Mokaya were pre-Olmec cultures of the Soconusco region in Mexico and parts of the Pacific coast of western Guatemala, an archaeological culture that developed a number of Mesoamerica’s earliest-known sedentary settlements.
The Soconusco region is generally divided by archaeologists into three adjacent zones along the coast—the Lower Río Naranjo region (along the Pacific coast of western Guatemala), Acapetahua, and Mazatán (both on the Pacific coast of modern-day Chiapas, Mexico). These three zones are about 50 km apart along the coast, but they are connected by a natural inland waterway, which could have permitted easy communication in prehistoric times.
Around 1900 BC one of the dozen species of cacao was carried from the upper Amazon and domesticated by the Mokaya. A Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating to 1900 BC.
The Barra phase of the Mokaya culture is dated 1550-1400 BC. The early sites belonging to this phase are Altamira, San Carlos, and Paso de la Amada. This phase is already distinguished by its sophisticated pottery.
Then came the Locona phase 1400-1250 BC, with many more sites.
The Mokaya are thought to have been among the first cultures in Mesoamerica to develop a hierarchical society, which arose in the Early Formative (or Preclassic) period of Mesoamerican chronology, at a time (late 2nd millennium BCE) slightly before similar traits were evident among the early Olmec centers of the Gulf Coast region.
The following occupational phases have been proposed for Mokaya archaeology.
Barra: ceramics and chocolate
The Barra ceramic phase, which marks the beginning of the Early Formative period, spans 1850 to 1650 cal. B.C. and is known to be the initial occupation phase of the Mokaya. It is also when the first known pottery was developed in Mesoamerica.
The primary location of the Mokaya during this phase was the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico. Settlement patterns in this region consisted of large villages of 15-51 hectares surrounded by subsidiary settlements that included small villages, hamlets and homesteads.
Most of the ceramic information pertaining to the Barra phase was collected at Paso de la Amada. The common form here was the tecomate, which is a neckless jar with rounded sides and a restricted rim. These vessels were not designed for cooking but probably for holding liquids. One specific tecomate found above Structure 4 in Mound 6 at Paso de la Amada tested positive for traces of cacao. It is believed that these early ceramics were used for beverages such as chicha, cacao or atole consumed in social settings and conferring prestige on the giver. This particular vessel was dated between 1900-1500 B.C. to span both the Barra and Locona phases. While domesticated flora was consumed during this period, it is likely that the main source of diet was due to more of a hunter-gatherer society and explains the settlement near rivers and swamps.
Locona (1650-1550 B.C.)
Around 1650 to 1550 cal. B.C. a more complex ceramic vessel inventory appears and ceramic technology was being applied to a more complete range of the society’s containers. This marks the beginning of the Locona phase of Mokaya culture. Common ceramic forms during this time were open bowls or dishes and unslipped tecomates. By the Locona phase there were several large villages in the Mazatán zone, some of which had large-scale architecture, elaborate ceramics and figurines, imported obsidian, and a well-developed lapidary. Some research suggests that the Locona phase Mokaya provided the sociopolitical stimulus for the development of the Gulf Olmec. Based on artifact distributions, architectural analysis and regional survey, they suggest that simple chiefdoms emerged in the Mazatán region during the Locona phase.
Ocós (1250-1150 B.C.), Cherla (1150-1000 B.C.), Cuadros (1000-900 B.C.), Jocotal (900-850 B.C.)
Most large Early Formative settlements continued to be occupied throughout these phases, with rapid changes in ceramics and other artifacts marks the succession of the phases from Ocós to Jocotal. During the Ocós phase, Paso de la Amada was estimated to be approximately 50 hectares in size. Also seen during Ocós phase there was the increase in size and types of ceramics. This probably correlates with an increase of cooked foods and foods cooked in quantity since ceramic vessels were now being used for storage as well as serving. At Paso de la Amada, black-and-white pottery makes up 3 percent of the Late Ocós rims and between 10-20 percent of the classified rims during the subsequent Cherla phase. Jars also become a regular part of the ceramic inventory during the Cherla phase at Paso de la Amada. Changes from the Locona through the Cherla phases suggest the gradually increasing importance of unslipped, utilitarian tecomates and open-walled serving bowls. Cuadros pottery forms share many of the same characteristics with pottery forms from the earliest Olmec sites. The changes in vessel form, function and decorate all seem to be part of the continued social differentiation of the Mokaya. The elites of the villages displayed vessels to convey status to the rest of the community and continued to use the ceramics in feasting situations to maintain the unbalanced social relationships.
Conchas (850-650 B.C.)
During the Middle Formative period, specifically for the Mokaya culture Conchas phases A-C and D, the focus of settlement shifted to the Lower Río Naranjo zone, in Guatemala, and many of the larger Early Formative sites near the rivers and swamps in the Mazatán zone were abandoned. During Conchas A-C, about 850-750 B.C., the large center of La Blanca was built, including a huge 25 meter tall earthen mound at the site. Villagers at La Blanca and along the coast began to subsist partly on maize. The shift to increasing maize consumption early in the Conchas phase may have had important social and economic consequences, signaled by population growth and aggregation and the construction of monumental earthen mounds. Increase reliance on agricultural production provided the economic base for continued population growth and increase in sociopolitical complexity that apparently was not possible in the Mazatán zone. Dietary, technological and iconographic evidence all indicate that a fundamental reorganization of the Soconusco economy occurred during the early Middle Formative Conchas phase.
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