Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mazatlán Part 5: The ancient people

Ancient petroglyphs found in the Mazatlán area. This boulder, covered with mysterious designs, sits at the entrance to the Museo Arqueologia de Mazatlán (Archaeological Museum). Carole and I are fascinated by the ruins and other remains of Mexico's ancient cultures. When we heard about Mazatlán's small, but well-organized, museum in the Centro Historico, we put it on our "must see" list. The Museo is only a block or so from the Olas Altas malecon at Calle Sixto Osuna #76. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, from 10:00 AM - 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM - 7:00 PM. For a map of the Centro Historico, click here. The petroglyphs shown above are very similar to those found at the wave-pounded volcanic rock of Las Labradas not far north of Mazatlán. The Las Labradas inscriptions may have been carved as early as 300 BC, attesting to the lengthy human occupation of the area.

Tatooed figure stands erect and proud. The markings on the small statue may represent some sort of clothing but more likely they are tatoos, because other statues representing humans show very little clothing, which would make sense given the climate at the beach. The figure above, like most of the rest of the collection I will show here, was crafted by the people of the Totorame culture. They were a peaceful people, living by agriculture and fishing. The Totorames did not construct grand temples and pyramids and I saw no representations of warriors among the artifacts of the Museo. There were certainly warlike people in the area, like the Yaquis in the mountains of northern Sinaloa, and the Totorames may have needed to defend themselves periodically. They knew the use of the bow and arrow and the atlatl spear thrower. However, there is no indication that the Totorames ever waged aggressive war, or engaged in human sacrifice.

Woman carrying containers. Many of the figures we saw were stylized and some combined human and animal features. These rather stout women are carrying large jugs supported by "tumplines" stretched around their foreheads. The woman on the right has raised her arms to grasp the tumpline in order to take the weight off her head, a very realistic detail by the sculptor.  These figures may be 1500 years old. I have seen modern-day indigenous women using the exact same tumpline method to carry large bundles. I continually marvel at the coexistence of the ancient and the modern in Mexico.

Beautifully carved cup or vase in the form of a kneeling man. The carving of this piece was very fine, portraying a man in a natural pose with very recognizable features. He kneels on one knee while supporting the large container on his back. He doesn't appear to be using a tumpline. Between the abundance of the sea and the fertile soil inland, the Totorames must have lived fairly well for their era. They could grow squash, beans, and corn, hunt deer and various small game, and collect mollusks and fish from the innumerable bays and coves of their coastline near Mazatlán. This abundance would have provided enough leisure for a craftsman to carve such a fine piece.

"The Thinker", Totorame version. I sometimes find the smaller pieces to be the most evocative. Above, a  human figure sits quietly, in a very natural pose. He leans forward slightly, with his elbows resting on his drawn-up  knees. He appears to be listening attentively, or perhaps contemplating some problem. The ancient paint on his body probably indicates bracelets, armlets, and anklets, along with a loincloth. Little more in the way of clothing would have been required for much of the year.

Trade networks

The Totorames traded extensively and collected goods brought over long distances. The map above shows that they traded for obsidian brought from the border area between modern-day Guanajuato and Michoacan States. There were a fine pair of copper axe heads in the Museo, which I was unable to photograph because of light reflections off the glass case. The axe heads may have come from deposits in northwestern Oaxaca. Archaeologists have also found copper bells thought to have been crafted by artisans in the Toltec capital of Tollan (Tula). The Totorame's peak period (750 AD - 1200 AD) was contemporaneous with the height of the Toltec Empire, located hundreds of miles to the southeast in the modern State of Hidalgo, .

This finely-worked obsidian blade probably originated in one of the great deposits to the south. Obsidian is a natural glass, formed volcanically. It was much prized by all the ancient inhabitants of the Americas because of its easy workability, the sharpness of the edge which could be obtained, and its beauty. Obsidian sources are not evenly distributed, but come in large, widely-separated deposits. These deposits became a major source of wealth for many of the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations in much the same way that the possession of oil deposits can make a nation rich today. A knife like this was almost certainly imported from someplace like the Toltec Empire.

Projectile points of obsidian, silex, and perdernal. The points above were created for different purposes. Those on the bottom row were for large game, or possibly warfare. The smaller points on the top would have been for small game or birds. Again, these may have been imported, either as finished products, or as raw material to be worked locally. Archaeologists have learned to analyze the obsidian itself to determine its point of origin, and thus reveal important trade networks. Obsidian was not only used to create utilitarian objects, such as blades and points, but was also widely used for jewelry, vases, masks, and for religious objects. The fact that it is found in many elite tombs indicates the high value placed upon obsidian in these ancient cultures.

Implements of daily living

Totorame three-legged pot. The lovely shape and beautiful, detailed paint work of this piece attests to the skill of the potter. Literally tons of pottery and pottery fragments have been recovered from Totorame sites. Their culture was not urban, in the sense of dense collections of buildings. The people lived in small houses, dispersed fairly widely. The houses usually had one room, with a vestibule in the front for cooking and domestic activities. Red painted pots were common, with unadorned red surfaces for cooking and highly decorated surfaces, such as seen above, for serving.

After dinner, a relaxing smoke. Above are a collection of beautifully shaped ceramic pipes, finely etched with abstract designs from the peak Totorame period. I can just imagine the previously-seen "Thinker" lighting up one of these after a fine dinner served in intricately painted bowls and cups. 

And, of course, an after-dinner drink. This lovely little cup is decorated with the head of a jaguar. The paint work is extraordinarily fine. It may have once been filled with pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink made from the maguey plant, which is widely distributed throughout Mexico. Indigenous people have brewed this beverage since long before the arrival of the Spanish. Pulque was widely used in Mexico until the end of the 19th Century, when European immigrants introduced beer. However, pulque can still be purchased from roadside stands in many rural areas of Mexico. 

After good dinner, and relaxing himself with a smoke and a drink, a man likes to sit quietly by the fire with his dog. This charming little ceramic piece from the early Totorame period shows a dog apparently scratching itself with a hind leg. The hole on the top of the dog's head may have had some practical purpose, such as holding copal incense.

Rituals and games

Ceremonial headress, known to Nahuatl speakers as copilli and to the Spanish as penacho.  This kind of headdress was used throughout ancient Mesoamerica.  Copillis are still used in indigenous dances and ceremonies such as those I witnessed on Los Dias de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day) in Cajititlan near Lake Chapala. Perhaps the most famous copilli of all was the one worn by the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma when he met Hernán Cortéz. Moctezuma's capilli was full of exotic green feathers from the quetzal bird, held together with threads of pure gold. Cortéz sent it to Charles V, whose Empire included both Spain and Austria. Moctezuma's head dress still exists and is on display in the Archaeological Museum of Vienna, Austria. Mexico and Austria continue to dispute whether it should be returned. I support the Mexican claim, since it was described as "stolen" from Moctezuma's palace by none other than Hernán Cortéz himself in a letter to Emperor Charles V.

Ceramic figure of a shaman or curandero (healer). This shaman figure is dated somewhere between 500-750 AD, during the early period of Totorame occupation. The figure appears to be part animal and part human. Adorned with antlers and large earrings, the shaman sits behind what may be a drum. Typically, in Mesoamerican cultures the shaman, or curandero, used rituals and often hallucinogenic drugs like peyote in their healing ceremonies. Particular animals had important powers which could be tapped in this healing process.

Implements used in the ritual Ball Game. Archaeologists believe that the Ball Game originated with the Olmecs more than 3600 years ago. I was amazed to find that it is still played by indigenous people in a handful of places around Mexico, including Mazatlán where it is called Ullama. Players use fields called tastes bordered with stones. There is still a ceremonial aspect to Ullama, which requires that the players practice total sexual abstinance before the game. Ullama typically played as part of community festival. Between games, the tastes are used as meeting places for a variety of activities. The ball is played using the hip, with the use of hands or feet prohibited. There is no evidence that the Totorame game involved human sacrifice, unlike the games played throughout most the rest of Mesoamerica. The mallet displayed above the ball is from the Tarahumara, a tribe which still clings to its ancestral lands in northern Sinaloa State around Copper Canyon. The Tarahumara use of the mallet in their game sets them apart from the ancient Mesoamericans.

Burial customs

The "final resting place" of these Totorames turned out to be the Archaeological Museum. For centuries the Totorames used coffins of straw, or sometimes no coffin at all, in their burials. Gradually, they adopted a post-mortem ritual that involved cleaning the soft tissues from the bones, dismembering the body, and then placing it inside a large funeral urn. The larger bones would be placed in the urn first, with the skull on top. Sometimes, an urn might contain the bones of several family members as you can see above. The ritual was meant to portray a return to the womb of the Earth-Mother, the goddess of agriculture worshipped in the Sinaloa area.

To the Totorames, certain aspects of dogs were sacred. The dog figure above is similar to the famous "Colima dogs" found in many ancient Teco tombs in the Colima area, far to the south. When Carole and I visited Colima we saw many funerary dogs in the Regional Museum there, although they were of  much better craftsmanship than this one. How this relatively unsophisticated little ceramic sculpture came to be in a Totorame tomb is a small mystery. It may have been imported from the Teco Kingdom, or it may have been a rough copy of one that the Totorame sculptor had seen.  These canine burial totems, called Xolotzcuintli, were related to resurrection myths surrounding the regular disappearance and reappearance of the planet Venus (the Morning Star).  

There is a great deal that we don't know about the Totorames, including what became of them. About 200 years before the Spanish arrived, the culture simply disappeared. Archaeologists don't know whether they were wiped out by tribal enemies or disease, or if they simply migrated to another area. However, after all the bloodthirsty, warlike civilizations I have studied in Mexico, it is somewhat of a relief to find one that was peaceful, artistic, and apparently immune to the temptations of human sacrifice.

This completes Part 5 of my Mazatlán series. In Part 6, my final part, I will take you to Isla de la Piedra (Stone Island) for endless, palm-fringed beaches, beautiful sailboats, and some unusual modes of transportation. I always appreciate hearing from people. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or just email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. What were the ullama players called? In nahuatl. I would appreciate it very much if you can help me. Thanks.

  2. Hello
    I am so pleased to find your site. Love the photos of all the sculpture!

    Will be in Mazatlan for the 2nd time on JAN 19. Tried to arrange trip to Las Labradoras last year, but Pronotours could not get enough people to make it worth their while.

    Have since heard of Chametia ruins, also Mezcaltitan & Teotihuacan but unable to learn who offers trips there either . Would U be able to recommend anyone?


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim