Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 3 of 11: Palacio Gobierno's gorgeous murals showing the city's prehispanic origins and economy

Mural showing two of Tlaxcala's most important gods. On the right is Camaxtli, the god of war and hunting. He was the chief deity of Tlaxcala and always appears with black paint across his upper face, vertical "candy-stripes" on his body, and carrying a bow and arrows. In the center, dressed in white, is the mother goddess known as Xochiquetzalli. According to some versions of Tlaxcalteca mythology, they were married. In the next two postings, I'll show you the extraordinary murals inside the Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). These include scenes from archaic times all the way to the colonial period. The artist was Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, a native of Tlaxcala. He worked on them from 1957 until his death in 1997, incorporating all the newest archeological discoveries to ensure accuracy. The Palacio is located along the north side of Plaza Constitución. To find it, click here.

Palacio Gobierno

Balcony of the Governor's office, above the front entrance of the Palacio. The beautifully carved white plaster nicely compliments the warm reddish glow of the brick facing. The style is very similar to the facade of Parroquia San Jose, (see my last posting). At the time I did that posting, I erroneously identified it as Churrigueresque. Richard Perry is a friend who publishes a blog called the Arts of Colonial Mexico. He tells me that this is Neostyle, a transition between late Baroque and Neo-Classic. The bell above the balcony is a replica of the one at the town of Dolores Hidalgo that Father Miguel Hidalgo rang to summon the people to begin the War of Independence (1810 - 1821). Every September 15, as part of the Fiesta de Independencia, the Governor stands on the balcony, rings the bell, and delivers Hidalgo's speech to the crowd below.

Below the balcony is the Mudéjar-style entrance of the Palacio. The fall of the Emirate of Granada in 1491 ended 700 years of Moorish domination in Spain. Practicing Muslims who remained in Spain were called Mudéjares, in contrast to Moriscos, who converted to Christianity. Eventually Spanish Catholic fanaticism forced both groups to leave the country. Although the Spanish Christians despised Islam, they did admire Muslim architectural styles. Mudéjar-style architecture was eventually brought to the New World. The Palacio was originally constructed  as a home for Hernán Cortez. From the colonial period through modern times, the building has been used for government offices. The Palacio has been destroyed and rebuilt several times due to floods, earthquakes, and fires.

Tlaxcala's origins

Youthful hunters take aim. The first inhabitants of what is now the State of Tlaxcala arrived some 11,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age). They were nomads who were hunting big game, including camels, mastodons, and horses. All of these animals became extinct in the New World many thousands of years ago. The oldest traces of the hunters' presence include a Clovis point spearhead and the remains of plants and animals that they consumed in the caves where they took shelter. The environment at that time was cold and humid.

Normads discover teocintle, the wild plant from which maiz originated. When the climate became warmer and dryer, the big game began to disappear. Archeologists believe this may have been accelerated by over-hunting. Increasingly, the nomads had to rely on smaller game and plants for their subsistence. Eventually, they discovered how to grow some of these plants themselves. Through experimentation over millennia, maiz (corn) was developed from teocintle. The oldest cobs of maiz yet found were discovered in a cave in Oaxaca. They have been carbon-dated to 5,400 years ago. However, DNA tests indicate that maiz probably originated much earlier in Puebla, south of Tlaxcala. Cultivation of maiz created a surplus of storable food, but it also necessitated significant cultural changes, since agriculture requires a sedentary lifestyle.

Over time, Maiz became central to the pre-hispanic economy and culture. Above, a man examines a newly sprouted maiz plant, while groups of men plant and cultivate their fields. They are using a long-handled tool called a coa, a Neolithic (New Stone Age) invention. I have observed it in use by small farmers in Mexico, as they plant and cultivate maiz in exactly the same way their archaic ancestors did. Over the millennia, the Tlaxcala area experienced waves of migration, and sometimes outright invasions, by new groups moving down from the northern deserts. Some of them built the ancient city of Xochitécatl (800 BC - 300 BC) in southwest Tlaxcala. A couple of centuries later, Teotihuacán (100 BC - 650 AD) arose. Tecoaque was a Teotihuacán military and trading outpost located just inside modern Tlaxcala's western border on an ancient trade route from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico. After Teotihuacán's demise, a period of turmoil ensued during which a Maya-related group called the Olmeca-Xicalanca arrived from the Gulf Coast. They took over the area and established Cacaxtla (700 AD - 900 AD), as their capital. It was within sight of the ruins of Xochitécatl, already ancient at that time. Cacaxtla fell, in turn, to the expanding empire of the Toltecs (900 AD - 1150 AD). When the Toltec era ended in the 12th century, it was followed by yet another period of instability. Military conflicts flared among rising city states and Chichimec invaders arrived. The name is generic for various northern-desert tribes of fierce nomadic warriors who had been kept in check by the Toltecs and, before them, Teotihuacán. After the Toltec empire collapsed, waves of these invaders swept down, taking advantage of the turmoil.

The Tlaxcaltecas arrived on the scene in the mid-14th century. Above, the Tlaxcalteca war god Camaxtli points the way for the migrants, They were part of the last great wave of Chichimec invaders. Included in this mass migration was another tribe known as the Mexica, commonly called the Aztecs. The two tribes not only arrived in their new homelands at about the same time, but they shared many cultural traits, including Nahuatl, their common language. They worshipped many of the same gods and shared a taste for warfare, conquest, and human sacrifice.

The Tlaxcaltecas conquer the Teo-Chichimecas, part of an earlier wave of migrants to Tlaxcala. The mural above gives a taste of pre-hispanic warfare, a savage and bloody affair. The scene is quite accurate. Not only could the artist draw from the first hand accounts of the Conquistadors, but the great murals of Cacaxtla display just such a titanic battle between the Eagle and Jaguar warrior cults. The combatants above are brandishing a fearsome hand weapon called a maquahuitl. It was a wooden club, the edges of which were lined with razor-sharp obsidian. Other weapons included the bow and arrow, the atlatl (a dart thrower), long spears, and slings that propelled stones with such force that they could endanger even a Spaniard in steel armor. For defense they used quilted armor and round wooden shields decorated with feathers. Warriors often clothed themselves in the skins of jaguars or other totem animals. Strapped to their backs were wood stakes adorned with bright feathers. In the heat of battle, these helped sort out friend from foe. In addition, the emblems enabled commanders to identify the battle lines so they could direct their forces.

Tlaxcalteca chiefs meet to formalize an on-going alliance. Following their successful conquest, the tribe divided up the lands they had captured. Four towns named Tepetícpac, Ocotelulco, Tiztlán, and Quiahuitzlán emerged as the centers of the Tlaxcalteca civilization. Each had its own lord and ruling elite. Over time, the leaders of these independent towns formed an on-going alliance to avoid internal conflict, to assist one another in conquering more territory, and to deal with external threats such as the rising Mexica empire to the west.

Pre-hispanic economy

A Tlaxcalteca noble oversees the harvesting of maiz. He wears a tilma, or cotton cape, knotted at his throat. It is hard to overstate the importance of maiz to pre-hispanic cultures. It was the staff of life and was used to prepare a wide variety of foods. Some of these, including tortillas, tamales, and the drink called atole are still widely consumed today. Abundant crops meant prosperity and security, while crop failures could be disastrous. Thus, maiz figured prominently in myths surrounding gods like Quetzalcoatl, who delivered the secret of maiz cultivation to humankind. Regular human sacrifices to gods like Tlaloc, the rain deity, were thought necessary to ensure adequate precipitation and good harvests.

Methods for processing maiz are unchanged from pre-hispanic times. On the left, a man uses a tumpline across his forehead to carry a basket full of freshly-harvested maiz. It is a very ancient method of transport that is still in use today. In the center, women sit around a pile of cobs, removing the husks. I have observed this same scene near my home. After husking, the maiz kernels are removed, soaked in lime, and boiled in a process called nixtamalization. This process dissolves the hulls around the kernels. Using a stone platter called a metate, the maiz is then ground with a roller called a mano, also made of stone. The resulting masa (dough) is flattened by hand into thin, round cakes called tortillas. These are cooked on a clay griddle called a comal. All these processes and tools are still in use throughout Mexico today, just as they were a thousand or more years ago. In fact, manos and metates are among the most common artifacts unearthed by archeologists in even the most ancient pre-hispanic sites. Today, virtually identical versions are sold in Mexican hardware stores for use as basic kitchen equipment.

Other Tlaxcalteca artisans at work. On the left, merchants examine a folded codex, which was the pre-hispanic version of a book. The paper for the codex was made by pounding the bark from an amate tree with a special stone to separate and flatten the fibres. Because of work necessary to create it, paper was a very valuable commodity. Because it was light and easy for traders to transport, paper became an important trade good. It was used primarily by rulers, priests, and the nobility for records and religious tracts. On the right, workers gather and bundle agave leaves. These were used to produce fibre for sandals and ropes, among other things. The spines from the tips of agave leaves could be used as needles. The agave heart could be cooked and eaten and the juice from the heart could be processed into pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink still consumed in rural Mexico. Today, agave is most famous for the tequila which is made from it.

Weaving and dyeing cloth were other important crafts. In the center, three women weave cotton cloth using backstrap looms. The cotton was imported through the trade networks from the hot coastal areas. Backstrap looms are another very ancient technology that is still in use. Local women in my town can be found under the shade of a lakeside tree, using looms like these to make blankets and shawls for sale to tourists. On the  right, men dye the cloth in a large pot. One of the most favored dyes used crushed cochineal insects gathered from the nopal cactus. It was produced exclusively in Oaxaca and was expensive because a large number of the tiny insects were needed to produce a small amount of dye. Aztec emperors demanded quotas of cochineal dye as tribute from the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. Today, cochineal is still used as a dye in food and lipstick.

A merchant sets out on a trading mission. Men fold and bundle cotton cloth into packets for tlamemeque (porters) to carry. Notice the weary man in the center wiping the sweat from his brow and the two men assisting a tlamemeque who wears a tumpline. The merchant-traders, called pochteca, were not part of the nobility but were still of high status. They had their own powerful organizations and even their own gods. Pochteca sometimes acted as intelligence agents for their rulers when they visited city-states ripe for conquest.

An injured tlamemeque receives medical attention as the pochteca looks on. In the background, the others take a much-needed break. Pre-hispanic people were sophisticated in the use of plants and other natural materials for their medical needs. Pochteca knew that the injuries of a porter must be attended to because, given the absence of any large domesticated animals, human transport was the only kind available. Trade routes in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica were extensive, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts and from Honduras to modern New Mexico. There is even evidence of trade between Peru and Western Mexico. Tlaxcala was well-positioned for trade since it lay on a route between the Gulf Coast and the Central Valley of Mexico.

Traders brought their wares to great city markets like this one. The scene above is part of a large mural showing Tlaxcala's tianguis (market). It captures the bustle, the variety of goods, and the myriad transactions that took place. My own pueblo of Ajijic holds what is still called a tianguis every Wednesday. Except for the clothing, and the temple in the background, ours looks pretty much the same as the one in this scene.

Nobles from Tlaxcala's four city-states confer. Commerce wasn't the only function of a tianguis. It was also a great social occasion for all classes. The elites of Tlaxcala could talk politics, make marriage alliances and conduct all sorts of business on these occasions.

Tlaxcala's pantheon of gods

Three priests conduct a key ritual of the Fire Ceremony. Tlaxcala's chief god Camaxtli was said to have invented the fire drill, seen above. To do it, he revolved the heavens around their axes. He was also the first to strike sparks from flint. The worship of the hunter-god Camaxtli, and his relationship to the invention of tools to create fire, harks back to archaic hunter-gatherer times. Fire was extremely important to archaic people. It provided warmth, lit the night, enabled the cooking of food, and could offer protection against predators. The ability to make fire was the first great invention in the long road to civilization. It thus became an important feature in most religious rituals and, in this case, had its own great ceremony, conducted at eight-year intervals.

The Festival of Xochiquetzalli was held each May. Above, a priest chants as the musicians behind him rap out a rhythm on a teponaztli. This was an elaborately carved hollow log drum with slits through the top in the form of an elongated capital H. Often the instrument had a human face on one end, as well as other carvings on its sides. The teponaztli was considered an especially sacred drum. Xochiquetzalli was believed to be the mother of gods and, according to some tales, was the spouse of Camaxtli. She was associated with goodness and flowers and could intercede with more powerful gods to grant the wishes of those who appealed to her.

Quetzalcoatl delivers the great gift of maiz to humankind. Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Plumed Serpent, had been worshipped throughout civilized Mesoamerica as far back as the Olmec times (1500 BC - 400 BC). It is likely that Chichimecs tribes like the Tlaxcalteca adopted Quetzalcoatl as they came into contact with civilized people and began to settle down. In fact, the myth of the Plumed Serpent asserted that he not only delivered maiz to humans, but taught them the arts of civilization, including writing.

Male and female deities dance together. The Tlaxcalteca pantheon was large, with many gods similar to those worshiped by the Mexica, while others were different. Every aspect of life was governed by greater or lesser gods and their festivals were often linked to the sacred 260-day calendar.

This completes my first posting on the murals of the Palacio Gobierno. Next time, we'll look at murals showing the Tlaxcalteca's great rivalry with the Aztec empire and their eventual alliance with the Spanish during the Conquest. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. Please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Saludos, Jim

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