Mesoamerican Religions: Formative Cultures

views updated


Religious practices during Mesoamerica's Preclassic, or Formative, period (1500 bce250 ce) can only be inferred from the archaeological remains. One of the most thoroughly investigated regions is the lacustrine Basin of Mexico in the central highlands, where remains of pottery and figurines provide a yardstick for determining the cultural sequence within the Basin and adjacent regions. Throughout the Preclassic this region witnessed a steady population increase and a locally diverse progression from small farming communities with developing social stratification to large towns with complex political hierarchies. The period is divided in four major phases. Different time spans for the major phases, as well as local subphases, have been proposed by various researchers. These are consolidated in the following chronology: Early Preclassic, 1500800 bce; Middle Pre-classic, 800500 bce; Late Preclassic, 500150 bce; Terminal Preclassic, 150 bce250 ce. (Piña Chan, 1972; Sanders et al., 1979).

Basin of Mexico

During the Early Preclassic, the Ixtapaluca subphase (1400800 bce) in the southern part of the Basin of Mexico contains pottery strongly related to the Olmec style of San Lorenzo on the Gulf Coast. The Olmec tradition is also evident in figurines of great refinement, found in large numbers in the Tlatilco cemeteries, which have since been engulfed by present-day Mexico City. Most of these figurines are female. Some indicate advanced pregnancy, suggestive of a concern with human as well as agricultural fertility. Other figurines show two heads on one body or heads with three eyes and two noses, believed to perhaps represent diviner-healers. In general the Tlatilco figurines, which include both Olmec and local styles, are thought to be merely grave offerings without explicit religious function. Olmec influence in the Basin was only marginal; its impact was stronger in the states of Morelos, Puebla, and Guerrero.

In the Middle Preclassic new hamlets appeared around the system of lakes in the Basin of Mexico (which have now virtually disappeared). At Zacatenco and Ticomán, figurines abound but are cruder. As they were no longer placed in graves but appeared in refuse middens, it is assumed that they served as fetishes in household cults. There are no representations of gods or goddesses that can be recognized as such with reference to the iconographic system prevalent in the Classic and Postclassic periods (2501521 ce). Nor is there definite evidence of civic-ceremonial architecture. It has been argued that a society capable of supporting potters not engaged in full-time food production should also be able to maintain religious practitioners, such as shamans. Certain figurines depicting masked dancers in peculiar costumes have been identified as magicians (shamans) and ballplayers but they are part of the Olmec component, as are the pottery masks (Coe, 1965). Concrete evidence of shamanism, amply demonstrated for North and South America, is lacking for Preclassic Mesoamerica.

In the Late Preclassic, pyramidal mounds of modest proportions occur at some sites in the southern part of the Basin of Mexico and indicate the beginning of ceremonial activities outside the immediate household clusters. This period is notable for a veritable population explosion. Cuicuilco became the dominant political center, with five to ten thousand inhabitants, while Ticomán remained only a minor village. At Cuicuilco several small pyramids were located in the residential zone and may have served the local populace. By 400 bce a large, oval, truncated pyramid of adobe bricks with rough stone facing was built in tiers or stages, each of which contains an altarlike structure. Access was by a ramp facing east, toward the sunrise. The town and the lower parts of the pyramid were covered by a lava flow that, according to latest estimates, occurred around 400 ce, when Cuicuilco had long ceased to be a dominant center (Heizer and Bennyhoff, 1972). However, earlier eruptions from the nearby Xitle volcano, with spectacular displays of fire, smoke, and molten lava, led to the creation of the first deity in Mesoamerica, the "old fire god." He is portrayed in clay and later exclusively in stone sculpture as an old, toothless male with a wrinkled face who bears on his head a large basin for the burning of incense. Known by his Nahuatl (Aztec) name Huehueteotl ("old god"), he became one of the major deities of the Teotihuacán pantheon and, after the Toltec interlude, reappeared in the Aztec pantheon in different guise as Xiuhtecuhtli ("turquoise lord" or "lord of the year"). The burning of incense as an offering for petitioning the gods became general practice throughout Mesoamerica, both in household and in elaborate temple rituals. This is indicated by the great variety and number of ceramic incense burners that have been excavated.

Between 150 and 1 bce, Teotihuacán occupied an area of about six square kilometers and was a highly stratified agrarian community. It developed into an urban center of twenty-five to thirty thousand people in the Tzacualli phase (1150 ce), when the grid system of the town was laid out with a main north-south axis, known as the Street of the Dead (so named by the Spanish, who thought the place a necropolis). On either side of the axis were erected numerous complexes, each with three temple-pyramid and a central courtyard. The monumental Pyramid of the Sun (sixty-three meters high) and the substructure of the Pyramid of the Moon were completed in this phase during a single fifty-year construction episode. (Again, these names were given by the Spanish.) The ceremonial precinct, over four kilometers in length, served civic and religious functions and became a pilgrimage center. Dependence on seasonal rainfall for agriculture gave rise to a cult of a god of rain and lightning, Tlaloc, who became the supreme deity and continued to be one of the major gods in later cultures up to the Spanish conquest (1521). The establishment of a hierarchical priesthood can be inferred from the art and architecture of this period. In the Classic period (250750 ce) the pantheon expanded, and Teotihuacán became the largest city of the New World.

Western Mexico

In Guanajuato, to the northwest of the Basin of Mexico, elaborate pottery and finely modeled figurines of the Chupícuaro tradition (5001 bce) were lavishly used for tomb offerings, and ceramic flutes, whistles, and rattles were interred in children's graves. Ceremonies included the practice of decapitation, related to warfare. This custom, however, did not become widespread until the Middle and Late Classic.

The Preclassic cultures of western Mexico (in the present-day states of Michoacán, Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit) remained outside the Mesoamerican cotradition until about 350 ce when the Teotihuacán and Gulf Coast cultures began to penetrate the area and introduced their culture and ideology.

Most noteworthy among these loosely united chiefdoms was their concern for the dead, as evidenced by the Shaft Tomb Complex (c. 200 bce400/500 ce). Unparalleled in other parts of Mesoamerica, it extends in a great arc from south-central Nayarit through central Jalisco to Colima. The tombs consist of vertical entrance shafts 1.5 to 8 meters deep, with narrow, short tunnels at the end leading to one or more vaults carved in the hard volcanic soil (tepetate ). After interment the shafts were completely filled with rubble and hand-packed dirt; stone slabs prevented the fill from entering the burial chambers. Grave offerings comprise large, hollow ceramic figures in varied local styles, representing men (some of them tomb guards with armor and weapons) and women in different poses and attitudes. The human figures have stylized features and disproportionate bodies but they are very expressive, approaching portraitlike countenances. They reflect the customs, dress, and ornaments of the ancient inhabitants (von Winning, 1974).

Funeral processions and mourning scenes modeled in clay depict rites preceding interment. They show the mourners in orderly arrangement following a catafalque being carried to a house, or groups of mourners surrounding a corpse. Other kinds of grave offerings include complex scenes of villagers and their huts, family gatherings, ball-court scenes, bloodletting and cheek-perforation rituals, and dancers with musicians, all consisting of small, crudely modeled figurines attached to clay slabs. The variety of ceramic house models of one or two stories, some of them multichambered, is interesting inasmuch as no masonry architecture existed in this area. They replicate constructions of wattle daubed with mud, covered with a thatched roof. These were tomb offerings intended as shelters in the afterlife.

Among the smaller, solid figurines are those showing a female strapped to a slab. They appear to represent corpses on biers laid out for funeral rites, ready to be lowered through the shaft into the burial chamber. Similar ceramic "bed figures" occur in coeval contexts in Ecuador, and sporadically in the Old World (von Winning and Hammer, 1972).

A variety of large, hollow animal effigies occur also in the shaft tombs. In Colima dog effigies abound, their well-fed appearance indicates that they had been deliberately fattened to provide food for the departed. (In Aztec times fattened dogs were sold in the market for human consumption.) Skeletons of carefully buried dogs have been found in graves at Tlatilco and Chupícuaro, and it is generally believed that the dogs were supposed to help the souls of the deceased on their paths through the perils of the underworld.

The generally held view that the ceramic sculptures of the Shaft Tomb Complex portray secular subjects indicative of everyday village life has been rejected by Peter T. Furst (1975). Based on ethnographic comparisonsmainly with the beliefs and shamanistic practices among the modern Huichol Indians whose remote ancestors occupied part of the Shaft Tomb zonehe concludes that the art of western Mexico was no less religious than that of the rest of Mesoamerica. However, none of the figures display attributes that clearly identify them as deities or deity impersonators in the manner of other Mesoamerican religion and iconography. Tlaloc and Huehueteotl effigies occur only after the end of the Shaft Tomb period. Lacking temple pyramids and relevant documentary sources, the ceramic sculptures provide the only evidence for a ceremonialism that emphasized a cult of the dead.

Guerrero and the Puebla-Tlaxcala Area

Preclassic ceremonialism was introduced into this area by Olmec intruders. For the period after the decline of Olmec influence (after 800 bce), information on social, political, and religious aspects is lacking. The Mezcala region of Guerrero produced a remarkable number of highly stylized anthropomorphic figures and masks, ranging from the Preclassic Olmecoid to Teotihuacanoid types, but the stylistic sequence is not datable. Among the small stone sculptures are flat models of temple facades with doorways in which a human figure occasionally stands on top of the stairway. However, masonry temples of this type have not been reported from the Mezcala region, and the date of these artifacts is unknown. These temple sculptures probably were made in the Classic period. In the Tehuacán Valley, developments from early village life to urban communities paralleled those in other parts of Mesoamerica. The archaeological remains give no indication of religious activities.

In sum, the Preclassic figurines that appear all over Mexico north of the eighteenth parallel are similar insofar as their features were incised and clay fillets added. Neither these nor the Shaft Tomb figures represent well-defined deities with determinative attributes such as occur in later periods. With the exception of the Olmec intrusive layer and the emergence of the old fire god at Cuicuilco, and the rain god Tlaloc in Teotihuacán, in all other regions the gods, as Ignacio Bernal once said, had not yet been born.

See Also

Olmec Religion.


Coe, Michael D. The Jaguar's Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico. New York, 1965. An explicit exposition of the Olmec art style and its distribution. Numerous good illustrations of pottery vessels, figurines, masks, and other artifacts from the Mexican highlands.

Furst, Peter T. "House of Darkness and House of Light: Sacred Functions of West Mexican Funeral Art." In Death and the Afterlife in Pre-Columbian America: A Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, October 27th, 1973, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 3368. Washington, D.C., 1975. Elaborating his earlier published views that western Mexican funerary art objects have a religious rather than a secular or anecdotal significance, Furst considers the Nayarit house models as houses of the dead, the locus mundi of the soul.

Heizer, Robert F., and James A. Bennyhoff. "Archaeological Excavations at Cuicuilco, Mexico, 1957." In Research Reports, 19551960 Projects, National Geographic Society, edited by Paul H. Oelsen, pp. 93104. Washington, D.C., 1972. A revision of the cultural sequence of the Late and Terminal Preclassic periods in the Valley of Mexico. A preliminary summary of the authors' work appears in their article "Archaeological Investigation of Cuicuilco, Valley of Mexico, 1957," Science 127 (January 1958): 232233.

Piña Chan, Román. Historia, arqueología y arte prehispánico. Mexico City, 1972. Includes the only comprehensive chronological chart of all the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico published so far by a Mexican archaeologist.

Sanders, William T., Jeffrey R. Parsons, and Robert S. Santley. The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization. New York, 1979. An up-to-date synthesis of the sociocultural evolution based primarily on settlement pattern surveys.

von Winning, Hasso. The Shaft Tomb Figures of West Mexico. Los Angeles, 1974. A classification according to thematic significance of the ceramic figures of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit.

von Winning, Hasso, and Olga Hammer. Anecdotal Sculpture of Ancient West Mexico. Los Angeles, 1972. A copiously illustrated and annotated exhibition catalog of ceramic house models and figurine groups from Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit, with two essays on related topics.

Hasso von Winning (1987)