El Camino College


Ancient Civilizations of America
Dr. Blair Gibson 

Anthropology 8

Class Information
Course Policies
Course Material
Online Resources
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Class Information:

Anthropology 8, Section 2125
Room: AB305
T, Th 9:30 pm - 10:55 pm


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Course Policies:

Put grading, attendance, etc.policy information here.

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Fall 2016              Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica              Dr. Blair Gibson

Faculty web page: www.elcamino.edu/faculty/dbgibson/index.html


Office hrs: Mon., Wed.:1:00 - 2:00 PM; Tues.,Thurs.: 8:15 – 9:15 AM; Fri. 1:10-2:10 PM


Textbooks: Ancient Mexico and Central America 3rd ed. Susan Toby Evans;

                   Popol Vuh, Dennis Tedlock, translator.


Reserve Readings: see accompanying list.



   Course resources: Syllabi, handouts, and Powerpoint lectures can be viewed and downloaded on the class web page, accessed through my faculty index page. Copies of the textbook are on reserve in the library in the reserve reading area.



3 units, 3 hours lecture

Recommended Preparation: eligibility for English 1A

Credit, degree applicable transfer CSU, UC



Course Description: This course constitutes a survey of the development of the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica (the region stretching from northern Mexico to Honduras and Guatemala), from the Formative Period up to the Spanish conquest.



Course Objectives



  1. Compare and contrast the varying traces that societies of differing levels of social complexity have left in the archaeological record of Mesoamerica.
  2. Identify the territory of Mesoamerica on a map of North and Central America and describe its climates and topography.
  3. Identify and explain the differences between a language, language family, proto-language, and language isolate with Mesoamerican examples.
  4. List the major Mesoamerican hieroglyphic scripts, and discuss the major characteristics of Mesoamerican hieroglyphic systems.
  5. Assess the geological, linguistic and archaeological evidence supporting the positions taken by different groups of scientists for the timing of the first movement of humans into the New World.
  6. Delineate and assess the evolution of subsistence strategies in Mesoamerica from the Upper Paleolithic Period to the beginning of the Formative Period.
  7. Outline the development of the complex societies along the Gulf of Mexico and analyze the principal features of the religion of the Olmecs that have survived in the archaeological record.
  8. Describe the Formative Period peoples located along the Gulf Coast, in Guerrero, and the Puebla/Morelos Basin, and along the Pacific Coast of Chiapas.
  9. Determine and examine the localities where archaeologists have found remains of the first Maya chiefdoms and states.
  10. Outline and evaluate early Maya cosmology.
  11. Analyze the relationship between the natural resources of the Petén, demography, and the stability of the states of the Classical Period of the Maya.
  12. Describe and evaluate the political systems of the of the Classical Period of Maya society.   
  13. Describe the shifting patterns of settlement in the Valley of Oaxaca during the Formative Period and examine the evolution in public architecture.
  14. Evaluate the ecological parameters for human settlement in the Valley of Mexico and the role played by ecology and volcanism in the trajectory of development of the larger communities in the basin during the Formative Period.
  15. Discuss and assess the organization of the city of Teotihuacan and the theories archaeologists have proposed concerning the functions of its ritual buildings.
  16. Outline and assess the history of the empire of Teotihuacan from both Maya texts and artwork and the archaeological record of Teotihuacan.
  17. Analyze the culture of the Chichimec peoples of northern Mexico from the remains of their centers at Alta Vista, La Quemada, Tollan, and Tenochtitlan.
  18. Describe the rise to prominence of the Mexica (Aztecs) based on ethnohistoric sources.
  19. Identify and evaluate the structural weaknesses of the Mexica state that made it vulnerable to conquest by the Spanish under Cortés.



Student Learning Outcomes


SLO #1 Locating Mesoamerica: After completing this class the student will know that Mesoamerica is an ancient cultural region that encompasses northern, central and southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. 

SLO #2 Quiché Maya Myths: In a written exam students will demonstrate a critical understanding of the Quiché myths contained in the Popol Vuh. Specifically, they will answer questions concerning the identities of deities and the cosmological provenance of deities and animals that appear in the book. They will also answer questions concerning Mesoamerican concepts concerning the body and life cycle, and afterlife.

 SLO #3 Mesoamerica’s Indigenous Languages: In a multiple choice exam students will display a mastery of the key facts and issues concerning Mesoamerica’s indigenous written and spoken languages. Specifically these questions will cover key concepts of historical linguistics pertaining to spoken languages, and the concepts, analytical approaches, and achievements in the decipherment of pre-Columbian written languages.




ADA Statement: El Camino College is committed to providing educational accommodations for students with disabilities upon the timely request by the student to the instructor. A student with a disability, who would like to request an academic accommodation, is responsible for identifying herself/himself to the instructor and to the SpecialResourcesCenter. To make arrangements for academic accommodations, contact the SpecialResourcesCenter.



Course Requirements


A student’s grade will rest on four, non-cumulative exams involving multiple choice and matching type questions, one take-home test on part of the Popol Vuh, and five quizzes intended to acquaint students with class policies, familiarize them with the readings, and to prepare students for the exams. Each exam will be 75 questions long, and each question will be worth 1 point, the Popol Vuh take-home test is worth 40 points and the quizzes will range from 10-15 points, so the potential number of points achievable for the semester is 395. The exams will cover lectures, readings, (including the reserve readings), and films. The grade scale for the tests will be based upon the highest grade achieved on the test. Grade boundaries will be 90%, 80%, 70% etc. of that score.



  Make-ups: Quizzes cannot be made up under any conditions. A student will not be allowed to take a quiz if that student arrives to class after the quiz is finished. Exams, with the exception of the final exam, may only be made up under the following conditions: 1) the reason for missing the exam is very serious or a school-sanctioned or educational activity, and the absence is documentable, 2) the instructor has been contacted on the day of the crisis or before. 3) Documentation of the reason for the absence is furnished to me prior to taking the make-up. Make-ups may only be taken in my office during my office hours. I will not turn back test results until all make-ups have been completed.  I will only delay returning exams to students by one class meeting to allow time for make-ups.


Extra credit: Students are encouraged to do extra-credit assignments up to a limit of 55 points. See guidelines for details. All extra credit work must be submitted or performed before the 15th week of classes. Students will be excluded from earning extra credit for excessive unexcused absences (2 weeks’ worth+) and tardies.




Full participation is expected from the participants in this course. This responsibility entails attending class meetings and reading the assigned materials. There are consequences for not living up to these responsibilities:


Attendance - I take attendance at the beginning of the period. I don't adjust attendance retroactively, so if a student is late and misses roll, it is the student's responsibility to seek a correction on the day of the tardy. A student who is absent on a given day is still responsible for what transpired in class on that day. The student is to come to the instructor's office during the office hour to obtain any handout or unclaimed work a student has missed due to an absence. Attendance will figure into my grading at the end of term if the grade is borderline. I will do an automatic review of the attendance record if a grade is within 3% of an upper grade boundary, and the student will receive the higher grade as long as tardies and absences don’t exceed one week’s worth.  Students whose total absences and tardies exceed two weeks will be barred from extra credit. A tardy counts as ½ unexcused absence.


Laptop computers and cell phones: these may not be used during the class period – no exceptions!


Unrighteous behavior – The following behavior is very detrimental to a student’s class standing, and negative consequences will ensue if it occurs: 1) leave the classroom while lecture is in progress, and for added effect, cross directly in front of me to make sure I lose my train of thought. If you do this I will record you as absent for the day. 2) talk to your neighbor, show off your laptop computer, or sleep while lecture is in progress. 3) take a cell phone call while class is in progress 4) use a cell phone in any manner while class is in progress. If a student leaves class while class is in session on a purported bathroom visit and has a cell phone, I will assume that the bathroom visit is a ruse and the student is intentionally disrupting class for personal reasons. A student found to engage in these latter two behaviors will be asked to leave the classroom for the day. These are all effective ways of communicating to me your interest level in the class, and your respect for me as a teacher.          


            Cheating: I don't fool around with those who cheat. Cheating includes copying off another's test or copying off of internet web pages. Learn the consequences at your peril!


  Drops - Generally speaking, I will automatically drop anyone with 1 ½ - 2 consecutive week's worth of absences. However, oversights occur, so ultimately it is the responsibility of the student to withdraw from the class if the student wishes to do so.


 Incompletes - an incomplete will only be given to a student caught in the throes of a crisis not related to class performance. I will not give an incomplete if the student has missed or cannot take the final at the scheduled time except in cases of medical or family emergency.


 Grade Reporting – All scores and the final grade are posted on Gradebook as soon as I have calculated them. Disregard the Semester Grade section of the webpage until the end of the semester as it will not be accurate until then.


Letters of Recommendation- I will not agree to write a letter of recommendation for a student who has not complete a course with me. Better letter result from the student having had several courses with me. A student’s letter will reflect the student’s performance in the class, without taking into consideration the effect of extra credit work.


*****If you have any special problems, circumstances, or pressures please discuss them with me as soon as you can, not at the end of the term!




Week    Topics                                                                                  Readings:

                                                                                                            Evans/ Tedlock  

________________________________________________                       _____


1          Review of course policies.


            Sources for the reconstruction of American civilizations     Chpt. 1; Introduction:

  pp. 21-30

            Introduction to archaeological concepts and chronology      Chpt. 2

            Introduction to anthropological concepts and ideas about    Chpt. 3

social evolution


2          The Americas: geography, settlement, and the transition

            to a food-producing economy.


3          Syllabus Quiz Tuesday September 13th


            The Formative aka Preclassic period: The emergence          Chpt. 4

and spread of the Olmec culture   


Quiz # 2 Thursday September 15th                                               


4          Preclassic Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla-Morelos,                      Chpt. 5

Basin of Mexico, and West Mexico


            Test # 1 Thursday September 22nd


5        Middle to Late Preclassic: The Valley of Oaxaca and                        Chpts. 6 & 7

The Rise of Monte Albán                                         

6          The Preclassic Basin of Mexico: Cuicuilco and                    Chpt. 8



7          The Maya Preclassic: Abaj Takalik, Uaxactún, Kaminaljuyu,             Chpt. 9

El Mirador, and Cerros


Quiz #3  Thursday October 13th


8          Preclassic Maya cosmology: San Bartolo and the Popol Vuh            Chpt. 11;

                                                                        Tedlock: Introduction: pp. 30-60, Parts 1-4


            Take-home test on the Popol Vuh due Tuesday October 18th


Test #2 Thursday October 27th

9          The Zapotec state: Monte Ablán, the Teuchitlán tradition,              Chpts. 8 & 9

            Early Classic Teotihuacan    


10        The empire of Teotihuacan                                                                Chpt. 10         

11        Classic Maya civilization: the Petén                                                  Chpt. 12


            Quiz #5 Thursday November 10th


12        The collapse of the Classic Mesoamerican states                              Chpt. 13         


Test #3 Thursday November 17th


13        The Toltecs and Tula                                                                 Chpts. 15 & 16


14        The Postclassic: The empires of the Mexica and Purépecha      Chpts. 17 & 18                                   

15        The Mexica empire in the time of Cortés                                  Chpts. 19 & 20


Quiz #6 Thursday November  8th


16        Final Exam Thursday December 15th

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List assignments here.

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Course Material:

Ancient Civilizations of the Americas – Reserve Reading List


Justeson, John S. and George A. Broadwell

  1996  ‘Language and Languages in Mesoamerica,’ in Robert M. Carmak and Janine Gasco (eds.) The Legacy of Mesoamerica, pp. 379-405.  Concentrate on pgs. 379-383 and 397-405.


Joralemon, Peter David

  1996  ‘In search of the Olmec Cosmos: Reconstructing the world view of Mexico’s first civilization,’ in Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente (eds.), Olmec Art in Ancient Mexico, pp. 51-59. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art.  


Cyphers, Ann

  1996  ‘Reconstructing Olmec life at San Lorenzo,’ in Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente (eds.), Olmec Art in Ancient Mexico, pp. 61-71. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art. 


Lauck, Rebecca González

  1996  ‘La Venta: an Olmec capital,’ in Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente (eds.), Olmec Art in Ancient Mexico, pp. 73-81. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art. 



Anthropology 8                 Study Guide for Test #1 


Readings: Evans: Chpts. 1-4  Read and be familiar with the content of all boxes in the textbook: e.g. Best Friends, Shamanism, Maguey, Tehuacán Valley Sequence, Figurines; Mesoamerica: The Trait List ,etc.;  Justeson and Broadwell’s article on language. Tedlock: Introduction.


Weeks 1 &2 


Terms: language family, proto-language, language isolate, lineage, logogram, obsidian, basalt, cinnabar, hematite, jade, serpentine, turquoise, metate, mano, comal, earthenware, slip, polychrome, resist-painted, utility and fine wares, figurine, terra cotta, spondylus, site, feature, monument, provenience, radiocarbon, seriation, egalitarian, ranked, stratified.   


Concepts: levels of socio-cultural integration (pgs. 24-25): family level, segmentary society, chiefdom, primitive state; ritual homicide, animism.


Techniques: pottery seriation, glottochronology, radiocarbon dating.


Specific language groups or language families: Nahuatl, Uto-Aztecan, Tarascan, Mayan, Mixe-Zoquean, Proto-Zoquean, Oto-Manguean.


What dating technique is most commonly used? What were the various stone/mineral types enumerated above used for, and where did they come from?


Which countries and parts of countries are included in Mesoamerica?


What are the implications when the territory of a language is small or large? What is the significance of a language isolate? How can languages be used to reconstruct past population movements? How can you tell where a language group came from? What are the principles of glottochronology? What is the support for the hypothesis concerning the language of the Olmecs put forward by Kaufman?


What do the terms used to demarcate units of archaeological time (Prelclassic/Formative, etc.) in Mesoamerica reflect?


What inspired the shapes of the first ceramic vessels?


Week 3


Concepts: family-level society, segmentary society, chiefdom, chieftain, achieved social status, ascribed social status, ancestor veneration, ritual homicide, prestige objects, sumptuary rules, aristocracy, settlement hierarchy, overkill hypothesis, scale, social complexity, situational leadership, craft specialization.


Terms: clan, lineage, descent group, priest, shaman, craft specialist, attached craft specialist.


Sites: Meadowcroft rock shelter, Monte Verde, Santa Rosa Island, Deborah L. Friedkin site, Hoyo Negro


Industries: pre-Clovis, Colvis


Be familiar with the characteristics of the major physiognomic regions discussed in Evans (Chpt. 2) and in class. What constraints did geography impose on the development of Mesoamerican cultures?


What is the most commonly accepted theory for the migration of humans to the New World? What is the evidence? In how many waves did they come? Which plants and animals did they bring with them? What is the most commonly accepted chronological estimate for the entry of humans into the New World? How did they get here? What can we reconstruct of the lifestyle and social structure of the earliest group? What activity do Clovis points represent? How were they made? How did the activities of early hunters lead to both dietary change and repercussions for later domestication?


Week 4   (Chpt. 4)


Scholars: Jared Diamond, Richard "Scotty" MacNeish, Kent Flannery


Terms: pit house, sedentism, shaman, ball court


Projects: Tehuacán Archaeological Botanical Project, Oaxaca Human Ecology Project


Sites: Coxcatlán, Gheo-Shih, Zohapilco, Guilá Naquitz


Plants: amaranth, maguey, black sapote, maize, teosinte, pod corn, avocado, beans,



Animals: dog, turkey


    Where was the evidence for the earliest house found? When were the earliest villages established?


       What were the patterns of plant and animal domestication in the New World, e.g. what kinds of organisms were domesticated first? Why was the pattern so different from the course of domestication in the Old World? Where was the best archaeological evidence for domestication found? What have been the contributions of genetics to resolving the pathways of domestication for various species?


       What changes occurred to make maize a usable domesticate? How does native Mesoamerican maize differ from modern sweet corn? How is it typically grown, prepared, and eaten?


   What did the evidence from Guilá Naquitz say about the role that early domesticated plants played in the changing subsistence economy? Why did humans adopt domesticates? Which were adopted first?


     What may have taken place at Gheo-Shih? What was it about the evidence from this site which suggested this interpretation?


    What role did the dog play in Mesoamerica? What were a shaman’s job qualifications?


   Which cultural traits define Mesoamerica?  What is a prismatic blade and how was it removed from a core, and by what kind of person?


Who used figurines and for what reason?




    Where were the complex Maya societies located when the Spanish arrived? What are the surviving sources of information for the Maya? What kinds of information did Maya books (codices) contain? What were the circumstances of the Popol Vuh’s creation? How did the Quiché view myth and history (pg. 59)? 


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Online Resources: (list related websites as links)

 Lecture 1 Introduction to the Sources

Lecture 2 Archaeological Terminology

Lecture 3 Anthropological Concepts

Lecture 4 Mesoamerican Geography - Transition to a food-producing economy 

Lecture 5 The Gulf Coast Formative

Lecture 6 The Formative in Central Mexico and Guerrero 

Lecture 7 The Oaxacan Formative

Lecture 8 Kaminaljuyu 

Lecture 9 The Mayan Formative

Lecture 10 The San Bartolo Mural

Lecture 11 The Formative of West Mexico

Lecture 11 The Valley of Mexico in the Late Formative

Lecture 12 The Empire of Teotihuacan

Lecture 13 Early Tikal

Lecture 14 Classical Tikal

Lecture 15 Calakmul

Lecture 16 The Kingdom of Monte Alban

Lecture 17 The Gran Chichimeca

Lecture 18 Tula

Lecture 19 The Mexica 

Chichen Itza 1

Chichen Itza 2

Chichen Itza 3

Ek Balam


Rio Bec




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