Thursday, August 14, 2008

Day 176 (Sunday August 3). Ancient Mexico

Mexico has the finest archaeological museum in the world, which easily transports you through 7,000 years of ancient civilization. Let me see if I can put a small summary in order:

5,000 to 1,500 BC we have the Formative period, when small cultural groups became sedentary to domesticate plants such as corn, squash, beans and chile. At some point they became quite sophisticated, and built dams and extensive canal systems to irrigate their crops. This is a photo of the El Purrón dam, in Tehuacan, Puebla, built and operated nearly 4,000 years ago.

1,500 to 500 BC we have the pre-Classic period, when the first integrated “culture” developed along the Gulf coast. We refer to them as the Olmecs. Their architecture was not quite as monumental as that of later times, but their social and religious organization influenced all later cultures. It is because of this that the Olmecs are sometimes referred as the Mother Culture of Mesoamerica.

500 BC to 750 AD we have the Classic period, defined by the rise and fall of the Teotihuacan empire. The Teotihuacans built an enormous commercial empire, and opened trade routes from northern Aridoamerica all the way to South America. The main route, however, went from western Mexico to the eastern edge of the Mexican altiplano (where they had a very strong outpost or trading partner until recently unidentified), down to the Gulf Coast, and from there down the coast to Central America, with an important branch to trade with the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. In Central America they traded with the Classic Mayas, who were divided in a number of small city states. The Theotihuacans exchanged pottery and obsidian, the volcanic glass that is so abundant in the central Mexican altiplano, with southern products such as fruits, feathers, and jade and gold ornaments. In my humble opinion, Teotihuacan was the greatest exponent of Mesoamerican civilization: they built the greatest city of ancient times near the shores of lake Texcoco, which at some point may have hosted a population of over 100,000 people and any number of traders, and they relied on the benefits of common trade to keep the empire together, rather than by military force. And then, quite suddenly in 750 AD, the Teotihuacans abandoned their city and disbanded to give way to the post-Classic period. Why was the city abandoned remains one of the unsolved mysteries of antiquity, and your guess is as good as mine. The monuments and streets of the ancient city lingered untouched for centuries, and when the Aztecs (or Mexicas to give them their proper name) arrived in central Mexico toward 1250 AD, they marvelled in awe at what they believed to be the place where the gods had been born (it is them that gave the city the name of Teotihuacan, which literally means “the place where the gods are born”). To give you a feeling for what they might have seen, here is how Velasco saw the city at the end of the 19th century, together with a modern view.

750 AD to 1250 AD we have the post-Classic period. Three things happened after the sudden abandonment of Teotihuacan: First, the Classic Mayas also abandoned their jungle cities and moved into the Yucatan Peninsula, to build more city states such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal (although exciting as a cultural group, the Mayas never got their act together as an integrated empire). Second, the wonderful artisans of Teotihuacan dispersed through Mesoamerica, further spreading their former culture through small city states such as Tula and Azcapotzalco. Third, the mysterious eastern partner of Teotihuacan took over the trade route that connected the Altiplano with the Gulf Coast and Central America. To talk further about this mysterious partner I must go back 25 years, when I was doing geologic fieldwork at the volcanic center of Los Humeros, at the very edge of the eastern Mexican Altiplano: I was doing geologic mapping of a huge area, as part of a geothermal exploration project, when I discovered a large rhyolitic dome with a thick obsidian carapace. The surrounding area was littered with hundreds of manufactured obsidian cores and blades, which showed that it had been mined for a long period of time. Chemical analysis of the geologic samples showed that it was the source of the so-called “Unknown Source D” archeological artifacts that are found in many Mesoamerican sites. About 5 kilometers away, in a “mal pais” formed by extensive andesitic lava flows from the same volcanic center I found the remains of walls and small pyramids. Curious, I started mapping the site and found the remains of an enormous urban complex with extensive causeways, courts, small pyramids, and ball game courts. A cursory analysis of the pottery suggested that the site had been continuously occupied since the pre-Classic, had reached its high point during the post-Classic, and had remained occupied until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 AD (I found a reference to it in one of the letters Cortés sent to the Spanish court). I believe that this site, named Caltonac or Cantonac, was the mysterious eastern trading partner of the Teotihuacan empire! I published the results of my work in 1984 in the Journal of Field Archaeology, and thus triggered an intense stage of work by Mexican archaeologists, who in the following 10 years excavated and consolidated 1% of the area of the city and confirmed many of my conclusions. It was one of my finest pieces of work!

1250 to 1521 AD we have the Mexica or Aztec period, which encompasses the rags-to-riches history of a band of ragamuffins from western Mexico. The codices tell us that the Mexicas left western Mexico around 1100 AD, and that for three cycles of 52 years wandered through central Mexico, offering their services as mercenary soldiers to the different city states. Finally, at the end of the third cycle, they got tired of being pushed from one place to another, established themselves in a small islet in the Lake of Texcoco, and from there conquered the surrounding city states and eventually all of Mesoamerica. But this is a story for a different day.

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