Mar 192017
 

Twice a year, at the spring and fall equinox, the sun is positioned directly over the equator, giving everywhere on the planet twelve hours day and twelve hours night. The spring or vernal equinox, which heralds the start of spring, usually falls on 20 March or 21 March, and is celebrated in many parts of the world as a time of fertility and rebirth.

Mexico is no exception, and here are the nine most magical places in Mexico to celebrate the spring equinox:

Nine Best Places for Spring Equinox

Nine Best Places in Mexico to witness the Spring Equinox

1. Chichen Itza, Yucatán

The Mayan archaeological site of Chichen Itza, between Mérida and Cancún, is a very popular place to witness the spring equinox. The Kulkulkan temple is a masterpiece, built according to precise astronomical specifications. At the equinoxes, the sun=s rays in the late afternoon dance like a slithering snake down the steps of the pyramid. Spectators may not realize that this pyramid has amazing acoustical properties as well:

The astronomical observatory known as El Caracol (“The Snail”) at Chichen Itza has features aligned so precisely that they helped the Maya determine the precise dates of the two annual equinoxes.

Serpent slithers down the steps of Kulkulcan pyramid, Chichen itza. Credit: Flickr:

Chichen Itza: serpent slithers down the steps of Kulkulkan pyramid,
Credit: Flickr: wowitsstephen

2. Dzibilchaltún, Yucatán

Dzibilchaltún, in the state of Yucatán, about 20 km from Mérida, is much less well known but equally fascinating. The rays of the rising sun (spectators arrive before 5 am) light up the windows and entrances of the Temple of the Seven Dolls in a spectacular display.

3. Great Temple, Mexico City

The Great Temple (Templo Mayor) in Mexico City marks the spot where legend says the Mexica priest Tenoch saw the promised sign of an eagle on a cactus indicating the original site for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The city was renamed Mexico City when the Spanish conquistadors defeated the Aztecs and eventually became the largest city in the western hemisphere. As the sun rises at the Equinox, its rays shine precisely between the two major temples at this historic site. This spectacle, probably once reserved for the priests, can now be enjoyed by all.

4. Teotihuacan, State of México

Teotihuacan (“the city of the gods”) is the single most visited archaeological site in Mexico and an outstanding location to witness the spring equinox. Within easy day trip range of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was once a bustling city housing an estimated 200,000 people. It holds a special place in Mexico’s archaeological history since it was the first major site to be restored and opened to the public ~ in 1910, in time to celebrate the centenary of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s call for Independence.

The original inhabitants erected marker stones on nearby hillsides to mark the position of the rising sun at the spring equinox as viewed from the Pyramid of the Sun. Many of the visitors at the spring equinox today dress in white and climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in order to receive the special energy of the equinox. There is some concern about the problems that so many spring revelers may cause:

5. Malinalco, State of Mexico

There is no direct evidence that the ancients celebrated the equinox at this location, though the archaeological site certainly has a carefully determined orientation. However, perhaps on account of its accessibility from Mexico City, Malinalco, in the State of México, has become a popular place to see in the spring.

6. Xochicalco, Morelos

Xochicalco, in the state of Morelos, is equally easy to reach from Mexico City and was the site of a very important calendar-related conference in the 8th century BC. It attracts equnox viewers on account of its considerable astronomical significance from pre-Hispanic times.

The sites main claim to archeo-astronomy fame is not connected to the equinoxes but to the two days when the sun is at its zenith (directly overhead) here each year, on 15 May and 28 July. The vertical north side of a 5‑meter‑long vertical “chimney” down into one particular underground cave ensures that the sunlight entering the cave on the day of the zenith is precisely vertical. The south side of the chimney slopes at an angle of 4o23′. Sunlight is exactly parallel to this side on June 21, the day of the Summer solstice.

7. Bernal, Querétaro

At the Spring Equinox, this town is invaded by visitors “dressed in long, white robes or gowns, and red neckerchiefs” who come seeking “wisdom, unity, energy and new beginnings”. (Loretta Scott Miller, in El Ojo del Lago, July 1997).

Since 1992, this Magic Town has held events each year from 19 to 21 March to celebrate the Spring Equinox. On 20 March, hundreds of people hike in the evening to the chapel of Santa Cruz, part-way up the Peña de Bernal, the giant monolith that overshadows the town, for hymns and prayers. They greet the sun as it rises on 21 March. Following a ceremony in the town square at noon (21 March), as many as 15,000 visitors form a human chain stretching from the plaza to the top of the monolith. Local attractions in Bernal include small museums about local history, masks and Mexico’s movie industry.

8. El Tajín, Veracruz

The amazing Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajín, Veracruz, is another great place to visit on the spring equinox. Crowds gather here to celebrate the equinox, despite the fact that in this location, there is no particular solar spectacle to observe. Today’s celebrations continue an age-old tradition at El Tajín, which has long been one of the most important ceremonial centers in this region.

9. Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Monte Alban, just outside the city of Oaxaca, was the first planned urban center in the Americas, and was occupied continually for more than 1300 years, between 500 BC and AD 850. Visitors from all over the world, many of them dressed in white, converge on Monte Alban at the spring equinox to recharge their energy levels.

Magical Mexico!

The world’s first ecological museum was designed and built in Mexico

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Apr 042016
 

The world’s first ecological museum was designed and built in Mexico, at the archaeological site of Xochicalco, in the state of Morelos. The museum, about thirty kilometers south of Cuernavaca, was built as part of Mexico’s celebrations to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus.

The project, which overs 12,676 square meters, was begun in 1993. Basic construction was completed in 1994 and the museum was formally inaugurated in April 1996.

Xochicalco is an interesting archaeological site, best known for its astronomical significance. Some archaeologists have made a case that its most lavishly-decorated pyramid commemorates a major conference of astronomers, held here in the eighth century AD, in order to plan a calendar adjustment.

At Xochicalco, the scenic and imposing ruins visible today reflect only a small part of what was formerly a much more extensive city. Numerous constructions, linked by cobblestone tracks, rise above the platforms; they include palaces, temples, ball courts and more than one “observatory”.

Xochicalco remained prominent until about AD1000, after which it was abandoned. When the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, they learned of the ruins, but had no inkling of their astronomical significance.

Two of the many natural underground caves at Xochicalco show clear evidence of architectural modification, with the perforation of an artificial hole or “chimney” from the cave to the ground above. These vertical shafts enabled very precise celestial observations. For instance, the vertical north side of the five-meter-long chimney down into one cave would have resulted in a precisely vertical beam of sunlight on the days the sun is directly overhead.

Xochicalco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and receives about 800,000 visitors a year.

 

Xochicalco site museum

Xochicalco site museum

The challenge in building the museum is that there is no established settlement near the archaeological site, so there was no local provision of potable water, drainage or electricity.

As a result, the local Mexican architect, Rolando J. Dada y Lemus, designed a building that was almost entirely self-sufficient.

The project, which is fully wheelchair accessible. had three components:

  • Access, parking and exterior gardens, covering 4,550 square meters
  • Entrance patio and three interior gardens, 1,237 square meters
  • Six covered exhibition rooms connected to an entrance hall which has a view of the site, restaurant, administrative and service areas, 1,870 square meters

The museum has parking for 70 cars and 14 buses, and can accommodate 600 people at a time.

How is this museum so sustainable?

  • Underlying the museum is a 550,000-liter cistern. For a few months during the winter dry season, water has to be trucked in from a nearby reservoir – this is the only “input” from outside.
  • The museum’s interior temperatures remain moderate all year because there is a 20-cm gap between exterior and interior walls. When exterior walls heat up in summer, that heat has little effect on the temperature of the interior walls.
  • Shallow outdoor pools around the perimeter cool outside air before it enters the building.
  • Skylights, used to illuminate the exhibits, also allow warm air inside the building to escape.
  • Photo-voltaic solar panels provide sufficient power for computers, lights, and the cistern pump.
  • Rainwater is captured and utilized for much of the year.
  • Wastewater is treated and used to water the gardens

The museum cost 6 million pesos to build, but the energy savings alone mean that all that cost has already been “recuperated”. (Similar size museums have electricity bills of around 1 million pesos a year)

Sources:

Many of Mexico’s archaeological sites now on Google Street View

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Apr 132015
 

An agreement between the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) and Google means that many of Mexico’s most famous archaeological sites can now be explored using Google’s Street View. Perfect for the armchair traveler!

The system allows for viewers to rotate street level views the full 360 degrees horizontally, and 290 degrees vertically to take a “virtual walk” through such major sites as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Monte Albán, Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Palenque, Tula and Paquimé.

Sites included in INAH/Google system

Sites included in INAH/Google system

Google’s images were captured by specially-designed equipment on bicycles that could navigate the paths and ruins without causing damage to the ancient structures.

Google Street Views can be accessed via either Google Earth or Google Maps.

The INAH/Google system includes the following sites in the Maya World region (Mundo Maya):

Dzibilchaltún
Uxmal (Street view) – Uxmal (article)
Kabah
Ek Balam
Chichén Itzá (Street view) – Chichén Itzá (article)
Kohunlich
Dzibanché
Chacchoben
Tulum (Street view) – Tulum (article)
El Rey
El Meco
Cobá
Becán
Palenque (Street view) – Palenque (article)
Bonampak
Comalcalco (Street view) – Comalcalco (article)

It also includes these noteworthy sites in other parts of Mexico:

Teotihuacan  (Street view) – Teotihuacan (article)
Xochicalco (Street view) – Xochicalco (article)
Monte Albán (Street view) – Monte Albán (article)
Mitla (Street view) – Mitla (article)
Yagul (Street view) – Yagul (article)
Peralta
Plazuelas
Tzintzuntzan (Street view) – Tzintzuntzan (article)
Tajín
Paquimé (Street view) – Paquimé (article)
Cuicuilco
Cholula, Puebla (Street view) – Cholula (article)
Xochitécatla
Tula

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The Codex Mendoza, a key resource about Aztec times, can now be viewed online

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Jan 192015
 

The Codex Mendoza, which we have referred to in several previous posts, can now be viewed via an amazing online interactive resource organized by INAH, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, in association with Oxford’s Bodleian Library and King’s College, London.

Compiled in 1542, and richly illustrated, the Codex Mendoza is one of the key primary sources from Aztec times. It was completed at the instigation of Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza and provides exquisite details about Aztec history, the expansion of their “empire” and the territorial tributes that they received from every quarter of their dominions. The Codex also chronicles daily life and social dynamics.

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

The interactive online version has images of the entire document and allows viewers to mouse-over the original text for translations into English or modern Spanish. Clicking on individual images offers more detailed explanations and information.

The digital codex can be viewed online, or downloaded through Apple’s App Store as a 1.02-gigabyte app.

The original Codex Mendoza resides in the library of Oxford University.  (The ship carrying it from New Spain (Mexico) back to Spain in colonial times was attacked by French buccaneers. The booty was subsequently divided up, with the Codex eventually reaching the university library.)

The online Codex Mendoza is  a truly amazing resource. Hopefully, some of the other Mexican codices that currently reside in Europe, too also be “virtually repatriated” in the near future, making it much easier for Mexican scholars to consult them.

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The Magic Town of Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán

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Jul 262014
 

Tzintzuntzan, designated a Magic Town in 2012, has two sixteenth century churches, equally ancient olive trees, a craft market specializing in straw goods and ornaments, plus an archaeological site which was the capital of the not inconsiderable Tarascan Empire.

The Tarascan Empire

The Tarascan Empire, contemporaneous with that of the Aztecs, stretched westwards as far as the shores of Lake Chapala, with sporadic contacts into the Sayula lake area, and to the east as far as present-day Zitácuaro. The Tarascans spoke Purépecha, and today the local indigenous people prefer to be called Purépecha. The term “Tarascan” is more properly reserved for their ancestors and their pre-Columbian empire.

“Tzintzuntzan” is an onomatopoeic Purépecha rendering of the sound made by a hummingbird. The ceremonial center was still fully active when the Spanish arrived. Tarascan buildings were constructed mainly of wood. Only the basements were normally built of stone and today, therefore, it is only these basements or yácatas that remain. Some of the cut stones which cover the rubble-filled interiors of the yácatas are ornamented with rock carvings.

The scale of earth-moving involved in constructing the temples is remarkable. The entire 425-meter-long platform is man-made. On it were built five yácatas, on the tops of which would have been wooden and thatch structures serving as shrines. The semi-circular shape of these yácatas suggests that they were built to honor the god of the wind, Ik. The Tarascan ceremonial centre commands a magnificent view over the lake, whose waters would have been lapping at the platform’s base during some rainy seasons. The area behind the yácatas, next to the village soccer pitch blazes with color during the wildflower seasons of late spring and early autumn. The archaeological site has a small, modern museum.

The Tarascans had a mixed economy, collecting fruits and forest products, fishing and undertaking agriculture, complete with terracing and irrigation. Some archaeologists have argued that many of the pre-Columbian peoples, dependent on the natural world for their immediate survival, were very ecologically-conscious. However, in this area, evidence from rates of lake sedimentation now suggests that maybe they weren’t quite so environmentally-aware after all. It seems that erosion rates were already on the rise by the time the Spanish arrived, suggesting that native agriculture was almost certainly not sustainable. Following the introduction of European diseases, the decline in population (and agricultural workforce) prompted a further increase in erosion rates as soil conservation methods could not be maintained. Erosion and sedimentation were exacerbated by the nineteenth and twentieth century deforestation of surrounding hills.

Spanish churches

Tzintzuntzan monastery and church. Artist: Mark Eager. All rights reserved.

Tzintzuntzan monastery and church. Artist: Mark Eager. All rights reserved.

The Spanish destroyed the Tarascan temples, carting off many of the stones to build Catholic churches in their new village. Observant visitors to the beautifully-proportioned patio of the former monastery beside the main church will spot petroglyphs on some of the walls there which betray the stones’ earlier placement in the yácatas. This building, decorated with fine old colored frescoes depicting Franciscan lore, and with parts of its original wooden roof still intact, houses the office of the parish notary and is not always open to the public.

There are other peculiarities here, too, which say much for the realities of sixteenth century Spanish monastic life. When the monastery of Tzintzuntzan was built, two churches were constructed, one for the monks’ private use and the other for the lay Third Order. These two churches, only a few steps apart, are about as different as can be, given that they are of similar age. The monks’ church, beautifully restored following an arson attack, is light and airy; the Third Order church is dark, gloomy and oppressing. Both, in their own way, are awe-inspiring. To one side of the Third Order church is a complete-immersion font, shaded by two tall trees.

Ancient olive trees

In the large atrium in front of the monastery are a sixteenth century cross and the bent and twisted tree trunks of some of the oldest olive trees in Mexico, brought by special request from Spain for the express purpose of providing the monks with one of their accustomed foods. They are thought to be more than four hundred and fifty years old.

Handicraft market

Tzintzuntzan’s handicraft market is a cornucopia of straw work in every conceivable color, design and size, which make ideal Christmas decorations or gifts. Also on sale are elaborately carved wooden beams, and examples of the many different local pottery styles including the Ocumicho devil-figures and strange green pineapples as well as finely detailed, hand-embroidered scenes of village life.

How to get there:

Tzintzuntzan is about twenty minutes drive from Pátzcuaro.

Source:

This post is based on chapter 32 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

Mexico’s geomorphosites: the Primavera Forest, Guadalajara, Jalisco

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Jun 012013
 

The Primavera Forest (aka Bosque de la Primavera, Sierra de la Primavera) is a volcanic region located immediately west of Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara. The Primavera Forest occupies an ancient volcanic caldera, where the last eruptions are thought to have been about 30,000 years ago. The Primavera is a wilderness area of pine and oak woodland, with hot-water rivers, nature-trails and thermal spas. The park, which is about 30 km (19 mi) across (see map), serves as the lungs of Guadalajara and is popular, especially on weekends, for activities such as picnics, birdwatching, hiking, climbing, mountain biking and motocross.

The Primavera Forest. Credit: Semarnat, 2003

Basic map of the Primavera Forest. The distance between Tala and Guadalajara is about 35 km (22 miles). Credit: Semarnat, 2003

The main geographic and geological attractions of the Primavera Forest include:

Scenery, views, flora and fauna

The average elevation of the Primavera Forest is about 2200 m above sea level, rising to 2270 m (7447 ft) towards the eastern edge of the forest which overlooks the city of Guadalajara. The three main summits are El Pedernal, San Miguel and Las Planillas. There is easy access to the 30,000 ha of protected natural area from various points, including the town of Tala and from Highway 15 (the main Guadalajara-Tepic highway) which skirts the northern edge of the Primavera. Agriculture and settlement have made incursions into the edges of the park, with land cleared for subdivisions or for fields of sugarcane and agave (for tequila). A major wildfire raged through parts of the forest in 2012.

The park is home to about 1000 different plant species as well as 137 different birds and at least 106 terrestrial animals, including deer, puma, opossums (tlacuaches), armadillos and rabbits.

Hot springs

Thermal springs are common throughout the Volcanic Axis of Mexico, and the hot river and many hot springs in the Primavera Forest are a legacy of its volcanic history. Río Caliente, the main developed spa in the Primavera Forest, famous for several decades as one of the country’s top vegetarian and health spas, closed in 2011, following some years of uncertainty regarding its land tenure status and increasing security concerns because of its relatively remote location.

The hot springs in the park have been subject to numerous exploratory studies by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) which considers the park a potential source of geothermal power. The CFE drilled a dozen wells in the 1980s, finding that six of them offered sufficient flow for power production. The CFE believes the park could support at least three 25 megawatt geothermal plants. Drilling was suspended between 1989 and 1994 when the Jalisco state government ordered the CFE to carry out environmental restoration to areas damaged by drilling activities, and the plants have not yet been approved.

Pumice deposits

As veteran explorer-author John Pint points out in “A geopark in my back yard?”, the Primavera Forest is well known to geologists for its giant blocks of pumice, up to several meters across, which are among the largest found anywhere in the world. One of the best locations for seeing these is in the 50-meter-high walls of the Río Seco arroyo on the northern edge of the park, on the outskirts of the small community of Pinar de la Venta. The cliff face has a thick band of pumice overlying numerous thin layers of lake sediments. The pumice blocks are highly vesicular (full of holes) and therefore surprisingly light for their size.

Obsidian deposits

The Primavera Forest is also well known to geologists (and archaeologists) because it has significant amounts of obsidian, a hard, glassy, usually black rock. Obsidian is easy to find (often in big chunks) in several parts of the park. The obsidian formed when blocks of hot lava, still molten, rained into the cold waters of a lake, cooling instantaneously. When fractured, pieces of obsidian acquire very, very sharp edges. Even today, some surgeons still prefer obsidian scalpel blades, recognizing that they are far sharper than those made from even the best steel.

Obsidian was in great demand in precolonial times for use as mirrors, arrowheads and knives, as well as jewelry:

“Among the people to prize obsidian were the residents of Iztépete (often spelt Ixtépete), “hill of obsidian or knife blades”, located just outside the eastern edge of La Primavera. This small, largely forgotten, and poorly-signed archaeological site in a southern suburb of Guadalajara is within a stone’s throw of the city’s periférico (ring-road).”

“Large, angular chunks of obsidian litter the slopes of Cerro Colli, the hill rising behind the 6-meter-high pyramid, which conceals at least five earlier pyramids, each superimposed over the one before. Ceramics found here suggest that occupation stretches back at least to the fifth century, but little is known about the people who built this site.”  [Quotes are from the recently published 4th edition of the author’s “Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury”]

Obsidian is found throughout this region, and while usually black in color, it can also be found in a range of hues, including red and even rainbow patterns. Not far from the western edge of Primavera, at the foot of a steep-sided knoll called El Picacho is El Pedernal, reputed to be the largest obsidian deposit in the world, covering 4 square kilometers, from which an astonishing 40,000 cubic meters of rock have been extracted over the centuries. Sophisticated chemical techniques have shown that El Pedernal obsidian was widely used in Mesoamerica, finding its way as far north as California and as far south as Oaxaca!

The pre-Columbian obsidian jewelry from this region, consisting of very thin wafers of rock, is unique to this area, and clearly the work of highly skilled specialist craftsmen. One particularly fine example (now in the museum in Tala) is a necklace fashioned out of wafer-thin obsidian carvings of human figures, each pierced by a tiny hole. In the absence of metal tools, the patience and dexterity required to have made these is truly amazing.

The art of obsidian carving has not been lost. Skilled artisans in Navajas, another nearby village, continue to this day to chip and shape chunks of obsidian into spheres, chess boards and beautiful works of art, often representing animals.

In future posts we will consider the formation of the La Primavera Forest in more detail, and also look at the extent to which the pressures resulting from its proximity to the city of Guadalajara threaten the park’s long-term health.

Want to read more?

John Pint is one of those spearheading the proposal of seeking UNESCO designation for La Primavera as a GeoPark.

U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and geologist Barbara Dye has written a beautifully-illustrated  72-page guide (in Spanish) to the geology of the Primavera Forest: “La Apasionante Geología del Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna La Primavera”.

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Soil science and Mexico’s ancient kitchens

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Jun 212010
 

In an earlier post, we saw how archaeologists have gradually unraveled the history of the domestication of Mexico’s most important food plants.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

Other archaeologists, working at Teotihuacan, close to Mexico City, have been turning their attention away from how the upper classes lived (and ruled) to focus on the lives of the ordinary residents of suburbia fifteen hundred years ago. At its height (500 AD), Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world, with an estimated population of 200,000. Its elaborate water supply and drainage systems and a precisely aligned grid demonstrate masterful urban planning. The city was so prominent that it became a magnet for craftsmen from other far-away regions like Oaxaca and the Gulf Coast (Veracruz). These migrants would have brought their own food ideas and preferences with them, making Teotihuacan an excellent choice for a cosmopolitan eating experience.

What most visitors to this ancient city today do not appreciate is how the average Teotihuacanos lived, how they cooked, and what they ate. But, between 1985 and 1988, cleverly conceived and executed fieldwork by a team directed by Linda Manzanilla of the National University (UNAM), unearthed a wealth of information about ancient food storage, preparation methods and kitchens. Manzanilla has demonstrated that age-old kitchens in Teotihuacan can be located by a combination of traditional archaeological methods (collecting artifacts, debris, pollen and food remains) alongside the microscopic and chemical analysis of the stucco floors in the multi-room apartment complexes used as residences and workshops.

It was already known that the stucco used on floors can absorb, over time, trace amounts of chemicals that serve as indicators of the predominant activities carried out in the room. Soil samples were taken from each square meter of floor and then analyzed for certain key indicators.

High levels of phosphates revealed areas where organic refuse was abundant. This could be a place where food was consumed, or where refuse was discarded. An elevated level of carbonates was assumed to reflect either a place where stucco was processed, or somewhere where tortillas were prepared. The tortilla-making process today still involves the liberal application of lime. A localized higher alkaline reading from the stucco floor was correlated to the location of heat or fire. The color of the soil samples was also checked for any indication of the limits of a particular activity.

Once an outline of the distribution of particular activities had been sketched out, the presence of sodium and iron was investigated. High levels of iron, for example, probably indicate where agave was processed, or where animals were butchered.

The end result? By correlating the various lines of evidence from this particular sixth century apartment, Manzanilla was able to pinpoint the precise locations of many everyday household functions. For instance, three areas where ceramic stoves once stood were distinguished. Each had a dark red stain on the floor, with relatively low carbonate values, relatively high alkalinity, and some ash. Significantly higher phosphate values in a band around this zone suggested an area used for eating. Higher phosphate levels were also encountered outside the dwelling where any refuse had been swept or accumulated.

And what was cooked on these stoves? We can not be certain, but evidence suggests that the residents of Teotihuacan had a varied diet of plants and animals. They not only prepared corn, beans, squash and chiles, but also ate cacti (prickly pear), hawthorns and cherries. For additional protein, rabbits, deer, duck, dogs, turkeys and fish were all on the menu, at least occasionally.

And, lest you think their likely diet sounds too bland, the locals also had access to potatoes and a plethora of herbs and spices, as well as chocolate, chewing gum and tobacco to satisfy their cravings, and various exotic hallucinogens to stimulate their imaginations!

So, next time you savor Mexican food, pause for a moment and remember that your meal may be startlingly similar to a banquet eaten thousands of years ago in any major Aztec, Toltec or Maya city…

Further reading

Manzanilla, Linda (1996) Soil analyses to identify ancient human activities. Canadian Journal of Soil Science.

The original article on MexConnect

Mexico’s first cooks and the origins of Mexican cuisine

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Jun 182010
 

Mexican cuisine has been one of the country’s most successful cultural exports over the past twenty years or so and most large towns in North America and Europe now boast at least one Mexican restaurant, even if the menu is not necessarily “authentic”. For those wanting to experiment, the basic ingredients for Mexican meals can now be bought virtually everywhere. The increasing popularity of Mexican food has been rivaled only by an extraordinary increase in the consumption of Mexican drinks, including Corona beer and tequila.

Ingredients for guacamole. Photo: Chef Daniel Wheeler. All rights reserved.

Archaeologists have also taken much more interest in Mexican food in recent years.

By 1970, studies carried out at various locations, ranging from Tamaulipas in the north of the country to Oaxaca in the south, had gradually led to the conclusion that the earliest plants to be domesticated in Meso-America were corn, beans and squash, and that all three had been domesticated between about 7000 and 10,000 years BP (Before Present, not British Petroleum…).

Further research subsequently led most archaeologists and palaeo-botanists to believe that squash was actually domesticated much earlier than corn. Re-evaluating cave samples, originally collected in the 1950s, using an improved carbon-14 dating technique, anthropologist Bruce Smith found that the squash seeds from one location were between 8,000 and 10,000 years old, while the oldest corn and bean seeds were much younger, less than 6,000 years old.

While Smith’s study does appears to confirm that squash was domesticated first, it does not necessarily mean that this squash was domesticated for its food value. Many experts think that early varieties of squash may have been domesticated primarily for their gourds, which could be used as ready-made drinking vessels and fishing floats.

The domestication of squash may have improved life, but it did not fundamentally change it. On the other hand, the eventual domestication of corn, about 7,000 years BP marked a true watershed in pre-Hispanic life, enabling the abandonment of a nomadic hunter-gathering existence in favor of settlement in semi-permanent villages. How important was this? In the words of renowned archaeologist Michael Coe, “it was the cultivation of maize, beans and squash that made possible all of the higher cultures of Mexico.”

With the passing of time, the ancient peoples of Mexico domesticated and cultivated many other native plants, including tomatoes, chiles, potatoes, avocados, amaranth, chayote (vegetable pear), cotton and tobacco.

The original article on MexConnect

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.