Colorado State Archeologist Discovers Ancient Mexican Imperial Ritual Complex from the 16th Century

A Colorado State University archeologist has uncovered an ancient imperial ritual complex from Mexico’s Purepecha (Tarascan) Empire dating to the last century before European Conquest.

The discovery made by archeology Professor Christopher Fisher, was on an ancient island in the Lake Patzcuaro Basin in the Central Mexican state of Michoacan. The site included a small pyramid, several platforms, a large central structure that is likely an imperial treasury mentioned in historic documents, and an early 16th century colonial chapel.

"By walking over the entire island we were able to document 2,000 years of continuous occupation, climate change and a highly engineered environment," said Fisher.

The Purepecha (Tarascan) Empire controlled much of western Mexico with a mutually fortified frontier shared with their rivals, the Aztecs to the east. The Lake Patzcuaro Basin was the geopolitical core of the empire with a dense population, centralized settlement systems, engineered environment and a socially stratified society.  

Along with Fisher, Colorado State graduate student Florencia Pezzutti, Michelle Elliott from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France, and Jonathan Haws from the University of Louisville intensively surveyed the island using global positioning equipment recording every prehistoric and historic structure they encountered. In addition to the treasury, the archaeologists also recorded 16 settlements that document more than 2,000 years of continuous occupation of the island and hundreds of ancient agricultural terraces.  

The Apupato work is ongoing and archaeologists will return this year to continue their investigation with funds provided by the National Science Foundation. Research was funded by the Colorado State University’s Institute for Society, Landscape, and Ecosystem Change and the Artist Enhancement program. This work is also affiliated with the Institute for Society, Landscape, and Ecosystem Change Institute research working group in CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

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