Ancient Mesoamerica: Maize (Corn)

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, they found that the indigenous people of the continent, generally called American Indians, had a highly developed agricultural system. While American Indians raised a great many different crops, one of the important plants was maize (Zea mays), often called corn in American English. In addition to maize, American Indians had also domesticated numerous other plants, including beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, cotton, and others.

With regard to the importance of maize in the Americas, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, write:

“Maize was and is the very basis of settled life in Mexico and, in fact, throughout the regions of the New World civilized in Pre-Columbian times.”

The archaeological record shows that corn was originally domesticated in Mexico and then diffused north into the eastern portion of what is now the United States and into the American Southwest. It also diffused south into South America.

In general, the process of plant domestication was neither random nor sudden. Early hunters and gatherers had to have an intimate knowledge of ecology. They understood the seasonal cycle of plants and for thousands of years had deliberately  altered the environment through processes such as burning to enhance the plants they found most useful. With regard to the process of domestication, Emily McClung de Tapia, in an essay on the origins of food production in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:

“The origin of agriculture represents the culmination of a number of interrelated processes, socioeconomic as well as biological and ecological. For instance, some plants such as maize or certain species of beans underwent mutations, altering their genetic composition and rendering them more amenable for harvesting, subsequent storage, and, finally, human consumption.”

A domesticated plant is one which has become genetically altered through human intervention so that it has become dependent on human actions for its continued reproduction. It should be pointed out that humans also cultivate and care for plants which have not become domesticated. In the process of domestication, humans deliberately select for favorable mutations and genetic change.

The search for the origins of maize involves three basic questions: (1) what was the ancestral plant for maize; (2) when was it first domesticated; and (3) where was it domesticated. In general, the search for the origins of maize has focused on Mexico in the period after 7000 BCE. Initially, archaeologists hypothesized that a wild grass known as teosinte (Zea mexicana) was the progenitor of maize (Zea mays) and recent findings from molecular biology support this hypothesis.

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of maize comes from the site of San Andrés on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco. At this site, evidence of maize in the form of phytoliths (tiny silicon particles contained in plants) dates to 4800 BCE. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“There are no known wild species of Zea native to coastal Tabasco, so these plants were introduced to the region, almost certainly by humans. At the same level the archaeologists found evidence of large-scale forest clearance of the type associated with maize cultivation in this area.”

In the highlands of Oaxaca, archaeologists found a maize cob in Guilá Naquitz cave which was dated to 4300 BCE.

The best-known evidence for the early domestication of maize comes from the Tehuacan Valley in Puebla. Originally, the cobs from caves in this valley were dated to about 5000 BCE, but more recent re-dating of the material suggests a date of only 3500 BCE.

The cobs found in both the Oaxaca and Tehuacan sites show that maize had already gone through significant evolution from teosinte. The data from these sites do not provide definitive answers to the questions about when and where maize was first domesticated. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz summarize the data this way:

“We have some way to go before we answer these questions, but the most important general fact remains: many thousands of years before Christ, the Indians of Mesoamerica had brought a very primitive, wild form of maize under their control.”

The development of agriculture had ramifications for social organization. While archaeologists used to talk about an agricultural revolution (called the Neolithic Revolution in Europe) which seem to imply rapid sociocultural change, the archaeological data today suggests a rather slow evolution. Gradually, the domesticated plants, such as maize in the Americas, became more important and with this came villages with permanent structures, storage facilities, and greater use of pottery. Looking at the archaeological data from Tehuacan, Emily McClung de Tapia writes:

“The transition to increased dependence upon cultivated food plants goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the region’s population together with increases in the duration of occupation of campsites.”

Ancient America: Some Aztec Gods

For the general public, the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) are probably the best-known ancient American civilization. Like the Christians who later conquered much of the Americas, the Aztecs established their empire through religiously inspired military conquest.

The religion of the Aztecs, likes those of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, was polytheistic: that is, many different gods were worshiped. In comparing the Aztec pantheon of gods with those of the Greeks, archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes of the Aztec gods:

“They were related to one another, but in no systematic way as, say, many of the Greek deities were. Nor was there a hierarchy of gods and goddesses.”

As with religions elsewhere in the world, such as Christianity, the religion of the Aztecs incorporated the beliefs, ceremonies, and deities of earlier religions. Some of the deities were the patron deities of social, political, or economic groups; some were tribal deities. Brian Fagan reports:

“Even individual people might have their own special divine patrons, usually the deity associated with the day of their birth.”

With regard to the importance of the deities and religion to the daily lives of the Aztecs, Brian Fagan writes:

“The Mexica believed that they lived only through the grace of the gods, the deities who gave them sustenance, rain, and everything that flourished on earth. Almost every act, however trivial, was surrounded with a religious symbolism that is difficult for us to understand.”

Today, we don’t know exactly how many deities (gods and goddesses) were worshiped by the Aztecs. To confuse the issue for non-Aztec people, the deities often have several names reflecting their many aspects. In his book Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, Miguel León-Portilla writes:

“Quite often they are designated by a number of different names. In addition, the myths interweave, overlap, merge, and become tinted with local color.”

Listed below are a few of the better-known Aztec deities:

  • Ometeotl: this is an all-pervasive deity who is often portrayed as bisexual. In their book Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson report:

“The god was a combination of the male and female generative forces, associated with fire and maize and also called the Old Sorcerer.”

  • Tezcatlipoca: this is a youthful, virile, and all-knowing deity who is associated with the four directions. This god is of Toltec origin. Tezcatlipoca was the patron of young warriors.
  • Quetzalcoatl: the feathered serpent is an ancient concept in Mesoamerica and certainly predates the rise of the Aztec. He has a major role in the religions and ceremonies of many different cultures. Quetzalcoatl is associated with divination, astronomy, and astrology.
  • Huitzilopochtli: called Hummingbird on the Left, this is the patron god of the Aztecs. Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson write:

“Huitzilopochtli appears in the earliest histories of the Aztec, as patron and protector on the long journey out of Aztlan to Tenochtitlan.”

Brian Fagan writes:

“A minor god elevated to greatness by imperial propagandists, Huitzilopochtli became the very personification of virile warriorhood, a young, brave god, who sought constant human sacrifices as his rightful due.”

Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, describe Huitzilipochtli this way:

“…he was the tutelary divinity of the Aztec people; the terrible warrior god of the Sun, he needed the hearts and blood of sacrificed human warriors so that he would rise from the east each morning after a nightly trip through the Underworld.”

With regard to his prowess as a war god, Huitzilopochtli provided miraculous powers to the Aztecs which enabled them to defeat their enemies and expand their empire.

  • Xiuhtecutli: is the fire god and was associated with the coronation of rulers.
  • Tlaloc: is the god who controls the rain. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“One of the more horrifying Aztec practices was the sacrifice of small children on mountain tops to bring rain at the end of the dry season, in propitiation of Tlaloc. It was said that the more the children cried, the more the Rain God was pleased.”

The wife of Tlaloc is Chalchiuhtlicue (The Lady of the Jade Skirt) who is the goddess of water.

  • Chicomecoatl: is the goddess of the young maize plants. She is also associated with pulque, the intoxicating (i.e. alcoholic) beverage that is brewed from the maguey plant.
  • Teteoinnan: this goddess is the Earth Mother who was worshipped by doctors and midwives.
  • Xipe Totec: “Our Lord the Flayed One” is a fertility god who is portrayed as wearing a human skin. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“He was the god of spring and the renewal of the vegetation, impersonated by priests and those doing penance, wearing the skin of a flayed captive—the new skin symbolizing the ‘skin’ of vegetation which the earth puts on when the rains come.”

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

While Mexico declared its independence from Spain on September 16, 1810, it did not actually obtain its independence until September 27, 1821. In the Plan de Iguala, Mexico did away with all legal distinctions regarding Indians and reaffirmed that Indians were citizens of Mexico on an equal basis with non-Indians. In other words, Mexico, unlike the United States, gave Indians full citizenship and recognized that Indians had rights to their land.

In the newly established country of Mexico, Spanish policies were blamed for Indian poverty and many felt that by erasing racial, caste, and class distinctions that Spain’s legacy of paternalism could be rectified. According to Daniel Tyler, in an article in the New Mexico Historical Review:  “Even the word ‘Indian’ was supposed to be abolished on public and private documents.”  The Catholic Church, however, opposed equality and advocated a return to the colonial mission system. In reality, each state determined for itself how to incorporate Indians into the new nation.

In 1848, the United States ended its war with Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In this treaty, Mexico gave the United States what is now the Southwest. One newspaper reported: “we take nothing by conquest…Thank God.”

In the treaty, the United States agreed to recognize Indian land holdings, and to allow Indian people to continue their customs and languages. The Mexican negotiators won from the United States multiple promises that Indian land rights would continue as they had been under Mexican law. Van Hastings Garner, in an article in The Indian Historian, writes:  “A major concern of the Mexicans was that if the United States were allowed to follow her normal pattern of dispossessing Indians, northern Mexico would be inundated by a flood of refugees.”  Garner also writes:  “In essence, the United States had agreed by international treaty to continue the Mexican system of white-Indian relations throughout the Southwest, a system that was incompatible with the expansion of the United States, for it protected the property rights of the indigenous inhabitants.”

Navajo historian Jennifer Denetdale, in an article in the New Mexico Historical Review, writes:  “Ironically, the American rationale for claiming these lands was to bring peace and stability to the region, but the United State only escalated the cycles of violence among Navajos, other Native peoples, and New Mexicans.”

As with many of its treaties, the United States tended to ignore any provisions which might be inconvenient. American Indian policy at this time was focused on removing Indians from their lands and confining them to reservations on lands considered to be unsuitable for agricultural and mineral development.

 With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States acquired what would become New Mexico and Arizona. Included in this territory were the Pueblo Indians who were agricultural peoples who lived in permanent villages. The Pueblos did not fit the established American stereotypes about Indians. In Santa Ana: The People, the Pueblo, and the History of Tamaya Laura Bayer writes:  “They had preserved their own ancient governments, traditions, and religions after three hundred years of contact with European civilization, and they clearly indicated their intention to continue to do so.”

The Pueblos were clearly sovereign entities who had developed the land. American Indian policies did not seem to fit the Pueblo situations. Under Mexican law, Pueblo Indians had been citizens, but under American law their lost their citizenship rights. Some people argued that the Pueblos should be given citizenship, while others felt that they should be considered to be corporate entities under territorial law. It was not clear legally if they should be considered to be “Indians” or not.

In 1850, James S. Calhoun, the first Indian agent in New Mexico, negotiated a treaty between the United States and the Pueblos of Santa Clara, Tesuque, Nambe, Santo Domingo, Jemez, San Felipe, Cochiti, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, and Zia. The treaty states that the boundaries of each Pueblo  “shall never be diminished, but may be enlarged whenever the Government of the United States shall deem it advisable.”  In addition, the treaty states that the Pueblos shall be governed by their own laws and customs. On the surface, the treaty seem to be in accord with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but the treaty was never ratified by the United States Senate.

Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States also acquired California, an area which had been densely populated prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Under the Spanish mission system Indian population had declined.

In 1850, Congress authorized the President to appoint negotiators to make treaties with the California Indians. Van Hastings Garner reports:  “These treaties were to set up reservations for Indians into which they could retreat from the encroachment of white settlers.  The price for this security, however, was the surrender of all claims to land not included in the reservations.”  In other words, the Indians were to give up all of the rights which had been reserved to them in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico.

In 1851, the United States formally negotiated 18 treaties with Indian nations which secured legal title to public land and which guaranteed reserved lands for Indians. The treaties were signed by about 400 Indian chiefs and leaders representing 150 tribes (about half the tribes in California). The Indian commissioners explained to the non-Indian residents of the state that the government had two options: to exterminate the Indians or to “domesticate” them. They argued that “domesticating” them was more practical.

None of the commissioners who arranged the California treaties knew anything about California Indians. According to anthropologist Robert Heizer, in the Handbook of North American Indians:  “Their procedure was to travel about until they could collect enough natives, meet with them, and effect the treaty explanation and signing. One wonders how clearly many Indians understood what the whole matter was about.”

Non-Indians in California fiercely opposed the ratification of the treaties. While these treaties were signed by both Indian and U.S. government leaders, they were not debated in Congress, thus did not appear in the Congressional Record, and stayed hidden for more than 50 years. The ratification of the treaties was opposed by the California legislature and Annette Jaimes, in a chapter in Critical Issues in Native North America, reports  “it is rumored that state representatives even succeeded in having the treaties hidden in the archives of the Government Room in Washington, D.C.”

In spite of the assurances given to Mexico by the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ensuing legislation deprived California Indians of the rights to their land. The impact on the Indians was immense: many lost their homes, and were persecuted and hunted by non-Indians. During the next 50 years, California Indian population decreased by 80%. In the Handbook of North American Indians, anthropologist Omer Stewart writes:  “The failure to ratify the treaties left the federal government without explicit legal obligation toward the Indians of California.”

In 1851, a number of California Indians were living on land grants issued to them by Spain and Mexico. As non-Indian greed turned to dispossessing these Indians of their lands, Congress passed a law to establish a commission to determine the validity of these land grants. While on the surface it looked like the commission should confirm Indian land rights under these grants, it actually served to do the opposite. Van Hastings Garner explains it this way:  “The law stipulated that no matter how secure the title to the land was, if the grant holder failed to appear before the commission, the grant would revert to public domain. This provision took away the rights of most Indian grant holders, few of whom were told of the commission’s existence, let alone that they had to appear before it.”  In addition, the Indians had to travel to San Francisco to appear before the commission. Only six Indian claims were confirmed.

The American Indian experiences in New Mexico and California with American government promises made to Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo suggest that treaty promises are not held in high regard by the United States.

Tlatilco, an Ancient Site in the Valley of Mexico

For most people the mention of ancient Mexico brings up images of the Aztecs, the Mayas, and perhaps the ancient city of Teotihucán. Ancient Mexico, however, also includes some sites which are much older than these and which are not tourist attractions. One of these is Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico.

For today’s archaeologically-oriented tourist, accustomed to the great ruins of places like Chichén Itzá, Tlatilco is more than a disappointment. In their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, archaeologists Michael Coe and Rex Koontz write:  “The visitor to the site today will find nothing but a series of huge holes in the ground, surrounded by factories. In actuality, only a tiny fraction of Tlatilco was ever cleared under scientific conditions.”

Like most archaeological sites around the world, the initial excavations weren’t done by archaeologists. The original excavations at the site, started in 1936, were done by workers who were digging for clay to be used in the making of bricks. In 1942, Miguel Covarrubias led the first scientific excavation at the site.

The archaeological record shows that Tlatilco was settled by about 1300 BCE. It might be described as a large village or a small town that spread over an area of about 160 acres. Its location on a small stream near Lake Teycoc provided its residents with easy access to fishing as well as to the waterfowl attracted to the lake. In addition, the refuse at the site show that the residents hunted and consumed deer.

With regard to time period, the era from 1300 to 400 BCE (2000 BCE to 200 CE according to some sources) is generally classified as the Formative or Pre-classic period in Mesoamerica.

One of the features of the site is the presence of underground, bell-shaped pits. While the archaeologists found these filled with rubbish—ashes, fragments of pottery and figurines, animal bones—they originally served for the storage of grain.

Clay, in addition to being used to make bricks, can also be used for making pottery. In their Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica, Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson report:  “The ceramics of Tlatilco are advanced, and zone rocker stamps (tools for making indented designs) were used.”

At Tlatilco, the ancient potters’ art shows many animals: armadillo, wild turkey, frogs, bears, rabbits, opossum, fish, turtles, and ducks. The Tlatilco potters made two kinds of figurines. One of these was large, hollow, and painted red. The smaller figurines were usually solid. Both male and female figurines were made. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:  “What an extraordinary glimpse of the Pre-classic aristocrats is provided in their figurines! We see women affectionately carrying children or dogs; dancers, some with rattles around the legs; acrobats and contortionists; and matrimonial couples on couches.”

One of the features of ancient Mexican cultures is the ball game. While archaeologists have not found a ball court at Tlatilco, the figurines show players wearing the traditional protections for the game which suggests that they may have had the ballgame.

Some of the figurines show masked individuals who may have been shamans as well as deformed people. Some of the figurines show two-headed people; heads with three eyes, two noses, and two mouths; and hunchbacks.

Burials provide archaeologists with a great deal of important information about ancient societies. At Tlatilco archaeologists uncovered about 340 burials which were accompanied by offerings, especially the clay figurines. Some of the burial goods, such as marine shells, iron-ore mirrors, and pearl oyster pendants show that long-distance trade was being carried out. The burial of luxury items with children suggests that Tlatilco had a hereditary class system and inherited social inequality.

Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson summarize Tlatilco this way:  “Tlatilco is an important archaeological site because its finds demonstrate advances in ceramics during the Early Formative Period.”


Ancient America: Corn, Beans, Squash

The domestication of plants is something that happened independently in many different regions of the world. The domestication of plants marks a fundamental change in the way people interact with and perceive their environment. Domestication is basically evolution which has been directed through human intervention. By the time of the European invasions in the sixteenth century, the Indigenous peoples of Mexico had already domesticated more than 50 different plants, ranging from avocados to yucca. Three of these plants—maize (corn), beans, and squash—became the focus of American Indian agriculture in North and Central America. Among the Iroquois these three plants were known as the Three Sisters.

Maize (Corn):

 Maize (Zea mays), commonly called corn in the United States, is undoubtedly the most important plant domesticated in Mexico. In their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz write:  “Maize was and is the very basis of settled life in Mexico, and, in fact, throughout the regions of the New World civilized in Pre-Columbian times.”

Archaeologists debate several questions with regard to the domestication of maize: (1) What was the wild ancestor or ancestors of maize? (2) When did the fully domesticated maize first appear? And (3) how did maize cultivation spread both north and south into other regions of the Americas?

Maize is a grass and there are no known wild forms of this grass. In the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas and Guatemala, there is, however, a grass called teosinte (Zea Mexicana) which grows as an unwanted weed in and around Indian cornfields. Long before archaeologists had the tools of modern genetics and DNA, they hypothesized that teosinte was the probable ancestor of maize. Maize may have evolved through the human selection of teosinte plants. Some researchers assuming that teosinte was the progenitor of maize have suggested that maize originated in the Balsas River Drainage in western Mexico by about 7000 BCE.

Gary Crawford, writing in the Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:  “How corn was domesticated is problematic. As a grass, its fruit in the form of a cob is a monstrosity.”

Teosinte does not have a cob and this has led some researchers to suggest that the ancestor of maize may have been a wild plant, now extinct, which had a cob. Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson, in their Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica, write:  “The wild maize plants altered by mutation were collected by early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and slowly domesticated. The wild form appears to have become extinct, possibly through backcrossing with domesticated forms.”

However, this hypothesized plant, has not yet been found in the archaeological record. Nor is there any evidence that ancient humans harvested teosinte.

It was once thought that the people who oversaw the evolution of teosinte into maize were the Maya, but there is no direct evidence that the Maya were the overseers of this evolutionary transformation.

Dating the appearance of maize in the archaeological record has presented a few problems. At the present time some of the earliest findings come from phytoliths (fossil evidence of plant cells) found at San Andrés on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco near the Olmec site of La Venta. These date to about 4800 BCE and since there are no known wild species of Zea in the region, it suggests that they were introduced by humans. There is also some evidence of large-scale forest clearing at this time, an activity usually associated with the cultivation of maize. According to Michael Coe and Rex Koontz:  “If this Tabasco material is true maize cultivation, then it would be the earliest record of such activity that we have.”

Maize cobs found in caves in Tehuacan, Pueblo, were originally thought to date to 5000 BCE, but newer dating methods have revised this to 3500 BCE. At the present time, the earliest date maize cob comes from the Guilá Naquitz cave in Oaxaca which is dated to 4300 BCE.


While maize was the most important food staple in ancient Mexico, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) were second in importance. Beans seem to have been originally domesticated in Mexico and Guatemala and then diffused, along with maize, to other parts of the Americas. With regard to beans, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz write:  “Its nutritional importance stems from the fact that its proteins complement those of maize.”

Beans supply the amino acids lysine and tryptophan to complement the amino acid zein from maize.

Beans seem to have been originally domesticated in Mexico’s Lerma-Santiago basin about 6,000 years ago. Beans were not grown in any significant quantities until they became a part of the diet that included maize and squash. Beans were also domesticated independently in the Andes.


While maize was the most important plant in ancient Mexico, squash appears to have been domesticated earlier than maize. The earliest evidence of domesticated squash (Cucurbit pepo) dates to about 8000 BCE. This evidence comes for Guilá Naquitz cave in Oaxaca. This early squash is a distant relative of today’s pumpkin. There are three major species of squash in Mexico: pumpkin, warty or crookneck squash, and walnut squash. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz write: “The origins of all of thee from wild ancestors or through hybridization are very little understood, although a very early domesticate has been identified, and the sequence of their appearance in Mexico is now established.”

Between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, domesticated squash diffused north into Northern Mexico and the Southwest.

Aztec Metalwork

The concept of working with metal to fashion ornaments and tools did not originate in Mesoamerica but seems to have diffused into the region sometime in the seventh century from the south—Panama, coastal Ecuador, or Peru. Metal working seems to have diffused initially into West Mexico through maritime trade. According to Dorothy Hosler, writing in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology:  “These maritime traders primarily transmitted technical knowledge, although they sometimes traded artifacts, which were then copied using local materials.”

As a result of this diffusion of knowledge, the Mexican metalworkers and artisans developed their own distinctive artistic and aesthetic style. This style emphasized the symbolic possibilities of metal.

From West Mexico, metalworking diffused to the east and was present in the Valley of Mexico by the eleventh century. By the time the Aztecs rose to power in the Valley of Mexico in the fourteenth century, metalworking was well-established among the Mesoamerican civilizations.

The technology of alloying tin or lead with copper was unknown in the Valley of Mexico, so the Aztec metalworkers worked with soft, lustrous metals such as copper, gold, and silver. None of these metals were found in the Valley of Mexico and had to be imported from distant areas.

Metal smiths melted copper and gold nuggets in fairly simply charcoal-fired furnaces. In order to maintain high and even heat in the furnaces, relays of workers would blow through a tube to provide air to the flames.

Aztec society was highly stratified with groups of artisans living in their own residential quarters. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes:  “This close-knit residence pattern enabled the artisans to organize their own people in ranked guilds and to train their successors in organized apprenticeships.”

The metalworkers were ranked among the highest of the artisan guilds and the products which they created were reserved almost exclusively for the nobility. These products included necklaces, ear plugs, masks featuring animals and humans, plaques, and other ornaments. Brian Fagan also reports:  “The ruler restricted the privilege of wearing gold and silver ornaments so carefully that many metal-workers enjoyed a special relationship with the palace.”

Some objects were created using a lost wax technique in which the artisan would first create a mold using ground charcoal and clay. This likeness would then be covered with a skin of melted beeswax and then the entire object encased in a shell of ground charcoal and clay. After drying thoroughly, the mold would be heated so that the beeswax would flow out of special holes. The molten gold or silver would be poured in to replace the beeswax. When completed, the artisan would have a fine duplicate in gold or silver of the original prototype. In extracting the final product, the mold would be smashed and thus each object would be unique.

Relatively little Aztec gold and silver artwork exists today. The Spanish were more interested in the metal than in the art, so they simply melted it down.

Tula, the Toltec Capital

By the time the Spanish had conquered Mexico, the Toltec (also known Tolteca) were revered as mythical rulers of a golden age. They were regarded as the cultural heirs of the great city of Teotihuacán. In his book The Aztecs, archaeologist Brian Fagan writes of the mythical reputation the Toltec:  “They were expert herbalists, jewelers, the originators of calendars and year counts—righteous, wise people in every way, it was claimed. The oral histories depict the Tolteca as tall people who excelled in all the arts and sciences. Hunger and unhappiness were unknown. Tolteca farmers even grew colored cotton and huge ears of maize.”

Prudence Rice, writing in the Dictionary of Archaeology, notes:  “Much of what is known about the history of the Toltecs in Mesoamerica is filtered through later Aztec myths and histories, which they wrote and rewrote to glorify their own accomplishments, and many contradictions complicate the picture.”

While the various accounts of Toltec history are somewhat contradictory, Wigberto Jimenez Moreno pieced together a sequence that is accepted by most scholars. In the late eighth century C.E., the legendary ruler Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) had led his people through what is now northern Jalisco and southern Zacatecas to settle in the Valley of Mexico at Culhuacan. According to the stories, Mixcoatl was a Chichimeca (barbarian from the north) who married a noble woman at Culhuacan. After his death, Mixcoatl was deified as the patron of hunting.

While many scholars view Mixcoatl as a mythical or semi-mythical figure, Topilzin is generally felt to have been a real person who was born in the year 1 Reed (935 CE or 947 CE). He is often identified as Mixcoatl’s son and heir. One of the first things Topilzin did was to move the capital from Culhuacan to Tula. While Tula is sometimes translated to mean “place of the reeds,” its meaning implied “the city” (from the idea that people were crowded together as thick as reeds).

The accounts of Tula and the Toltec which were collected by the early Spanish chroniclers, such as Bernardino de Sahagún, seem almost mythical. Unlike the great ancient city of Teotihuacán, there were no immediately observable ruins of Tula. Was Tula myth or reality?  The answer came in 1941 when Wigberto Jimenez Moreno and Jorge Acosta identified the archaeological site of Tula in the state of Hidalgo about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Mexico City. Prior to being adopted by the Toltec as their capital, Tula had been a small farming community which had been first settled about 650 CE. As the Toltec capital, it became an urban center covering about 7 square miles (11 square kilometers) with a population of about 30-40,000 in the urban core and perhaps as many as 120,000 in the urban region.

The archaeological site of Tula is not as impressive as many other Mesoamerican sites. First, the city had been burned and sacked by an unknown group. Second, the Aztecs had looted the site for its sculptures, friezes, and other items which were then re-used in Tenochtitlan and other Aztec cities.

On a high promontory, the Toltec constructed a ceremonial precinct which was dominated on the north side by a pyramid (designated as Pyramid B by archaeologists) to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent God, in his role as the God of the Morning Star.  Archaeologist Brian Fagan describes the pyramid this way:  “Its workmanship is crude compared with that of the pyramids of Teotihuacan. Great warrior figures with flat heads supported the roof of Quetzalcoatl’s temple. The shrine stood on a pyramid faced with panels of walking jaguars and eagles consuming human hearts.”

Pyramid B was built in six successive stages. It is a stepped pyramid platform with a colonnaded hall in front. Archaeologists Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, write:  “An ancient visitor would have walked through the colonnade, climbed the stairway and passed through the entrance of the temple, flanked by two stone columns in the form of Feathered Serpents, with the rattles in the air and heads on the ground.”

The major construction of this civic/ceremonial center, known today as Tula Grande, is traditionally dated to 950-1150 CE, with most of the absolute dates at the clustering in the 900 to 1000 range.

Also included in the ceremonial complex are a coatepantli (“serpent wall”), two ballcourts for the ceremonial ballgame, and a Chacmool sculpture. The coatepantli is located to the north of the pyramid and serves to demark the edge of the ceremonial district. The friezes on the wall show a snake devouring a human except for the head.

Chacmool is a type of stone sculpture of a reclining human figure with a bowl or plate held on the stomach. These sculptures are found at the entrances to temples throughout Mesoamerica. The bowls or plates served as receptacles for human hearts.

Adjacent to Pyramid B is the Palacio Quemado (Burnt Palace). This feature has colonnaded halls with sunken courts in their centers which probably served as spaces for ceremonies and meetings.

In spite of the Aztec stories, archaeology has not uncovered any evidence showing that the Toltec actually controlled a large empire. They did, however, participate in the large trading networks that spread throughout Mesoamerica and into the American Southwest. They also appear to have controlled the obsidian mines which had once been controlled by Teotihuacán.

According to the Aztec stories, Topiltzin had been a priest-king dedicated to a peaceful Feathered Serpent cult. He opposed human sacrifice. On the other hand, there were those in Tula who worshipped Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), the giver and taker of life, the patron of the warriors. As a result of the struggle between the pacifistic Topiltzin and the warriors, Topiltzin and his followers fled the city about 987 CE. As a result, there developed many legends about the migrations of Topiltzin and his people.

The archaeological reality of the Toltec and their capital at Tula is somewhat different than that reported by the later Aztecs to the Spanish chroniclers. Brian Fagan reports:  “The Tula excavations reveal a battle-scarred, militaristic Toltec civilization, one in which oppression was a way of life and human sacrifice second nature, a far cry from the Golden Age of Aztec legend.”

With regard to the Toltec legacy, Prudence Rice writes:  “For the Aztecs, the Toltecs played a critical role as a great ancestral civilization. In order to legitimize their kinds and establish their own noble lineages, the Mexica—likewise of Chichimeca ancestry—contrived to marry into the descendents of Toltec nobility in the basin of Mexico.”

After 1100, prolonged droughts and attacks from new invaders from the north brought an end to the Tolteca.

Aztec Social Organization

When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they found that one of the dominant empires was that of the Aztecs. While many great civilizations and empires had developed and collapses in the region over the millennia, today we know more about the Aztec society than we do about the earlier societies thanks to the observations of the Spanish. In 1519, when the Spanish first encountered the Aztecs, the Aztec empire was a complex state ruled by an emperor from the city of Tenochtitlán which had a population of about 350,000.

The “big house” (calpolli; also  spelled calpulli) was the basic unit of Aztec social organization and of the Aztec empire. The “big house” was primarily a group of families who had been related by kinship or proximity over a fairly long period of time. This group was a land-holding corporation with ritual functions: in other words, the group owned its own land and worshipped its own gods. Like Aztec society, the “big house” was stratified with both elite members and commoners. The elite would provide the commoners with arable land or with non-agricultural occupations and the commoners pay tribute to the elite in various forms.

Within the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán there were 80 “big houses” which were arranged into the four great quarters of the city.

Each of the “big houses” was presided over by a single individual who functions as a principal chief and has the title calpollec. The principal chief was elected by the members of the “big house” and confirmed by the Aztec emperor. The principal chief ruled for life.

Aztec society was stratified into a number of classes. At the very top of Aztec society were the rulers (teteuhctin) of the cities and towns. Living in palaces and wearing distinctive clothing, the rulers ensured that tribute payments were made at all of the appropriate levels of the imperial administration.

Just below the rulers were the nobles (pipiltin) which was a hereditary class (i.e. people had to be born into it). All of the Aztec imperial ministers belonged to this class. There was also a noble class known as the eagle nobles (cuauhpipiltin) who had been born as commoners but had distinguished themselves in battle and had been rewarded with a noble title.

Most of the people in Aztec society were commoners (macehualtin) who worked the lands of the “big houses” and paid tribute to the upper classes. The Aztec state maintained control over the commoners and tribute was in the form of service: labor on public works and/or as soldiers in the army.

At the bottom of Aztec society were the serfs (mayeque) who worked on the noble estates. Serfs were menial laborers and, according to some reports, were not allowed to leave the lands to which they were attached. Some scholars have estimated that perhaps as many as 30% of the Aztecs were serfs. About one-third of the produce of the serfs went to the nobles.

Aztec society, like other societies throughout the world, included slaves. Slavery was partially debt slavery which was made up of people who could not pay their debts, particularly gambling debts. When deeply in debt individuals could pawn themselves, their spouses, or their children for a certain period of time or perpetuity. Under Aztec law, slaves could not be sold without their consent. In general, slaves seem to have been treated well. Slaves could choose their marriage partners and their children were not slaves.

In addition to debt slavery, the Aztecs also captured people from other nations who were sold in slavery. By the time of the Spanish invasion, the buying and selling of slaves was a big business. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes:  “The ever-increasing nobility required en more laborers to serve in their households. Slave merchants operated from as far away as the Tabasco region of the Gulf Coast and frequented human markets in Azcapotzalco and Itzocan.”

There is also one small, but very powerful, Aztec group which must be mentioned: the long-distance merchants (pochteca). They were treated like royalty and reported directly to the royal palace. These merchants travelled hundreds of miles into foreign territories and were able to obtain luxury goods such as quetzal feathers and amber for the emperor. Membership in this merchant class was hereditary. While the long-distance merchants could become very wealthy, there were restrictions on them flaunting their wealth.

Being a long-distance merchant was a dangerous job and many died while travelling. Disease, accidents, and being killed by unfriendly people were among the job hazards. To ensure their safety and wellbeing, the pochteca had their own gods, including Yacatecuhtili (“Nose Lord”) who is generally portrayed as having a very long nose and carrying a traveler’s staff in one hand and a woven fan in the other. If one of these merchants died when travelling then, like the soul of a fallen warrior, the soul would go directly to the paradise of the Sun God.

Closely associated with the pochteca was another specialized group known as the oztomeca who dressed in local clothing and spoke the local language. Their job, in addition to obtaining exotic goods, was to gather military intelligence. Archaeologists Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico, write:  “Like the businessmen-spies of modern days, the oztomeca were often a vanguard for the Aztec takeover of another nation, acting sometimes as agents-provocateurs.”

In 1521, the Spanish and their Native American allies captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, killing about 280,000 of its residents. Aztec society was then forced to be assimilated in the Spanish empire.

Invading Mexico in the 1880s

In the 1880s, the American wars against the Apache Indians ignored the border between the United States and Mexico, and the American military often ignored Mexico’s sovereignty in their eagerness to kill Apaches. This was a time when the American press often urged genocide against Indians, particularly against the Apache. Many of the military intrusions into Mexico were made in response to alleged raids by Mexican-based Apache groups.  

In 1881, a small war party of Lipan Apache attacked and looted the house of an American settler in Texas, killing two people. The army followed the party into Mexico where the Apache were surprised at their mountain camp. Six Apache warriors were killed and a small boy and a woman were captured.

In 1882, Apache warriors under the leadership of Juh and Geronimo raided the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona to capture the Chiricahua Apache band led by Loco. This band had stayed on the reservation when the Chiricahua had broken free the year before. Loco and his people were forced to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. The army struck the Apaches near the Arizona-New Mexico border and then battled them again 20 miles into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Nineteen Apache, primarily women and children, were killed in the two battles.

A war party of 25 Chiricahua Apache warriors, under the leadership of Chatto, crossed into Arizona from their stronghold in the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains in 1883 and raided a charcoal camp near Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The raiding party then moved northeast across the southeastern corner of Arizona, covering 75-100 miles a day. They crossed into New Mexico where they killed a federal judge and his wife and kidnapped their young son to be raised as an Apache warrior. During their raids, the Apaches killed 26 Americans. They managed to escape back into Mexico without being seen by any American soldier.

In response to the raids, an American army unit of 320 men under the command of General George Crook crossed the boundary with Mexico in search of “hostile” Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache. The expedition’s principal guide was Tzoe (called “Peaches” by the Americans), a Cibecue Apache who had been a part of the hostile bands. In addition, a number of Apache and Yavapai scouts accompanied the Americans.

The Americans managed to surprise the Apache in their mountain stronghold. Consequently, a number of the Apache leaders-Geronimo, Naiche, Chihuahua, Chato, Bonito, Nana, Loco, Mangas, and Kahtennay-agreed to return to the reservation in Arizona.

In 1885, two bands of Chiricahua Apache left the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.  Tiswin was a traditional Native alcoholic beverage which had been forbidden by the American government. In open defiance of the government’s prohibition, the Apache had brewed up the tiswin (a kind of beer or wine), got drunk and had fled into Mexico. One of the bands was led by Naiche and the other one by Chihuahua. There were about 140 people in the two bands, including 35 men and 8 boys old enough to fight.

One raiding party of ten warriors slipped back into the United States, carried out raids for a month in an area patrolled by 83 companies of soldiers. They killed 38 Americans, captured a number of horses, and escaped back into Mexico with the loss of only one warrior.  

In the Bavispe Mountains of Sonora, Mexico, Chihuahua’s band encountered U.S. troops. While the warriors diverted the troops, the women and children hid in a cave. However, the army found the women and children. They killed some, and then forced the survivors, including the wounded, to walk several hundred miles to Fort Bowie, Arizona. At the Fort, food was simply thrown on the ground for the women and children, implying that the prisoners were no more than animals. The women, including the wounded, were forced to dig latrines.

What many histories record as the final intrusion into Mexico during the 1880s Apache Wars came in 1886 when the Chiricahua Apache surrendered to the United States Army in Mexico on the condition that they would be held as prisoners for two years and would then be allowed to return to their own land. Instead, they spent the next 27 years as prisoners of war in prisons in Alabama, Florida, and Oklahoma.

The Navajo and Mexico

In 1821 Mexico obtained independence from Spain. In the Plan of Iguala, Mexico did away with all legal distinctions regarding Indians and reaffirmed that Indians were citizens of Mexico on an equal basis with non-Indians. In what is now New Mexico and Arizona, this means that the various Navajo bands now had to deal with the Mexican government rather than the Spanish government.  

The Navajo were not a unified nation with regard to government. There was no single unified, central government or council: there were dozens of local groups. The basis of traditional Navajo government was kinship. People of experience and wisdom (known as nataani) led the family, band, and clan groups. Each group was autonomous and chose its own leaders by consensus.

In 1822, the newly formed Mexican government negotiated its first treaty with the Navajo. Under the treaty, Segundo was recognized by the Mexican government as the head chief of the Navajo. Since the Navajo did not traditionally have a head chief, it is doubtful that most Navajo recognized him as head chief. The treaty called for an exchange of prisoners and the freedom of the Navajo to travel and trade throughout New Mexico.

Shortly after negotiating its first Navajo treaty, the Mexican government appointed a new governor who ignored the treaty. The new governor sent the Navajo an ultimatum to return all prisoners, to convert to Catholicism, and to resettle in villages around the missions. The new governor seemed unaware that the previous attempts by the Spanish to convert the Navajo and have them settle around the missions had failed.

In 1823, the Mexicans negotiated another treaty with the Navajo. The treaty was signed by two Navajo captains – Batolome Baca and Juan Antonio Sandoval. The treaty required: (1) the Navajo to hand over all prisoners, (2) Navajo prisoners held by Mexico were to be returned unless they wanted to become Christians, (3) the Navajo were to return all stolen goods, and (4) the Navajo were to accept Christianity and settle in pueblos. The peace established by the treaty, according to Navajo oral tradition, was violated before the ink was dry.

In 1824, the Mexican government sent a military campaign through Navajo territory in an attempt to subdue them. Following this campaign, the Mexican government negotiated a treaty with the Navajo that called for a mutual exchange of prisoners. Even though Mexican law prohibited slavery, the use of Indian slaves was common.

For the next decade there was little formal or official contact between the Navajo and the Mexican government. This did not mean there was peace between the Navajo and the Mexican settlers who had invaded Navajo territory. Skirmishes between the two groups were common.

In 1835, a group of Mexican ranchers together with a troop of Mexican soldiers invaded Navajo territory intent on destroying their fields, burning their hogans, killing or scattering their herds, and killing as many Navajo as possible. The Mexicans did not expect the any resistance from the Navaho as they had assumed they would be divided into small groups of raiders who could never make a stand against such a large force. However, the Navajo assembled 200 warriors under the leadership of Narbona. Most were armed with bows and iron-tipped arrows and all were mounted on swift horses. At the Big Bend of the Río Chaco the Navajo ambushed the Mexican force. The Navajo victory was swift and easy. Narbona allowed the Mexican survivors to retreat, taking their dead and wounded with them.

In retaliation for the Navajo victory, the Mexican army marched against the Navajo the following year. Hearing that the Zuni were allied with the Navajo, the Mexican army arrived at the Pueblo of Zuni to find that the Zuni were not allied with the Navajo. The Zuni turned over two Navajo prisoners.

In 1839, the Mexican authorities negotiated another treaty of peace with the Navajo but the Navajo did not care for the agreement and soon started raiding again. This was the last Mexican attempt at negotiating a treaty with the Navajo. In 1846, the United States acquired New Mexico and, under the Doctrine of Discovery, the right to govern the Indian nations within the territory.

Curtis Navajo


Ancient America: The Maya City of Coba

Cobá was a Maya city located in the northern portion of the Maya region on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Most of the city was constructed between 500 and 900-a period corresponding to the Classic Maya Period. Most of the dated inscriptions found in the city date from the seventh century.

Maya Map

Cobá had a population of at least 50,000 and spread out to cover an area of more than 80 square kilometers. The city was situated around two lagoons. There are a series of elevated roads constructed out of stone and plaster which lead out from the center of the site to small sites. Some of these roads run east to the Caribbean coast. The longest identified road runs over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the site of Yaxuna.

Coba Site Map

Cobá engaged in trade with a number of other Mayan communities, particularly the ones along the Caribbean coast in present-day Belize and Honduras. This trade utilized the ports of Xcaret, Xel-Há, Tancah, Muyil, and Tulum.

As with other Mayan sites, Cobá has a number of temple pyramids. The tallest of these, known today as Nohoch Mul,  is about 42 meters (140 feet) high. This means that it is higher than the pyramids at Chichén Itzá (El Castillo is 33 meters tall) and Uxmal (Pyramid of the Divine is 35 meters tall).

Coba Nunoch

Nohoch Mul is shown above.

Coba La Iglesia

Shown above is the pyramid known as La Iglesia, the second highest pyramid in Cobá.

Coba Crossroads Tempe

Shown above is the Crossroads Temple.

In Maya cities, ball courts were important features as the ball game was an important part of Mayan ceremonial and social life. In Cobá there are two ball courts which is an indication of its importance as a Maya center.

Coba Ballcourt 1

Coba Ballcourt 2

Shown above is one of the ballcourts at Cobá.

In the Yucatán Peninsula water is a critical element. There is actually very little surface water in the area. The cenotes-holes with fresh water-are important. The two lagoons at Cobá were important factors in the development of this city. The Maya built dikes around the lagoons in order raise the water level and make the water supply more reliable.

Coba Stela

One of the characteristics of the Mayan sites are the stele: carved slabs of stone bearing inscriptions-often dates and the names of kings-and depictions. These were often erected in the plaza, usually in front of a pyramid. The photograph above shows stele from Cobá.

During the Postclassic Maya Period, Cobá remained an important site. New temples were built and old ones were maintained until at least the 14th century and possibly until the arrival of the Spanish.  

Ancient America: Tulum, a Maya Port

Tulum, located on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya. The earliest date found on a stele at Tulum is 564 CE and the city flourished from about 1200 to 1521. It was a major link in the rather extensive trade route of the Maya. Its seaside location made it a transportation hub: both maritime and land trade routes converged here. Its fortifications show that it was an important site, one which had to be defended from raiders and enemies.  

The site’s current name, Tulum, is from the Yucatec Mayan word for fence or wall and refers to the site’s fortifications. There is some indication that the old name for the site may have been Zama, meaning “city of the dawn” in reference to its eastern location.

Tulum 1

On one side Tulum was protected by steep sea cliffs. On the landward side, the city was protected by a wall that averaged three to five meters (16 feet) in height. The wall was about eight meters (26 feet) thick and ran for some 400 meters (1,300 feet) on the side parallel to the sea. The walls which ran from the parallel wall to the seaside were about 170 meters (560 feet) long. On the southwest and northwest corners there are small structures which probably served as watchtowers. There are five narrow gateways in the walls: two on the north wall, two on the south, and one on the west.


Fresh water for the city was provided by a small cenote near the northern side of the wall.

With regard to trade, the artifacts which archaeologists have found at the site come from central Mexico and Central America. The trade goods included copper rattles and rings from the Mexican highlands; flint and ceramics from all over the Yucatán, jade and obsidian from Guatemala. The obsidian came from quarries in Ixtepeque in northern Guatemala which is 700 kilometers (430 miles) from Tulum. From the amount of obsidian found at Tulum, archaeologists feel that Tulum was a major center for the obsidian trade.

With regard to trade routes, the Río Motagua and the Río Usumacincta/Pasión would have allowed seafaring canoes access to both the highlands and the lowlands. The Río Motagua starts from the Guatemalan highlands and flows to the Caribbean. The Río Usumacincta/Pasión system also originates in the Guatemalan highlands, but empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tulum Seaside

There is a cove and landing beach in a break in the sea cliffs that would have been perfect for trading canoes coming in. This characteristic of the site is probably one of the reasons the Maya founded the city of Tulum here in the first place. The structure presently known as the Castillo has a small shrine which was used as a beacon for incoming canoes. It marks a break in the barrier reef that is opposite from the site. The Casillo is 7.5 meters (25 feet) tall and the lintels in the upper rooms have serpent motifs carved in them.

One of the most important gods of Tulum appears to have been the Diving or Descending God. There are many depictions of this god in the murals and other works around the site.

Temple of the Frescos

The Temple of the Frescos is shown above. Many people feel that this is one of the most spectacular buildings at Tulum. It has both a lower gallery and a smaller second story gallery. Niched figurines of the Maya Diving God and Descending God decorate the façade of the temple.  

Temple of Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God is shown above. This is located in the site’s central precinct.

dios del viento

The Temple of the Wind Gods is shown above.

Tulum 2

Tulum continued to be occupied for at least 70 years after the Spanish invaded Mexico. The Spanish first discovered the city in 1518 and by the end of the century it was deserted.  

The Kickapoo and the War Against Texas

As American settlers began moving into Texas-a Spanish colony-in the early nineteenth century, they brought with them an anti-Indian arrogance and attitude than came to define both the Republic of Texas and the State of Texas. They tended to recognize no Indian rights in Texas, and during the Civil War period this anti-Indian attitude was enfolded into racism. Incidents at the end of the Civil War ignited a war with the Kickapoo Indians that would last for decades and would include illegal military expeditions into Mexico.  

Civil War:

As soon as the Civil War broke out, the Confederacy sent treaty delegations among the Indian nations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to negotiate treaties of friendship and alliance. Many of the Indian nations had ties to the South, including the ownership of African slaves, and were friendly to the Confederate cause. In addition, many of the tribes held some animosity against the United States as a result of their removal to Indian Territory.

The Kickapoo were not a southern tribe, but one whose homeland was in the Great Lakes area. In their dealings with the United States government they had found the Americans to be less than honorable and therefore had little loyalty to the United States. On the other hand, signing a treaty with the Confederates would require them to declare their friendship for Texas and to stop their raids on Texas ranches and settlements. Their dislike of Texans was greater than their dislike of Americans and so they hoped that a path of neutrality would keep them out of the war. They left Indian Territory and fled north to Union-held Kansas with other pro-Union Indians. In Kansas they did not find peace, but instead there were conflicts with the Osage and the seemingly constant solicitations from Union agents to join their cause.

In 1862, about 600 Kickapoo under the leadership of Machemanet left Kansas with the goal of settling in west Texas or northern Mexico. They wished to escape from conflicts with the Osage and to avoid the Civil War. At this time, there were already Kickapoo villages in Coahuila, Mexico.

They traveled without incident to southwest Texas. While camped on the Little Concho River, the Kickapoo were spotted by a mounted Confederate battalion. Noting the large Kickapoo horse herd, the Confederates attacked. Kickapoo warriors quickly recovered the horses and drove off the Confederates. They hurriedly packed up their camp and crossed into Mexico where they were welcomed by Mexican officials. In return for a pledge from them to drive out the Comanche and Apache raiders and to protect the northern frontiers of Mexico, the Mexican government made a grant of land to Machemanet’s people.

The following year, couriers from Machemanet’s Mexican Kickapoo brought an invitation from the Mexican government to the Southern Kickapoo to move to Mexico. Pecan (the younger) and Papequah held a number of councils to discuss the matter.

The Spark:

In 1865, the Southern Kickapoo bands under the leadership of Pecan (the younger), Nokowat, and Papequah were migrating to their new home in northern Mexico. They had been following a carefully selected course to stay away from any settlements. Upon reaching the South Concho River, they decided to camp for several days to give the horses an opportunity to rest. It was cold and windy, so no scouts were posted.

A scouting party of 20 Confederate cavalry, however, had picked up the Kickapoo trail. At one point they opened a fresh Kickapoo grave and stole the grave goods. They were reinforced with regular Confederate troops bringing their strength up to about 400. With this force they struck the unsuspecting camp.

While the attack took the Kickapoo warriors by surprise, they quickly recovered. Their deadly fire killed 30 of the attacking Confederates, including four of their officers. After a half-hour of intense fighting, the Texans panicked and scattered in retreat. The Kickapoo, who had lost 16 warriors in the fight, quickly packed up camp, leaving large quantities of supplies behind, and fled to Mexico.

Historians would later call this the Battle of Dove Creek, and in the annals of Texas history it was recorded as the most disastrous defeat ever suffered by the Texans in their long history of Indian wars. Their shame was such that an official investigation was held to inquire into the conduct of the military leaders. The inquiry found that there were no indications that the Kickapoo were anything but friendly. In one incident before the attack, an unarmed Indian had come into the camp with two children. He told Captain Fossett that they were friendly Indians. Fossett replied that there were no friendly Indians in Texas and ordered the man and the children to be shot. The men, however, opposed the order to kill the children and they subsequently escaped during the army’s retreat.

From the Kickapoo perspective, the Battle of Dove Creek was a declaration of war by the Texans. Since Texas had declared war against them, the Kickapoo were able to rationalize their raids along the Rio Grande until the 1880s.

The War:

In 1865, while the Americans in the Martin Settlement of Indan Territory were celebrating the Fourth of July with a dance, Mexican Kickapoo warriors raided their horse corral. A twelve-man posse under the leadership of the well-known Indian fighter Levi English set out in pursuit. The Americans had estimated that there were only 18 Kickapoo warriors. It was soon apparent, however, that the posse had been led into a trap in which three were killed and another six wounded.

In 1870, Mexican Kickapoo raiders from Coahuila captured about 40 horses from a ranch near Fort Clark. Two ranchers trailed the raiders back into Mexico, and, while the warriors were sleeping, they recaptured the horses. However, the ranchers were caught by the Mexican army and arrested on suspicion of stealing horses. When the Kickapoo warriors came to Santa Rosa to claim the horses, the Texans filed a suit against the Indians in the local court. Jesus Galan, acting as the attorney for the Kickapoo, argued that since the Kickapoo were at war with the Texans, they had a right to steal north of the border. In the end, 17 horses were awarded to the Texans.

In response to raids by the Mexican Kickapoo, the Texas state legislature in 1870 authorized the formation of 20 companies of Texas Rangers. However, authorizing the companies and paying for them are two different issues. Inadequate funding nullified the force of this measure: only about half of the companies were ever formed, and these were disbanded the following year.

In an attempt to capture Mexican Kickapoo and force them onto a reservation in Oklahoma, the United States Army, in violation of federal laws and in violation of international treaties, invaded Mexico in 1870. The invasion was in response to complaints about Kickapoo raids into Texas. The army succeeded in capturing some Kickapoo and locating them on an Oklahoma reservation.

In 1871, General William Tecumseh Sherman, frustrated at the army’s inability to cross into Mexico to fight against the Kickapoo, asked the State Department to apply to the Mexican government for permission for American troops to invade Mexican soil when they were in hot pursuit of Kickapoo war parties. The Mexican government quickly denied the request.

While the army sought a military solution to the Kickapoo-Texas war, the Quakers were seeking a peaceful solution. In 1871 Quaker Indian agent Jonathan B. Miles was assigned the task of making contact with the Mexican Kickapoo in Coahuila and inviting them to return to the United States. He left Kansas for Mexico with several Kickapoo leaders, including Nokowhat, Parthe, and Keoquark, and an interpreter.

In Mexico, he made contact with Cheeno and his band. He quickly found that they had little interest in the promises of presents, annuities, and land if they would return to the United States. He found that the Mexican government had promised them $10,000 to be used for agricultural development in exchange for their continued border defense against other Indians.

Wapakah, a band leader who was favorable to returning to the United States, told Miles that the American proposal was lost. According to Wapakah, those favorable to returning to the United States were at that very moment being won over by Mexican presents and promises. He advised Miles to abandon his mission.

In 1872, under orders from General Phil Sheridan, the U.S. Cavalry followed Kickapoo and Lipan Apache raiders into Mexico. More than 160 miles south of the border, the Americans killed 19 warriors, captured 40 women and children, and burned three villages. Mexican denial of the hot pursuit request and the concept of sovereignty were simply ignored.

The Congressional commission investing the Kickapoo war on Texas concluded in 1873 that the war could be settled by the removal of the Kickapoo from Mexico and their resettlement on a reservation in the United States.

In 1873, General Philip Henry Sheridan, the commander of the Department of Missouri, and Secretary of War William Belknap met at Fort Clark for a secret meeting with Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie. General Sheridan told Mackenzie:

“I want you to be bold, enterprising, and … when you begin, to let it be a campaign of annihilation, obliteration and complete destruction.”

When Mackenzie asked about authority, he was  simply told that he had the backing of President Grant.

Consequently, U.S. troops from Texas invaded Mexico. The troops found the Kickapoo villages undefended: the warriors had left the day before. The Kickapoo were caught completely by surprise. Those who had remained in the villages-women, children, and old men-were panic-stricken, but they fought like demons when the terror of the surprise assault passed. Methodically, the troops hunted out the hiding Indians, killed those who resisted, and took as prisoners the few who surrendered.

Some 40 Kickapoo women and children were taken prisoner, tied to horses (sometimes as many as three per horse), and rushed back to Texas. The Americans feared that the Kickapoo men would soon return, and desired a fast retreat. The prisoners were then sent to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory where they were held as prisoners of war.

The Mexican government issued a strong protest. The attack was not a spontaneous excursion into Mexican territory, but one which had been planned over the course of several months and had involved special training for the troops. As usual, the United States ignored the protest.

In Oklahoma, the army refused to turn over the Kickapoo women and children to the care of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The army insisted on holding them as prisoners of war until the Kickapoo returned to a reservation.

In Coahuila, Mexico, American negotiators persuaded the Kickapoo to remove to Oklahoma. The army raid on their village had completely devastated them and they had to be fully outfitted for removal. In their journey north, the 317 warriors, women, and children were taken on a long route to avoid contact with communities in Texas.

When they arrived in Oklahoma they were initially assigned to a reservation next to the Osage and the Kaw, traditional enemies of the Kickapoo. The chiefs protested because they had been told that they would be able to select their own reservation.

In 1874, the Kickapoo in Oklahoma were placed under the jurisdiction of the Sac and Fox Agency. The establishment of the new Kickapoo reservation had an impact on the surrounding tribes. Indian agents soon found that Sac, Fox, and Shawnee families joined the Kickapoo religious rites; they became disdainful of the missionaries laboring among them; they rejected Christian teachings; and they neglected their fields and livestock herds to participate in the Kickapoo dances, festivals, and games. The Indian agents became distressed at the carefree Kickapoo attitude toward life. The agents resented what they considered the ‘time wasted” by the warriors and their families in native religious observances, tribal festivals, dances, and games.

In 1874, the Kickapoo Removal Commission traveled to Coahuila, Mexico to meet with the scattered bands of Mexican Kickapoo and persuade them to return to the United States. While Cheeno was seen as the principal chief, the Commission met with Mosquito in Cheeno’s absence. The Commission fed the assembled Kickapoo, gave them blankets, and told them about the pleasant life on the Oklahoma reservation.

The following year, a band of 115 Kickapoo from Mexico under the leadership of Mosquito removed to the new reservation in Oklahoma. The U.S. government provided each family with supplies and food for their journey.

While the major military campaigns against the Kickapoo ended at this time, the war still continued for another decade, though with less intensity. Kickapoo warriors living in Mexico still considered Texas to be at war with them, thus providing them with an excuse to raid north of the border. From the American and Texan viewpoint, however, there was no longer a war, but simply criminal bands to be dealt with by local law enforcement.  

Seeking Refuge In Mexico

Following the creation of the United States, Mexico was seen by some Indian people as a place of refuge, a place where they might be able to escape from the brutality of American Indian policies designed to eradicate Indian cultures and Indian peoples. Initially Indian groups could obtain sanctuary in Mexico by simply crossing the Mississippi River. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, American imperialism drove the border between the two countries farther south and following the Mexican American War, the Río Grande (Río del Norte in Mexico) was designated as the border. For the next century, however, many tribes from the eastern United States continued to establish villages in northern Mexico, particularly in the Mexican state of Coahuila where they could continue their languages and traditional ways of life without governmental interference. One of the attempts to relocate in Mexico during the 19th century was led by the Seminole war leader known as Wildcat.  

Background: Wildcat and the Seminole

During the 19th century, the United States engaged in a series of three wars against the Seminole in an attempt to remove them from Florida and relocate them in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Wildcat was one of several Seminole leaders who led small bands against the Americans and their army. While Wildcat led a number of successful raids, the Americans in 1841 began a scorched earth policy in which they burned all of the Seminole crops, homes, canoes, and supplies which they could find. As a result, Wildcat surrendered to the army.

The Americans loaded Wildcat and his people onto boats to begin their removal to Indian Territory. At New Orleans, the Americans stopped the ship and had Wildcat and his warriors return to Florida. The Americans wanted to use Wildcat’s services to convince other Seminole to agree to removal. As a result of Wildcat’s efforts, 211 Seminole were shipped out for Indian Territory.

Background: Mexico

While American-oriented history books often tell about Mexican-based Indian tribes raiding the American ranches and settlements in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, Mexico faced a similar problem. Mexico’s northern border was its “wild west” and Mexican settlements in the north were often raided by Comanche, Apache, and other Indian warriors from the United States. Mexico, with limited resources and a small army, was often unable to do much to deter these raids. One way of dealing with the raids was to encourage other Indian groups, including the Cherokee, Seminole, Kickapoo, Delaware, and others, to settle in the area. In addition, the Mexican army often employed these warriors as scouts and soldiers in their wars against the northern raiders.

In 1839, for example, some of the Kickapoo, seeking refuge from the Texans, fled to Mexico where they established a village. Many of the warriors enlisted in the Mexican army where they were used as scouts. The new village also served as a base for the Kickapoo warriors as they raided into Texas communities.

The Mexican Venture

Life for the newly removed Seminole in Indian Territory was not pleasant. First, the climate and ecology of Oklahoma is somewhat different than that of Florida. Second, the Americans, in their infinite wisdom, had placed the Seminole on the lands reserved for the Creek Nation, thus placing them under Creek jurisdiction.

In 1849 Seminole leader Wildcat wanted to separate the Seminole from the Creek government. After a series of discussions with the Mexican government, he decided to locate the new community in the Mexican state of Coahuila. This would place the new Indian community outside of the jurisdiction of the United States. He then visited the Kickapoo, Comanche, Kiowa, Caddo, and Wichita in an attempt to persuade these tribes to join his intertribal venture. Of these, only the Kickapoo showed any interest.

In attempting to persuade the other tribes to join him in Mexico, Wildcat emphasized the many injustices to the Indians committed by both the United States government and the American settlers who had invaded Indian lands. He emphasized the evils of contact with these intruders, and the necessity for a unified Indian resistance to their eternal impositions. His words had a familiar ring to the Kickapoos. The teachings of Tenskatawa (the Shawnee Prophet) and his brother still lingered in the traditions of the Kickapoos. Wildcat’s words were welcomed by them.

In 1850, Wildcat led a party of 250 Seminole and Kickapoo warriors into Mexico where they temporarily settled at Piedras Negras. The Kickapoo were under the leadership of Papequah. The Mexican officials in Coahuila, faced with regular and devastating forays by the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache raiders into the northern settlements, welcomed Wildcat and his Seminole and Kickapoo followers. The Mexicans promised to provide the arrivals with livestock and farming tools if they helped defend against the raids by other Indian groups.

Wildcat then returned from Mexico for the purpose of recruiting additional mercenaries for Mexico’s northern defense. Once again, only the Kickapoo showed any interest in joining him in Mexico. However, Chief Pecan, the leader of the Canadian River Kickapoo, opposed the idea of any his warriors leaving as he felt they were needed to protect the Creek from raids by the Comanche, Pawnee, and Osage. Chief Pacanah, head of the Wild Horse Creek Kickapoo, told his warriors that they shouldn’t go to Mexico.

Wildcat promised the Kickapoo warriors that they would be able to keep all booty taken from the Comanche and Apache raiders. In addition, he told them that the Mexican government would pay them for their services. Finally, 200 warriors agreed to go to Mexico with him.

In 1851, Comanche and Apache raiding parties attacked the Mexican settlements to the west of Wildcat’s Seminole and Kickapoo villages. The Seminole and Kickapoo relentless tracked down the raiders in West Texas, recovering several hundred horses and mules as well as a great deal of plunder.

In 1851, Kickapoo chiefs Pecan and Pacanah travelled to Coahuila, Mexico to persuade their warriors who had joined with Wildcat’s Seminole to return home. After several days of pleading, all of the Kickapoo warriors decided to return to their people on the Canadian River and Wild Horse Creek in Indian Territory. Their departure left Wildcat with only 40 Seminole warriors and about 80 African-Americans. The Kickapoo warriors took with them the plunder, horses, and mules which they had captured from the Comanche.

The Seminole and Kickapoo villages established by Wildcat would continue to attract American Indian refugees from United States oppression over the next century. The warriors continued to defend Mexico’s northern frontier. New immigrant villages were also established as new immigrants arrived, sometimes only a handful of family members, while at other times entire bands would move to Mexico. Mexico, unlike the United States, gave its Indians citizenship and voting rights.  

Ancient America: The Gods of Palenque

For most people, the Maya and the Aztec are the best-known Mesoamerican cultures. The area occupied by the Maya included southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. The ancient Maya city of Palenque was “discovered” by Europeans in the 1700s. For the next several centuries, European explorers would marvel at the city’s architecture, loot its art, and destroy many of its buildings. Many people were convinced that the city was too complex, too well-built to have been constructed by American Indians, so they assumed that it must have been built by Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, the Lost Tribes of Israel, Europeans, or others. In the twentieth century, some pseudo-scholars, whose works are still promoted by certain television networks, claimed that the builders must have been ancient aliens from distant planets who brought a now-forgotten technology to the Maya.

Palenque Palace

Palenque is best known for its exquisite stone and stucco sculpture, its extensive hieroglyphic texts, and the funerary pyramid of Pakal the Great. For archaeologists it is a site that has also provided a great deal of insight into ancient America, particularly with regard to the ancient gods.


Pakal the Great is shown above.

Today Palenque is an archaeological and a tourist attraction managed by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Palenque Main Plaza

The main plaza at Palenque is shown above.

The Maya:

Archaeologists usually divide Mesoamerican history into three broad time periods: Preclassic (2000 BCE to 250 CE), Classic (250 to 900), and Postclassic (900 to 1500). During the Classic Period, the Maya were divided into many small kingdoms centered around cities. The largest of these cities-Calakmul, Tikal, Cobá, and Caracol-had populations of more than 75,000 and served as regional centers for powerful kings and queens and their royal courts.

Maya Map

The various Classic Maya kingdoms not only traded among themselves, but also waged war on one another. In addition, they traded with non-Maya kingdoms, such as Teotihuacán and also waged war against non-Maya kingdoms.



The ancient Maya city of Palenque has an urban core which is slightly larger than the Principality of Monaco. Archaeologists have noted the remains of some 1,500 structures within this core clustered into at least 35 major building complexes. Like other Maya cities, Palenque shows that the ancient Maya carefully managed their water supplies: there are stone aqueducts and walled stream banks. The area is characterized by fluctuations in dry and wet seasons and the maintenance of an adequate water supply throughout the year was critical to urban life.

As with other Maya cities, the primary building material was stone. At Palenque, the masons had available to them limestone that was as dense and flawless as fine lithographic stone. The stones in the Palenque area have natural cleavage planes which mean that it was easy to break into great slabs. The Maya masons used these stones to produce buildings of great beauty and Maya artists and scribes used them to produce panels with hieroglyphic texts and scenes of Maya life.

Palenque was initially settled about 500 BCE and had grown into a small city by 400 CE. By 850 CE, the city was largely abandoned. The last known date recorded at Palenque is 799.

Palenque Temple

Palenque Relief

The Kings of Palenque:

The Maya cities were ruled by kings and the kingship was usually passed down through the male line, from father to son. Palenque is famous in the archaeological world because it contains the first Maya royal tomb ever excavated. At one time it was thought that the Maya stepped-pyramids served solely as platforms for temples. At Palenque, however, archaeologists found the intact tomb of Palenque’s greatest king inside a pyramid. This was the tomb of K’inish Janab Pakal, or simply Pakal.

One of the interesting anomalies in Palenque occurred with the death king Kan Bahlam in 583. Royal descent traditionally passed from father to son, but in this case the person who assumed the throne, Ix Yohl Ik’nal, was a woman. While some people assume that she was the daughter of Kan Bahlam, there is no actual evidence of this. During her reign, in 599, Palenque was defeated militarily by Calakmul, another Mayan kingdom. At this time, the Palenque Triad gods were “thrown down” and the Great Jaguar, the militaristic totem of the Calakmul kings, appears.  

In 615, the twelve-year-old K’inich Janab Pakal assumed the throne of Palenque and went on to become its longest and greatest ruler. His father was K’an Hix Mo’ (Yellow Jaguar Macaw) who may have been a noble of foreign origin. There is no indication that his father ever occupied the throne of Palenque. The origins of his mother, Ix Sak K’uk’ (Lady White Quetzal), are also obscure, but during her son’s reign she became a powerful figure. There are some scholars who feel that Pakal was installed on the throne by the king of Calakmul to rule as a puppet.

The last known king of Palenque was K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam whose reign began on 8 March 764 and lasted for at least 20 years. There is, however, a vase which suggests that Six Death Janab Pakal was inaugurated on 17 November 1799. Little is known about this person who may have been Palenque’s last king.

Kan Balam

The Gods of Palenque:

Palenque provides us with some insights into Maya religion. First, a caution: we should not assume that there was a single religious tradition among the Maya. As with many other parts of the world, including ancient Egypt, the gods were associated with specific places. Thus the gods of Palenque should be considered just that: the gods of Palenque, not universal Maya gods.

Religious expression at Palenque focused on the Triad: three gods which were hierarchically arranged from most-to-least important and each of which had their own temple. These three gods were the creation of another god, known today as the Triad Progenitor who was born in 3121 BCE and who is considered a maize god.

Just prior to Pakal’s rule, the Triad had been thrown down, and during his rule there was a political and religious renaissance in which the Triad rituals were reinstated. During the rule of Pakal’s son, Ki’inich Kan Bahlam, the three temples of the Triad were constructed and made more opulent and impressive than before. All three of the temples currently designated as the Cross Group were dedicated on the same day: 10 January 692. At this dedication, according to the inscriptions, the three patron gods of the Palenque dynasty were housed in their respective shrines. The dedication was timed to coincide with the completion of the thirteenth K’atun: in the Maya calendar. The thirteenth K’atun was special in its own right as the number 13 is sacred in Maya numerology.

Cross Group

A reconstruction of the temples of the Cross Group is shown above.

God 1 (often designed as G1) was the most important of the Triad. His actual name is obscure, but he was born in the mythical realm of Matwiil on 21 October 2360 BCE. His shrine at Palenque is currently designated as the Temple of the Cross. He was an aquatic deity with associations with the sun. He was associated with the east. Near the time of Maya creation, he descended from the sky and lived in a northern temple known as Six Heaven. The Temple of the Cross is the sky temple which is associated with solar re-birth and with the ancestral authority of rulership.

The great cross shown in the temple, and from which Europeans have given the temple its name, is not a European religious symbol, but rather is a representation of a sacred world tree. On top of this tree sits an elaborate supernatural bird.

God 2 (often designated as G2), whose name is Unen K’awiil, was born on 8 November 2360 BCE and is thus the youngest of the Triad though second in power. He was the god of lightning and was seen as a manifestation of royal power and agriculture. His temple at Palenque is currently designated as the Temple of the Foliated Cross. One of his titles was the Young Lord of the Five Heavenly Houses. The Temple of the Foliated Cross represented the middle place where maize agriculture and water meet. It also symbolizes the procreative powers of the king.

God 3 (often designated as G3), the most junior member of the Triad (in terms of importance), was born on 25 October 2360 BCE. He was associated with the sun and was often seen as a warrior. His temple at Palenque is currently known as the Temple of the Sun. Within the Temple of the Sun is the depiction of a cave within the earth which houses the solar god associated with warfare and military authority. The symbol of this temple of sacred warfare is the crossed spears and the shield.

The Triad gods provided a model of kingship for Palenque. They established a mythical charter for how the kings were to interact with the gods. It was the kings who were entrusted with the care and protection of these gods.

At the K’atun (the celebration of the twenty year cycle of the Maya calendar) the gods of the Triad were dressed by the king and given proper offerings. It was the duty of the king to give them ornaments and ritual clothing. This aspect of the veneration of the Triad, seen as a form of caretaking, was extremely important to the Maya. A number of scholars have noted that the dressing rituals described in the Palenque texts are very similar to today’s rituals in the region in which the images of the Catholic saints are dressed in native ceremonial dress and given necklaces of gold coins.

Ancient America: Book Burning

Writing first appeared in the Maya area about 400 BCE. The Maya developed their writing systems more elaborately than any other group in the Americas. They used writing to establish the sequence of rituals and to glorify the rulers. Writing was used by the elite to order their world.  

Maya Glyph 2

Maya Stela 1


As in other parts of the world, the Maya wrote on stone monuments as a way of recording and glorifying their achievements and their kings. They also created books: the Maya would write on bark paper coated with plaster.

Dresden Codex

Shown above is the Dresden Codex.

Diego de Landa was a Spanish Franciscan monk who was one of the first of his order sent to the Yucatán in Mexico. He arrived in Mexico in 1549 to bring the Catholic faith to the Maya peoples after the Spanish conquest. He became bishop in 1573.

In 1562 he ordered an inquisition after hearing that some Roman Catholic Maya were continuing to worship pagan idols. Several thousand Indians were tortured to obtain “confessions,” and about 200 were killed during the process. As a result, at least 40 Maya codices (books written in Mayan) and 20,000 Maya religious images were burned. De Landa would later defend his actions by claiming that the displaced pagan priests were working to bring the people back to their heathen roots. He claimed that the people were not only worshipping idols, but were also engaging in human sacrifice. With regard to the burning of the Maya codices, the Franciscans felt that the very existence of these books was evidence of satanic practices. De Landa would write:

“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”

Diego de Landa catalogued the Maya religion, the Maya language, and the Maya writing system in his book Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. The work was written about 1566. The original copies of his manuscript have been lost and the only versions available today are an abridgement which has undergone several changes by various copyists. The copy which is available today was published about 1660, then re-discovered and published in France in 1862.

While de Landa actively sought to suppress and destroy the aboriginal Maya religion, his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán is considered one of the most complete treatments of Maya religions that has ever been done.

Relación de las cosas de Yucatán has provided a valuable record of the Mayan writing system. In spite of some inaccuracies, it has proved instrumental in the twentieth century decipherment of the Mayan writing system.

The four Maya codices which are known to have escaped de Landa’s destruction are all treatises on astronomy and the calendar. The writing carved into the stone monuments tells about the lives of the rulers, battles, alliances, and the deaths of rulers. While the Maya writing gives us some insights into these ancient civilizations, the writing doesn’t mention anything about commoners, about the lives of the people. While the Maya may have written about commoners in their books, and they may have written poetry and novels, de Landa’s book burning has taken this knowledge from us.  

Ancient America: The Classic Maya

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At the height of the Classic Period (200 CE to 900 CE), the Maya population numbered several million people living in 60 kingdoms in the greater Yucatan area of Mexico. The Maya built large cities which were supported by the agricultural surpluses from the villages and towns in the surrounding countryside.

Maya Map


The Maya site of Palenque is shown above.


The Maya site of Tikal is shown above.

Maya kings were divine shamans who kept the world in balance through the power of their ritual performances. In this way they brought prosperity to their domains. Kings inherited their position through the male line and were thus able to trace their lineage back to a founding ancestor.

Maya kings were the conduit of the sacred, the path of communication to the Otherworld, and the means of contacting the dead. The king had the knowledge of when to plant and when to harvest as well as the knowledge of illness and health. The king would read in the heavens when to go to war and when to maintain the peace. Through his knowledge, the king would negotiate trade agreements which were advantageous for his people.  

Typical of kingdoms in other parts of the world, Maya kings faced the challenges of internal intrigues and wars with other kingdoms. It was not uncommon for a Maya king to end his life by being taken captive in a war that he was too old to fight.

Maya country was linked together by a series of roads which facilitated foot travel, and by rivers which acted as highways for canoes. Unlike the European civilizations, the Maya did not have domestic animals which could be used as beasts of burden. Therefore the canoe was the most important form of travel. Maya trade networks linked together the communities within each kingdom as well as linking the kingdoms with the outside world. The Maya traded as far north as the southern part of the United States and as far south as South America.

The Maya used several precious commodities for money: carved and polished greenstone beads, red spiny oyster shell beads, cacao beans, lengths of cotton cloth, and measures of sea salt. The values of these various commodities were probably set by the king.  

The Maya lived, and continue to live, in a tropical area which can receive as much as 150 inches of rain per year. The problem, however, is that there is often too much water during the rainy season and not enough during the dry season. More than 2,000 years ago Maya engineers began to tackle two problems: (1) how to store water for the dry times, and (2) how to make wet, fertile swampland suitable for farming. As a result, the Maya built reservoirs and massive, complicated canal systems. Maya buildings often contained great cisterns for holding the rain water.  

For their fields, the Maya excavated the muck from the swamp to create a system of raised fields and canals. This bottom mud was loaded with nutrients from fish excretions and provided fertilizer for the fields which resulted in two or three crops per year. In addition, the fields were adjacent to steady supplies of waters. To reduce the evaporation of the water in the canals, the Maya planted waterlilies and other plants. These plants, in turn, helped feed the fish in the canals. Overall, it was a delicate system which provided enormous productivity.

Many of the fields surrounding the Maya cities were owned by patrilineal family groups. Some of the fields were maintained as royal farms which used tribute labor.

The Maya were a literate people: their writing was capable of capturing all of the nuances of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure of the Maya languages. The Maya wrote by carving on stone, engraving jade, inscribing shell, and incising bone. In addition, they had accordion-folded books which were made from beaten bark paper surfaced with a thin layer of plaster. In their writings the Maya recorded their history, their genealogies, their views of the world, their mythology, and records of trading and tribute.

At one time, the Maya libraries held thousands of volumes of their books. These included literature and poetry as well as histories and the details of their rituals Feeling that the Maya books were the works of Satan, the Catholic priests who accompanied the Spanish invasion of the continent ordered them to be destroyed. Today, only four books are left and all of these are calendar almanacs for the timing of rituals.

In addition to books, the Maya also carved their writings in stone, known as stellae. Numerous examples of this type of writing, which often commemorate kings and royalty, are found in the ancient Maya cities such as Tikal, Copan, Palenque, Bonampak, and Chichén Itzá.  

Maya counting (including mathematics and the Maya calendar) is based on units of twenty. From the Maya perspective, their counting is based on the full person, both fingers and toes. This is called a vigesimal counting system. In written Maya, a dot represents 1 and a bar represents 5. Numbers from 1 to 19 are represented by combinations of dots and bars. The largest number represented in this way is      19, consisting of three bars and four dots. For numbers great than 19, the Maya use a place value number system similar to that used by Europeans.

Maya Counting

While Europeans mark the passage of time on ten-based intervals – decades, centuries, millenium – the Maya calendar uses 20-year cycles: katuns which mark 20 years and baktuns which mark 400 years (20 times 20).

The Maya viewed the world as being made up of three domains: the starry arch of heaven, the stony middleworld of the earth, and the dark waters of the underworld below.

The four cardinal directions provided the fundamental grid for both the Maya communities and the surface of the earth. The most important direction was east which was associated with the color red. If today’s maps were drawn by Maya cartographers, east would be shown at the top of the page. North, associated with the cool rains, is represented by the color white. West, the dying place of the sun, was represented by the color black. South was associated with the color yellow and was considered the right-hand of the sun.

The four cardinal directions were seen in relationship to the center which was represented by the color blue-green. Running through this center, the Maya envisioned an axis called Wacah Chan which was symbolized as a tree with its roots in the underworld and its branches soaring into the heavenly area above. The world of the human beings was connected to the Otherworld through the Wacah Chan. The Wacah Chan did not exist at a specific geographic place, but could be materialized through ritual at any point in the natural or human-made landscape.

There were two representations of the Wacah Chan: the king who brought it into existence and the World Tree. Through bloodletting rituals the king would bring the World Tree into existence and in this way open the doorway to the Otherworld.

Bloodletting was an act of piety which was used in all rituals from the birth of a child to the burying of the dead. Bloodletting could range from the shedding of a few drops of blood to mutilation which generated a copious flow of blood. While blood could be drawn from any part of the body, the most sacred sources of blood were the tongue for both males and females and the penis for males. Among men, the penis would be pierced several times with an obsidian razor and then long strands of bark paper pulled through the wounds. After piercing the penis, men would whirl in a dance to draw the blood out onto the long streamers tied to their members.

An important part of the bloodletting rite was the obsidian knife. Obsidian is a form of volcanic glass which could be made into long, thin, razor-sharp blades which were unsurpassed in their ability to make clean, quick wounds. As obsidian was invaluable in the bloodletting rituals, the supply of obsidian was controlled by the king.  

Royal women would pierce their tongues using a sting-ray spine. Then a cord would be threaded through the wound. The blood would then saturate the paper lining a bowl which was held at the chest.

Some of the blood-soaked papers from both the tongue-piercings and penis-piercings would be burned in a censor along with offerings of corn, rubber, and tree resin.

The vision quest was also a central act of the Maya world. Through the vision quest, ancestors and gods could be enticed to communicate with human beings.  

Another important part of Maya life was the ballgame which was played in a large courtyard. Ballgames were played for many reasons. Often the game was played between friends or professionals for sport and/or wagering. At other times, the game was a ritual in which captives were forced to play. In these games, the losing team was usually executed, sometimes by beheading and sometimes by binding each player into a ball-like form and hurling them down the temple steps.


Ballcourt El Tajin

The Maya often used crystals in curing and in divining. The power of the crystals came from the earth and crystals which were found in caves were considered to be especially powerful.

Tikal Temple

The temple at Tikal is shown above.  

Ancient America: The Olmec

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The Aztec were only the last of many great civilizations in Mexico. The mother civilization of all of the Mesoamerican civilizations was the Olmec who flourished more than 3,200 years ago. Olmec civilization was centered off the Gulf of Mexico and includes archaeological sites such as Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, San Lorenzo, and La Venta. The Olmec homeland bordering the Gulf of Mexico is hot, humid, and marshy-very different from the Valley of Mexico.

Olmec Map

Olmec Ax

Like the Mesoamerican civilizations which followed them, the Olmec had large cities with monumental architecture. The archaeological site of San Lorenzo is considered to be Mesoamerica’s first urban center. It is estimated that about 5,500 people lived in the city and that another 7,500 lived in the outlying areas. An elite population lived in San Lorenzo and in the nine sites adjacent to it. Common people lived in small villages nestled within the twisting river network. This river network not only provided canoe access between the villages, but it also provided the people with easy access to the aquatic resources of the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Olmec 4

San Lorenzo is located on a long ridge above a network of rivers. The site contains ten gigantic stone heads and three carved altars.

The mark of Olmec civilizations is huge helmeted heads carved out of basalt. The heads appear to be the portraits of famous ball players or perhaps kings rigged out in the accoutrements of the ballgame. These heads range in size from more than three meters (ten feet) in height to less than two meters (six feet). The heads, which were carved from a single block or boulder of volcanic basalt, can weigh up to 40 tons.

Olmec Head 1

Olmec Head 2

The material from which these giant heads were carved was not found in places in which they were displayed. The basalt for the heads was quarried up to 50 miles from their final location. Like the other civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Olmec did not have draft animals nor did they use wheeled vehicles. Moving these massive pieces of stone over great distances required a great deal of skill. Whenever possible, they were moved by raft down the rivers.

Like the Mesoamerican civilizations which followed them, the Olmec had extensive trade routes. Raw materials and finished goods were traded across hundreds of miles. For example, the Olmec who were located in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tobasco in Mexico imported both jade and obsidian from Guatemala. At San Lorenzo there were decorative cubes of ilmenite (a black iron-titanium mineral) from the Mexican state of Chiapas and polished gray-black mirrors from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Olmec pottery was found from northern Mexico to the highlands of Guatemala.

In Chiapas, some 300 miles away from the Olmec heartland, archaeologists working at the site of Cantón Corralito have found more than 4,000 pieces of Olmec pottery from San Lorenzo, suggesting the possibility of an Olmec colony or a strong trading influence.  In addition to the pottery, Cantón Corralito contains numerous figurines which were imported from San Lorenzo.

One of the common features of most Mesoamerican civilizations was the ballgame. The Olmec were the first people to develop this game. The ballgame was played with a rubber ball and the name “Olmec” is in fact the Nahuatl name for “rubber people.” The Olmec appear to have been using the rubber ball before they developed the more formal ballcourt.

The ballcourt was a long playing field with high walls on two sides. Protruding from these walls would be large stones which had a large hole drilled through the center. The ball players would score points by knocking the rubber ball through the hole in the stone. The ball was played by using only the hip.

Ceramic figures from 3,200 years ago depict women as players, as well as men.

Rubber was also used for making sandals, for waterproofing cloth, and for making drumstick ends. It was also burned as incense and was used for glue.

Another development of the Olmec which spread to other Mesoamerican civilizations was writing. In Mesoamerica, the concept of writing appears to have been first developed by the Olmec. In addition, they used the concept of zero in their mathematics.

About 3,000 years ago the Olmec also discovered that the earth has a magnetic field and they discovered that a compass could be used for directional orientation. Using the compass, they laid out both the dwellings for the living and the internments of the dead.

Olmec Wrestler

An Aztec Creation Story

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By the time the Aztec civilization began to flourish in the Valley of Mexico, the ancient city of Teotihuacan had already been long abandoned and was simply a place with gigantic monuments. The Aztec gave this place the name Teotihuacan, which means “birthplace of the gods.”

Teatihuacan Moon

Teotihuacan Avenue

According to Aztec mythology, Teotihuacan was the place of the most recent creation. The Aztec creation story tells of five successive Suns. The first Sun was ruled by Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) and was inhabited by giants. This Sun ended when Quetzalcóatl (Plumed Serpent) caused the giants to be devoured by jaguars. This second Sun, ruled by Quetzalcóatl was destroyed by winds and its people turned into monkeys. The third Sun was ruled by the rain god Tláloc. It was destroyed by a rain of fire and its inhabitants turned into birds. The fourth sun was ruled by Chalchiútlicue, Tláloc’s sister. It was destroyed by floods and its inhabitants turned into fish.

Teotihuacan was where all of the gods gathered in council to determine which god would be willing to sacrifice himself to restart the world’s cycle. At this time the entire world was in darkness. Two of the gods came forward: a warrior god (Tecuciztécatle, who was headstrong and haughty) and a humble god (Nanahuatzin, who was weak and cowardly).

The gods then built a great fire. According to Aztec tradition, the fire was so great that no one could get near it without burning and almost suffocating. The warrior god found that he could not bring himself to throw himself into the flames of this great fire. Three times he tried to throw himself into the fire; three times he ran at the fire, and three times he stopped before he got to the fire. The humble god, on the other hand, ran directly into the fire. He was turned to ashes and then he rose as the sun, a great shining disk to light the new world and the new cycle of the world.

The warrior god, shamed by the actions of the humble god, then leapt into the flames and rose into the heavens as the moon. At first, both the sun and the moon were equally bright, but then one of the gods obscured the brightness of the moon by throwing a rabbit into its face.

The sun and the moon, however, simply sat in the heavens. The rest of the gods then realized that all of their deaths would be needed to restart the cycle. It was only by this action that they could be resurrected and renewed. Thus the gods immolated themselves in the primal fire. One of the gods went through the fire and emerged as the wind. The god of the wind blew through the heavens and set the sun and the moon in motion. In this way the sun began to pass through the heavens during the day and the moon by night.

Note: this is only one version of the story. There are a number of other variations of it.

Ancient America: The Rise of the Aztec Empire

( – promoted by navajo)

The rise of the Aztec empire really began in 1150 with the fall of the Toltec empire. The Toltecs had established their state in Tula, which was to the north of what would become Tenochtitlan. Their empire spread through most of central Mexico. After a period of droughts and internal factional conflict, the city collapsed and was burned and looted, possibly by the Chichimeca (the “wild” tribes to the north).  

The fall of the Toltec empire was followed by a period in which rival states battled for power. These states included the Zapotecs, centered at Mitla, the Mixtecs, in the northern Oaxaca area, and the Tarascan kingdom, plus the Chichimeca.

By 1200, the Valley of Mexico contained a number of moderately sized city states. The Aztec, who arrived in the Valley about 1248, adopted some of the key organizational and ideological principles which they learned from the refugee Toltecs. These included the ruling elite or pipilitin and the requirement that only a descendant from a royal Toltec dynasty could become the emperor.

In 1300, the Aztec were still a small tribe. In addition to knowing how to cultivate the land, the Aztec were fierce warriors who were inspired by their war god Huitzilopochtli (which means “hummingbird on the left”). The Aztecs were vagrants continually trying to find a territory to occupy. All of the good land in the Valley of Mexico was already occupied by city-states. Thus the Aztec offered their services as mercenaries for these local rulers. They often offended these rulers with their barbarous behavior and their capture of local women for wives.

In 1323, they were working for the Coluacan (also spelled Culhuacan) people. Coluacan, located in the southern portion of the Valley of Mexico, was the city-state to which the Toltec nobility had fled following the collapse of their empire.

The Aztec obtained a princess from their employers by asking the Colhuacan for a noble bride, and the Colhuacan complied as they feared the fierce Aztec mercenaries. The Aztec then killed the princess and the priests donned her skin. When the Colhuacan saw the priest wearing her skin, they were so angered that they attacked the Aztec, killed many of them, and drove them out. From here, the Aztec retreated to a marshy unoccupied Island. It was here that they established Tenochtitlan.

In 1367, the Aztec used their military might to support the nearby kingdom of Tepanec that was expanding on the mainland, then ruled by Tezozomoc.  As the Tepanec expanded their rule over more and more city-states in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztec benefited from their alliance with the Tepanec.  From this alliance, the Aztec learned about the techniques which the Tepanec used to build and rule their empire.

In 1426, the old ruler Tezozomoc died and was replaced by his son Maxlatzin. He was concerned that the Aztecs had been growing too strong under the Tepanec’s protection.   He therefore sought to reduce the Aztec’s power in 1427. At this time, the Aztec’s third king died and was replaced by Itzcoatl, who chose Tlacaelel, a brilliant military strategist, as his chief adviser.  The two of them decided to resist and fight rather than submit to Maxlatzin’s threats and pressure.  Within a year, the Aztecs had crushed the Tepanec and destroyed their imperial city.   So now the Aztec had become the greatest state in Mexico.

With the help of Tlacaelel, Itzcoatl reduced the power of the other nobles, and turned himself into an absolute ruler. He developed a new vision of the Aztec as the “chosen people” who were the “true heirs” to the Toltec. The Aztec rewrote history to link the Aztec to the Toltec and to show that the Aztec were the heirs, the direct descendents, of the Toltec nobility.

The next Aztec emperor, Motechuhzoma Ilhuicamina ruled from 1440-1469. With Tlacaelel’s help, he set up a Triple Alliance between Tenochtitlan and two neighboring states – Texcoco and Tlacopan – to carry out the “Flowery War” – the continual fight against other states to capture victims to sacrifice to the sun god.  

In 1469, Axayacatl became emperor and ruled until 1481. Under his rule, the Aztec empire expanded even further and most of central Mexico came under Aztec domination. Ahuitzotl ruled the Aztec from 1486 until 1502. He was followed by Motecuhezoma Xocoyotzin who ruled until conquered by the Spanish. Under his rule, the Aztec empire faced increasing challenges due to internal resistance and rebellion.