New Discoveries at Toniná!

On the road from the scenic highland Chiapas town of San Cristóbal de las Casas to the Mayan rainforest site of Palenque, at about the halfway point, there is a little known and rarely visited Mayan city known as Toniná.

Tzotz Choj

Tzotz Choj, the most important ruler of Toniná

A bit off of the beaten path, near the town of Ocosingo, it is a site that should never be missed by those truly interested in Mayan and Mesoamerican archaeology. Long believed to be on the periphery of the Classic Mayan heartland and of secondary importance, it is now known that it was actually a rival of Palenque during the late classic period (600-900 CE) and a major player in the power games undertaken by such great Mayan city states as Palenque, Tikal and Calakmul during the early through late Classic periods.

Toniná in the local Mayan dialect means ‘The Place Where the Darkness Falls’ or ‘The House of the West’. During its apogee, as deciphered through some of the script left behind, it was called the ‘City of the Divine Captives’. The blood of rival rulers was believed to fuel the movements of the cosmos, as is seen in graphic detail through the various sculptures on display which show just such captives in various phases of subjugation and sacrifice and often shown beheaded.

The ‘Mural de la Muerte’ (The Mural of Death) is another fascinating feature in the art of Toniná and seems to relate to the emergence of the lords of the underworld into the living realm, perhaps something they predicted would occur at the end of the Fourth Sun. Other important motifs include elements from the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, and the Mesoamerican ballgame.

Captives at Toniná

Captives at Toniná

Its rulers seemed to have taken great pride in the conquest and capture of enemy rulers, a case in point being that two sons of the great king Pakal of Palenque are recorded to have been taken prisoner at a certain time during its apogee. These types of military victories are on display vividly in the site museum, one that is equal in quality to many others throughout the Mayan realm, through bas-relief sculptures which show these bound captives in defeated postures as if in preparation for sacrifice. Glass cases inside the museum also display the unique ways that the Maya elite performed cranial deformation, as some of their elongated and altered skulls are showcased for visitors to contemplate.

Like all Mayan sites, Toniná has its own unique style of architecture and design. Set in steamy tropical farmland surrounded by the dense Lacandón jungle, it’s just one of the many botanical zones that you traverse as you travel from the highlands of Chiapas down into the rainforest. This setting adds to the mysterious and exotic feel of the place as one climbs the many-tiered structures that make up its core. Seven major platforms support palace complexes, living spaces, temples and administrative compounds.

Acropolis at Toniná

Acropolis at Toniná

It was discovered that what was originally thought to be a natural hill upon which was superimposed the different layers of the northern ‘acropolis’ was actually entirely constructed by the occupants of the site and turns out to be a pyramid 75 meters in height. That makes it 10 meters taller than the great Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán! This structure is now considered to be one of the largest ever discovered in Mesoamerica, rivaled in size only by those at places like El Mirador in Petén region of Guatemala.

But that’s not all! The recent discovery of a stone sarcophagus and the offerings placed inside are as splendid as those of the ‘Red Queen’ at Palenque, possibly the wife of Pakal the Great. A hieroglyphic text depicting the name of the Sixth ruler of Toniná, whose name is deciphered as K’inich B’aaknal Chaahk, or ‘Snake Skull’ now highlights the significant role that Toniná played in the region. Toniná is can now be considered a major player in the region and a Mayan city comparable to Palenque and Bonampak.

Toniná displays in its art a unique connection to other Mesoamerican cultures, in particular to the Toltecs of the central ‘Altiplano’. This Maya-Toltec connection may be related to the rise of Itzaes, the great founders of the centers that arose later in central Yucatán, like Chichén Itzá. It was also one of the longest lasting of the great Classic Mayan empires, reaching its peak of influence between the years 800-900 CE when other major centers in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras were already in decline.

This site is just one of the high points on the ‘Path of the Jaguar’, our 10-day excursion into the Mayan heartland of Chiapas. The next one will be taking place in early December! Don’t get left behind!

Path of the Feathered Serpent – Cacaxtla, Xochitécatl, Cholula

Day 1

We just returned from an immersive journey into the heart of archaeological Mesoamerica! A seven-day adventure, it was a truly unique experience digging into the pre-Hispanic history of Mexico.  I, my driver Daniel and five travelers left San Miguel the morning of Monday, May 4th and headed out towards our first destination, the magical Epi-classic hilltop sites of Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl which are located right near the Tlaxcala/Puebla border. They are located strategically on a volcanic dome that overlooks the Tlaxcala/Puebla valley and are within view of the majestic and mystical volcanoes Popocatépetl, Ixtaccíhuatl and La Malinche. We took the toll highways of the northern arc to avoid passing through Mexico City, which cut down on travel time immensely allowing us the chance to enjoy touring the sites at a leisurely pace before heading to our first night’s accommodations in nearby Cholula, Puebla.

Battle scene in Mayan murals at Cacaxtla

Battle scene in Mayan murals at Cacaxtla

A high point of the first day at Cacaxtla was when we beheld the strikingly well-preserved Mayan style painted murals that were discovered there by looters in 1974. Yes, Cacaxtla is one of the only Mayan ruins in central Mexico! Mayan gods, agricultural scenes, astronomical and calendrical themes, a vivid and graphic battle scene that shows jaguar and eagle warriors engaged in intense combat and colorful images of different versions of the feathered serpent were showcased around the ceremonial center. The Putún Maya, otherwise known as the Olmeca-Xicallanca, were sea traders who probably came from the shores of Campeche and made intrusions into central Mexico, seizing important trade routes and resources as they took advantage of the power vacuum left after the collapse of the great city of Teotihuacán at the end of the Classic period (600-900 A.D.). Hence the name Cacaxtla which comes from the Náhuatl word cacaxtli that refers to the wooden back racks worn by long distance traders and merchants.

Xochitécatl, or Place of Flowers, is located just 1 kilometer west of Cacaxtla and gave us a unique glimpse into the ceremonial life of the inhabitants of the valley centuries earlier during the Pre-classic period (1600-400 B.C.), the time period when the Olmec or ´mother culture’ were erecting their trademark monolithic stone head sculptures along the gulf coast. Structures emulating the surrounding landscape brought to mind a religion based on the worship of mountains and a fertility goddess as seen in representations of such in the form of ceramic figurines on display in the site museum. One could say that Xochitécatl embodied the feminine and Cacaxtla the masculine, a form of duality that is ever-present in Mesoamerican art, architecture and religion.

Our first revelation as to the form of sacrifice they believed necessary to appease the deities, manifested as the forces of nature, came through mention of the more than 30 child sacrifices discovered at the top of the main pyramid. This practice, most researchers believe, was intimately tied to the ceremony involved in asking for rain, the tears of a child seen as such.

After a delicious lunch of locally-prepared squash flower quesadillas (flor de calabaza) we arrived in the early afternoon to our comfortable accommodations in Cholula, one of the longest-inhabited places in all of Latin America.

Day 2

Day two started with a delicious breakfast at our hotel right near the center of San Pedro Cholula, within sight of the volcanoes and just down the street from the largest pyramid in the world (by volume), the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Also known by its Náhuatl name, Tlalchihualtépetl, or ‘Hand Made Mountain’ and built in four superimposed phases it is truly a marvel of human endeavor. Our local expert guide, Alberto, and I shared our insight into its construction, history and its religious significance to the ancient people who built it as we passed through a system of tunnels through its center and out into the ceremonial center.

‘Los Bebedores’ or ‘The Drunkards’, one of the most famous of the Great Pyramid’s painted murals shows multiple figures of priests in some kind of indulgent ceremony consuming what could be pulque, the fermented heart of the maguey cactus, or perhaps some sort of hallucinogenic beverage made from extracts of peyote or the hallucinogenic mushroom.

Tlalchihualtepetl, the Great Pyramid of Cholula

Tlalchihualtépetl, the Great Pyramid of Cholula

A contemporary to Teotihuacán during the classic period (150-650 A.D.), this place was once one of the holiest sites in all of Mexico and displayed unique forms of art and architecture reflecting central Mexican, Mayan and Classic Veracruz styles. The entire city of Cholula is built over the remains of this ancient capital and the mixture of Catholic and pre-Hispanic religions, through the phenomena known as syncretism, is displayed vividly via the interiors of some of its unique indigenous churches (an optional excursion). The church at the top of the pyramid, Los Remedios, is still an important pilgrimage destination for the indigenous people of the area.

Free time the rest of the day allowed everyone to enjoy the center of Cholula and some of its unique and delicious culinary delights. This was a needed rest as the next day would lead us even deeper into the heart of ancient and colonial central Mexico!

To be continued…

Archaeological Treasure near San Miguel de Allende

An Ancient Wonder Revealed to the Public

We’ve all heard about the importance of 2012 to the ancient Maya but for ‘Northern Central Mesoamerica’, a newly designated region long neglected by archaeologists and historians which includes San Miguel de Allende and most of Guanajuato state, it is 2010 that may have been the year to remember… as it was not only the bicentennial of the Mexican war of independence, which was sparked by the hero-founders of the region, but also the year in which an archaeological treasure was revealed to the public. That treasure, which has now been excavated and studied by a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team directed by the INAH Guanajuato archaeologist Gabriela Zepeda García Moreno, is the archaeological zone Cañada de la Virgen.

The site lies just outside of San Miguel on land that is part of the ex-hacienda of the same name, surrounded by scenic hills and small canyons which abound in flora and fauna that in some aspects remain unaltered after centuries. I was lucky enough to have been invited by Gabriela to work alongside the team excavating during the 2004 field season.
Aerial View 2003
I gazed upon the main pyramid again from a distance as I arrived with Gabriela one cool and sunny morning in the spring of 2009, when I returned to San Miguel after three years as the director of a language center at a university in coastal Oaxaca. It glowed beneath the bright sun, across a small canyon, on what seems like a wide plateau beneath the gaze of the sacred hills that command the horizon. Its geometric design set it apart from the surrounding landscape but I could see how it may have been mistaken over the years for a small hill when covered by dirt and vegetation. It would be my first time to visit the site since the time I had spent working and learning from the various scientists involved in its exploration back in the spring and summer of 2004. It was quite a shock upon arriving with Gabriela six years later to see how much work had been done and how many of the structures had been excavated and consolidated, that had been merely cactus covered hillocks back then.

I spent that day with Gabriela and staff from the Museo Alhondiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato taking photos and learning about the recent excavations, the preservation of the natural habitat within the zone (certain species of native plants displayed along  a scenic pathway) and the unique, forward thinking plans for its opening to public visitation. I remember imagining how my anthropology professors, leaders in Mesoamerican research, would have loved to have been there and to have been part of such an amazing discovery as this.

There are many fascinating archaeological sites in Mexico and it is hard to describe to the general public, who are mainly aware of the more highly touristed centers, the importance of smaller or lesser known sites currently under investigation. But it is at these places that scientists are on the cutting edge of research and understanding of the ancient indigenous cultures of Mexico, their daily habits, knowledge of the cosmos and intimate tie to the earth and the forces of nature. Cañada de la Virgen is one of those focal points of research and the site of pioneering archaeological studies. San Miguel holds the position of one of those unique places in Mexico where the vestiges of colonial as well as pre-Hispanic history have become accessible to the general public; opening doorways into understanding and a feeling of our past, present and future as human beings.

After years of labor during a unique and pioneering study, Gabriela, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and INAH Guanajuato, with previous funding and support from the local, state and federal governments, were in the last stages of preparation as the roadway and entrances into the archaeological zone were then being finished. The grand opening, on February 11, 2011, welcomed the public into a sacred and serene place whose marvelous secrets have been left over the centuries to the earth and humanity.

So, what do we know now that some of the excavations have been completed? The answer is… we know a lot more than we could have ever imagined before Gabriela and her team unraveled many of the mysteries that the site holds after over 17 years of continuous investigation. Some of those mysteries, like how the layout and construction of the various temple complexes align to the landscape and heavens and what was the identity of the ancient people who occupied these canyons and forests so long ago have now been made much clearer. The general public is now privy to evidence of the life-ways, culture and architectural genius of the ancient builders of these monuments and the serenity of an obviously sacred space.

So, what exactly is Cañada de la Virgen? Here are a few of the things we can now say: That it is…

  • An agricultural and ritual clock emulating the sacred landscape and aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies.
  • An important regional center for trade and a widespread ceramic tradition.
  • A refuge for elite astronomer/priests with an occupation of over 5 centuries.
  • A burial ground for elite residents accompanied by sacred death ritual offerings.
  • A ceremonial center with architectural complexes of profound meaning and use.
  • A lesson in visual anthropology and archaeo-astronomy.
  • An ethnobotanist’s paradise.
  • A study in the daily life, health and diet of ancient Mesoamericans through forensics.
  • A symbolic portal between the earthly realm and the underworld.
  • A pilgrimage destination for common people who brought in tribute to the elite.
  • A piece of Mexican and world heritage in need of proper preservation.

In this series I will go into detail to explain all of these unique aspects of Cañada de La Virgen, as I have had the great privilege of working side by side with the people taking part in the excavation process and have had the opportunity to talk at length with Gabriela Zepeda and other members of the research team. These include Rossana Quiroz, the archaeo-astronomer who has spent over 9 years of continual observation and photographic documentation discovering how the site and mainly Complex A serves as a fascinating ‘cosmic clock’. I will focus on facets of the archaeological zone that are of particular interest and importance and that set it aside as unique and exemplary among sites in Mesoamerica describing the important part it played in Mexican pre-history.