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Tlatilco (Mexico)

Early Mesoamerican Village of Tlatilco


Tlatilco (Mexico)

Tlatilco Culture Figurines


Tlatilco is an important Early Formative Mesoamerican site in Central Mexico. Located in the Valley of Mexico, on the shores of Lake Texcoco. The site is now partially covered by the modern town of the same name, and in the 1950s was heavily quarried to obtain clay to make bricks. This activity led to the occasional digging up of burials, unfortunately promoting the looting of figurines, and pottery.

Excavations at Tlatilco

In 1945-1950, Mexican archaeologists carried out the first excavations at Tlatilco, discovering many burials with grave goods, mainly ceramic vessels, figurines, masks, and musical instruments dating between 1200 and 400 BC. Later archaeological excavations led to the identification of house floors and trash pits suggesting that the site was not only a burial place but an actual community. Radiocarbon dates, obtained during the 1962-1969 excavations, place some of the burials between 1200 and 900 BC.

Although evidence of structures with domestic or public activities are almost absent at Tlatilco, due to the extent of looting activities and modern construction, information about the life style and social organization of this Formative site can be gathered by the materials recovered in its almost 500 burials.

Especially important are the hundreds of female figurines, with detailed depictions of hair styles, clothing and body ornaments which carry valuable information about its ancient inhabitants' real or idealized life style. It has been proposed that these figures could depict real individuals or deities.

Social Organization at Tlatilco

The analysis of the burial materials also provide information about Tlatilco's social ranking, specialized activities and inter-regional connections. Evidence of long-distance trade, such as seashells, jade ornaments, iron-ore mirrors, marine turtle shells and pearl oyster pendants have been found in some burials, suggesting not only the presence of pan-Mesoamerican connections, but also the existence at Tlatilco of social groups with preferential access to these exotic goods.

Finally, the finding of such luxury items in child burials would suggest the existence at Tlatilco of some sort of hereditary system, where people, presumably leaders, were allowed to take out of circulation precious and exotic goods and bury them with infants--who could not have possibly acquired them by themselves--therefore marking an example of early inherited social inequality.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Ancient Mesoamerica and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Grove, David C., 2000, La Zona del Altipiano Central en el Preclásico, in Historia Antigua de Mexico, edited by Linda Manzanilla and Leonardo Lopez Lujan, Miguel Angel Porrúa, Mexico City, pp: 511-542

Niederberger, Christine, 2000, Ranked Societies, Iconographic Complexity and Economic Wealth in the Basin of Mexico toward 1200 BC, in Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica, edited by John E. Clark and Mary E. Pye, National Gallery of Art, Washington, distributed by Yale University Press, New Heaven and London, pp: 169-191.

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