Open Access
De León, Jason Patrick
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 16, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Kenneth Gale Hirth, Dissertation Advisor
  • Kenneth Gale Hirth, Committee Chair
  • Dean R. Snow, Committee Member
  • Timothy Murtha, Committee Member
  • David Lee Webster, Committee Member
  • Ann Cyphers, Committee Member
  • Formative Period
  • economy
  • political economy
  • stone tools
  • obsidian
  • Olmec
  • archaeology
  • anthropology
  • Mesoamerica
The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the relationship among access to obsidian, tool production technologies, and social status between 1600 and 900 B.C. in the Olmec region of San Lorenzo-Tenochtitlán, Veracruz, Mexico. Previous Formative period obsidian studies have emphasized the connection between the acquisition and/or production of obsidian tools and the development of political and economic inequalities. This dissertation examines this issue through a study of 7102 obsidian artifacts from the San Lorenzo plateau and hinterland. Using obsidian technological data from eleven domestic and non-domestic contexts, I make inferences about the organization of lithic industries and the nature of Olmec obsidian procurement networks. This study focuses primarily on percussion flake tools, an industry that has often been ignored in Mesoamerican lithic analyses. Previous Mesoamerican percussion and bipolar lithic technologies are also outlined and critiqued. Using data from multiple phases and contexts I propose a detailed technological sequence for the manufacture of percussion tools at San Lorenzo. This technological sequence indicates that Early Formative lithic industries were more sophisticated than previous studies have suggested. This study also finds that the introduction and adoption of prismatic blade technology occurred primarily in domestic contexts at San Lorenzo. Using Hirth’s (1998) distributional approach and his four principles of political economy (1996) I propose two separate models (political economy and domestic economy) that could explain the acquisition of obsidian at San Lorenzo. I evaluate these models by comparing differences in the frequencies of various tool types and associated production debitage among contexts of varying status (elite and non-elite) and function (domestic and non-domestic). This study finds no correlation between status and access to obsidian or specific tool technologies. The research presented here suggests that obsidian was primarily acquired through domestic trading spheres. A high variability in both the quantity and types of tools was observed across households and non-domestic contexts, suggesting that obsidian trade and tool production were highly individualistic and primarily domestic activities at San Lorenzo. There is no indication that elites in ceremonial contexts had privileged access to obsidian or pressure blades when compared to households. There is also little evidence to suggest that elites ever hoarded blades or controlled blade production at San Lorenzo. This finding forces a reevaluation of previous models that have characterized early Olmec obsidian tools (i.e., pressure blades) as highly valued prestige goods. Previously proposed Formative period obsidian political economy models were not supported by this analysis. The data suggest that a domestic economy model may better explain how households obtained and used obsidian at San Lorenzo. My findings indicate that a rethinking of Formative period Mesoamerican political economy models is needed. No longer can obsidian be considered a general artifact class equal in value to other exotic imported materials such as jade, marine shell, and pyrite. In order to better understand how obsidian was incorporated into Formative period economic and political systems, future archaeological models will need to address variables such as differential use (utilitarian versus ceremonial), perceived value (unmodified chunks versus finish tools), and quality of particular obsidian sources within specific cultural contexts.