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Archéologie de l’habitat en alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Marie-Charlotte Arnauld


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1Few excavations had been performed in Alta Verapaz before 1974 and most of them had provided mainly initial indication that relationships existed between this region and the Maya civilization of the Lowlands. This is not unexpected since Alta Verapaz occupies a transitional situation between the Highlands and Lowlands of Guatemala. In this perspective, the archaeological sites most referred to in Maya studies are Sakajut, an Early-Middle Preclassic site contemporaneous to those of San Jerónimo in Baja Verapaz, and Chamá, a Protoclassic-to-Postclassic site, well known for its Classic polychrome pottery related to the Tepeu horizon of the Lowlands. However, the nature, intensity as well as the local impact of the relationships with the Lowlands were largely unknown since neither the social organization nor the patterns of regional integration in Alta Verapaz had been investigated. A major concern of this research was then to outline and analyse the regional settlement patterns, giving primary attention to those of the Late Classic period, when the contacts with the Lowlands seem to have been most intensive. The research also concentrated upon the Preclassic settlement, although only at an exploratory level, and upon the local socio-political organization during the Late Postclassic, in conjunction with the numerous ethnohistorical informations available for Alta Verapaz.

  1. The physical environment. The south-western zone of Alta Verapaz in which a survey and excavations were conducted in 1974-1975 is located in the mountains which extend between San Jerónimo to the south and Chamá to the north (665 km2; a limited part of northern Baja Verapaz was also included). This zone can be divided into two physiographic districts. The northern side of the limestone Sierra de Alta Verapaz, which is deeply karstified, gradually slopes down toward the Lowlands in series of hills, which surround small, flat-bottomed basins (average altitude: 1 200 m). In the basins, soils are fertile. To the south, the higher ranges of the Sierra (1 500-2 600 m) are carved out by deep narrow valleys. On the slopes, the easily eroded soils are only moderately fertile. Annual rainfall, which is abundant in the northern district, decreases slightly from north to south. To the extreme south of the zone, the Sierra abuts the metamorphic ranges of the Sierra de Chuacús in Baja Verapaz.

  2. Linguistics, history and ethnohistory. Linguistic studies show that by Middle to Late Preclassic times the Verapaz area was settled by the Kekchis and the Pokoms. The regional occupation seems to have developped continuously until the Postclassic period. Then, several internal splits of the Pokom language (Pokomam-Pokomchi, Western-Eastern Pokomchi) as well as prehispanic chronicles clearly indicate that displacements of Pokom groups took place under the pressure of Quiché-Rabinaleb, who were then expanding into Baja Verapaz. The Dominican Friars who began pacifying and reorganizing the Verapaz province in 1544, found the region divided into several entities of Kekchi and Pokomchi clans, each one with a relatively centralized socio-political structure.

  3. Survey and excavations. An intensive survey was conducted in the areas most favorable to human settlement and farming, i.e., the small basins and the valleys. Sixty-one sites were surveyed, to which we add 6 sites formally reported in previous investigations. According to the functional typology based on morphological traits, these 67 sites comprise small residential hamlets (28 sites), isolated ritual loci (8), secondary centers (26) each one with one formal public plaza, and major centers (5) with multiple public plazas. Limited excavations of 38 test pits allowed to assign datations to 14 sites, mainly secondary and major centers. Additionally, 21 sites can be dated on the basis of surface collected ceramics, morphological traits and results of previous investigations. More intensive excavations were performed in the secondary center of Sulín, where trenches dug into the small pyramidal structure of the plaza revealed four successive substructures, all of them very probably dedicated to funerary cuits (Early Classic to Terminal Late Classic). In the major center of Chicán two long public structures of the main plaza were also trenched, displaying complex architectural sequences of partial destruction and rebuilding (Late Postclassic).

  4. Ceramics and chronology. A preliminary chronology is provided by the Río Chixoy and Cobán sequences outlined by Butler and Smith, but neither can frame out the abundant and functionally, spatially as well as temporally diversified ceramic material recovered from the 1975 excavations. This material was classified according to the type-variety System, and sherd lots from stratified deposits and discard areas were seriated graphically. The Late Preclassic-Protoclassic Carchá complex, the Late Classic Cobán complex facet 2 and the Late Postclassic Chicán complex are well documented, while the Early Classic (Cobán 1) and Early Postclassic (Samac) transitions appear poorly understood, due to the markedly continuous change in the regional ceramics during Classic and Early Postclassic times; Otherwise, the diffusion of diverse Lowland traits is obvious in the Cobán 2 fine decorated subcomplex, but the domestic subcomplex is strongly related to those of Baja Verapaz and of the Middle Motagua valley. Last result but not the least, a small quantity of Early-Middle Preclassic sherds was found at Sulín, part of which comes from a primary deposit.

  5. Preclassic and Protoclassic seulement. Preliminary data from this research and others indicate that the Verapaz Early-Middle Preclassic occupation was already substantial. Ceramics from Sulín, Sakajút and San Jerónimo are related to the early complexes of the Pacific Coast and Chiapas. Early processes of cultural contacts with the Lowlands are not demonstrated, but can be argued upon positively. Later on, at the end of the Preclassic, the almost complete absence of the Protoclassic horizon in the regional ceramics, if confirmed by further research, suggests that interregional relationships weakened, although connections with the Western and Central Highlands of Guatemala existed. Both conclusions are tentatively linked to the possible immigration of the Kekchis and Pokoms into Verapaz from the Western Highlands during the Middle-Late Preclassic period. At this time in the research area, a network of small civic-ceremonial centers had developped, headed by a center with voluminous constructions located in the extreme north (Carchá-Calvario).

  6. Settlement, social organization and exchanges in the Late Classic period. The Early Classic occupation appears to be weak but further research is needed to confirm this conclusion. During the Late Classic, the settlement data indicate that the zone was densely populated and that it was divided into two socio-political entities. These spatially match the physiographic districts, and also roughly the 16th. century distribution of the Kekchis and Pokomchis. In both of them, the basic social unit which can be reconstructed was the small community of farmers connected to a secondary center, each of them relatively autonomous vis-à-vis the major centers of Chichén to the north and Salto to the south. Chichén was basically a religious center promoting interactions between the communities. But Salto, located in the extreme south, grouped large densely nucleated populations in a complex settlement, which is significative of a more centralized socio-political structure. This fact, as well as the ecological setting of the site suggest that some degree of specialization developed locally in regional exchanges and craft production of semi-hard stone artifacts. As for the relationships of western Alta Verapaz with the Lowlands, numerous artifacts known to come from the northern district and also from Petén clearly suggest that the local were engaged in exchanges of luxury goods and cultural information with Petén centers. It is hypothesized that these limited exchanges were instrumental in the formation of a south-north chain of relays for the export of valuable materials (quetzal feathers, serpentine, jade...) from the Motagua valley to the Lowlands via Salto, Chichén and Chamá. This exchange mode does not appear to have channeled large quantities of obsidian effectively.

  7. The Postclassic: archaeology and ethnohistory. We know best the archaeological network of regional major centers in western Alta Verapaz and northern Baja Verapaz. The analysis of this network, in conjunction with ethnohistorical data, allows to locate the Kekchis in the northern district, with Chichén as the major center of their clan structure, and the Pokomchis in a west-east corridor extending from the Chixoy to the Middle Polochic. The Pokomchis were divided into two, western and eastern, conflicting groups, as the result of the recent intrusion into Alta Verapaz of the Western Pokomchis, displaced from Baja Verapaz by the Quiché-Rabinaleb. We identify the major centers of the Eastern Pokomchis as being Chicán and Chicobán. Both sites are defensive settlements which had in their direct dependence secondary centers functioning as military outposts and administrative relays. This settlement pattern, which certainly deserves further research, tends to confirm the ethnohistorical data on the fact that the Kekchi and Pokomchi society was centralized. But the regional integration of western Alta Verapaz was far to be achieved at the time of the conquest.

© Centro de estudios mexicanos y centroamericanos, 1986

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