views updated


One of many sites in highland Mexico that flourished between the seventh and tenth centuries ce, Cacaxtla is located approximately eighty miles east of Mexico City in the state of Tlaxcala. It contains some of the best-preserved pre-Columbian murals ever discovered in Mesoamerica. The main mound (el gran basamento), stretching over an area approximately twelve hundred feet long and rising more than eighty feet, was first excavated in 1975. In its heyday this great structure rose in giant horizontal terraces interrupted by massive vertical buttresses of masonry. Stairways and columned buildings had shaded portals facing outward from all sides and at all levels. The buildings show at least eight major stages of construction, each with its own pattern of stucco-covered adobe walls, indicating that the gran basamento was a combination palace and administrative center.

Cacaxtla means "the place of the merchant's backpack" in Nahuatl, and its murals show warrior-traders carrying weapons and standard consumer goods such as obsidian, textiles, and feathers as they traveled among other pre-Columbian groups. It is not definitively known which people built and inhabited this site, but scholars are leaning toward the Olmeca-Xicalanca, an obscure group with possible origins on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Its location in the so-called Teotihuacán Corridor enabled its residents to dominate the traffic between the Gulf Coast and the cities of the Central Valley of Mexico.

The justly famous murals show in impressive detail a combat scene representing a military victory or staged postwar sacrificial ceremony in which jaguar warriors spear unarmed soldiers dressed as birds who writhe hideously at their feet, spreading blood everywhere. Dominating all the murals are Venus symbols, representing the dreaded "wasp star," which, some argue, celestially determined the occurrence of battles. In their totality, the murals depict a vision of the cycle of life.

Archaeologists date the last paintings at Cacaxtla at approximately 790 ce. The decline of Teotihuacán set off a chain reaction of collapse throughout Mesoamerica. This, together with increased military competition from other newly emerging and neighboring city-states, eventually caused residents to abandon the site.

See alsoArt: Pre-Columbian Art of Mesoamerica .


Garcia Cook, Angel, and B. Leonor Merino Carrion. Guia illustrada de Cacaxtla. Tlaxcala: Instıtuto Nacıonal de Antropologıa e Hıstora, Mexıco, 1997.

Lombardo De Ruiz, Sonia, et al. Cacaxtla: El lugar donde muere la lluvia en la tierra. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1986.

Stuart, George. "Cacaxtla." National Geographic 182 (September 1992): 120-136.

                                        George Stuart

                                       Kenneth Hirth