June 3, 2019
There are many guidebooks and tourist websites promoting Mexico’s ancient ruins. Cities such as Chichen Itza, Xochicalco or Teotihuacan, while hard to pronounce for newcomers, impress immediately with their stately proportions, the relief carvings, and, very often, the gorgeous locations their builders chose for them.
The ruined city of Xochicalco, dating from 700–900 C.E., is set high on a hill.
They’re also baffling in a lot of ways, and pose many questions regarding their functions, their population, and their histories. The Maya had a system of writing, but other cultures in MesoAmerica usually lacked one, leaving us a few glyphs, or murals and some statuary. Archeologists therefore have to puzzle out chronologies and the places’ cultural significance.
Now, one thing that’s always irritated me in the study of ancient civilisations is “ancient aliens” theories. These cities didn’t suddenly spring up on their own; they were preceded by generations, often centuries, of more basic structures and experimentation. In Egypt, we see a clear pattern of simple tombs leading to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and, from that, the huge structures erected in the 6th Dynasty. Along the way, there were major errors, like the pyramid of Meidum, where there was a major collapse of the outer casing because the builders went beyond their existing level of competence. In Mexico, even as late as the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th centuries of our era, their city of Tenochtitlan was built on ground subject to earth tremors, so that what’s left of their primary temple today leans at a crazy angle. So, asking how a large ruin “suddenly” came into being is like asking how any person “suddenly” came to be. A lot happened beforehand.
Where in Mexico do we find the precursors of the big cities? The answer is: pretty much everywhere. People began piling rocks to delineate sacred places for worship a long time ago, then gradually became more ambitious, creating more elaborate structures. Actual buildings at such locales were often simple wood buildings with thatched roofs, with stone temples – the stuff that lazy thinkers assume their aliens constructed – being the final step.
Along with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, a few months ago I visited the recently opened Tlatoani Pyramid at Tlayacapan, and was impressed at how many rings of piled stones circled its hilltop site. The precise function of each level was obscure to us, but it’s not an unlikely guess, given how later sites were set up, that each consecutive circle represented a more sacred part of the site. The word “pyramid” here is a conventional term, and doesn’t mean a quadrangular edifice. Rather, it’s a generic expression for stones piled in a purposeful manner.
At Tlatoani, there’s an actual temple structure at the top centre, partly restored by archeologists, which confirms my assumption.
Ixchel in front of the rows of walls at Piramide Tlatoani, outside Tlayacapan.
At other places, there are simply a few petroglyphs, perhaps partly restored so we can see them, but baffling to the interpretive modern mind. Whatever god or hero is commemorated by them is for today’s visitor to decide in silence.
This past weekend, Ixchel and I put on our Indiana Jones boots (running shoes, actually), and hiked up to a small site behind this village of Amatlan. The pyramid there is rudimentary – a couple of rows of stones that are easy to overlook. But it was, local people say, sacred to the grandmother of Quetzalcoatl, the god-king whose was legendarily born just outside the village.
What did we discover?
The structure itself is maybe the least important feature of the site. More impressive was the location and the view down over the village and beyond. The ledge it sits on is near the mouth of a valley down which a stream flows in the rainy season, and the setting itself is surely the reason for the temple. People still go up there for vision quests, sitting through the night (or longer) to obtain insight that’s been lost in the world below them.
The view from the Amatlan pyramid.
Behind it, rain-sculpted rocks tease the imagination towards legends of heroes and serpents, beneficent deities and rulers of societies. Assigning a specific story to them, as scholarship (and alien-mongers) would do, defeats grasping the sacredness. It all just feels strange, with the path leading up occupying spaces and trackways that don’t look like they could exist when seen from below. But for people dependent on rain and the caprices of natural forces for their crops and animals, creating a link to the heavens makes perfect sense in such a place.
Easy to overlook, these stones were laid to demarcate the site. A second row can be glimpsed above it.
From the stones set there centuries ago, almost certainly by ancestors of the people still living here, you can look down on the village, and see relationships between the mountains and the farmlands. The “point” of the place lies in its connection between the everyday and the heights, the intersection of the mundane and the awe-inspiring.
I love the spectacular sites in Mexico. But these smaller places, which have only their modern names, are what whisper the secrets of what has been, and hint at what the ancient people who built them hoped and dreamed.