Mexico & Central America Virtual Hall
Culture Area
How does anthropology define the content of the Mexico & Central America Hall?

Museum researchers believe that the best way to understand pre-Hispanic culture is through an anthropological approach to archaeology. Anthropology is the study of mankind while archaeology focuses on man in past societies, primarily by studying material remains. Most archaeologists are really anthropologists who are interested in studying long-term cultural processes or "human social evolution." Over thousands of years humans have gone from living in small autonomous family groups that moved across the landscape looking for food and shelter to living as citizens of nation states that have complex political, social, and economic systems. The hall and the virtual hall both are designed to illuminate what we know about human social evolution in Mexico and Central America.

Today, professional archaeologists working in Mexico and Central America practice within a scientific framework dedicated to building and testing theories about past cultures. In this way, they develop explanations about the past that can be tested by other researchers now and in the future. Archaeologists often draw on ecological, biological, and historical data in developing theoretical frameworks for conceptualizing past cultures. As anthropologists, archaeologists are especially interested in theoretical frameworks that take into account how human decision making shapes the physical and cultural world or "system" in which a person lives. We all know that people want to get by as best they can. Sometimes, the decisions they make create permanent changes to the world in which they live. Often, these change are not "revolutionary" but only come about over long periods of time - a good example of this process is the domestication of plants and animals. By its very nature, archaeology is particularly adept at studying long-term processes.

Building J, Monte Albán
The information used to construct this site comes from data presented by archaeologists who conduct research throughout Mexico and Central America. Archaeologists rely on two important methods to connect the raw data they dig up to a theory: Ethnographic Analogy and the Direct Historical Approach. Ethnographic analogy works particularly well when an archaeologist wants to interpret societies that lived a very long time ago or left no written records. For example, an archaeologist excavates a cave in Oaxaca dating to about 6,000 BCE and finds a chipped stone implement shaped like an arrow. She finds out that a historically documented Native American group used a very similar implement to hunt deer. Based on this and other data - perhaps deer bone was found in the cave - she may suggest that the arrowhead she uncovered was used in deer hunting, creating an analogy with the historically known group. The Direct Historical Approach uses historic data to help interpret pre-historic behavior by the same ethnic group. For example, an archaeologist working at an ancient Zapotec site in Oaxaca uncovers a building dating to 500 CE. The building has a particular plan consisting of two rectangular, parallel rooms set upon a platform. He feels secure interpreting the structure as a temple because 16th century documents describe Zapotec using just this kind of building to conduct religious ceremonies.