).
This study has examined the obsidian imported and consumed
at San Lorenzo from 1800 to 800 cal BC. It was not designed to
reconstruct the network of economic relationships through which
it moved. Nevertheless the data are suggestive. They imply that
during the Early Formative period obsidian moved through a
network of decentralized domestic exchanges. Domestic trade
networks often operated through trade partner relationships
(Heider, 1969) with resources moving fromhousehold to household
as gifts or reciprocal exchanges (Wiessner, 1982; Yan, 2005).
Because these networks are household centered, they produce a
matrix of independent and overlapping connections through which
resources move. The result is a greater diversity in the type and
distribution of the resources moving through household networks
compared to centralized systems. Winter and Pires-Ferreira (1976)
have demonstrated that domestic exchange networks were the
principal conduits for obsidian provisioning in the Valley of Oaxaca
during the Tierras Largas phase 1150e1400 BC.
Diversity in the distribution of obsidian fromdifferent sources is
found across San Lorenzo during all phases of site occupation.
During the Ojochi and Bajo phases the SL: D4-Plan area displays
greater variation in the sources of nodular obsidian used than do
areas SL-53 or Perfecto Dominguez LO (Table 4). These differences
became exaggerated once obsidian blades increased in popularity.
During San Lorenzo B, variation in blade occurrence was pro-
nounced. Blades ranged from 10 to 11% of lithic materials recovered
from ritual and domestic areas at C5-6 and D5-31, to 48% of the
domestic assemblage in the residence of D4-22 (De Len, 2008:
Tables 6.14e6.43). This variation continued into the Nacaste phase
where Otumba obsidian dominated blade assemblages at SL: P.
Miguel Rosas and SL: P. Simon Hdz in contrast to SL: B. Jobo ESLE
and LZ: P. S. Salomonwhere Ucareo, Paredon and El Chayal obsidian
predominated (Table 8).
6. Conclusions
This study has developed a comprehensive model for obsidian
procurement and exchange at San Lorenzo between 1800 and
800 cal B.C. Chemical analysis of 852 obsidian artifacts reveals that
obsidian moved over distances of 300e600 km as early as 1800 cal
BC. Furthermore, the results document that San Lorenzo was pro-
visioned from 11 different obsidian sources over the length of its
occupation. This investigation examined the procurement re-
quirements of two different production technologies: the produc-
tion of obsidian percussion akes from obsidian nodules and the
obsidian manufactured into prismatic blades. The high percentage
of blades manufactured from highland Mexico obsidian is very
likely a function of the early development of craft specialization in
this area and the early trade in nished blades by the specialists
who produced them (Boksenbaum, 1978; Boksenbaum et al., 1987;
De Len et al., 2009). Nevertheless, it appears that obsidian nodules
and nished blades from most Mexican and Guatemalan sources
For the broader debate on the role of the Olmec in Mesoamerica prehistory the
reader can consult: Blomster et al. (2005) Clark (1997), Cyphers (2012), Flannery
and Marcus (2000), Grove (1993), Neff et al. (2006), Pool (2007), and Wilk (2004).
Blades recovered at San Lorenzo were predominantly manufactured from
obsidian sources in the Mexican highlands. Exact percentages of the blade
assemblage manufactured from Mexican obsidian sources were 89.2% during the
San Lorenzo A phase, 90.3% during San Lorenzo B, and 90.3% during the Nacaste
phase. This contrasts with analysis of obsidian from the Tuxtla region where
ZaragozaeOyameles was identied as the only highland Mexican source entering
the region during the Early Formative period (Santley et al., 2001). Zaragozae
Oyameles was also the only highland obsidian identied at Tres Zapotes during
the Early Formative period (Pool et al., 2010:99e100) although this conclusion rests
primarily on visual identication. These differences demonstrate the type of vari-
ation found in site-oriented procurement networks during the Early Formative.
Unfortunately the Tuxtla study lacks the chronological precision and assemblage
separation into percussion and pressure industries necessary for an exact com-
parison with obsidian procurement at San Lorenzo.
K. Hirth et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013) 2784e2798 2796
probably moved together through interregional procurement
Most of the discussion of Early Formative Gulf Coast culture
focuses on the San Lorenzo period from 1400 to 1000 cal BC. This
was the period of rulers, palaces and impressive stone monuments.
It was also when San Lorenzo reached its maximum size and
importance and an array of exotic goods reached the site through
extensive interregional trade. This is the Olmec story as we have
come to know it. Obsidian, however, supplies a different
Obsidian analysis illustrates that by 1800 cal BC San Lorenzo was
involved in two long distance procurement networks, one
extending north into central Veracruz and the Orizaba region, and
the other extending south across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and
into Guatemala. A signicant moment in Olmec development ap-
pears to have been the Chicharras phase (1500e1400 cal B.C.). Not
only were strong leaders and the foundations of Olmec society
emerging at San Lorenzo, but also the site extended its procure-
ment networks deep into the Mexican highlands as far as the
Ucareo obsidian source in West Mexico. It is likely that most if not
all of the obsidian moved along these routes through down-line-
exchange. What is important for Olmec development is that
trading networks stretching from Guatemala to West Mexico were
already established and operating by 1400 cal BC, at the beginning
of San Lorenzos rapid growth and development. This framework
served as the foundation for expanded interregional exchange by
both Olmec and non-Olmec groups and it was through these net-
works that both resources and ideologies moved across the greater
breadth of Mesoamerica (Blomster et al., 2005; Coe, 1989).
Obsidian does not provide all the answers to questions about
resource procurement, trade and exchange during prehispanic
times. What it does supply, however, is a solid empirical foundation
for reconstructing the structure of exchange networks between
source areas and points of consumption like San Lorenzo. What are
needed now are data from other sites on the landscape so that a
fuller reconstruction of trade relationships is possible for the areas
that were directly or indirectly liked to San Lorenzo and the
obsidian sources that they used.
We are grateful to the Direccin General de Asuntos del Personal
Acadmico-Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico for
providing the nancing for this project. Our special thanks to
Michael Coe who worked with Cobean and Glascock in the original
Yale and Missouri obsidian projects. We acknowledge the National
Science Foundation for grants BCS-0802757 and BCS-1110793
supporting the Archaeometry Laboratory at MURR. We also thank
Greg Luna for drafting the accompanying maps.
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