[00:00:00] Since elementary school, I have been interested in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt as a field of study that promised to unveil all mysteries and advance my knowledge of the unknown. From the beginning, the training we were given was very integrated. We were equipped to do archaeology in any part of the world, and we had professors like Paul Kirchhoff who gave us an understanding of Old World civilizations through such a comparative study that I don’t consider myself a Mesoamericanist at all. I consider myself a specialist in the study of the first urban societies, wherever they may be. Archaeology at the end of the twentieth century is really a frontier study because it integrates information from so many disciplines, the natural and exact sciences and the social sciences. It is a great cross-disciplinary bridge. I’ve had the opportunity to excavate in Turkey , Egypt , Bolivia , and Mexico—in those places where these original urban civilizations arose—and [to study] the phenomena that led to their emergence.
Early Urban Civilizations
[1:14:00] I believe that the crux of my work on the first urban societies revolves around my studies of the great city of Teotihuácan in the first seven centuries of the Christian era. Basically we are interested in knowing: How did this city arise? What social groups formed it? How was it governed? We are interested, for example, in understanding how Teotihuácan, such an enormous city, was formed and planned so well. What factors shaped it? Why do we not see anything earlier to suggest what this process was? These problems become linked to the study of disasters. In the beginning of the Christian era, there was a great period of volcanic activity not only in the valley of Mexico , but also in the valley of Puebla. In Tlaxcala, many groups of people were forced to emigrate because so much land was covered by lava and pumice from the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Xitle. That is why the amassing of so many people in the valley of Teotihuácan is a very interesting phenomenon, for it brought about the formation of a huge urban center that had no precedent in the pre-urban world.
[2:28:50] The second field of study is of domestic life in ancient cities. For these studies we have developed a very innovative, vanguard methodology, an interdisciplinary methodology, to coordinate paleo-botanical data (seeds, pollen, phytoliths) with fauna—the bone remains of fauna, with archaeological artifacts, and with the chemistry of the stucco floors, in order to do some detective work and analyze what happened in each room of a domestic dwelling. We assembled such fabulous results that when we arrived at Teotihuácan to excavate a group of multi-family dwellings there, we already had our methodology in place. In the case of complex cities like Teotihuácan, it is difficult to determine which activities were feminine and which were masculine, because the way in which labor was organized was in corporate family groups. Everyone, in fact, participated. Children, for example, participated, and we have seen the joints of children who were made to carry things and work together with adults in various activities. We have also been doing a study of the DNA of people who are buried in a combined residence. Are they related? How are they related? Before, such questions were taboo in archaeology. Before, it was not possible to do kinship studies in archaeology, but now, with DNA, we can.
[3:55:00] My third field of study is of the archaeological indicators of disasters, like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and droughts, and their effects on ancient societies. I’m very interested in understanding: When does a disaster actually change the path of a civilization? I mean, how vulnerable was the civilization if a drought, volcanic activity, or an earthquake was able to alter the course of that civilization and cause its collapse? (Floods and droughts, that is to say, macro and regional climatic changes or floods due to phenomena like volcanic eruptions or changes in precipitation can cause collapse). There are studies today that show us that around two-thousand years before Christ there was a widespread phase of collapses in the Near East due to a prolonged drought. It would be interesting to see whether the people of the Near East were already accustomed to problems with crops and with rivers (that at times would not provide enough water) or with changes in precipitation. Why did the widespread collapse occur at this moment and not another? So it is kind of like studying these civilizations’ moments of vulnerability.
[5:15:00] The fourth field might be called a comparative study of Old World civilizations with respect to those of the New World . In this case, I am interested in seeing which characteristics are unique to the development of the first states in Mesopotamia and comparing them, for example, with Egypt . These two civilizations are so different in terms of their origins, their concepts of the world and the universe, and in their concepts of the state. Are these two models comparable or not to the Andean and Mesoamerican models of state? I mean, how are they similar? How are they different? What was the process that led to statehood in each area? What factors intervened? And how did these civilizations respond to their environments? It is a comparative study. I have found that in Sumerian Mesopotamia, they preferred a model that was based on political fragmentation and autonomous units centered in city-states, which were similar to what developed in the Maya region each place with its own autonomous territory, competing for those territories while simultaneously forming confederations. On the other hand, in central Mexico and in the case of Egypt , we see monolithic states, highly centralized with a capital and a unified government, which provided very distinct models to the former ones [of city-states].