Malpaso Valley - La Quemada Project


For over 15 years, Mexican and American archaeologists and students have dug ancient ruins, walked the high desert landscape, and worked in laboratories to understand the rise and fall of La Quemada, Zacatecas. We want to know why societies become complex, developing social hierarchies with specialized economic, political, and religious roles for their members. Why do civilizations expand? Northern Mexico's ancient past is an ideal context for studying these questions. During the period A.D. 400-1500, La Quemada and several other monumental ceremonial centers arose and collapsed in the region, coinciding with a geographic expansion and retraction of the cultural patterns of Mesoamerica. La Quemada (A.D. 500-900) is a monumental fortress and ceremonial center; its ruins include colonnaded halls, ball courts, causeways, grand staircases, and ordinary houses. Agricultural terrace systems and villages dot the surrounding valley. Archaeologists have proposed that La Quemada was a trading outpost on the turquoise trail to the American Southwest, or the castle of a central Mexican feudal lord who came to take advantage of improved climatic conditions, or a fortress to protect central Mexico from incursions from this northern territory, or a way station for marauding tribes who ultimately became the Mexica (Aztecs). Project members, in contrast, believe that the local indigenous populations played a large role in La Quemada's transformation. We have conducted seven seasons of excavation and numerous studies of sites, artifacts, and excavated materials to evaluate these propositions. The work continues with specialized analyses of polished stone mirrors, cut marks on human skeletons, animal bones, as well ethnoarchaeological, linguistic, and paleoenvironmental analysis. A comprehensive monograph on the excavations and analyses is in preparation. While the earlier explanations for cycles of social complexity in the region emphasized conquest and domination by foreign forces, the new evidence indicates that La Quemada grew as local religious leaders attracted followers and assumed regional importance. In doing so, they interacted with other similar actors across great distances, adopting and inventing key Mesoamerican practices, including ancestor veneration, monument-building, warfare, crafting, feasting, and long-distance exchange.

Cite this Record

Malpaso Valley - La Quemada Project. ( tDAR id: 11) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8Q52R1X

Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 350 to 1000

Spatial Coverage

min long: -102.879; min lat: 22.41 ; max long: -102.796; max lat: 22.491 ;

Individual & Institutional Roles

Principal Investigator(s): Ben Nelson

Sponsor(s): Arizona State Universtity

Resources Inside this Project (Viewing 1-6 of 6)


  1. Nelson and Schiavitti 1992 Trabajos conducidos por La State University of New York dentro del Proyecto La Quemada 1989-90 (1992)
  2. Nelson et al 1997 Informe Parcial del Proyecto Valle del Malpaso La Quemada Temporada 1995 (1997)
  3. Nelson et. al. 1993 Informe parcial del Proyecto Valle de Malpaso La Quemada Temporada 1992 (1993)
  4. Nelson et. al. 2002 Informe tecnico parcial del Proyecto Valle del Malpaso La Quemada Temporada 1997-98 (2002)
  5. Project Bibliography (2008)


  1. Malpaso Database (2008)