Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cuicuilco's rise and tragedy

Just south of the National University campus is an overlooked archeological gem.  Have you visited Cuicuilco?  Probably not.  Yet Cuicuilco is where much of the history of human settlements in the Valley of Mexico begins and illustrates the great benefits and even the risks of living in Mexico City that may still apply today.  Located in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Insurgentes and the Periferico in southern Mexico City, it is a stop on the Metrobus route and a marvelous large urban park. Despite easy access and free admission, the site draws very few visitors.

Its ancient location was both privileged and dangerous.  Cuicuilco was privileged with what may have been the best location within the most important valley of all of Mesoamerica.  The Valley of Mexico sports good volcanic soil and an abundance of fresh water, both in the lakes as well as from springs which flow year around from the volcanic ridge.  At 2,200 meters above sea level, free of tropical diseases and tropical vegetation, with a rainy season which comes like clockwork and is just long enough to grow a full harvest of their staple foods, farmers couldn't have even dreamed of a better valley in which to live.   Within that bountiful valley, Cuicuilco was in the best location--close to the springs and blessed with excellent soil and the most abundant rainfall in the valley.  Its farmers could, and did, increase their production by building islands in the shallow lake on which they could farm year around.  Soon Cuicuilco had neighbors on either side.  Picture the Valley of Mexico being inhabited from south to north as each new group settled on the next-best land along the shores of the lakes.  

But paradise may have had a price and Cuicuilco was in a dangerous location because sometime between 1,000 and 800 BC, Huehueteotl, the god of fire and volcanoes, became Cuicuilco's unwelcome neighbor.  He moved into small, flat topped Xitle and put out ash from time to time and even caused occasional earth tremors.  The ancients knew Huehueteotl could live in any volcano.  We can tell where he is living by seeing which volcano is active at any given time. In today’s world Huehueteotl lives in Popocatepetl.

People had seen volcanic eruptions, or if they hadn't seen one they certainly had heard about them.  That may have been what led the Cuicuilcans to get a small number of the village's inhabitants to agree to dedicate their whole life to figuring out what Huehueteotl wanted from them, when he wanted it, and how to deliver it.  In exchange for taking on that responsibility the rest of the villagers agreed to provide for the sustenance of what became one of Mesoamerica's earliest priest classes.  Cuicuilco was way ahead of its contemporaries in Central Mexico, creating a priest class at a time when most of the rest of Mesoamerica was still worshiping on a family basis.  The priests needed a temple and built Cuicuilco's pyramid, certainly the oldest in the valley, perhaps even oldest surviving pyramid mound in Mesoamerica.  Most Mesoamerican pyramids were built after 250 AD.

Cuicuilco's priests must have done a very good job keeping Huehueteotl happy. The city grew and flourished and by 150 BC was a major metropolis with a population estimated at between 20-30,000. Although never on the scale of today, the Valley of Mexico has always been a densely populated valley.  But something the priests did, or neglected to do, around 50 BC caused Huehueteotl to unleash his fury.  The sky filled with ash and lava flowed from Xitle.  Fortunately for the people of Cuicuilco, the lava flowed on the other side of the forested ridge at Cuicuilco's western boundary.  As it entered the lake, steam rose, fish died and the rising water temperature affected the aquatic agriculture throughout the valley.  Once lava filled the depression in the lake floor it turned towards Cuicuilco.  Inhabitants had no option other than pack up their last corn, bean, and chile harvest, grab some farming implements and kitchen utensils, and flee. 




To the north lay the lake, to the west lava flowed, to the south an erupting volcano -- the only escape route was east.   And not just far enough to get ahead of the lava flow -- their neighbors had already claimed that land.  In fact, all the best land was already inhabited.  If the Cuicuilcans wanted to stay in the Valley of Mexico they would have to go to the least desirable location. The once mighty Cuicuilcans became refugees and were forced to relocate in the very north of The Great Valley.  It would take them a while to get there but Cuicuilcans would be the founders of Teotihuacan.  Once there they made the best of a bad situation; Teotihuacan would become the greatest of the Mesoamerican empires.  But that's a story for another day.  

Only nine buildings are left at Cuicuilco.  To survive they had to be tall enough and strong enough to resist the pressure of the flowing lava.  Two are easily accessible in the archeological park. The others are scattered on neighboring private property (the National School of Anthropology, with great foresight, has backdoor access to the site.) The grandest structure is the main pyramid.  Very different from others you may visit in Mesoamerica, this one is round in its design and, with the exception of a central core of stone, is a mud and adobe structure.  The lower third was buried by lava; only the top emerges, soaring over the bleakness of the lava flow.  Picture it drawing more pilgrimages after the destruction of the city -- it had become the Miraculous Temple of Huehueteotl.  The temple that the god himself had intervened to rescue! 

Let's save an introduction to the pyramid itself, for next week. 

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