Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cantona Part 1 of 4: Ancient city, lost in the high desert

Person of the elite class, holding a bowl. This small statue, found at the ancient city of Cantona, represents a member of the elite class. His status is indicated by cranial elongation. Binding the head of an infant, to shape the skull while it was still soft, was a process used by elite families to physically distinguish themselves from common people. Carole and I visited Cantona during our stay at Tlaxcala. The ruins of the ancient city are located in Puebla State, in a remote, high desert area. Cantona was not only one of the largest of Mesoamerica's ancient cities, but its longevity is almost unmatched--from 600 BC to 1050 AD. My interest was particularly piqued by its remote location and because it is one of the least-visited of Mexico's ancient cities. Oddly, despite its size, longevity, and obvious importance, few modern chronologies of the pre-hispanic world even mention its existence. In this posting, I will provide an overview of Cantona's long history, including the most recent scientific research on the causes of its decline and fall. In subsequent postings, I will focus on the city's unique clusters of pyramids, palaces, ball courts, and living areas, and intersperse my photos of these with some of the beautiful artifacts located in the museum adjacent to the ruins.


Cantona is located in a broad, rolling, high-desert landscape, dotted with extinct volcanos. There are some small farms and ranches scattered about this large area, along with a few pueblos here and there, but most of the country looks pretty much like this. Until the Classic Era ended around 600 AD, the climate here was somewhat wetter. However, it did not compare to the lush terrain of the central Valley of Mexico, where so many other civilizations flourished. Still, there were important resources here and some of them related to numerous volcanos like the one seen above. Volcanic rock was plentiful, light, and easily shaped for building purposes. Of critical importance was the volcanic glass (obsidian) which could be crafted into tools and other useful objects. In addition to mineral resources, there were animals. Archeologists analyzed bones found in the ruins and identified three species of deer, two of turtles, collared peccaries, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, and rabbits. Plant resources included yucca, maguey, and nopal cactus, all of which provided sources of food and other useable products such as fibers from yucca and needles from maguey spines. The nearby mountains also contained abundant pine and oak forests which provided building materials.

Map of the major excavated structures in the city. The site covers at least 12 square kilometers and only about 10% (some say as little as 1%) has been excavated. A Google satellite view of the areas surrounding the excavated structures reveals the outlines of huge numbers of unexcavated ruins extending out in all directions. Even in the excavated areas, there are many mounds which contain large, unrevealed structures. Archeologists have barely scratched the surface. Cantona can reached via the 140D cuota (toll road) in northeast Puebla State. At the exit for Tepeyahualco, head north on a two-lane, black-top road for about 8 km (5 mi). On the map above, the black-top road can be seen in the lower left corner. The well-marked turn-off leads you to the parking lot of the site museum. I recommend checking it out before walking the site. There is an Archeological Zone fee of $60 pesos ($3.20 USD). For a separate fee, local guides can be hired outside the museum. The site is open 7 days a week from 9am-6pm. However, the museum is only open Wednesday-Sunday from 9am-6pm.

The path from the museum leads to the beginning of one of the ancient city's streets. It ascends a long ridge, taking you up through the pre-hispanic residential neighborhoods built on either side. Over 8000 residential units have been identified and they are connected by over 500 streets and alleyways. The street in the photo above is one of the main internal highways. It leads up the ridge to the top of a broad plateau, called the Acropolis. This relatively flat area of 66 hectares (163 acres) stands high above the rest of the city and the surrounding desert. Within the limits of the Acropolis are a large number of what archeologists call "clusters", a feature unique to Cantona. Each cluster contains a ball court and one or more pyramids and plazas. Also unique are the city's 27 ball courts, an astonishing number for a pre-hispanic city. From the Acropolis, and especially from the tops of its pyramids, you have a breathtaking view of desert landscape and extinct volcanos. Unlike many other pyramids in Mexico, you are allowed to climb these. Anyone who tours the ruins should wear good hiking boots or shoes and carry some water. People with limited mobility should probably not attempt a walk through the site.

Cantona I, the Formative, or Pre-Classic Era 

Faces and figures from the Formative period. Oddly, while the people of this period produced many sculptures of humans, the inhabitants of later times did not. In addition to the several small faces above, some with interesting head dresses, there are two female figures, both headless. The purpose of these figures is not known, but they may have had ritual functions. The very first people to settle in the area arrived around 1000 BC. They cultivated small farms and established tiny pueblos. Very early in the Formative period, the inhabitants began to mine the large obsidian deposits located only 9 km (5.6 mi) to the north, in the Zaragoza Mountains.

Some of the obsidian tools found at Cantona. Obsidian can be brought to a level of sharpness that exceeds modern surgical instruments. The volcanic glass is hard, but it can be flaked into various shapes using stone or bone tools. The result can be used for knives and scrapers, as well as for tips on weapons such as arrows and spear heads. Such tools and weapons can be produced in a remarkably short time by those skilled in the technique. All of this meant that, from the earliest times, obsidian was highly valued in pre-hispanic societies. Control of large obsidian deposits gave a society a significant economic advantage, equivalent to a modern country which possesses large oil deposits within its territory. Like oil, obsidian was produced for trade, as well as for local use. Cantona was ideally placed for trade, since it straddled several ancient trade routes. One extended from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico, while others ran south into the Oaxaca area and north into the Huastec country. Archeologists have found evidence that many of Cantona's structures contained workshops for the production of obsidian objects, much of it intended for export. Large deposits of obsidian and a strategic location were probably the two most important factors in Cantona's rise to power and its longevity as a society.

Part of a residential compound, showing the platforms on which dwellings were erected. This residence, known as Patio #2, is part way up the ridge but below the Acropolis. It was once the home of a large, multi-generational family of perhaps 15-20 people. These were people who, in the social structure of Cantona, fell between the common farmers and obsidian mine workers who lived in the flatlands and the elites who lived on the Acropolis. At Cantona, the higher the geographical location of your home, the higher your social status. The perishable structures which once stood on top of the platforms have long-since vanished. The compound includes areas for sleeping, cooking, and lounging, as well for civic and religious ceremonies. There is a small shrine in one of the structures and another contains a tomb. By 600 BC, the beginning of a period known as Cantona I, development had accelerated and the population had grown to about 12,000 people, concentrated in an area of about 333 hectares (823 acres). Platforms like those above came into use at this time. Centrally controlled grain silos were built to store crop surpluses. Large scale obsidian mining began and state-controlled workshops to shape it into useful objects appeared.

Another development of Cantona I was the pyramid/ball court cluster. Above, you see Ball Court Cluster #6, the oldest of the 12 ball court clusters so far identified at Cantona. The ball court is in the middle-ground. Its playing area was composed of the long rectangular corridor leading toward the pyramid in the background. The sloping walls on either side were also part of the field of play. The pyramid is part of the group of structures that forms Cluster #6. Unlike Cantona, with its 27 ball courts, most pre-hispanic cities had from one to three courts. Although a few had more than that, no other city even approaches Cantona's total. By 50 AD, the end of  the Cantona I era, the city already had 16 courts, with 11 more built in later centuries. The ball game was very important to pre-hispanic cultures. No doubt, it had some utility as simple entertainment, but the game's political and religious functions were of far greater importance. The contests were sometimes used to settle internal political disputes, or even conflicts between city-states. On a religious level, the struggle between the two teams represented the duality of the cosmos. The teams were stand-ins for the ongoing struggle between the forces of light and darkness. The entire affair was very ritualized and often members of one team or the other were sacrificed at the end of a game. Whether it was the winners or the losers is a matter of dispute among archeologists, as are the number of players and the exact rules of the game.

The pyramid at the north end of the ball court faces a sunken patio and an altar. The exact make-up of the 12 identified clusters varies. Among those excavated, each includes a ball court at one end and at least one pyramid at the other, often with an altar at the base of its staircase. Separating the court and pyramid are one or more plazas, sometimes with other platforms or structures on either side of the patios. Each cluster forms a discrete unit. Six of these clusters had been constructed by the end of Cantona I. Not all of the ball courts were functional at the same time. For example, the one in Cluster #6 went out of use long before the city itself was abandoned. While it was in use, it had a drainage system to carry off water, possibly for storage. All during the Cantona I period, population continued to grow, increasing to 20,000 by 450 BC, with further expansion in later centuries.

Cantona II, the Classic Era  

One of Cantona's many walled streets winds through a terraced area leading to the Acropolis. Another striking feature of Cantona is its complex network of paved and walled streets. Most were narrow and hemmed in by thick, high walls on either side. The streets don't allow room for more than two men abreast, This was the result of a deliberate and well-thought-out defensive strategy. The purpose was to control the movements of the population, as well as to defend the city by channeling the attacks of enemy warriors into ambushes. Further, the placement of the elite area atop the steep-sided Acropolis is no coincidence. This location provided protection from both internal unrest and external attack. All this enabled Cantona to survive 1,600 years of internal unrest, invasions by the northern barbarians known as Chichimecs, and wars with rival city-states. The period known as Cantona II (50 AD - 600 AD) corresponds the rise of the Teotihuacán Empire, another serious threat that Cantona managed to survive and, ultimately, to outlive.

Selection of elite goods from the Cantona II era. In the back row are two interesting pots. The one on the right is in the shape of a dancer's foot, with rattles around the ankles. In between the pots is a conch shell, emblematic of Cantona's role as a trading center, since the city was located far from either Coast. The front row contains the same statue pictured at the beginning of this posting. In the middle is a large, polished green stone, a possible import from Guerrero on the Pacific Coast.  To its right is a elegant, heart-shaped bowl or tray. Cantona II was a period of great activity and social complexity. Trade with other city-states, including Teotihuacán, grew dramatically. Obsidian was the city's chief resource for trading and the exploitation of the mines grew in size and efficiency.

Cluster #10 - The Palace. The Palace Cluster includes two pyramids, a ball court, two large sunken plazas, and high status living areas. In the center of the plaza is a small, square, stone altar. Archeologists consider the Palace to be the living quarters of the top echelon. It was also the administrative nerve center and chief civic-ceremonial area for the whole city. All of Cantona's construction was stone-on-stone, using no mortar. This means that the stones had to be cut and fitted with special care for the structures to survive for millennia. This is yet another of the city's unique features. To get a sense of scale, you can see Carole just left of center, sitting by a staircase leading up a set of terraces. Looming in the background is the volcano seen in the second photo of this posting. During Cantona II, the city more than tripled in size 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres). By 400 AD, the population had expanded to 64,000 inhabitants. At least 20 ball courts were in operation and 10 of these were associated with the clusters.

Various jewelry worn by Cantona's elite class. The greenstone necklaces are associated with the military caste. They originated from the Guerrero coast, possibly from the ancient city of Xihuacán. The earrings and pendants, carved from conch shells, came from either the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts. Only people of wealth and power wore such adornments. Also present are cylinders made from puma bones. There were once part of staffs carried by people of authority as symbols of their power,

Cantona III, the Epi-Classic Era

Defaced statue indicates a violent change of regime. The era known as Cantona III (600 AD - 950 AD) began with a violent incident that radically changed the character of the city's leadership. For a thousand years or more, Cantona had been ruled by a priestly caste. Suddenly, the military staged a coup-d'etat and the priests were out. You may recall from my series on Teotihuacán that a similar coup appears to have happened there around 450 AD. Just as had happened in Teotihuacán 150 years before, statues of deities at Cantona were defaced, broken into pieces, and their remains deposited in the ground, along with the staffs of power carried by the priests. The reasons for this regime change are unclear. However, about 100 years before the coup, the climate at Cantona had started to change, leading to a much dryer environment. Perhaps the failure of the priestly class to ensure enough rain for good harvests led to unrest in the population. Modern-day military coups have often occurred during times of economic distress and political turmoil. Another interesting possibility involves the fall of Teotihuacán in 650 AD. Archeologists believe its domination of Mesoamerican trade routes was challenged by rising powers like Cantona, Cacaxtla, and Xochicalco. Perhaps Cantona's warrior caste saw the the priests as standing in the way of an opportunity. If the military men were in charge, they could tighten Cantona's control over the trade routes and squeeze Teotihuacán. Much of pre-hispanic history is like a jigsaw puzzle, showing tantalizing outlines, but with all too many pieces missing.

Pyramid of the East Plaza complex. This pyramid is at the highest point of the Acropolis. A climb to the top provides a stupendous 360 degree view of the surrounding desert. The East Plaza complex was built during the Cantona III phase. It runs on an east-west axis, and includes a ball court, a second pyramid, and a sunken plaza. Around 650 AD (the beginning of the Epi-Classic Era), the the city reached its peak of population (93,000) and physical size (1,453 hectares or 3,590 acres). During this period, the city played an active role in the political and economic competition among Epi-Classic city-states. Cantona's wealth and strategic location for trade made it a target of the jealousy of city-states like Cacaxtla and Xochicalco. However, Cantona's remote location, along the strength of its defenses, helped the desert city outlive these competitors by 150 years, just as it had outlived Teotihuacán.

Elite living area on the Acropolis. The elites lived in walled compounds not unlike those who had a lesser status. However, their homes were on the Acropolis level, not below it, and tend to be larger. The elite compounds are interspersed among the clusters of pyramids and ball courts and around the civic areas. In the photo above you can see the raised platform where a family's house once stood. It stands in front of a flagstone patio where much of the household activity would have taken place. The families living in these compounds would have been those of nobles, top officials, priests, and military leaders.

Cantona's various structures were decorated with stone carvings. Unlike other pre-hispanic cities, Cantona favored carved stone rather than stucco for decorations. The design above shows two intertwined snakes, a common symbolic element. Another difference with other cities is Cantona's asymmetry. Elsewhere, urban design tends to be on a strict north-south-east-west plan, with structures symmetrically facing each other across plazas. Here, the pyramid/ball court clusters face in a variety of directions and the layout of buildings varies around each of the plazas. The reasons why Cantona's design is so different are not clear.

Cantona IV- Decline and abandonment

By the end of Cantona III, in 900 AD, the climate was much drier and warmer. When the drying period began about 500 AD, one result was an increase in Cantona's population. This might, at first, seem surprising. The explanation is that life became increasingly difficult in the outlying rural areas and people sought food and protection in the city. However, this was no short-term drought. The environmental difficulties gradually increased, causing the priestly caste to lose credibility and triggering the military takeover in 600 AD. Cantona's strategic location on the trade routes enabled it to maintain its strength for the next several centuries, but the drying trend continued.

Skull of an elite inhabitant, showing the cranial elongation. Life had become very hard by 900 AD, even for the elites. Water sources were drying up, harvests were failing, and trade was dropping off. Cities like Cacaxtla and Xochicalco were abandoned about this time. Even so, Cantona lasted another 150 years. However, Cantona IV (900 AD - 1050 AD), was a period of steady decline. An indication of this can be seen in how construction practices changed. Houses were no longer built upon stone platforms, but on the bare earth. Cantona's extraordinary lifespan had lasted a millennium and a half, bridging the great gulf of time between the Olmec Era and the early beginnings of the Aztecs. But, by the end of Cantona IV, the city was empty and abandoned.

As I stood on the summit of one of Cantona's pyramids, surveying the vast, volcano-dotted desert, I was struck by the silence of this once proud, rich, and bustling place. The poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley came to mind:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
This concludes the first of several parts on Cantona. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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