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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Mexcaltitán, a magical island town in Nayarit

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Nov 102014
 

A short distance north of San Blas, in Nayarit, is a small island called Mexcaltitán. With barely four thousand inhabitants, it would scarcely be expected to have any real link to Mexico City, the world’s greatest metropolis of some twenty million people. But it does, and the link is to be found in the amazing story of the founding in 1325 of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the city which was later conquered and sacked by the Spanish and rebuilt as Mexico City.

The island and village of Mexcaltián, Nayarit

The island and village of Mexcaltián, Nayarit

Historians have long wondered about the origins of the Mexica people, or Aztecs as they later became known. There is virtually no evidence of them before they founded the highly organized city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. Clearly such a civilization cannot just have sprung up overnight. So, where did they come from? Mexica (Aztec) legend tells of a long pilgrimage, lasting hundreds of years, from Aztlán, the cradle of their civilization, a pilgrimage during which they looked for a sign to tell them where to found their new capital and ceremonial center. The sign they were looking for was an eagle, perched on a cactus. Today, this unlikely combination, with the eagle now devouring a serpent, is a national symbol and appears on the national flag.

Map showing location of Marismas Nacionales

Map showing location of Marismas Nacionales

In recent years more and more evidence suggests that Aztlán may be far from mythical and that Mexcaltitán, the island in Nayarit, could be its original site. Ancient codices (pre-Columbian hand-painted manuscripts) prove that the Aztecs’ search for a new place to live was ordained by Huitzilopochtli, their chief god. It began in about AD1111 when they departed from an island in the middle of a lake. Their two hundred year journey took them through present-day Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Querétaro, and they may well have rested awhile on encountering familiar-looking islands in the middle of lakes such as Chapala and Pátzcuaro.

One of Huitzilopochtli’s alternative names was Mexitli and the current spelling of Mexcaltitán could be interpreted as “Home of Mexitli”, or thus, “Home of Huitzilopochtli”. In fairness, it should be pointed out that if the original spelling was Metzcaltitán (and “tz” often became transliterated to “x” down the centuries), then the meaning would become “Place next to the home of the Moon”.

Whatever the etymology of the name, early codices such as the Boturini Codex show the early Aztecs setting out from an Aztlán surrounded by water, in small canoes. The Mendoza Codex, depicting life in Tenochtitlan, has illustrations of similar canoes and, in both codices, the canoes and method of propulsion by punting show remarkable similarity to the present-day canoes of Mexcaltitán. Visitors to the island still have to undertake a canoe or panga ride to reach the village and it is an intriguing thought that the Mexica/Aztecs were doing exactly the same over eight hundred and fifty years ago.

Further evidence comes from an old map of New Spain. Drawn by Ortelius in 1579, it shows Aztlán to be exactly where Mexcaltitán is to be found today, though perhaps at the time this was largely conjecture.

The street plan of Mexcaltitán, best appreciated from the air, is equally fascinating. Two parallel streets cross the oval-shaped island from north to south, and two from east to west, with the modern plaza in the middle, where they intersect. The only other street runs around the island in a circle, parallel to and not far from the water’s edge. This street may have been the coastline of the island years ago and may even have been fortified against the invading waters of the rising lake each rainy season. Today, as then, for several months in summer the streets become canals, bounded by the high sidewalks each side and Mexcaltitán becomes Mexico’s mini-Venice as all travel has to be by canoe.

This street pattern has cosmic significance. It divides the village into four quarters or sectors each representing a cardinal point, reflecting the Mexica conception of the world. The center can be identified with the Sun, the giver of all life. The Spanish, as was their custom, built their church there, and today the central plaza with its bandstand is the obvious focal point of the community. Small shops, a billiards hall, a modern, well-laid out museum, and an administrative office complete the central area of the village.

 

Mexcaltitán pen and ink drawing by Michael Eager

Mexcaltitán (pen and ink drawing by Michael Eager from chapter 26 of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury). All rights reserved.

Low houses, of adobe, brick and cement, line the dirt streets and extend right down to the water’s edge, in some cases even over the water’s edge into the surrounding lake, on stilts. Land on the island is at a premium and, with an ever-growing population, saturation point is very near.

A century ago, the locals turned on some foreigners who came to hunt female egrets, valued for their plumes back in the days when feathers adorned fashionable ladies’ hats. Today, provided only photos are taken, all visitors are welcomed! The villagers celebrate one of the most unusual and distinctive fiestas in all of Latin America. On 29 June each year they organize a regatta which consists of a single race between just two canoes, though naturally hundreds of other pangas are filled with spectators. One of the competing canoes carries the statue of Saint Peter from the local church, the other carries Saint Paul.

Elaborate preparations precede the race. The village streets are festooned with paper streamers and the two canoes are lavishly decorated by rival families carrying on an age-old tradition. The Ortíz family is responsible for St. Peter’s canoe, the Galindo family for St. Paul’s. The statues of the two saints are taken from the church and carried in procession to the boats. A pair of punters has previously been chosen from among the young men of the village for each boat. The punters have been suitably fortified for the contest with local delicacies such as steamed fish, shrimp empanadas, and the local specialty, tlaxtihuile, a kind of shrimp broth. Each boat, in addition to the punters and the statue of the saint, carries a priest to ensure fair play. The race starts from the middle of the eight kilometer long lake after a short religious service in which the priests bless the lake and pray for abundant shrimp and fish during the coming year. Then surrounding spectator canoes, some with musical bands, and others shooting off fireworks, move aside and the race begins.

Nowadays, St. Peter and St. Paul take it in turns to win, most considerate in view of the violence which years ago marred the post-race celebrations when the race was fought competitively. The ceremonial regatta safely over, land based festivities continue well into the night.

A canoe ride around the island takes about 30 minutes and provides numerous photo opportunities as well as many surprises including a close-up view of the island’s only soccer pitch—in the middle of the lake, under half a meter of water. The local children are, perhaps not surprisingly, expert “water soccer” players, a fun sport to watch.

Even if you’re not interested in the island’s past and are unable to see it on fiesta day, your trip to Mexcaltitán will be memorable. This extraordinary island and its village have to be seen to be believed.

The island is reached from the Tepic-Mazatlán highway, Highway 15. There are two alternatives. The northern route is signposted 73 kilometers north of Tepic; it starts with 26 kilometers of paved road crossing swampy paddy fields, followed by 16 kilometers of well-graded dirt road to Ticha, the landing-stage for boats to the island. The drive is through a naturalist’s paradise, teeming with wildlife. The equally scenic southern route begins 57 kilometers from Tepic and is via Santiago Ixcuintla (basic hotels only; don’t miss visiting the center for Huichol Indian culture and crafts) and Sentispac. It leads to the La Batanga landing-stage, and is fully paved.

Note:

This post is based on chapter 26 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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Are Aztec chinampas a good model for food production and agro-development?

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Oct 072013
 

There is no doubt that Mexico’s indigenous farmers developed numerous ways to ensure successful harvests. The details varied from one region to another, but among the techniques employed were:

  • the mitigation of erosion by building earth banks and check dams in gullies
  • polyculture, recognizing that this minimized the risks inherent in monoculture.
  • the terracing of steep slopes to channel water where it was most needed.

In addition, some indigenous groups, including the Aztec in central Mexico, took advantage of their expertise in water management to develop highly productive systems of farming in wetlands. The chinampas (or so-called ‘floating gardens’) in the Valley of Mexico are the prime example of this water management skill, though similar systems were also used in the coastal marshes along the Gulf coast.

On the other hand, the later introduction of large-scale commercial farming methods has often led to deleterious impacts on the countryside and the long term sustainability of such methods is questionable.

In seeking to help Mexico’s rural areas, some development experts have suggested re-adopting Aztec methods, especially their method of building chinampas to farm wetlands. The invention of chinampas as a highly productive form of intensive wetland cultivation was, historically, one of the greatest ever agricultural advances in the Americas. Among other things, it allowed settlements to thrive in areas where rain (and therefore rain-fed food production) was markedly seasonal.

Among attempts to re-introduce ancient methods, one which stands out occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, when INIREB (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones sobre Recursos Bióticos), based in Xalapa (Veracruz) employed chinamperos from the Valley of Mexico to build experimental chinampa-like fields in Veracruz and Tabasco . These projects are briefly described in Andrew Sluyter’s fascinating book Colonialism and Landscape, Postcolonial theory and applications (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), the main basis for this summary.

Google Earth image of camellones chontales

Google Earth image of camellones chontales

The most ambitious project was a later federally-organized one in Tabasco, where 65 massive platforms (camellones), each about 30 meters wide and from 100 to 300 meters long, were built in the swampy Chontalpa wetlands. The project, known as camellones chontales was backed by the local Chontal community though it was not directly involved in the construction phase. Because of the scale of the project, large mechanical dredgers were used to build the platforms, rather than relying on laborious and slower hand labor.

After construction, the Chontal community began farming the platforms, but initial results were very disappointing. Things improved with time, especially when the Chontal took full control of the project. From their perspective, the project meant that more members of the community now had land that could be farmed, and they shifted the emphasis away from the “vegetable market production” favored by officials towards growing corn (maize), beans and bananas for local household consumption, improving local food availability.

Recent press reports, such as this 2-minute Youtube clip (Spanish), claim that many parts of the camellones chantales have now been abandoned, owing to insufficient investment in maintenance.

Why did the project fail initially?

This is one of the key questions connected to this example. Sluyter refers to two articles written by Mac Chapin (from Cultural Survival, an organization that champions the rights of native peoples). Chapin argues that the projects, and their assumptions, were fundamentally flawed. For example, the use of dredges to construct the platforms turned the soil profile upside down, bringing infertile clay towards the top and sending nutrient-rich layers downwards, beneath the reach of plant roots. In turn, this meant that organic matter and fertilizers had to be added to the land in order for good crop yields. Because of the dredging, the canal floor between the platforms was very irregular, making it much more difficult for the Chontal to fish using drag nets. Many of the crops planted were “exotic” and production was market-oriented rather than subsistence or locally-oriented. Chapin was particularly critical of the lack of suitable transport routes for sending produce to distant markets. In addition, chemicals were needed because of the proliferation of insects in these lowland wetlands. (Insects are rarely a problem at the higher altitudes of central Mexico).

Chapin concluded that this development project was just one more in a long line of failures where an outside model was introduced into a new area without sufficient prior research or local involvement in the planning stages. Sluyter agrees with this conclusion, pointing out that there is no evidence that these Tabasco wetlands ever had any form of chinampa farming, even in pre-Columbian times, perhaps because they have “a much greater annual fluctuation in water level than those in Campeche and Veracruz”.

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Resources about the geography of chinampas, an ancient form of sustainable agriculture

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Sep 302013
 

This post describes some of the many online resources about chinampas, one of Mexico’s ancient and most important indigenous forms of sustainable agriculture.

For photos, the best starting point is Dr. Jason Turner’s site about chinampas which includes an extensive bibliography about chinampas as well as several “Virtual Field Trips” (photo sequences). Even though these photo sequences often lack any accompanying descriptions or captions, they cover a wide range of ideas, and are organized in self-explanatory groups such as:

For an article describing a recent tour of a working chinampa in Xochimilco’s Ecological Reserve. illustrated with great photos, try Touring Xochimilco’s farms with De la Chinampa written by Lesley Téllez (self-described food writer with a “deep love for Mexican food and culture”) on her blog “The  Mija Chronicles”.

Youtube also has a variety of chinampa-related resources. In English, the best introduction is Discovery Atlas – Mexico: Xochimilco which provides a good background to the history and covers the basics.

Two Spanish-language Youtube resources provide valuable additional information. Each video lasts about 5 minutes, but neither video has English language subtitles.

The first is Divina Ciudad: De la chinampa a la mesa which looks at one specific project designed to help raise public awareness and aid the conservation of the remaining chinampas in Xochimilco, on the south-eastern outskirts of Mexico City. This project supplies consumers with fresh produce grown on the chinampas in Xochimilco or sourced from within 150 km. See the project’s website – De La Chinampa – for more information.

The second Spanish language video is Profeco TV Reporte Especial: Productos de la Chinampa, un ejemplo de consumo sustentable, This video, made by the federal consumer protection agency Profeco, explains how the produce grown on the chinampas is pesticide-free and relies on sustainable production methods. It calls on viewers to “learn more about the method and help ensure that chinampas do not disappear.”

Book (Spanish)

  • Rojas R., Teresa (Coord) 1995. Presente, pasado y futuro de las chinampas. Mexico DF: Ciesas/Patronato del Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco A.C. This is a collection of 25 papers presented at a 1990 international conference in Mexico City.

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Sep 092013
 

Prior to European contact in 1519, what did the Aztec people eat?

The basis of Aztec diet was corn (maize). They cultivated numerous varieties of corn, as well as many other crops including beans, amaranth and squash. Some dishes were seasoned with salt and chili peppers. This mix of items provided a balanced diet that had no significant vitamin or mineral deficiency.

In addition, the Aztec diet included tomatoes, limes, cashews, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cacao (chocolate), wild fruits, cactus, mushrooms, fungi, honey, turkey, eggs, dog, duck, fish, the occasional deer, iguana, alongside insects such as grasshoppers. From the lake water, they scooped high protein algae (tecuitlatl), which was also used as a fertilizer.

How did they obtain their food?

The Mexica (who later became the Aztecs) faced a particular dilemma, largely of their own making. Mexica (Aztec) legend tells that they left their home Aztlán (location unproven) on a lengthy pilgrimage lasting hundreds of years. They were seeking a specific sign telling them where to found their new capital and ceremonial center. The sign was an eagle, perched on a cactus. Today, this unlikely combination, with the eagle now devouring a serpent, is a national symbol and appears on the national flag.

Artist's view of the Aztec capital Tenochititlan in the Valley of Mexico

Artist’s view of the Aztec capital Tenochititlan in the Valley of Mexico

The dilemma arose because they first saw this sign, and founded their new capital Tenochtitlan, on an island in the middle of a lake in central Mexico. An island linked by causeways to several places on the “mainland” might have had some advantages in terms of defense, but supplying the growing settlement with food and fresh water was more of a challenge.

Much of their food came from hunting and gathering, and some food was brought by long-distance trade, but space for farming, especially on the island, was at a premium.

The Aztecs solved their dilemma of how to supply food to their island capital by developing a sophisticated wetland farming system involving raised beds (chinampas) built in the lake (see image below). Originally these chinampas were free-floating but over time they became rooted to the lake floor. The chinampas were separated by narrow canals, barely wide enough for small boats or canoes.

Artist's representation of chinampa farming

Artist’s representation of chinampa farming

From an ecological perspective, these chinampas represented an extraordinary achievement, a food production system which proved to be one of the most environmentally sustainable and high-yielding farming systems anywhere on the planet!

Constructing and maintaining chinampas required a significant input of labor, but the yields per unit area could be very high indeed, especially since four harvests a year were possible for some crops. The system enabled fresh produce to be supplied to the city even during the region’s long dry season, whereas food availability from rain-fed agriculture was highly seasonal.

Artist's interpretation of chinampa construction (from Rojas 1995)

Artist’s interpretation of chinampa construction (from Rojas 1995)

The planting platforms or chinampas were built by hand, with alternate layers of mud, silt and vegetation piled onto a mesh of reeds or branches. Platforms, often but not necessarily rectangular, were about 10 meters wide and could be 100 meters or more in length. Willow trees were often planted on the edges of platforms to help stabilize them and provide shade for other plants and for the canals that separated the platforms. Interplanting crops was common, and polyculture was the norm. For many crops, multicropping (several crops in a single year) was possible.

Because the planting platforms were close to water, extremes of temperature were dampened, and the likelihood of frost damage to crops reduced. The root systems of crops had reliable access to fresh water (sub-irrigation). The canals provided a variety of habitats for fish. The mud from the bottom of canals was periodically dredged by hand and added to the platforms, supplying nutrients and preserving canal depth. Together with the regular addition of waste organic material (compost), this replenished the platforms and meant that their fertility was maintained over very long periods of time.

The system could even cope with polluted water, since the combination of constant filtration on the platforms, and aquatic weeds in the canals, partially removed most impurities from the water.

Where can chinampas be seen today?

Archaeologists have found vestiges of chinampas in several regions of Mexico, some dating back almost 3000 years.

Mexico’s best known chinampas today are those in Xochimilco on the south-eastern outskirts of Mexico City. Xochimilco is a Unesco World Heritage site, but faces heavy pressure from urban encroachment and highway construction. Xochimilco’s canals (with chinampas separating them) are some of the last surviving remnants of the large lake that occupied this valley when the Mexica founded Tenochititlan.

Xochimilco (Wikipedia; creative commons)

Xochimilco (Wikipedia; creative commons)

Visiting Xochimilco’s canals and market is a popular weekend excursion for Mexico City residents and tourists alike. However, the modern-day chinampas of Xochimilco are not the same as they would have been centuries ago. First, the total area of chinampas in Xochimilco is only a fraction of what once existed. Secondly, some of the chinampas have been abandoned, while on others chemical fertilizers and pesticides are often used. Thirdly, the area now has many exotic species, including introduced species of fish (such as African tilapia and Asian carp) that threaten native species. Numbers of the axolotl (a local salamander), a prized delicacy on Aztec dinner tables, are in sharp decline. Fourthly, the water table in this area fell dramatically during the last century as Mexico City sucked water from the underground aquifers causing local springs that helped supply Xochimilco to dry up completely. Rubble from the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was also dumped in Xochimilco’s canals.

Lakes in some other parts of Mexico were also used for chinampa farming. For example, in Jalisco, just west of Guadalajara, Magdalena Lake “was a prime source of food for the 60,000 or so people living close to the Guachimontones ceremonial site (settled before 350 BC) in Teuchitlán. They learned to construct chinampas, fixed mud beds in the lake, each measuring about 20 meters by 15 meters, which they planted with a variety of crops… The remains of hundreds of these highly productive islets are still visible today.” (Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury, p 69)

Chinampa farming was one of the great agricultural developments in the Americas. It was, and still can be, an environmentally-sensitive and sustainable method of intensive wetland agriculture.

If you enjoyed this…

You might well enjoy my latest book: Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique

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The geography of Mexico’s street markets (tianguis)

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Oct 082012
 

Mexico has some of the finest markets in the world. The variety of produce and other items sold in markets is staggering. But not all Mexican markets are the same. The two major groups are the permanent markets (mercados), usually housed in a purpose-built structure and open for business every day, and the street market or tianguis, usually held once a week.

Street market in Oaxaca. Photo: Tony Burton

Street market in Oaxaca. Photo: Tony Burton

Most tianguis temporarily occupy one or more streets or a public square, though some also use privately-owned land. The origins of the tianguis lie in pre-Columbian times, whereas mercados are a much more recent innovation. In this post, we focus on the tianguis.

The geography of a street market or tianguis

The merchants selling goods in a street market generally visit several markets each week, on a regular rotation (see map for an example of a weekly cycle of markets around the city of Oaxaca). In terms of economic geography, weekly markets allow merchants to maximize their “sphere of influence” and exceed the sales “threshold”, the minimum sales required for them to make a profit, even if they are selling items that may not cost very much, and for which individual consumers are not prepared to travel very far. By visiting, say, four markets a week, these merchants effectively quadruple their potential customers. In terms of social and human geography, these weekly markets are a valuable means of communication, and news from one community quickly travels, via the merchants, to another.

At the same time, these markets give consumers access to a much wider range of goods than would otherwise be possible.

The map shows the market day for major markets, and the major weekly marketing cycles, in the area around the city of Oaxaca. With the exception of Oaxaca city (population 480,000) and Miahuatlán (33,000), all the other towns have populations between 13,000 and 20,000. The merchants at such markets generally carry their wares from village to village on the days of their respective markets. Some local farmers also sell their produce at such markets. For more details, see Markets in and near the city of Oaxaca.

The weekly cycle of markets in and around the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Map: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Mexico has a very long history of street markets, certainly dating back more than two thousand years. The Spanish conquistadors saw, first hand, the very large market of Tlatelolco, in what is now Mexico City, which attracted between 40,000 and 45,000 people on “market day”, which was held every five days.

Markets enabled people living in one region to trade goods produced in another region. In the case of food items this allowed residents of the “hot lands” (tierra caliente) to gain access to food items coming from the “temperate lands” (tierra templada). Some ancient settlements in Mexico are located close to the division between either tierra caliente and tierra templada [usual elevation about 750 meters above sea level] or tierra templada and “cold lands” (tierra fria), at an elevation of about 1800 meters a.s.l. These locations clearly favored the trading and exchanging of items from one major climate zone to another.

Food was by no means the only item traded in markets. Many plants with medicinal value were traded, as were others used for construction materials. It was also common to trade textiles, minerals and household items such as baskets, ceramics and grinding stones, as well as salt, prized feathers and animals.

Even today, most Mexican markets have a distinctive spatial pattern of stalls, with vendors of similar items setting up side-by-side, allowing for comparison shopping. It is a relatively easy and revealing fieldwork exercise to map a Mexican market and then analyze the distribution of different kinds of goods.

We looked in a previous post at how the same basic principle applies to the distribution of shops in many towns and cities.

While most markets traded a variety of items, a handful of specialist markets emerged, especially in the Mexico City area. For example, there were specialist markets for salt in Atenantitlan, dogs (as a source of food) in Acolman, and for slaves in Azcapotzalco and Iztocan.

In a future post, we will look at the origins of the tianguis in the Oaxaca region, a region that is still one of the most fascinating areas in Mexico for markets of all kinds.

Further reading:

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Mexico City in colonial times: 1530–1820

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May 212012
 

The internal geography of cities is closely related to transportation technology. Pre-Columbian cities in Mexico were walking cities; the wheel had not been developed and animals were not used for transport. Human power moved people and goods, but not very quickly or efficiently. As a result, cities were relatively compact and congested; densities were high. Despite these transport restrictions, at least one urban center in pre-Columbian Mexico had a population estimated to exceed 200,000.

The Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of a lake, and was a thriving city when Hernán Cortés arrived. After the conquest, the Spaniards built their colonial city directly on top of Tenochititlan’s main buildings and large central plaza or Zócalo. Spanish colonial urban centers were explicitly patterned after cities in Spain, with a grand central square or plaza at the center (large enough for displays of horsemanship). The streets were laid out following a north-south, east-west grid. In larger cities, smaller plazas might be planned every four blocks or so.

Panoramic view of Mexico City during colonial times

Panoramic view of Mexico City during colonial times. (Talavera tiles based on unattributed oil painting in the Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City).

Colonial Mexico City conformed closely to the Latin American city model. Important government, commercial, and religious buildings, such as the Cathedral, faced onto the square. Status was largely correlated with distance from the main plaza, the hub of all activity. Wealthy and important colonial officials had large homes in a zone surrounding the main square. This zone tended to be square or rectangular given the grid pattern of streets. Less important, middle income families lived in smaller houses farther from the main plaza; lower status groups lived even farther from the main square. The lowest status mestizos and Indians lived around the outside of the city. The city was very compact and congested. The wealthiest residents in the center lived relatively close to the poorest families on the periphery. With the very high densities, there was considerable noise and congestion, as well as sanitation problems and other health issues.

As Mexico City and other major Latin American cities grew throughout the 300-year colonial period, they tended to maintain a roughly concentric pattern; however, the growth of important government and business activities as well as wealthy residential neighborhoods usually favored one side of the city.

As these high status activities expanded they slowly took over middle status areas, which in turn expanded into poorer neighborhoods. The poorest groups were pushed to the periphery or to undesirable steep hillsides or low areas prone to flooding. The rate of spatial expansion never managed to keep pace with the growth of population and economic activity. Densities and congestion increased.

From the very beginning in Mexico City, a high status sector extended west of the Zócalo. The Aztecs considered Chapultepec Hill, six kilometers (3.6 mi) west of Tenochtitlan, a royal retreat. They built a castle there, connected to their island capital by along causeway. Spanish King Charles V declared the zone a nature reserve in 1537. Early colonial Viceroys built palacial residences there. In 1592, Viceroy Luis de Velasco constructed an impressive park, the 90-hectare (216-acre) Alameda Central about a kilometer west of the Zócalo. The area between the Alameda and the Zócalo became the city’s highest status area. The development decisions made during the 16th century solidified the west as the preferred direction and set the pattern of growth for the next 400 years. Similar high status sectors evolved in virtually all Latin American colonial cities.

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Attempts to provide drainage for Mexico City date back to Aztec times

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Attempts to provide drainage for Mexico City date back to Aztec times
Apr 262011
 

An old joke relates how engineers initially rejoiced at successfully draining the former lake on which Mexico City was built (something the Aztecs had tried, but failed to achieve), only to discover that the city now lacked any reliable source of fresh water for its inhabitants (something the Aztecs had successfully managed by building a system of aqueducts).

Water has been a major issue for Mexico City since it was founded almost 700 years ago. Civil engineering works by the Aztecs included causeways and aqueducts connecting their island capital to the mainland as well as lengthy dikes separating the fresh water lakes from the brackish Lake Texcoco which surrounded the city.

The Spaniards did not maintain the Aztec civil works, deforested the surrounding hillsides, and started filling Lake Texcoco. This contributed to major flooding in 1555, 1580, 1604. The city was actually underwater (continuously!) from 1629–1634. During this period the Spaniards invested in several flood control efforts, but they were not successful. In 1788 they started construction of a massive canal to connect the basin to rivers north of the city flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. The open canal, which was up to 30 m (100 ft) deep in places, provided flood relief, but did not completely solve the problem, and flooding continued.

In the mid-1850s the government approved another massive flood relief scheme. Construction of the Gran Canal was delayed by numerous political and financial problems; it was not completed until 1900. The 58 km (36 mi) long canal included a 10 km tunnel, and carried lake water, storm water and sewage north to the Río Salado and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The scheme successfully drained most of the basin lakes, but summer flooding continued to be a problem for decades.

Mexico’s deep drainage system (drenaje profundo) was completed in the 1970s. It relies on a 68-km-long central tunnel (Emisor Central) which has a maximum depth of 250 meters below the surface. Built to allow for a flow of 170 cubic meters/second, subsurface subsidence under Mexico City had reduced its maximum capacity to barely 15 cubic meters/second by 2008.

Paradoxically for a city originally built on a lake and which experiences regular summer floods, Mexico City is desperately short of drinking water. The drilling of wells to obtain potable water from the aquifer under Mexico City is one of the main reasons for the ground subsidence which has reduced the effectiveness of the deep drainage system.

Many parts of Mexico City still experience serious drainage problems every rainy season. During the long dry season, many street drains plug with garbage (especially impermeable plastic bags). City motorists dread the first heavy rains of the year since much of the rainwater which falls is unable to find its way underground and backs up from blocked drains. City authorities have an annual campaign to try to clear all drains before the first rains, but are never completely successful.

Since 2007, jointly agreed programs to maintain and renovate the deep drainage system have been undertaken each year during the dry season by Mexico City and the administrations of adjoining states, in an effort to reduce the metropolitan area’s serious flood hazard. In the first four years (2007-2010), more than 42 km of tunnels have been renovated. The 2010-11 season of repairs to the drenaje profundo will be completed before the start of the rainy season (usually in late May or early June), according to city mayor Marcelo Ebrard.

Why are some parts of Mexico City sinking into the old lakebed?

The revitalization of Mexico City’s historic downtown core.

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The revitalization of Mexico City’s historic downtown core.
Aug 172010
 

The Historic Center of Mexico City was originally founded in 1524 atop the Aztec capital of Tenochititlan. The Historic Center declined considerably during the 20th century. The government froze rents in the 1940s and they stayed frozen until 1998. With constant inflation, the real price of rents declined to almost nothing.

Bellas Artes opera house, Mexico CityWithout meaningful rental incomes, landlords abandoned or stopped maintaining their properties. Buildings and neighborhoods decayed. Once-fancy communities became slums. Many wealthy and middle class residents as well as commercial establishments moved out to suburbs. The National University (UNAM) moved to a new purpose-built campus in the south.

The tragic earthquakes in September 1985, the first measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale, hit many badly maintained downtown areas particularly hard. More and more residential buildings were abandoned as insecurity, pollution and decay set in, aided and abetted by the sinking ground levels due to aquifer depletion.

At the start of the 21st century, a government-private sector Historic Center Trust was formed to buy and systematically rehabilitate dozens of centuries-old buildings and breathe new life into the city center. Investment in the revitalization effort was over $500 million and has created 15,000 new jobs.

Drainage and water systems were replaced. Electric and telephone cables were buried below ground. The facades of more than 500 buildings on 13 streets were carefully restored. Streets were repaved and pedestrianized. Plazas came back to life; new museums sprung up; street vendors were relocated. Cafes and restaurants opened, giving new focal points for residents and tourists alike.

If you have enjoyed this brief excerpt from chapter 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico please consider purchasing your own copy of the book. Chapters 21 and 22 analyze Mexico’s 500-year transition to an urban society and the internal geography of Mexico’s cities. Chapter 23 looks at urban issues, problems and trends. To preview more parts of the book, click here and use amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature