Pottery points to ‘mother culture’

More than 3,000 years ago, a coastal town served as the center of a “mother culture,” that shaped societies in a wide swath of what’s now southern and central Mexico. Jeffrey P. Blomster of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and his colleagues arrived at this conclusion following an extensive investigation into the region’s pottery trade.

JAR FROM AFAR. This pottery, found at a 3,000-year-old site in central Mexico, was imported from the hub of Olmec culture on the Gulf Coast. Blomster

Blomster’s team determined the chemical composition of 725 ceramic pieces and 828 clay samples, from the town of San Lorenzo and six other ancient population centers. The pieces were between 2,850 and 3,450 years old. Using the data from their analyses, the researchers traced the movement of pottery goods and found that communities everywhere imported pottery that originated in San Lorenzo—defined by the cultural style called Olmec—but that San Lorenzo didn’t import any ceramic goods in return. Potters at some sites outside San Lorenzo also created imitations of Olmec jars from local clays, the researchers report in the Feb. 18 Science.

The new results challenge the view that Olmec-era societies in Mexico traded goods back and forth as “sister cultures,” contributing about equally to the spread of pottery-making techniques and symbolic designs.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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