Richard Lesure

Professor, Department of Anthropology

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Ph.D. University of Michigan, 1995

Areas of Interest

Archaeology of early village societies; sociopolitical dynamics and the origin of social inequality; Mesoamerica


The Origins of Social Inequality in Early Formative Mesoamerica is an investigation of sociopolitical dynamics in Mesoamerica's earliest settled villages, dated from 1600 to 1000 BC. Professor Lesure's field work has focused on the large village site of Paso de la Amada, on the coast of Chiapas, Mexico. Excavations revealed significant architectural elaboration, including the construction of earthen platforms, dating to 1450 BC. Analysis of household middens, as well as those associated with platforms, indicates that the high status activities and access to valued goods were not restricted during the time period of greatest architectural elaboration. Only after abandonment of the site's main platform and ceremonial precinct did economic differences between households emerge. The next stage will place the trajectory of development in a regional context in an attempt to resolve this puzzle. 

1. Research on Formative Mesoamerica 

My fieldwork in Mexico is oriented around classic problems in the archaeology of complex societies -- the origins of sedentism, the roots of social inequality, and the development of states and urban life. Both my long-term field projects have focused on the Formative period, an era of dramatic social change from the establishment of settled villages to the emergence of cities. 

Chiapas, Mexico 
In coastal Chiapas, my focus has been on the social consequences of the transition to sedentism. In dissertation and post-dissertation work at the ceremonial center of Paso de la Amada, I discovered a disjunction between status systems and economic inequality. I have recently proposed that the seemingly basic distinction between public and domestic was an emergent dimension of social practice at the site; it was preceded by a spatial scheme oriented around differential formalism. My work in Chiapas extends also to the organization of settlement and subsistence. A pattern of inter-site differences in artifact assemblages is not, I argue, the result of specialized production and a complex division of labor. It derives instead from a pattern of seasonal mobility that persisted for at least 100 years after the transition to the Formative. In sum, my work in Chiapas is helping to define the specificity of Early Formative social innovations in this key region for understanding the emergence of Mesoamerica and civilizations. 

Tlaxcala, Mexico 
In Tlaxcala, my project focuses on the emergence of urban life. With a team of specialist collaborators studying agricultural systems, subsistence, food service, interregional exchange, mortuary practices, and symbolic systems, I am seeking to develop a local understanding of social life during the first millennium B.C. while at the same time contributing to a macro-regional perspective on the social transformations that led to urban synthesis at Teotihuacan, some 80 km away. One larger issue here is the scale of processes leading to state formation. Here, just outside centers of political innovation, do we find stability or instead shifts toward social stratification and occupational diversification over the course of the first millennium B.C.? 

2. Research on Prehistoric Art 

I have also been working on prehistoric "art" and the challenges it poses for interpretation. I am particularly interested in quotidian expressive traditions. My empirical focus is on the fired-clay figurines -- small, mainly anthropomorphic statuettes -- common at Formative sites across Mesoamerica. I have excavated sizable collections, but I find myself brought up short by the chaos of previous interpretations of vaguely similar objects. In my book Interpreting Ancient Figurines: Context, Comparison, and Prehistoric Art (Cambridge University Press, 2011), I examine ancient figurines from several world areas to address recurring challenges in the interpretation of prehistoric art. Sometimes figurines from one context are perceived to resemble those from another. Should such resemblances play a role in our interpretations? Early interpreters seized on the idea that figurines were recurringly female and constructed the fanciful myth of a primordial Neolithic Goddess. Contemporary practice instead rejects interpretive leaps across contexts. I suggest a middle path: a new framework for assessing the relevance of particular comparisons. I develops the argument in case studies that consider figurines from Paleolithic Europe, the Neolithic Near East, and Formative Mesoamerica.


2011 Lesure, Richard G., The Goddess Diffracted: Explaining Femaleness in Prehistoric Figurines. Cambridge University Press. 

2009 Lesure, Richard G., editor and principal author. Subsistence and Settlement in Early Formative Soconusco: El Varal and the Problem of Inter-Site Assemblage Variation. Cotsen Institute Press, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, Monograph 65. 

2008 Lesure, Richard G., The Neolithic Demographic Transition in Mesoamerica? Larger Implications of the Strategy of Relative Chronology. In The Neolithic Demographic Transition and Its Consequences, edited by Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel and Ofer Bar Yosef, pp.107-138. Springer Science. 

2007 Lesure, Richard G., Modes of Explanation for Prehistoric Imagery: Juggling Universalist, Historicist, and Contextualist Approaches in the Study of Early Figurines. In: Material Beginnings: A Global Prehistory of Figurative Representation, edited by C. Renfrew and I. Morley. McDonald Institute Monographs, Cambridge. 

2006 Michael Blake, Richard G. Lesure, John E. Clark, Warren D. Hill, Luis Barba Pingarrón, The Residence of Power at Paso de la Amada, Mexico. In Palaces and Power in the Americas: From Peru to the Northwest Coast, edited by Jessica Christie and Patricia Sarro, pp.191-210. University of Texas Press, 2006. 

2006 Lesure, Richard G., Aleksander Borejsza, Jennifer Carballo, Charles Frederick, Virginia Popper, and Thomas A. Wake. Chronology, Subsistence, and the Transition to the Formative in Central Tlaxcala, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 17(4): 474-492. 

2005 Lesure, Richard G., Linking Theory and Evidence in an Archaeology of Human Agency: Iconography, Style, and Theories of Embodiment. Journal of Archaeological Method in Theory 12, 2005, pp. 237-255. 

2004 Lesure, Richard G., Shared Art Styles and Long-Distance Contact in Early Mesoamerica. In Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by Julia A. Hendon and Rosemary A. Joyce, pp. 73-96. Blackwell, Oxford. 

2002 Lesure, Richard G., The Goddess Diffracted: Thinking about the Figurines of Early Villages. Current Anthropology 43(4):587-610. 

2002 Lesure, Richard G., and Michael Blake, Interpretive Challenges in the Study of Early Complexity: Economy, Ritual, and Architecture at Paso de la Amada, Mexico. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 21:1-24.