This property lies on the northern slopes of the Tlacolula valley in subtropical central Oaxaca and consists of two pre-Hispanic archaeological complexes and a series of pre-historic caves and rock shelters. Some of these shelters provide archaeological and rock-art evidence for the progress of nomadic hunter-gathers to incipient farmers. Ten thousand-year-old Cucurbitaceae seeds in one cave, Guilá Naquitz, are considered to be the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the continent, while corn cob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize. The cultural landscape of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla demonstrates the link between man and nature that gave origin to the domestication of plants in North America, thus allowing the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations.
Outstanding Universal Value
The Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the central valley of Oaxaca is an extensive cultural landscape that includes caves and shelters, one of which, the Guilá Naquitz cave has provided extraordinarily well preserved botanical evidence of bottle gourds, beans and squash and the earliest known maize cobs, and two others, Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih siteshave provided evidence of Pleistocene animals and stone tools and the seasonal use of the abundant summer resources of fruit and small mammals.
The gradual shift from social groups based primarily on hunting to ones that were primarily based on settled agriculture took place in multiple areas at the same time across the Mesoamerican region. The property is an exceptional reflection of the evolution from hunter-gathering to more settled communities in this area of the Oaxaca valley.
Criterion (iii): The botanical evidence from Guilá Naquitz cave related to the domestication of other plants, squash, gourds and beans, linked with the archaeological evidence from Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih, can together be seen to be an exceptional testimony to the evolution from hunter-gathering to more settled communities in this area of central America.
Within the sites of Guilá Naquitz, Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih lie all the elements necessary to sustain its Outstanding Universal Value and they are not under threat although could be vulnerable to over-grazing as a result of changes in climatic conditions.
Guilá Naquitz cave, together with Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih can be seen to convey sites, where early man in early dates is known to have domesticated certain wild plants and taken putative stapes towards semi-settled lives. For these sites, authenticity can be said to be intact, even though the evidence on which our knowledge is based is no longer physically extant in the caves and sites.
Management and protection requirements
Even if the Yagul part of the property enjoys protection by presidential decrees, the remaining archaeological and landscape areas do not currently have national or municipal protection. There are ongoing specific projects to protect this part of the property. All visible archaeological evidence is recorded on record sheets for each site, together with mapping and photographs.
The principal authorities responsible for the management of the property are the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), concerned with all archaeological and cultural sites, and the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), both of which have state and local branches or departments. CONANP is responsible for the conservation of natural species and scenic spots in the Yagul area. In conjunction with INAH it establishes agreements with communities, favouring traditional land use practices. In 1999, a Management Plan was approved for the Oaxaca Valley Archaeological Corridor (CAVO), attached to the existing management plan of the Monte Alban Archaeological Zone. The management system for the property overall is adequate, although newly implemented and thus still being proved.
There is a need to put in place legal protection for the whole nominated area; an active conservation policy to ensure grazing and access are controlled, risk preparedness measures; an access strategy based on the carrying capacity of the nominated area; and to promote a research programme to consider whether in time more substantial evidence might be uncovered that could allow the wider landscape of Oaxaca to be seen as having been a focus for the domestication of plants and the transition to settled agriculture that is exceptional in the context of its geo-cultural region.
Hunter-gatherers followed nomadic lives in the area up to the end of the Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, and, with the improvement in climate gradually moved towards a more settled way of life. Evidence of this gradual evolution, with the progressive domestication and improvement of plant species leading to an eventual agriculture-based society, and evidence of this gradual change has been preserved in two of the perpetually dry caves and one open site.
Sixty caves and rock shelters were surveyed in the 1960s by Kevin V Flannery. He excavated four sites: Guilá Naquitz and Cueva Blanca caves, the Martinez rock shelter, and also the open site of Gheo Shih (outside the nominated area). This work was seen to have produced evidence of the shift from nomadic to semi-sedentary lifestyles. Only three sites out of all the 147 caves and sites have provided botanical evidence. These are, Guilá Naquitz, Cueva Blanca and Gheo Shih. Some of the finds from Flannery's excavation are deposited in the Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca, in Oaxaca City. Others were subjected to destructive testing and no longer exist.
In 1996 further exploration produced an inventory of plants on the property and in 2001 surveys identified caves not recorded in the 1960s.
Work was undertaken by the University of Michigan between 1970-80 on the cultural ecology of the Valley. The caves and rock shelters were further studied in 1995 by Victoria Arriola. From 1996 intensive research has continued, in particular, through the efforts of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Finds from the Naquitz cave have been also been re-assessed by the Smithsonian Institution through accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating, along with finds of early domesticated plant assemblages that were recovered in the 1950s and 1960s from four other caves in Mexico: Tamaulipas (Romero's and Valenzuela's Caves), and Tehuacán (Coxcatlan and San Marcos Caves).
In Oaxaca, evidence for the beginnings of plant domestication and settled agriculture during the period between 8,900 and 2,000 BC has been divided into four phases: Naquitz, Jicaras, Blanca and Martinez, after three of the four sites that provided evidence. In the Naquitz phase (8,900-6,700 BC) within the Paleo- Indian period, evidence from Guilá Naquitz cave has been found for domestication of local plants including gourds, squash, beans and corn.
The Jicaras phase (5,000-4,000 BC) is related to evidence from Gheo Shih site, an open encampment, which seems to have seen seasonal and temporary use.
The Blanca phases (3,300-2,800 BC) relates to finds of projectiles from the Cueva Blanca cave linked to more permanent settlements.
The gradual shift from social groups based primarily on hunting to ones that were primarily based on settled agriculture took place in multiple areas at the same time across the Mesoamerican region.
The nominated property at the time it was excavated produced some of the earliest examples of domesticated plants. Although the evidence is acknowledged as being fragmentary, it is seen to outline this complex process.
In the 40 years since some of the caves on the property were investigated, further research at the Rio Balsas lowlands in south-west Mexico has revealed extensive evidence for the sequence from hunter-gathers gathering a variety of teosinte, the wild ancestor of maize, (7,000 BC), to its domestication and dispersal into the highlands of Oaxaca and other areas. One material difference between the two areas is that the evidence in Rio Balsas for the domestication of corn was based on seed evidence, whereas what was found in Oaxaca was a corn cob. However the seed evidence is much earlier than the corn cob.
The site of Yagul reflects one of a series of small citystates that emerged following the decline of the urban State of Monte Alban (remains inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1987) with its smaller satellite societies across the Valley, such as at the settlement at Caballito Blanco, a network of sites spaced at approximately 5km intervals.
The Yagul site was explored from 1954-61.
With the 16th century Spanish conquest in Oaxaca, land use moved away from the indigenous systems. The village governors were able to retain their lands and did not resist the invasion. Hernán Cortés, who was named the first marquis of the Valley, protected it from the huge changes endured in the Mexico Valley. Few Spaniards were at that stage interested in land acquisition however, by 17th century, large haciendas and labors (small farms with employed labour) had appeared, providing local markets with animal products and grains. Close to Yagul stand the remains of the Soriano hacienda including a decorated chapel.
In the early 20th century, major land and agrarian reforms occurred in Mexico. The community of the Union Zapata in the Valley is an example. It emerged in the 1930s as an ejido, with the former ranch, after considerable struggle, divided among 20 families of landless peons. There was not enough land for the community, it was minimally productive and issues arose over the common land 'the Fortress' with the Mitla community. Resentments continue between the landowners. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation