Early Formative Pottery Trade and the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilisation

Article excerpt

A recent commentary by Hector Neff in Antiquity (80: 714-16) continues a debate concerning Early Formative pottery exchange and its role in the development of Mesoamerican civilisation. The debate was sparked by a report of an INAA analysis of a non-random sample of 944 pottery samples from 16 Mesoamerican sites to determine sources for the production of several pottery types (Blomster et al. 2005; Neff et al. 2006a: 111). The report concluded that the Olmec site of San Lorenzo exported pottery to several contemporary non-Olmec sites, but that these non-Olmec sites did not import pottery from San Lorenzo or exchange pottery with each other. These conclusions were used to make several claims in support of the idea that all Mesoamerican civilisations originated from the Olmec--the core tenet of the so-called 'mother culture' model.

Although Neff (2006:714) states that the INAA results 'clearly favours' the 'mother culture' position, our critiques have pointed out the fallacies of this claim (Flannery et al. 2005; Sharer et al. 2006), including petrographic data (Stoltman et al. 2005) that support pottery trading patterns contrary to the conclusions made by Blomster, Neff and Glascock (2005). As a result, Neff has moderated the original claim of exclusive one-way trade of pottery at San Lorenzo, so that it is now acknowledged that 'a few' pots were traded into the site (Neff 2006: 715).

Neff and his colleagues continue to imply that my colleagues and I are being unscientific by not accepting their evidence (Neff et al. 2006a: 116; Neff 2006: 715). To the contrary, critiquing new data and the conclusions derived from them are an essential part of science. Neff (2006: 715) also mistakenly believes our critique was motivated by a desire to deny 'empirical patterns that don't fit our preconceptions'. While some of my colleagues have reservations about INAA (see Flannery et al. 2005; Stoltman et al. 2005), I along with most of my colleagues agree that the INAA results reported by Blomster, Neff and Glascock (2005) imply that San Lorenzo traded a lot of pottery (Sharer et al. 2006), as Neff and his colleagues have previously recognised (Neff et al. 2006a: 113). On the other hand we continue to have reservations about reliance on a single line of evidence to support models of ancient cultural processes--multiple sources of consistent evidence are preferable for deriving inferences from archaeological data. It is obviously better to combine and compare results of INAA, petrographic, and typological analyses to identify ancient pottery manufacturing sources, rather than rely on only one of these techniques. We also have serious reservations about the adequacy of the INAA sample, for while Neff (2006: 714) states these samples came from 'key early Formative centres throughout Mesoamerica', in fact the majority of key Mesoamerican sites and regions were not sampled, including most sites in the Valley of Mexico, and sites in Guerrero, Morelos, Puebla and the entire Maya area.

From my perspective the central issue in our critique of the original report (Blomster et al. 2005) is not the INAA results, but the conclusions drawn from these results. This is because the support for the 'mother culture' model advocated by Blomster, Neff and Glascock (2005), and more recently by Neff (2006), is ultimately founded on an untested assumption, namely that Olmec civilisation and ideology were diffused into non-Olmec regions via pottery decorated by carved-incised 'Olmec-style motifs' from the Gulf Coast Lowlands. Based on this assumption, a single line of INAA evidence showing that San Lorenzo traded a lot of pots to several other Early Formative sites is seen as support for the 'mother culture' model. It is also important to note that this support is based on only 16 samples of the carved-incised pottery vessels on which 'Olmec motifs' were supposedly diffused from the Gulf Coast (1.7 per cent of the INAA sample; see Neff et al. …