Mesoamerica and the Southwest in Prehistory
By Andrew Stuart
They were more than a thousand miles from the Aztec cities they’d conquered, but when the Spanish arrived in what’s now the Southwest, similarities were what they noticed. Maize farming, painted ceramics, village societies – this was a “new Mexico.”
The connection between the Puebloan world and Mesoamerica is hotly debated in archeology. What does it mean that cacao – chocolate from the tropics – was consumed at Chaco Canyon, in the Four Corners? Or that both the Maya and the Mimbres, of New Mexico, told stories of the “warrior twins,” who journeyed through the underworld and challenged the forces of death?
The U.S.-Mexico border has no bearing on what people were doing here in the past. It does, however, shape the way we understand that history.
In the 1930s, archaeologists working in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, documented evidence of a society – the Hohokam – that as early as 2,000 years ago built villages, farmed corn and painted pottery. This society seemed “out of place” – it didn’t connect with other sites in the United States.
Dr. Randall McGuire is a veteran archeologist of the “Southwest/ Northwest” – the U.S. Southwest and northwestern Mexico.
“A mid-20th century archeologist named Eric Reed once commented that he wished the Gadsden Purchase had never occurred,” McGuire said, “so the Hohokam could have stayed in Mexico where they belong. We’ve made the argument that the Hohokam look so different because they’re really part of a series of cultural traditions that come up the west coast of Mexico.”
Hohokam artifacts – shell jewelry, red-on-buff pottery – stand out here, but they’re strikingly similar to artifacts found far to the south. McGuire argues that connections with West Mexico – including the present-day states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Michoacan – had a sustained impact on life in the Southwest.
Around 900 CE, West Mexican ceramics began to feature symbols previously found in “core Mesoamerica,” around present-day Mexico City. The most prominent of those, McGuire said, was Quetzalcoatl, the feathered or horned serpent.
At the same time, Quetzalcoatl, and other Mesoamerican symbols, began to proliferate in the Southwest. Visitors to Hueco Tanks, near El Paso, see painted images of Quetzalcoatl, and the rain god Tlaloc – deities that were also celebrated at the great pyramids of Teotihuacan, 1,200 miles away.
It wasn’t only ideas and symbols. Around 900 CE, new Mesoamerican goods – many associated with ritual – began to appear in the Southwest. There were copper bells. Scarlet macaws – large and colorful birds, native to the tropics – were imported, and later raised in captivity in the Chihuahuan Desert.
In Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl was associated with elite power. The tradition may have justified ruling and priestly classes in the Southwest, as well.
Around 1200, long-standing boundaries between different Southwestern cultures began to blur. But these diverse ethnic and linguistic groups were united by a shared set of symbols, including Quetzalcoatl, often rendered on multi-colored pottery.
Ancient Southwestern artists may have embraced Mesoamerican ideas and symbols, but the styles in which they executed them were distinct. Quetzalcoatl images here and in Mesoamerica were as different as Byzantine and Celtic crosses.
“So you have a very similar underlying concept,” McGuire said, “but then the expression of it is very different. Mesoamerica and the Southwest are like two languages that have a lot of cognates, but fundamentally different underlying syntaxes and grammars.”
The lived experience of these traditions was also dramatically different. The Hopi and Aztec, for example, shared a belief that humans had a role in maintaining the cosmic order, through austerity and ritual. But the rituals diverged.
“For the Hopi those rituals involved masked dances in the plaza and offerings of corn pollen and offerings of prayer,” McGuire said, “and for the Aztec it involved cutting people’s hearts out, that the cycle of the universe had to be maintained with blood.”
Quetzalcoatl is still an element of Native traditions in the Southwest. But if Quetzalcoatl once justified an elite class, Puebloan peoples took the experience as a cautionary lesson. Puebloan societies are notably egalitarian. Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate observed that, in the Southwestern societies, “they have petty captains,” but “obey them badly.”
The border may define our politics today, but it’s clear that to understand our region’s past, we must look beyond it.
Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.