Colorado State University Archaeologist Discovers Ancient Lost City in Mexico

Note to Reporters: Photos from the archaeological site are available with the press release at

A Colorado State University archaeologist and his team have discovered the ruins of an ancient urban center in the heart of the Purépecha Empire in Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, located in the central Mexican state of Michoacán.

At the time of European contact, the Purépecha Empire – sometimes called the Tarascan Empire – controlled much of western Mexico with a mutually fortified frontier shared with their rivals, the Aztecs to the east.

The settlement may be as large as 5 square kilometers and dates to A.D. 1000-1520. Initial results suggest the peak occupation of the newly discovered urban center occurred just prior to the formation of the Purépecha Empire, further indicating that results from the study may yield new clues regarding the empire’s formation.

“Much of this settlement is similar to a modern-day suburb with hundreds of small house mounds where ordinary families lived and carried out activities. By today’s standards this urban center seems small but by documenting these ruins, my team and I are helping anthropologists identify different aspects of ancient cities,” said Christopher Fisher, associate professor in CSU’s Department of Anthropology. “The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin was the geopolitical core of the empire with a dense population, centralized settlement systems, engineered environment and a socially stratified society.”

The discovery was made in the summer of 2009. Fisher and his team were able to map more than 1,300 architectural features from 1 square-kilometer of the settlement. Items mapped included house mounds, room blocks, buildings, small temples, plazas, agricultural features and a pyramid. The team has only documented about one-fifth of the entire site and will be returning this summer for more mapping and research.

Using the TrimbleRecon rugged handheld computers as well as the GeoXH and GeoXT GPS receivers, Fisher’s team quickly and accurately mapped every cultural feature they encountered with significant accuracy. The researchers used extensive data gathered from surveys and mapping to explore relationships among climatic fluctuation, landscape change and the formation of complex societies.

Along with the discovery of the settlement, Fisher discovered six other previously unknown settlements and hundreds of agricultural terraces. In his fieldwork, Fisher incorporates archaeological and earth science techniques to map the distribution of ancient settlements, document past and present soil erosion, investigate ancient agricultural features and excavate archaeological sites.

The discovery of the settlement is part of Fisher’s National Science Foundation-funded project, Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project. This multidisciplinary research project includes archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico. They explore prehistoric sites to better understand the development of prehistoric societies and relationships between humans and climate change.

“One of the great challenges for the 21st century will be creating solutions to link social and environmental change. Archaeology is uniquely poised to make a significant contribution to this debate by helping to explain trajectories of socio-ecosystem evolution over long time periods. Our research reveals new insights into the impacts of the Medieval climatic anomaly on societies in central Mexico yielding clues about the impacts of modern climatic change in the region,” said Fisher.

Fisher’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation, with permits supplied by the National Institute for Anthropology and History in Mexico. GPS ultra-rugged handheld computers and mapping software from Trimble were used. Fisher and his team will present preliminary findings from the 2009 field season at the annual Society for American Archaeology meetings in St. Louis, April 14-18.

For more information on the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project, visit