Tag Archives: archeology

Southwest Road Trip: Center of the Ancient World at Canyon

Chaco Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a remote site operated by the National Park Service in collaboration with the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners Region of New Mexico. The Ancient Puebloans occupied the site from 850 CE to 1250 CE, until a forty-year drought necessitated a gradual migration to the Rio Grande valley where water was more reliable.

The closest lodging is in Bloomfield, NM, about an hour and a half north, although there is camping at the site. Another deterrent, and why there are likely only 60,000 visitors a year here is because 14 miles of the 22 miles off route NM 550 to get there is unpaved. This part of the road is bumpy, winding, filled with pitholes and sinkholes. But, it was definitely worth the zigzagging to get there.

The Ancient Puebloans occupied the three major sites that we visited on this Southwest Road Trip: Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Canyon, plus a fourth site, Casas Grandes, that we did not visit. They built elaborate ceremonial kivas, stone roads that linked these great sites for spiritual journeys, and participated in robust trade of turquoise, shells, pine (piñon) nuts, corn, obsidian, pottery, and woven goods.

This is where we went to view the October 14, 2023, solar eclipse at the crack of dawn.

We returned the next day, not quite as early, to meet up with Gilbert Tsininijinnie, our Diné (pronounced Din-Eh) guide with Navajo Tours USA.

Gilbert shared some of his own personal family history, telling us that he is also part Zia and Jemez, two of New Mexico’s 23 Federally recognized tribes. His Diné (Navajo) antecedents were refugees taken into these two tribes to hide them from being captured and expelled by the U.S. Cavalry. They managed to escape the Long Walk, the expulsion of the Navajo people from their sacred land at Canyon de Chelly. In 1868, when the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland, Gilbert’s people returned as well.

He was extraordinarily knowledgeable about Chaco Canyon history, explaining the architecture and how the buildings were constructed to line up with the cosmology events of moon and sun cycles that illuminate the niches in the ceremonial kivas.

These people were expert astronomers. At the corners of many buildings, there were observation windows for star gazing. They believed that stars have order and earth is chaotic. The stars gave them a compass to bring order to their lives. The buildings are aligned along solar and lunar axises. Niches in the kiva walls were used for offerings and aligned to be illuminated as the sun moved across the space.

The structures and a myriad of kivas were covered by sand for hundreds of years. Only a small part of it has been excavated. The Navajo Nation has told the National Park Service that they do not want any more of the site to be disturbed. We are able to see two stories of construction, but many of the buildings were four stories high. Today, one to two floors are subterranean.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is considered to be the most important ancestral homeland for most of New Mexico’s tribal groups.

Here, we saw very early petroglyphs, innovative building techniques from sandstone chipped from the base of nearby cliffs and held together with mud mortar and sandstone shims, and the rubble of giant boulders where Threatening Rock crashed down from the cliffs and crushed 30 rooms at Pueblo Bonito.

Being here after traveling through Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly gave us a complete, full-circle view of the development of Native America culture, and a deeper respect for the First Peoples who inhabited these lands.

Southwest Road Trip: Ancestral People of Mesa Verde

We commonly know them as Anasazi, a Navajo name that is interpreted as ancient enemy, considered disrespectful by the 26 tribes who descended from these ancient peoples. This includes the Hopi, the Acoma, the peoples of Taos Pueblo, and all who live along the Little Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. These descendants of the people who lived in Mesa Verde for 700 years want the original inhabitants of Mesa Verde, Colorado, be known as the Ancestral Puebloans.

Why did the ancestors abandon the site in 1200 CE? Most experts think it was because of drought and perhaps threats from more aggressive tribal groups. The mesa was no long able to sustain the thousands who now lived there. Only in the last 100 years of their inhabiting Mesa Verde, did the ancient ones build elaborate living structures, kivas, and food storage areas in the cliff crevices along the canyons below the mesa. The most impressive is Cliff Palace.

We know them as cliff dwellers, but for hundreds of years they lived on the mesa plateau, first building round pit houses, shallow dug outs of earth, then constructing more complex, larger quarters with straight walls supported by pine or juniper logs and plastered with adobe mud. The hunter gatherers became sedentary agricultural farmers, growing The Three Sisters — corn, beans, squash.

Corn is as important here as it is in Mexico. Corn was first hybridized from teoscinte down the road from where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, likely as many as 8,000 years ago. The kernels made their way north via trade routes. Native corn is as abundant and important here in the Southwest United States as it is in Mexico. Symbols of rain, fertility, abundance, frogs, snakes, are common to both regions.

Sister Barbara and I were there for two full days at the Far View Lodge operated by a contractor for the National Park Service. We signed up for a private tour and our guide, a retired veterinarian from nearby Cortez, Colorado, gave us a thorough explanation and showed us the important sites during the four-hours we were with him. Both of us have back pain and we decided not to climb up and down steep ladders to get into the magnificent Cliff Palace, which Mesa Verde is known for. We opted for the long view instead.

As the round pit houses were abandoned in favor of more substantial structures, these became ceremonial and religious places that we know today as kivas. The kiva is an essential part of Puebloan culture, and as we see the the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde with their multi-storied, multi-room complex of living and social gathering places, we note how the round kiva structure is incorporated into the architecture. We saw contemporary round houses on Navajo land as we traveled from Mesa Verde to Canyon de Chelly.

The kiva reminds me of the temescal sweat lodges of Oaxaca. In my village, many of the homes have their own temescals. These are square, shallow, womb-like structures that you crawl into on hands-and-knees. A wood fire heats rocks. Water is poured on the rocks to create steam. This is a purification ritual. The kiva is different though similar. It will hold many people who enter it via a ladder from the top, and is used for life-cycle rituals and prayers.

Our guide Marty tells us that the ancients came out of Asia later as the ice age was receding and settled in Arizona and New Mexico. At the height of its civilization, 5,000 people lived here. Extended family, multi-generations called clans, shared one living space. They wove baskets lined with pitch that they used for cooking and storage.

Archeologists have found 1200 alcoves on the cliffs. Sixty of these were inhabited and the rest were used for food storage. The ancients used a sling/spear apparatus called an atlatl (Aztec word), to hunt bear, deer, elk, big horn sheep, mountain lions, lynx, rabbit, squirrels, turkeys — a native to the area.

To stay warm in the cold, snowy winters, the women wove blankets and capes using a cotton, turkey feathers, animal and human hair. They developed the bow and arrow around 850 CE as they created the more elaborate straight-walled houses on the mesa surface.

Kiva construction lines up with the North Star. Inside the kiva is a drum pit, a fire pit, and impressions in the earth to hold round baskets and later clay pots. Drums, plus flutes made from juniper and pinion wood were part of the kiva ceremonies. There is a hole called a Sipapu that symbolizes the creation story. The ancients believed that they emerged through this hole in the earth, coming up through the glaciers, through endless space, into the worlds of ice, water and air, to be greeted by Grandmother Spider Woman.

Upon death, the Ancient Puebloans were buried in the fetal position facing east — Father Sky. And, they were born facing east to accept the blessings of Father Sky. This is a practice that continues today in traditional communities.

When asked by a Hopi elder, why the Ancestral Puebloans left Mesa Verde, his reply was, Because it was time!

Archeological site at Far View reminds me of archeological sites at Yagul, Lambityeco, and Dainzu in the Oaxaca valley, just beginning restoration. I first visited Yagul in 2006, when it looked like this!

We are now in Chinle, Arizona, getting ready to tour Canyon de Chelly, rich in Ancient Puebloan history, and the epicenter of Navajo-Dine culture, where U.S. Army troops starved out the Navajo and forced them into the Long Walk. More to come! We go next to Chaco Canyon, and I’ll be writing about The Last Trading Posts of the Southwest.

Usually Overlooked, Yagul Archeological Site Offers Stunning Vistas

Along the Pan American Highway from Oaxaca City to Mitla and Hierve El Agua, two popular tourist destinations, lies the seldom visited Yagul archeological site. We know that as the taxis, cars, and vans pass, a guide might point to a faint cave painting on the cliff wall as testimony to an ancient Zapotec group that lived here. Don’t blink. You might miss it.

You can see the restoration of this site from the highway. Tucked into the hillside is the outline of a once proud city-state fortress guarding the trade route between Central America and what is now the southwest USA. The ochre colors of the plastered stone walls stand out against the desert landscape and hills beyond. This is not a large site, and it does not have the attraction of neighboring Mitla that boasts extraordinary carvings in ancient stone. It is not as impressive at Monte Alban, the vast city atop the hill outside Oaxaca city, center of Zapotec power noted by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as the most important city-state in Mesoamerica.

We take the Esprit Travel + Tours group there with special guide Eric Ramirez from Zapotrek. We drive on a dirt road to detour the main entrance and arrive at the foot of the cliffs to get a closer view of the glyphs painted on the face of a stone wall. A few years ago, during an earthquake, the wall face sheered off, exposing a painting in what was once inside a cave.

Eric, who grew up in nearby Tlacolula, and whose ancestors have been farming the land for centuries, tells us that the agricultural crop of agave to make mezcal is changing the landscape and the environment. So many growers are now using herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers. This is changing the quality of the soil and prohibits anything else from growing. It is even having an impact on locally grown non-GMO corn. The explosion of the mezcal culture in Oaxaca is having a negative impact on traditional crops — the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash. It used to be that the bean and squash plants would wrap their tendrils around the agave leaves and replenishes the soil with nitrogen.

This is a key reason why so many of us take issue with mezcal tourism, which promotes drinking and overall does not educate visitors about the related environmental impact. I am now meeting the party generation in Oaxaca who fly in for four or five days with little interest in cultural history, archeology or artisan craft. How can we influence this for the better?

An important fact to note: Yagul is the mother source for the hybridization of corn, beans and squash. A World Heritage Site, geneticists have tested seeds found in the caves and determined they are at least 10,000 years old. This site is key to the development and distribution of this essential protein-carbohydrate source of food energy around the world.

This is a photo essay of our experience at Yagul. I hope you will consider making a stop there. I know you will not be disappointed.

Inside the Tomb: San Pablo Villa de Mitla Archeological Site

Some of our fiesta group: Feliz Cumpleaños, Martha

Many visitors make a stop in Mitla as a side trip, along with a whirlwind shopping extravaganza to the Sunday tianguis Tlacolula Market, or a bypass on the way to Santiago Matatlan, the mezcal capital of the world, to imbibe in a tasting.

Culture juxtaposition, Zapotec and Catholic in perspective

For my friend Martha’s BIG birthday celebration, a dozen of us started out with early pre-fiesta festivities on Friday before the big Saturday party. Our destination was an archeological immersion into Mitla, once called Mictlan in Nahuatl, which means place of the dead.

Inside a chamber of the original monastery, a reconstruction

We were led by Eric Ramirez Ramos from Zapotrek. Eric is a very knowledgeable guide who is from Tlacolula and tells all the stories about mysteries and myths in the region that he heard from his grandfathers.

Eric tells us about Zapotec culture at Mitla

The Aztecs named Tlacolula, which means Land of the Twisted Branches, because of the ancient trees here. The Zapotec name for Tlacolula is Guish Baac, that means Old Town. Today, locals from nearby villages still say they are going to Baac, when they travel here, according to Eric. 

Tree with a twisted branch at Mitla archeological site

Not yet restored, fallen lintel

As we travel along the Pan American Highway, that goes from our starting point in Teotitlan del Valle (also an Aztec word), we see pre-Hispanic glyphs at Yagul, the small but important archeological site of Lambiteyco, and hills that look like mounds. Eric points out that when there is a hill covered in cactus, that is usually a sign that a ruin lies underneath. Everywhere there is a cross installed by the Spanish conquerors is a designation that this was an ancient Zapotec ritual site. 

Deep inside the tomb, second patio

Along the highway, just before coming to Mitla, lies the village of Union Zapata. In adjacent caves, fossilized corn was found, proving that maize was domesticated here 7,000 years ago. Squash seeds were dated to 10,000 years ago. I live among ancient agricultural peoples who continue to thrive. 

One arm of the “cross” in the tomb — one of the 4 directions

Detail, end of tomb chamber

At Mitla, we see Zapotec and Mixtec walls of a ceremonial burial site for the priestly class. They are carved with intricate designs, named grecas by archeologist Guillermo de Pie, who thought they looked like the Greek keys.

This tomb carving could be “lightening”

The tombs are open in the patio of the second structure and I decide to climb down the steep steps, then duck under two narrow passageways to get inside. I’m short but it still wasn’t easy! 

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple, traces of cochineal-painted plaster

The tomb is laid out in the shape of the cross, which has a pre-Hispanic meaning for the Four Directions and the Four Elements, meaning the cycle of life and unity. When the Spanish came, this symbol made it easier for evangelization of indigenous people. In Maya territory, the cross is the symbol for the God of Wind, so it was easier there, too. 

Columns atop stairs of first plaza, perhaps roof support

Some of the other symbols carved on the walls of the temples and inside the tombs represent fire, lightening, the serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and water. We learn from Eric, too, that the pre-Hispanic dog Xoloitzcuintle was revered as a sacred animal, god of the underworld. The Xolo’s were put in the tombs to guide the spirits of the dead, the important first step on the journey to the Nine Levels  of the heavens. 

Steep stairs: bow your head in supplication

We ended the day with a tasting of pulque and then mezcal in Matatlan, and then with a fine meal prepared by Traditional Cook (cocinera tradicional) and teacher, Reyna Mendoza. A great way to celebrate your birthday, Martha.  Thank you!

Native landscape, San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Self-portrait at the pulque bar
Traditional Zapotec cook Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, Teotitlan del Valle
Mezcal accompaniment, orange slices and worm salt
REAL tostadas, hot off the comal, crunchy and fresh

Family Visit to Oaxaca: What to Do

While my sister Barbara has been to Oaxaca many times and spent her honeymoon here in the 1980’s, this is my brother Fred’s first visit. They are only here a week. Hardly enough to scratch the surface.

Here we are with mezcalero Oscar Hernandez

But a priority visit is mezcal tasting in Matatlan and one of my favorite palenques is Gracias a Dios. Thank God for mezcal.

Salud. Cheech-bayoh. L’Chayyim.

I’ve known mezcalero Oscar Hernandez since almost the very beginning of the brand. His daughter Emmy runs the retail and tour side now. Over the years they have grown, added on a bottling facility, and they just built a new big pit where they roast and smoke the agave cactus. They export to the USA and internationally, too.

We started tasting a bit after noon — medio dia. Soon, it was time for lunch!

My son Jacob likes their tepeztate and Gin mezcales. He put in an order for my brother to bring a bottle of each back to California.

Me, Emmy and Barbara — un poco borracho!

I also wanted to introduce my Zapotec family to this palenque so we did a road trip to Mitla. It ended up being an all-day event, with an added visit to the archeological site and to meet Epifanio, my favorite dealer of antiquities.

Meet Frijol, the palenque mascot
Street art in Pueblo Magico San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Mitla is a post-classical Zapotec archeological site that came into dominance after the decline of Monte Alban. Many of the buildings’ carved designs are replicated in the rugs woven in Teotitlan del Valle. On the day after Christmas, the site was packed with visitors.

Zapotec temple, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

The admission fee is 75 pesos per person and entry closes at 5 p.m. You need at least an hour to see the primary site, climb down into the tombs and climb up the steep stairways to the ceremonial patios.

Fred did the climb. Barbara and I didn’t.

It’s a good 30 minutes to get to Mitla or Matatlan from Teotitlan del Valle. If you are coming from the city of Oaxaca, plan for at least an hour on the road. Many people stop to look at rugs in Teotitlan del Valle either coming or going. If you are traveling independently (without a tour guide) consider visiting the workshop of Fe y Lola rugs. They are my host family and their work is exceptional.

Mitla (Mitclan in Nahautl) was the burial site for Zapotec royalty and priestly class. A very important precursor to Day of the Dead celebrations.

Have lunch in Mitla at a lovely little comedor, Doña Chica. We did. It is always delicious. Try the mixed grill molcajete and order your tlayuda with chicken instead of tasajo if you are so inclined.