Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ihuatzio, Ancient City of the Tarascan Empire

One of Ihuatzio's twin pryamids broods silently as rugged mountains rise to the east. The two pyramids at Ihuatzio are among the major features of the site, which is located near the city of Patzcuaro in the mountains of Michoacan. Carole and I recently visited the site on our way to the Pacific Coast beach town of Zihuatanejo. Since we were driving and the journey is a good eight hours, we decided to break it up with a stop just outside Patzcuaro. Several years ago, we visited Tzintzuntzan, the site of the ancient capital of what the Spanish called the Tarascan Empire. It is located along the shore of Lake Patzcuaro to the north of Patzcuaro. At that time, we had noted the existence of other ruins near the village of Ihuatzio, located about 1/2 way between Patzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan. However, we did not then have time to visit the site. On our recent Zihuatanejo trip, we were planning to reach Patzcuaro by mid-afternoon, so we built in a stop at Ihuatzio. Photographically, the timing was perfect. The golden glow of the winter afternoon sunshine reflected beautifully off the ancient stones, while the cool air made it very comfortable to clamber about the ruins.  For a Google map showing the locations of Patzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan, and Ihuatzio, click here.

Approaching the ancient city

The afternoon sun slanted across recently harvested fields of maiz (corn). The drive from our motel to the archaeological site was lovely. Michoacan is one of Mexico's most beautiful states, with ranges of heavily forested mountains separated by lush valleys and dotted with sparkling lakes. Ihuatzio is easy to find. While traveling along Highway 14, the "libre" (non-toll) road between Morelia and Uruapan, you turn north on Federal Highway 120, called the Carretera Patzcuaro-Quiroga. After about 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) you'll see a road leading off to the left toward Ihuatzio. The town is about 3 kilometers (1.8 mi) toward the lakeshore. Shortly after entering the town, you'll find a cobblestone road on the right leading up a hill and ending at the ruins. Drive with care, since you will likely encounter loose livestock on the road. For a map of the town and the route to the ruins, click here.

Ihuatzio means "place of the coyote" in Purépecha, the language of the ancient people and of their descendants today. Humans have inhabited the mountains and valleys of Michoacan for at least 10,000 years. During the millennia before the Spanish arrived, there were repeated waves of Chichimec migration from the far north into the area. "Chichimec" is a Mexica (Aztec) word that generally describes nomadic, non-urban people who might possess a variety of customs and languages. Among the early groups who settled in the area were the Nahua, Otomi, Matlatzincas, and Tecos. 

One of the local residents seemed to take a rather dim view of our arrival. This fellow looked us over dourly as we parked our car by the archaeological site entrance. Fortunately the large bull was on the other side of a stone wall. Unfortunately, he was pushing at the loose stones with his snout, apparently trying to create a gap through which he could pass. By the time we had completed our visit and were ready to depart, however, he had not made much progress. Who knows, he may still be working on it.

Ancient village sites have been found in the area dating back as far as the Pre-Classic era (1500 BC-200 BC) which makes those people contemporaries of the Olmecs. The best known culture from this era was the Chupicuaro, the people who inhabited islands in Lake Patzcuaro. Urban life developed during the Classic Era (200 BC-800 AD). Ball courts and other artifacts show that the area was influenced by the great trading empire of Teotihuacan (100 AD-650 AD) during the Classic period, and by the Toltec Empire (700 AD-1000 AD). Whether these influences came by peaceful trade or military activity is not clear.

Near the entrance of the site is a troje, similar to a traditional Purépecha house. Because of the thick forests in Michoacan's mountains, the indigenous people traditionally built their troje homes and other structures from wood. Unfortunately, ugly cinder block buildings have begun to replace these in many communities. The structure above is the small office of the archaeological site. The man sitting on the porch is the caretaker. The overall site covers 50 hectares (123 acres), but only part of it is open to visitors. The public site is a long rectangle oriented roughly east to west. It is part of a huge platform cleared and leveled in ancient times. This no doubt took immense effort given the lack of metal tools, draft animals, or wheeled transport at the time. Bordering the sides on the north and south are long walls, called Huatziri, which are unique in Mesoamerica.  For a satellite photo showing the layout of the ruins site, click here.

The great walls known as the Huatziris

The Huatziris served to restrict the ritual area, and could also act as defensive structures. The stepped walls are 80 m (240 ft) long and 5 m (15 ft) high. The top level is about 2 m (6 ft) wide. The Huatziris are built in the same manner as a typical stepped pyramid which, along with their length, makes them so unusual among Mesoamerican walls. It occurred to me that since the broad plaza they bound on the north and south was used for large public events, the steps would make ideal "bleacher seats" for an audience of thousands.

The Ihuatzio site's first period of occupation began about 900 AD when a group of Nahua-speaking people settled here. They found the food sources, particularly the fish in the lake, to be abundant and they developed a fairly dense population. About 1200 AD, the Purépecha-speaking Chichimecs arrived. While they were less culturally advanced than the Nahua-speakers already in residence, the Purépecha were decidedly more war-like and fairly soon extended their domination not only over the Lake Patzcuaro area but throughout Michoacan. 

The tops of the Huatziris are smooth and straight. Yet another function of the wall was to allow the cazonci (king) to move majestically along above the crowd from one end of the plaza to the other.

In the 16th Century, Spaniard Jerónimo de Alcalá described the founding of Ihuatzio in the "Relación de Michoacan," a document compiled by interviewing the surviving indigenous nobility. According to them, in the early period of the Purépecha conquest of Michoacan, a great king named Tariácuri decided to will his kingdom to his three nephews. He took them to the top of the hill called Thiapu and made three piles of dirt, set in a line. On each pile he placed a stone and an arrow. He called his nephew Hirapan over and pointed to the pile in the center and told him that this represented the town of the coyotes (Ihuatzio) and would belong to Hirapan. To Tangaxoán he gave Tzintzuntzan, and Patzcuaro went to Huiquingaje, his third nephew. 

Paralleling the southern Huatziri wall on the outside was a long walled road. Roads like this were part of Ihuatzio's ancient communications system and could also be used as defensive positions to impede an enemy attempting to assault the main Huatziri defenses. However, on the day we visited, the road was being used by a small, and very peaceable, herd of cattle that were meandering toward the pasture where they would spend the night.

King Tariácuri was one of the great Purépecha leaders during their conquest of Michoacan. While he was planning the capture of Ihuatzio, he sent his nephew Hiripan to the top of a hill north of the town to spy on the people living below. While Hiripan lay concealed, the god Curicaueri appeared to him and prophesied that he would become king. He then led his forces down upon the unsuspecting lake dwellers and captured a good many who were then given over to sacrifice. In honor of his victory, he decided to construct a temple dedicated to the worship Curicaueri and to store in Ihuatzio the treasures collected during the various military campaigns.

Plaza de Armas

The Plaza de Armas is one of the biggest Mesoamerican plazas I have ever seen. The platform on which it is based measures 300 m (900 ft) by 180 m (590 ft). The photo above, taken from the top of the south Huatziri, looks east down the length of the plaza. The corner of one of the two pyramids located on the west end of the plaza can be seen in the upper left.

Over time, Ihuatzio became the most powerful and important of the trio of cities that dominated the Tarascan realm. In good part, this was because Hiripan was the most aggressive and militarily accomplished of the three nephews. He took the lead in wars to expand and consolidate the territory controlled by the Purépecha. Over its three centuries of existence, the Empire extended throughout Michoacan and into parts of the modern states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Guanajauto, Querétaro and Colima. 

View of the plaza, and the south Huatziri, looking toward one of Michoacan's mountain ranges. The structure on the right is the northeast corner of the platform on which the two pyramids sit. The plaza could accommodate a vast crowd. Such an assemblage, dressed in full barbaric splendor with waving plumes of feathers, must have been spectacular.

Eventually, Hiripan died, and was buried at Ihuatzio. He left his realm to his son Ticatame who apparently did not possess the aggressive personality of his father, because it was during the son's reign that Tzintzuntzan became the key city of the Empire. Its ruler was Zizispandaquare, the son of Tangaxoan. He made his city the center of power, and took with him the god Curicaueri and the accumulated treasure that had been stored at Ihuatzio. It is not clear whether Ticatame objected to this arrangement.

Heaps of ancient building blocks dot the plaza here and there. These were structures of unknown purpose that have not been reconstructed. As stated before, most of the ruins of Ihuatzio are still just heaps of rubble and are not open to the public. Outside the Huatziri boundary, I saw another huge platform adjacent to the Plaza de Armas and perpendicular to it. This platform contains three yácatas which are structures again unique to the Purépecha Empire, and are similar to those found at Tzintzuntzan. Ihuatzio's yácatas are reported to contain tombs of important people from prehispanic times. In addition, there is a cylindrical astronomical observatory called the Mirador (lookout). Hopefully, at some future time, these will be opened to the public.

In spite of its loss of status, Ihuatzio and its rulers remained important players in the Empire. It was their job to rouse up the war-like spirit in the Purépecha soldiers prior to a battle. Ihuatzio's rulers also participated in the elite group who selected the next cazonci. Ihuatzio's ruler Paquingata, grandson of Ticatame, refused the position of cazonci when it was offered to him at one point.

The pyramids

Carole views the two stepped-pyramids that occupy the western end of the Plaza de Armas. The pyramids rest on a large platform and are separated from each other by a narrow corridor. At one time, there were temples on the top, but these have not survived because they were made of perishable materials. The cores of the pyramids are rock and earth, but the walls are of horizontally set slabs. The twin pyramids were dedicated to two Tarascan gods. One of these was Curicaueri, the patron of the Tarascan kings. He was a warrior god and the sun's messenger as well as god of the sky and the hunt.  The other temple was devoted to Curicaueri's wife Xaratanga, who was the goddess of childbirth and fertility and was variously depicted as a snake, a vulture, or a half-moon coyote. She was the daughter of Cuerauaperi, the earth goddess who was mother of all gods and controlled birth and death.

The Purépecha are notable for a variety of reasons. For one thing, their language is unlike any other indigenous group in Mexico. The only other related languages linguists have found are that of the Zuni people of the Pueblo Culture of the Southwest US, and the Quecha people of coastal Peru. This has led to an archaeological argument (they love to argue). Some hold that the Zuni language similarity indicates a Purépecha origin in the far north. Others point to the Quecha words in the language and suggest  a seaborne arrival from South America. The dispute remains unsettled, although the connection to South America has other interesting angles

A rear view of the twin pyramids. Curicaueri, according to some sources, was also the god of fire and had five brothers known as the Tiripemencha who ruled the five houses of the earth plane. These houses included the four sacred directions (north, south, east, and west) as well as the place where they intersected, the center of the universe. Curicaueri was represented by various animals, including the eagle flying above the earth, the coyote moving on the surface, and the snake traveling through the underworld. War captives were sacrificed to Curicaueri in solemn ceremonies after being intoxicated with fermented cornmeal prepared by priests.  They were then bound hand and foot, taken to the top of the temple to a special stone, and their hearts were removed with a sharp obsidian blade. The heads of those sacrificed were placed on a special rack similar to the tzompantli used by the Mexica (Aztecs).

Another of the important Tarascan distinctions has to do with their skill at metal-working. They not only crafted beautiful gold and silver jewelry, but they were the only group in Mesoamerica that used copper extensively to make weapons and tools. While the Mexica and other groups used copper for bells and ornaments, they seldom used it for axes and blades, preferring the traditional obsidian. Further, there was no copper ore in the Mexica areas, so the copper they did obtain through trade and tribute was previously mined and smelted and ready to work, if not obtained in already finished form. There is a strong possibility that the Tarascans obtained their knowledge of copper working through seaborne trade relations with the Quecha people of Peru. It is possible that the Purépecha could have originated in the far north, and picked up the Quecha words from traders from South America.

Detail of the twin pyramid on the north side of the platform. Including the two steps of the platform itself, there are a total of eleven steps leading to the top of the structure. Notice the rather roughly hewn horizontal blocks that make up the walls. On the left side is the corridor that separates the two pyramids. When this corridor was excavated, archaeologists found several skeletons and a one-ton Chac Mool, indicating a connection with the Toltecs. Chac Mools are always depicted as a man reclining on his back while leaning on his elbows with his knees bent. A bowl or tray always appears on the figure's stomach, ready to receive a fresh human heart.

The Tarascan Empire was also the first truly territorial state in Mesoamerica, another unusual aspect. All the others, including the Olmecs, Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and even the Aztecs were either trading empires or based on tribute relationships with other states. Further, the use of metal weapons gave them a military edge over their great rival the Mexica, who launched several unsuccessful attempts to conquer the Purépecha. They were the only people to successfully repel such a determined effort by the Mexica. When the Spanish were besieging Tenochtitlán, the Mexica sent emissaries to the Tarascans asking for help. Because of their previous enmity, the Tarascans not only refused, but they sacrificed the emissaries, and looked forward to welcoming the conquerors of their great enemy.  It was a mistake they would come to regret.

Closeup of the pyramid's front (eastern) wall. Shown above are the facing blocks made from slabs of volcanic rock called xanamu. These blocks once covered the entire structure. There were once staircases ascending this wall, but little is left of them. Consequently, the pyramids cannot be easily climbed and such activity is discouraged by the caretakers for safety reasons.

The Purépecha maintained and extended their control up until the Spanish conquistador Nuño de Guzman arrived in 1530 AD. He destroyed their empire and scattered their people into the remote mountains. The Spanish misunderstood the Purépecha language and mistakenly called the people Tarascans, the name by which they are now commonly known. Nuño de Guzman burned their last king alive in an attempt to force him to reveal the source of the gold ornaments he and his nobles wore. It was a quick and drastic end to a great empire.

Ihuatzio, the "modern" town

View of the modern village of Ihuatzio, with Lake Patzcuaro in the background. The ancient ruins of Ihuatzio lie high up on the slopes of a mountain called Cerro Tariaqueri. As we descended, I stopped to capture this view of the village, the lake, and the city of Patzcuaro on the forested hills beyond. The town lies at an elevation of 2040 m (6692 ft) and has a population of over 3500 people, about 1/3 of them children. A lot of the people are poor, with 78 out of the 663 households lacking a floor, and 49 having one room only. Still, the overwhelming majority are connected to the public water supply, electricity, and even have a television. As with many rural populations, the education level is fairly low, with the average number years of school completed being seven. However, there are computers in 35 of the households.

A young horse out for a casual sidewalk stroll on a sunny afternoon. I always enjoy little oddities like this that are so commonly found in rural Mexico. Of course, to the local people, it wouldn't even be worth a second glance.

The Parroquia San Francisco de Asis was built in the 18th Century. No doubt the church replaced earlier versions dating back to the mid-16th Century.

Christmas decorations still adorned the interior in mid-January. This is not unusual, since the Christmas season in Mexico lasts at least until Dia de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings day) which falls on January 6. Traditionally, that is the day when gifts are exchanged, in keeping with the gifts brought by the biblical Three Kings to the new-born Jesus. Many of the decorations seen above are crafts for which Michoacan State is famous.

A wood-pillared walkway overlooks the Ihuatzio Plaza. Woodworking is another craft for which the people in this area are famous. In addition to the pillars above, much of the house behind the walkway is decorated with beautifully carved wood.

Detail of a plaza pillar. This kind of work is not reserved for public buildings or the homes of the wealthy. While traveling the back roads of Michoacan, I have seen this sort of carved pillar adorning some very humble dwellings.

This completes my posting on Ihuatzio. I hope you have enjoyed it and learned something new about Mexico. I always encourage feedback and if you have any comments, questions, or corrections, please leave them in the Comments section, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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