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. Since then I have carrying out archaeological research in Chiapas, Mexico and British Columbia, Canada. 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. That research has recently been published as a monograph in the research Papers series of the New World Archaeological Foundation.

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 and Stó:lō Tribal Council 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 Dana Lepofsky (Simon Fraser University), our project team–which has included many UBC, SFU, and UCLA archaeology fieldschools–has investigated how both households and cemeteries formed an integral part of Coast Salish social, political and economic organization. More recently our research team (Fraser Valley Archaeological Project–FVAP), including Dave Schaepe (Stó:lō Nation), Anthony Graesch (Connecticut College), and Jeanne Arnold (UCLA) has surveyed, mapped, and excavated at a series of archaeological sites within Stó:lō Traditional Territory. 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 mid-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 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. For more information about this project, please visit our on-line database and interactive mapping website: Ancient Maize Map.

Select Recent Publications


Journal Articles and Book Chapters

  • 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.
ARCL 405 Archaeological and Anthropological Mapping

Fall Term Sept-Dec 2015 (Fri 11-2:00)
Location ANTH/SOC 117

Current methods in mapping spatial information in archaeology and related subfields of anthropology. In this course we will take a hands-on approach to understanding and making maps. Using open source GIS (Geographic Informations Systems) students will produce elegant maps that help us to both understand and represent the spatial dimensions and patterns of information at many different scales.

ANTH 400 History of Anthropology

Fall Term Sept-Dec 2015 (T-Th 2-3:30)
Location: Biological Sciences 2200

The development of anthropological theory and practice in institutional contexts. Through seminar-style discussions and short lectures we will look at the main currents of anthropological thinking–exploring the connections among early anthropologists, their theories and biases, and the emergence of modern anthropology.

ARCL 232 Ancient Latin America

Winter Term Jan-Apr 2016 (T-Th 3:30-5)
Location: Woodward IRC 3

The archaeology of ancient Mexico, Central and South America, highlighting recent discoveries about the history of peoples such as the Aztecs, Maya, Zapotec, Inca, Chimor and their ancestors. We will explore twelve thousand years of human history looking at some of the exciting new discoveries that have changed the way we think about the the pre-Columbian Americas from northern Mexico to Tierra del Fuego.

Killam Teaching Prize — UBC Faculty of Arts , 2006
Anthropology/Sociology Undergraduate Society Award for Excellence in Teaching , 2006