Sunday, April 7, 2013

Zihuatanejo: Part 7: Daily life along the ancient Costa Grande

This beautiful bracelet of copper bells was crafted by the ancient people of the Costa Grande. Copper bells and other items of personal ornamentation were among the earliest uses of this metal. Evidence of the use of copper first appears around 600 AD along the southwestern Pacific Coast of Mexico. The Costa Grande (Great Coast) is one of seven regions of the State of Guerrero. It extends along the Pacific Coast roughly from the border of Michoacan on the northwest (not far from Zihuatanejo) to Acapulo on the southeast. This area doesn't just include the coastline, but extends a considerable distance inland. It thus includes the sealife resources of the beaches and coves, the fertile agricultural plains separating the beaches from the mountains, and the mountains themselves which contained wildlife, forest products, and gold, silver and copper ore for metallurgy. Given the warm climate and regular rainfall, this was a congenial place for ancient people to settle. Gradually they developed communities which were eventually consolidated into theocratic states like Xihuacán (see Parts 5 & 6 of this series). The wide variety of products the land could produce also led to trade with distant areas of ancient Mesoamerica and, ultimately, to conquest by powerful and covetous civilizations such as the Tarascans and the Mexica (Aztecs). (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Zihuatanejo)

Life of the common people

Early village life was simple and communal and revolved around maiz cultivation and fishing. The earliest people arrived about 10,000 years ago and were hunter/gatherer nomads who camped in caves along the seashore. When maiz (corn) cultivation reached the Costa Grande around 1500 BC, people began to settle in one place and to build simple homes as seen above. Between 800 BC and 100 BC, villages flourished throughout the area. The huts were constructed using the wattle and daub technique and had thatched roofs. They were set upon low platforms which, in turn, rested upon a broad platform made of stone and earth. The platforms ensured that the village and its homes were above any swampy ground. There was very little social class division and work was communal. However, there was some division of labor between men and women and perhaps between families. The men cultivated and harvested the maiz in fields adjacent to the village. The women prepared the harvested grain in a multi-step process that included grinding it into a flour on stone metates. Small, flat, round cakes now known as tortillas were cooked from the flour and formed a staple of the family diet. Since the village above is set close to the seashore, another ready source of food would have been mollusks from tide pools, seabirds and their eggs, and fish caught with nets made of local fibers and weighted with small stones. After the discovery that cotton fiber was useful for making cloth, animal skin clothing was largely abandoned, except for ceremonial purposes. Clothing was simple, composed mostly of skirts and loin cloths, since more elaborate clothing would have been unnecessary in this climate.  (Photo of mural taken at the Museum of Archaeology in Zihuatanejo)

Tools for subsistence 

Tools like this were used for grinding food or medicinal herbs or making pigments for paints. The circular stone bowl is called a metate and the cylindrical stone in the bowl is a mano. This metate is unusual because they are usually shaped as rectangular trays. Although this form of grinding is extremely ancient, manos and metates can still be found for sale in modern Mexican hardware stores. They are not tourist nicknacks, but practical tools for the kitchen. The fertile soil that produced the maiz once ground in this metate was watered by rivers and canals in fields that were capable of producing two harvests per year. In addition to maiz, local farmers grew beans, squash, and chile. Nutritionists have established that these four foods form an almost perfectly balanced diet. With the addition of protein from seafood, birds, and other wildlife, the local population must have been well nourished. (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Stone weights of various sizes were used to stabilize nets and cause them to sink evenly. The nets themselves would have been made from fibers stripped from local plants such as the maguey. The fibers were woven into strings and then knotted into nets. The stones were grooved around their circumferences so that they wouldn't slip off the net. The nets used by modern Mexican fishermen along the Costa Grande shore (see Parts 2 & 3 of this series) are still designed and used in much the same fashion as their ancient ancestors, although the weights are now made of lead and the nets woven from nylon.(Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Obsidian arrow points intended for various sizes of game from small birds to mountain lions.
While not as easy to obtain as steel arrow points purchased at a sporting goods store, obsidian points such as these are surprisingly easy to make, if one has the materials at hand. Basically, you need a chunk of obsidian, a stone tool to chip off an arrowhead "blank"from the larger chunk, a small patch of deer hide to protect your fingers while you do the fine work on the blank, and the pointed end of a deer antler to do the shaping and finishing. All of these materials, except for obsidian, could be locally obtained. The obsidian had to be imported through the trade networks from the area of modern Michoacan and Hidalgo states. Since the great commercial and trading empire of Teotihuacan controlled huge deposits of obsidian in those areas, and there is much evidence of Teotihuacan influence on the Costa Grande people, it may be that material these arrowheads were made from originated there. The basic technique for making arrowheads would have been common knowledge among ancient people as far back as the 8,000 BC or even earlier. Small children would have learned by observation as they watched their fathers or older brothers working around the fire in the evening, preparing for the next day's hunt. In later times, after the development of a stratified, specialized society in Xihuacán, obsidian workshops produced many of these kinds of items. For a Living History Youtube video showing the traditional method of makeing obsidian arrowheads, click here.  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Tools for making other important products

This stone hammer was used to make paper from amate bark. Use of amate bark for paper may have begun as early as 300 AD in Mesoamerica, probably originating with the Maya before migrating north. The bark was stripped from the tree and left overnight to soak in water. Then, the fine inner fibers were removed and pounded into flat sheets using a mallet like the one above. The cross-hatched grooves in the mallet were important for mashing the fibers. To make any significant amount of the paper was a laborious process. However it was also relatively light and therefore easy to transport. Both of these factors made amate paper very valuable. The Mexica (Aztecs) made the most extensive use of amate paper and assigned its manufacture as a tribute requirement to 40 villages in their empire. The villagers were required to produce 480,000 sheets annually. The paper was not considered a commodity, but was used by royal scribes to keep records, by priests for ritual purposes, and as royal gifts to nobles and successful warriors. Because indigenous priests used amate paper for their rituals, and the Spanish suspected that the writings involved devil worship, colonial authorities banned the production and use of the paper. They also burned the great libraries containing amate paper codicies. These contained centuries of the religious thought and political history of the conquered civilizations. This conflagration was one of history's most infamous acts of cultural genocide. Indigenous people in a handful of areas secretly preserved the paper-making technology, however. Today, a few villages of Otomi and Nahua people of Puebla and Vera Cruz still make amate paper in the ancient way.  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Tools used in lapidary work. Lapidary items are those made of stone that is considered precious. In Mesoamerica, such stones included green jade, serpentine, obsidian, and turquoise. Many of these precious stones would have traveled long distances along the ancient trade routes to the Costa Grande. Turquoise, for example, originated in the what is today Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwestern US. The distance from there to the Costa Grande is approximately 4000 km (2500 mi). It should be remembered that there were no pack animals in Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of the Spanish, so everything had to be carried on a human back.   (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Ancient zoomorphic paint pots. I was rather charmed by these little paint pots. I enjoy how the ancient people often decorated even workaday tools like this with animal figures and faces. The two pot sets at the top obviously were intended to separate various colors. The artist may well have once used them to paint ritual images on amate paper. The pigments used were made from the natural materials they found in their immediate environment. For example, the color white, called tízatl, was obtained by slaking lime with water and sand. Black (Tlilli) came from resin-filled pine sticks burned at the tips. This created charcoal sticks for drawing, but the charcoal could also be ground up for black paint. Graphite was also used to create black. Red could be obtained by using red ocher, or cinnabar. One of the most mysterious colors used was the famous Maya Blue. Its use spread from the Maya areas through the trade networks to many of the other Mesoamerican civilizations. The durability and longevity of Maya Blue is astonishing. According to World Archaeology, it is "resistant to acid, solvent, heat and many forms of organic corrosion. Samples found on pottery and murals show little evidence of colour deterioration after centuries of exposure..." Until 2008, the mystery of its ingredients went unsolved. Then an archaeologists remembered a paint pot that had been recovered from the Cenote Sagrado (water-filled, limestone sinkhole) at Chichen Itzá. The pot still contained some Maya Blue that, when given an electron analysis, revealed "a mix of copal (tree resin burned as incense), a clay mineral called palygorskite, and small amounts of indigo leaves." Thus was solved a 150-year-old mystery. (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Malacates were used in the process for spinning thread for textiles.  The point of a long wooden rod fitted through the hole in the center of the clay spindle whorl known as a malacate, with the flat side up. The point of the rod rested on a piece of wood or in a bowl while the other end was held in the fingers of the spinner. One end of the thread was attached to the middle of the rod, while the other end merged with the mass of cotton or ixtle fiber held in the lap of the person doing the spinning. The function of the malacate was to stabilize the rod in a vertical position and maintain inertia while it was twirled.As you can see above, the ancients decorated their humble little malacates, like they did the paint pots seen previously.  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

The use of molds shows that the ancient people understood some aspects of mass production. As the Costa Grande societies grew more complex, so did their technologies. Instead of crafting unique objects by hand, molds were sometimes used to make many identical objects. The craftsmanship thus declined, with quantity winning out over quality. The development of this technology was related to the development of a multi-level, hierarchical society. Complex religions demanded offerings by large numbers of people in the rapidly growing society. The clay objects manufactured with these molds could be produced on a mass scale. In addition, mass production could reduce trade costs and thus increase the wealth of those who controlled commerce. The priestly elites began to assign specialized tasks to individual family groups. These tasks might involve the manufacture of ritual objects, luxury items, or items for trade. Economics, politics, and religion functioned together to maintain elite control of the society, just as they do in modern societies. (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Metallurgy on the Costa Grande

The first use of copper axes was for ceremonial rather than utilitarian purposes. Copper objects in the earliest times would have been fairly soft and more traditional substances such as stone or obsidian would have served better a cutting tools. Copper was at first reserved for personal decoration of the elites and and for ceremonial/ritual purposes. However, as time went by the ancient metallurgists experimented with various alloys including copper-arsenic, copper-silver, and copper-tin to produce harder and more usable tools. By the beginning of the Spanish Conquest in 1519 , copper tools and weapons were widely used in Western Mexico, especially by the Tarascan Empire. Through the trade networks, copper tools were also beginning to show up in other parts of Mesoamerica. The Tarascans were the great rivals of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire. The ability of the Tarascans to defeat every Mexica attempt to conquer them has been attributed in part to the abundance of copper alloy weapons the Tarascans possessed. The Mexica still equipped their armies almost entirely with obsidian edged weapons.  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

These copper bracelet and anklet bells were found at Xihuacán. Copper bells were prized for their bright shiny appearance and their musical tinkling. These were probably worn during rituals in Xihuacán's ceremonial center. Objects like these were typically cast using with the lost-wax method.  Archaeologists believe that copper objects, and the technology for creating them, first arrived to the Pacific Coast of Mexico from South America between 600-650 AD. Seaborne trade networks led from Peru to Central America and up the Pacific Coast. Considerable evidence has been amassed of South American influence on Western Mexico from well before the arrival of copper technology. This includes pottery styles, and the burial practices of the Shaft Tomb Culture of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima States. (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Ritual figures cast from copper were also found at Xihuacán's ceremonial center. The people of the Costa Grande soon saw the value to mining, smelting, and crafting their own copper objects, rather than just acquiring them through the trade networks. They saw the manufacture of copper and other metal objects as so important that two Xihuacán groups got their names from their specialization in metallurgy: the Tepuztecas (People of Copper) and the Cuitlatecas (Guardians of the Metal).  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Trade and commerce

A trader negotiates for conch and other shells on the Costa Grande shore. Even as early as 1500 BC, when agriculture was just getting under way along the Costa Grande, the area was already part of a vast network of trade routes. These ran from the areas controlled by the Hohokam Culture of the Southwest US down into the Valley of Mexico--then dominated by the Tlatilco Culture--and on into the Maya areas of Central America. Moving from east to west, the routes connected the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast with the people of Xihuacán on the Costa Grande. Then there were the seaborne routes down the Pacific Coast to Central America and into Peru and Ecuador. Europeans who arrived in the 16th Century and later tended to view the indigenous people as uncultured savages. In fact, the ancients had, for thousands of years, maintained sophisticated and amazingly far-reaching commercial and trade relationships. Wars were sometimes fought to obtain key sources of trade goods such as jade, obsidian, or salt, or to protect the trade routes themselves. In the long historical view, there is no essential difference between the late 15th Century Salitre War between the Tarascan Empire and the Kingdom of Colima over control of the salt trade, and the current wars between drug cartels for control of drug smuggling routes from Southern Mexico to the United States. The more things change, the more they stay the same.   (Photo of mural taken at the Museum of Archaeology in Zihuatanejo)

Some key trade goods produced by the Costa Grande ancients included shells, cotton, and salt. As it happened, the Costa Grande occupied a strategic trade location. It possessed great quantities of shells, useful for personal decoration as well as musical instruments and cutting devices. Cotton, highly valued by the great civilizations of Central Mexico when spun into cloth, could only be grown in hot lowland areas such as the Costa Grande plains. The Costa Grande provided access to great quantities of sea salt. Before the development of refrigeration in the late 19th Century, salt was the only way to preserve fish, meats, or other important foods, other than drying them. It was also essential to preserving animal hides for eventual manufacture into various valuable goods. The mountains that rise steeply behind the coastal plain are full of copper, gold, and the piedra verde (green stone) so highly valued by pre-hispanic people. When mined and turned into small, light, easily carried products such as tools and jewelry, these items also became valuable for trade. As noted previously, trade routes up and down the Pacific Coast intersected with the east-west routes to the Central Valley and Gulf Coast. So, the area's geographic location was also important to its strategic role in trade.  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Cacao beans were valuable in themselves, but sometimes served as a medium of exchange. Cacao beans are used to make chocolate, and as many modern chocoholics would agree with the ancients that it is the "food of the gods." The Mesoamerican elites considered it so important that they restricted its use to themselves. The chocolate made from the cacao was taken as a hot beverage, spiced by various condiments including chile and, upon occasion, the blood of a sacrificed warrior. Money, as we  understand it, did not exisit during pre-hispanic times. Gold and silver were used for jewelry and ornamentation, but there was no metal currency. Cacao came closest to currency as a medium of exchange. A certain number of cacao beans were understood to be worth a deer hide, or a quantity of cotton cloth, or perhaps could be exchanged for a personal service. Since they were light, compact, and carried high intrinsic value, cacao beans joined cotton, salt, piedra verde, sea shells and copper items as trade goods exported from the Costa Grande.  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Raw cotton, and some of the woven cloth made from it. Cotton was domesticated independently in the Old and New Worlds. In Mesoamerica, the oldest domesticated seeds and bolls yet found were in the Tehuacan Valley in Puebla State. While they were dated between 3400 and 2300 BC, genetic tests of these remains indicate that the earliest Mesoamerican cotton may have been cultivated in Yucatan, In South America, cotton was domesticated even earlier. On the Peruvian Coast in 4200 BC, people began cultivating an entirely different species of cotton. Some archaeologists have speculated that it may have reached Mesoamerica from there, possibly by the same route copper got there, although the cotton would have arrived far earlier. This theory is not widely held, however, and most archaeologists believe domestication occurred separately in Peru and Mesoamerica. It is entertaining to think that at a time when people in the British Isles and Northern Europe were still dressing in animal skins, people in Mesoamerica and Peru were weaving their garments from cotton thread. Savages indeed!  (Photo taken at the Archaeological Museum in Soledad de Maciel)

Conch and other shells were major items of trade.  Conches carried great value. One of their first uses was for jewelry. They were cut in pieces to make necklaces, finger and ear rings, pectorals and bracelets. However, their use as a trumpet was quickly adopted, and conch instruments were incorporated into ceremonies and processions. In addition, painted murals show military commanders using them to signal their troops. Conches have often been found among grave goods. Many of the conches used in rituals were painted and incised with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic designs. Their value as trade goods is indicated by how far they have been found from from their seashore places of origin. In the Quetzalpapalotl Palace at Teotihuacan, I photographed a mural of two jaguars lustily blowing conch trumpets under symbols of Tlaloc, the rain god. The Conquistadors under Hernán Cortéz reported that conch trumpets were blown during human sacrifices atop the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán.  That pyramid was dedicated both to Tlaloc, and to Huitzilopochitli, the war god. To the Spanish, it must have been chilling to hear the long, deep, mournful conch blast as they watched their captured comrades sacrificed on the altar. (Photo taken at the Museum of Archaeology in Zihuatanejo)

This completes Part 7, and also my series on Zihuatanejo and the Costa Grande. If you have enjoyed it, perhaps you'd like to leave a comment in the Comments section or email me directly. I always appreciate feedback, and corrections are also welcome.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Hello dear Jim. I'm from Guatemala and I found your blog in my research on the zulu bug you posted. I'm also trying to find its scientific name since that bug did bite my dad and he had fever and a very swollen area but havent find answers so extra info will be aprecciated. Always remember to be careful on weird insects. Regards, Marie


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