In this posting, I will show some of the grave goods recovered from four ancient cemeteries: El Embocadero II, Los Coamajales, El Pantano, and Los Tanques. These sites represent some of the earliest examples of the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb Tradition. The first section will focus on sculptures of people and animals. The second will show various ceramic vessels and discuss their possible uses. The final section will display various tools and items of household use. Altogether, these artifacts create a window into the far-distant past. Throughout the posting, I will provide information about the Capacha Culture which produced these artifacts, as well as some insight into the archeological techniques used to interpret these specific finds.
"Excavation of two Middle Formative Cemeteries in the Mascota Valley", and "From the living to the dead: connecting the ceramic figures with the people of the shaft and chamber tomb culture." Most of the information I present here came from these papers. They were invaluable in helping me understand the people who lived in the Mascota Valley 2800 years ago. When my information comes from other sources, I will provide a link. (Photo by Nick Corduan in Pinterest)
Sculptures of people and animals
You may notice some significant differences between these figures and the seated man seen previously. Unlike the relaxed, natural posture of the seated man, the two above are very formal and stylized. These differences in style separate the human figures found in the tombs into two groups. The natural figures tend to be seated, in various relaxed postures. In contrast, the stylized ones all stand erect, with their feet apart, their shoulders slightly hunched, and their hands clasping their stomachs. Why the two groups are so different is something I have yet to determine.
However, the human figures also possess similarities. Figures representing gods are found in both groups. All of the figures, natural or stylized, have narrow, squinting eyes, tiny mouths, and all are nude, or nearly so. In almost every case, gender can be determined by the small, high-set breasts of the females and the substantial genitalia of the males. An exception to this is an androgynous figure, with no overt sexual characteristics. It was found buried with a high status child whose bones were so deteriorated that the child's gender could not be determined.
Xolotl, a dog-god whose role was to guide the dead through the perils of the underworld. While most of the dog sculptures found in the tombs are hollow containers, this one is solid.
The contents of the tombs tell us a good deal about the Capacha Culture as it existed in the Mascota Valley. There was some social differentiation, but nothing like the highly stratified societies found in other areas of Mesoamerica. Social status in the Mascota Valley was fairly fluid and a man could rise above a humble beginning. The Capacha built no great cities, nor did they construct pyramids, temples, or palaces. Village populations in the Mascota Valley ranged in size from 100 to 500 people. The economy was based primarily on the cultivation of corn and beans and the hunting of wild animals, particularly deer and turtles.
Because the Capacha Culture never developed monumental architecture, there is minimal above-ground evidence of their presence. Our understanding of the culture comes overwhelmingly from the contents of the shaft tombs. Unfortunately, a great deal of information has been lost because many tombs have been looted, including some within the four cemeteries of the Mascota Valley. However, other tombs have been discovered intact and, even in the looted areas, some grave goods and bones have been recovered.
Osteoarcheology is the study of ancient skeletons. From their bones we can tell a lot about the physique of the people, their lifestyle, diet, ailments, lifespan, and sometimes the cause of death. Analysis of the teeth can reveal whether they were well-fed or malnourished as children, an indication of the social status of their parents. Teeth can also reveal whether the people lived their lives near where they were buried or came from some distant location. That, in turn, tells us whether the community was isolated or connected into the larger world of its time.
"Colima Dogs" found in shaft tombs near the city of Colima. However, this statue pre-dates them by a thousand years. The much-later Colima Dogs are more finely crafted and do not have anthropomorphic faces.
Los Coamajales cemetery was in use from around 1000 BC to 800 BC. In the Peruvian Andes, at that time, the Chavin Culture (900-200 BC), was also developing. The Chavin liked to snort llipta, a kind of snuff made from lime and ground-up coca leaves. They crafted small snuff containers, similar to the Capacha vessel seen above, to hold the snuff.
The Chavin lived on the slopes of South America's Andes, the natural habitat of the coca plant, and llipta may have been a very distant ancestor of cocaine. Chavin priests or shamans used llipta ritually, in order to put themselves into an hallucinatory state. It is possible that this vessel arrived in the Mascota Valley along the trade routes from Peru, but it is more likely a Capacha copy. In addition to vessels like this, it is likely that coca leaves made the same journey from the Peruvian Andes.
research article about the possibility of alcohol distillation in the pre-hispanic Americas. This is a controversial issue. It has long been believed that pre-hispanic people never developed an alcohol distillation process, although they did ferment agave to produce the mildly alcoholic drink called pulque.
The researchers, who are called "experimental archeologists", used reproductions of Capacha-style pottery of various kinds to see if they could distill alcohol with them. They were careful to use only the techniques and materials that would have been available in western Mexico at that time. These included fermented agave and Capacha-style ceramics, including water-cover pots, crafted by Mexican potters using locally-obtained clay. After much experimentation, the researchers succeeded in producing ethanol containing distillates. While this doesn't conclusively prove the case, it certainly establishes that alcohol distillation was possible at that early time and provides a basis for further research.
mimic the shapes of the light-weight containers used by their wandering predecessors.
found in Chavin Culture sites, once again connecting the Capacha settlements of the Mascota Valley with Northwestern South America.
These containers would have been difficult to make and therefore expensive. It is likely that they would have been the prized possessions of elite figures in the community. Archeologists believe they were not used for household purposes. Instead, their probable use was for religious rituals and funerary rites. Outside of the El Pantano shaft tombs, no bottles of this sort have been found anywhere else in the Mascota Valley. In fact, when similar bottles were discovered in the Chavin context, nearly all came from tombs. Had they been intended for common household use, many would have been found in residential contexts, but almost none were.
There are several reasons for this. Pottery fashioned from clay can be given specialized shapes to suit a wide variety of needs. With natural gourds and squash, you must use what you can find. In addition, ceramic containers hold water well and can be used over a cooking fire. Further, they offer much more protection from rodents and micro-organisms. Since sedentary people are not moving around constantly, the weight of the pots and their relative fragility are of much less concern.
I was also intrigued by the pattern of the holes, which suggest the four Sacred Cardinal Directions. The lip of the pot has been damaged. This may have been from a collapse of the tomb chamber's roof. On the other hand, it might reflect the practice of "killing" a piece of pottery so that it could enter the underworld with its dead owner. In fact, deliberate breakage has occurred with other ceramics found in the cemeteries.
Tools and household items
Obsidian is volcanic glass which is easily chipped into tools or weapons, as well as jewelry. The edge of an obsidian flake can be sharper than a surgical scalpel. Consequently, volcanic glass was an extremely valuable resource to pre-hispanic people. The Mascota Valley has many sites where it can be obtained. In addition to local use, obsidian was an important trade item. Those with ready access could exchange it for valuable goods brought from other areas.
"Atlatl" is a Nahuatl word, from the language of the Aztecs. An atlatl is a device used to propel a dart or short spear with much greater force than can be obtained with the throwing arm alone. It is a Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) technology, dating back at least 17,000 years. To use it, the dart is propelled forward from the atlatl handle, using an overhand motion. To understand this action, go to any large park. There, you will find someone throwing a ball to his dog using a flexible plastic rod about 46cm (18in) long with a cup at the end to hold the ball. This is the same technology used by people 17,000 years ago to propel their darts.
Using stone tools, a groove was cut along one side of the trunk. Fire embers were placed in the groove to slowly burn away the wood of the interior. Using their stone tools, the craftsmen gradually cut away the burned wood until the interior was hollowed out. The prow of this particular boat was originally shaped in the form of an eagle. The dugout was found at Laguna de Juanacatlán, a lake not far from the town of Mascota.
corn was domesticated around 8,700 years ago, the mano and metate became essential for grinding the corn kernels into masa, or dough, from which the first tortillas were made. Metates can still be found in Mexican hardware stores. They are not sold as tourist trinkets, but for use in Mexican kitchens.
sea turtles on the Pacific Coast, only 82km (51mi) away. From its size, this is probably an ancient sea turtle shell.. In addition to consuming the meat, pre-hispanic people used the shell as a percussion musical instrument.
This completes Part 3 of my Mascota series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, please 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