Michael Blake

Emergence of social and political complexity, origins and spread of agriculture–especially maize; Mesoamerica (Early Formative and Postclassic Chiapas, Mexico), North America (Coast Salish peoples of British Columbia).


I joined the faculty at UBC in 1986, a year after completing my Ph.D. in Anthropology, with a specialization in Archaeology, at the University of Michigan. My doctoral research in the early 1980s examined the household archaeology of the Postclassic period Maya centre of Canajasté on the Lagartero River near the Chiapas-Guatemala border in the Upper Grijalva Tributaries region of SE Mexico. Since then I have carried out archaeological research in Chiapas, Mexico and the Salish Sea region of British Columbia, Canada.

Soon after completing my doctoral research, I teamed up with John Clark, former Director of Brigham Young University’s New World Archaeological Foundation, to begin a research project investigating the emergence of complex social and political systems in the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, dating between about 4000 and 3000 years ago. These Early Formative period societies (that we have dubbed the Mokaya) comprised some of Mexico’s earliest villages, and developed practices that later became common throughout Prehispanic Mesoamerica (for example, they built Mesoamerica’s earliest known ballcourt–the subject of Warren Hill’s UBC PhD in 1999). Richard Lesure (UCLA) later joined the project, and, along with several other archaeologists, our ongoing research documents the transformations that took place as people became increasingly dependent on agriculture (including maize cultivation), lived in permanent settled communities, and developed complex social and political hierarchies. Our work in Chiapas has been funded by the generous support of SSHRC Canada, and the BYU-New World Archaeological Foundation, along with many other agencies.

Between 1992 and 2007, I conducted archaeological research in the Fraser River Valley of Southwestern British Columbia in partnership with members of Stó:lō Nation’s Research and Research Management Centre, including Dr. Dave Schaepe, as well as research partners from a number of universities. One long-term project concentrated on the ancient village site of Scowlitz (Qithyil), located 100 km east of Vancouver within the traditional territories of the Sto:lo Coast Salish peoples. Working with Dr. Dana Lepofsky (Simon Fraser University), our project team–which has included many UBC, SFU, and UCLA archaeology field schools–has investigated how both households and cemeteries formed an integral part of Coast Salish social, political and economic and spiritual life. This project has as it main goal the exploration of Coast Salish identities as expressed in house structures and village settlement layouts extending from about 3000 years ago to the beginning of European colonization of the region in the early-1800s [link to FVAP SAA research posters].

My most recent work, since 2007, has focused on the origins and spread of maize agriculture in the Americas. Working with Dr. Bruce Benz (Texas Wesleyan University) our research team is studying archaeological maize collections stored in museums and other institutions in about eight different countries throughout the Americas. Our research goals are to directly date the samples using AMS radiocarbon dating, conduct detailed morphological analyses of maize cobs, and extract and characterize ancient maize DNA (see our new publication in Science by Kelly Swarts, et al. 2017). For more information about this project, please visit our on-line database and interactive mapping website: Ancient Maize Map.

During the past eight years or so I’ve been working with a team of archaeologists and other specialists to trace the history of cacao use in Latin America. Working with Drs. Sonia Zarillo, Terry Powis, Francisco Valdez, Nilesh Gaikwad, and Claire Lanaud (and many other members of our large international team), we’ve been looking for evidence of Theobroma cacao in pottery and other ancient tools at early settlements in Ecuador (Nature Ecology & Evolution 2018–Behind the Paper by Sonia Zarrillo).  This project is entering a new phase of research in partnership with UBC’s Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research (PCIGR) directed by Professor Dominique Weis and her team of researchers.

Select Recent Publications


  • Blake, M., T. A. Lee, Jr., M. E. Pye, and J. E. Clark (2016) Upper Grijalva River Basin Survey. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, No. 79. Brigham Young University Press, Provo.
  • Blake, M. (2015) Maize for the Gods: Unearthing the 9,000-Year History of Corn. University of California Press, Oakland.
  • Blake, M. (2010) Colonization, Warfare, and Exchange at the Postclassic Maya Site of Canajasté, Chiapas, Mexico. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, No. 70. Brigham Young University, Provo.

Journal Articles and Book Chapters

  • Masur, L., J-F. Millaire, and M. Blake (2018)  “Peanuts and Power in the Andes: The Social Archaeology of Plant Remains from the Virú Valley, Peru.” Journal of Ethnobiology 38(4):589-609. http://www.bioone.org/doi/10.2993/0278-0771-38.4.589
  • Zarrillo, S., N. Gaikwad, C. Lanaud, T. Powis, C. Viot, I. Lesur, O. Fouet, X. Argout, E. Guichoux, F. Salin, R. L. Solorzano, O. Bouchez, H. Vignes, P. Severts, J. Hurtado, A. Yepez, L. Grivetti, M. Blake, and F. Valdez (2018)  “The Use and Domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon.” Nature: Ecology & Evolution 2 (December):1879–1888. www.nature.com/natecolevol 1887 (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0697-x)
  • Springer, C., D. Lepofsky, M. Blake (2018)  “Obsidian in the Salish Sea: An Archaeological Examination of Ancestral Coast Salish Social Networks in SW British Columbia and NW Washington State.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 51(Sept):45-66 [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278416518300023]
  • Bishop, K., T. Wake and M. Blake (2018) “Early Formative Period Bird Use at Paso de la Amada, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity. Published online:10 April 2018. [https://doi.org/10.1017/laq.2018.3]
  • Swarts, K., R. M. Gutaker, B. Benz, M. Blake, R. Bukowski, J. Holland, /R.G. Matson … et. al. (2017) “Genomic estimation of complex traits reveals ancient maize adaptation to temperate North America.” Science 357(6350):512-515.
  • Lepofsky, D., S. Formosa, D. M. Schaepe, M. Lenert and M. Blake (2013) “Mapping Sxwóxwiymelh: A Pre-Contact Settlement in the Upper Fraser Valley, Southwestern British Columbia.” Journal of Field Archaeology 38(4):309-323.
  • Hart, J. P., R. G. Matson, R. G. Thompson and M. Blake (2011) “Teosinte Inflorescence Phytolith Assemblages Mirror Zea Taxonomy.” PLoS ONE 6(3):e18349.
  • Blake, M. (2011) “Building History in Domestic and Public Space at Paso de La Amada: An Examination of Mounds 6 and 7.” In Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations: Archaic and Formative Lifeways in the Soconusco Region, edited by R.G. Lesure, pp. 97-118. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Blake, M. and H. Neff (2011) “Evidence for the Diversity of Late Archaic and Early Formative Plant Use in the Soconusco Region of Mexico and Guatemala.” In Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations: Archaic and Formative in the Soconusco Region, edited by R. G. Lesure, pp. 47-66. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Lepofsky, D., D. Schaepe, A. Graesch, M. Lenert, J. Arnold, K. Carlson, M. Blake, P. Ormerod, J. Clague, and P. Moore (2009) “Exploring Stó:lō-Coast Salish interaction and Identity in Ancient Houses and Settlements in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia.” American Antiquity 74(4):595-626.

On Leave: Nov 2019 to June 20

2017 – Mary W. Klinger Book Award for an outstanding book published in the discipline of Economic Botany/Ethnobotany: Maize for the Gods, University of California Press (2015) — Society for Economic Botany

2006Killam Teaching Prize — UBC Faculty of Arts

2006Award for Excellence in Teaching — Undergraduate Society, UBC Department of Anthropology and Sociology

, 2018