Cultures & Traditions

West Mexico (West Coast Mesoamerican Style)

The culture area of West Mexico encompasses two major style areas, the modern state of Guerrero in the south, particularly in the middle reaches of the Balsas River, and the states of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit to the north. Most of the objects associated with these areas were made during the period 500 BCE to 500 CE.

The Guerrero style called Mezcala, after the local name for the Balsas River, consists of small-scale abstract stone sculpture depicting human figures, masks, and temple-like buildings. The emphasis on stone sculpture suggests an interaction with the Olmec, and the basic axelike shape of many Mezcala figures resembles the elliptical form of Olmec celts. Objects of pure Olmec style have been found north of the Balsas River, and the mountains of the area probably were a source of jade and greenstone for the Olmecs.

A distinctive set of burial customs was present in the Colima-Jalisco-Nayarit area from at least 250 BCE. The characteristic shaft-and-chamber tombs consisted of a vertical shaft some ten to sixty feet deep that connected to an arched chamber either directly or indirectly by means of lateral tunnels. The revered dead were accompanied by offerings of pyrite mosaic mirrors, conch-shell trumpets, and large-scale hollow ceramic sculptures of humans and animals. Although these vary in style from area to area, they have in common a distinctive vitality that derives in part from gesture and pose. The humanness of these figures suggests that the societies they represent were less rigidly class-structured than those of other areas of Mesoamerica. Religion seems to have centered around the shaman, or intermediary between the human and spirit worlds, and figures that resemble warriors may well have been present to defend the soul against the powers of the otherworld.

Shaft-and-chamber tombs do not occur elsewhere in Mesoamerica, but they are characteristic of Andean cultures to the south. This and ceramic figures such as the stirrup spout and highly burnished surfaces suggest possible contact between West Coast Mesoamerica and the Pacific coast of South America, particularly northern Peru and Ecuador. Despite the quantity of objects from the Colima-Jalisco-Nayarit area in museum and private collections, few shaft tombs have been scientifically investigated. Broad outlines of different local traditions can be discerned in the ceramics, but much work remains to be done before the cultures that produced these objects can be fully understood.

Excerpt from

Gallery text [West Mexico], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

Web Resources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Read more about architectural models from the ancient Americas and West Mexico.