The land that today is known as Mexico first felt the footsteps of mankind something over twenty thousand years ago. Crossing over the Bering land-bridge which linked northeastern Siberia with Alaska during the depths of the last glacial age—probably beginning about 30,000 B.C.—hardy hunters pursued game animals up along the ice-free corridor of the Yukon valley and down the eastern front of the Rockies into the broad expanses of the tundra-covered Great Plains and western plateaus. For their livelihood they depended upon a diverse fauna of reindeer, bear, giant sloths, horses, camels, and woolly mammoths, many species of which they eventually hunted to extinction. Indeed, one of the earliest evidences of humankind in Mexico comes from the marshy shores of the very lake in whose midst the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán would arise many millennia later. This was the discovery of the skeletal remains of an individual who first was identified as “Tepexpan man”, although more recent examination has disclosed that “he” was in reality a woman. In what appears to have been a tragic misadventure, this Tepexpan damsel was apparently crushed beneath the feet of a raging mastodon that was in turn being killed by a party of spear-throwing hunters some time around 11,000 B.C.
The farther south that the hunting parties trekked, the warmer the climate grew and the richer and more abundant the plant life became. In an environment as topographically diverse and as geologically varied as that of Mexico, they encountered a myriad of local ecologies combining a wide spectrum of elevations, exposures, soil types and climates that were mirrored in a similarly broad range in floras and faunas. As they advanced over the lofty plateaus of the Meseta, the wildly folded and faulted sedimentary ridges of the Sierra Madre Oriental lay to their east, the great basaltic outpourings of the Sierra Madre Occidental formed their western horizon, and ahead of them lay the spectacular row of snow-covered cones which formed the Transverse Volcanic Axis, many of whose peaks reach heights well over 5000 m (16,500 ft) in elevation. Farther yet to the south they encountered the rugged granite-cored massifs of the Sierra Madre del Sur bordering the Pacific, the vast alluvial lowlands of the Gulf coastal plain laced by immense meandering rivers, the pock-marked limestone platform of the Yucatán peninsula jutting out to the northeast, and the jumbled mountains of Chiapas where both limestones and granites collided and the volcanic backbone of Central America took its beginning.
As time went on and the hunters pressed ever southward, their diet increasingly came to embrace edible plants as well. They became in effect “gatherers” or “collectors”, living off of whatever roots, berries, and shoots they could find in addition to whatever wild life they could kill. But, even at this early stage in their economic evolution they could scarcely fail to recognize that “all places were not created equal”, for the bounties of nature were in no way uniformly distributed.
The human settlement of the New World continued through isthmian Central America into the burgeoning expanse of mainland South America, ending only about 7000 B.C. as the most intrepid hunters and gatherers reached “land’s end” in the southern extremities of Patagonia and adjacent Tierra del Fuego. This was a process that had covered not only 30,000 km (20,000 miles) of space but also one that had also consumed 20,000 years, or 700 generations, of time. And during that lengthy interval the climate had warmed dramatically, ocean levels had risen noticeably, and the distribution of vegetative zones had come closer to approximating those that we recognize today.
About the time that the first humans reached the farthest outposts of South America, their relatives who had remained behind in the Amazon basin, in the foothills of the central Andes, and in the mountains of southern Mexico and Guatemala had begun experimenting with modifying the environments of certain of the food plants they had come to favor. Initially, these “modifications” involved little more than plucking away competing, unwanted vegetation or supplying water to a desired plant in time of drought. But, it gradually embraced the practice of consciously selecting and planting seeds in areas that had been specially prepared to receive them. From such humble origins as these evolved the process of plant domestication that we term “agriculture”, although because of the initial garden-like scale on which it was carried out it might more accurately have been termed “horticulture”. Here in the Americas the process could no more be called a “revolution” than it could in the Old World; rather, it was a painfully slow evolution which saw the proportion of domesticated plant food in the people’s diets increase from around 10 percent about 5000 B.C. to just over 35 percent about 1500 B.C. The plants themselves, to be sure, were very different in the two areas. Among the more important crops which were being cultivated in the southern Mexico “hearth” at the dawn of agriculture were squashes, chile peppers, avocados, beans, and amaranth, with maize making its debut as a cultigen sometime around 3000 B.C.
Although maize was eventually to become the premier foodstuff of aboriginal America, its early prospects were singularly unimpressive. Beginning as a wild form of grass whose cob was no bigger than a thumbnail, it appears to have been native to both the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala and the west coast of South America in Peru and Ecuador. Probably sometime before 2000 B.C.—thanks to the human agency of trade—the primitive domesticate from Mexico was crossed with its counterpart in South America. The result was a genetically improved form of corn that was crossed again with an Andean grass known as tripsacum. This second crossing produced a much altered and enlarged ear of corn which, when traded back to Mexico, crossed a third time with a wild grass in the southern highlands known as teosinte. This union led to a further explosive increase in size and generated the wide spectrum of maize types found within this region today. These, in turn, provided the genetic stock from which the modern hybrids familiar in the North American Corn Belt were derived.
Few developments in human economic evolution have had so pronounced a geographic significance as the beginnings of agriculture. Unlike “collecting”, which could be practiced with varying degrees of success in virtually all regions of the world, agriculture was possible in some areas but not in others. Naturally, the specific parameters of such a plant as maize were certainly not understood at the outset, but by trial and error would-be farmers discovered that there were spatial limits to where they could grow their crops of choice. Throughout most of southern Mexico, adequate warmth was scarcely a concern, although once an elevation above 2800 m (9000 ft) was passed, it was clearly too cold for the plant to thrive. While local differences in drainage, exposure, and soil productivity no doubt were observed as well, they were probably not identified as factors of consequence for some time to come.
In the American tropics, the most important limiting factor to maize cultivation was definitely the amount and timing of the moisture supply. Over most of the south and east of Mexico, the trade winds bring in a rather steady flow of precipitation throughout the year, and in these areas farming societies developed early and prospered. By contrast, over the northern and western plateau region, most of which lies in the rain-shadow of the mountain barrier of the Sierra Madre Oriental, precipitation is largely restricted to the summer inflow of monsoonal winds off of the Pacific. Because these winds become less strong and dependable the farther they move from the ocean, the more meager and sporadic was the moisture they yielded, so all too soon the limit of maize cultivation was reached. Indeed, it was this climatic boundary that effectively set the northern limit of the region we have come to know as Mesoamerica—that part of the North American continent which was the home of its high native cultures—for beyond it lay a vast expanse of semi-desert where only a nomadic form of collecting was possible.
The shift to an agricultural economy in those geographic areas of the Americas where such a transition was possible was also accompanied by a change in the spatial patterns of behavior of the peoples involved. Whereas a hunting-and-gathering society was almost of necessity a nomadic one, with its members following the migrations of game or the seasonal variations in the fruiting of plants, a farming society—at least one based on such higher-order plants as maize, beans, and squash—tended to become more geographically fixed. The investment of time and labor in clearing land, planting seeds, weeding, watering, fertilizing, and ultimately harvesting the mature crop meant that agricultural peoples became more settled in place. Moreover, because farming entailed an active “partnership” in the production of food, rather than just a passive collection of whatever bounty nature provided locally, the food supply usually became not only more secure and dependable but also capable of supporting larger numbers of people. Population densities began to increase and, depending on the land use patterns that developed, more and more people tended to live together in small village-like settlements. This inevitably resulted in greater social interaction, with all the positive and negative consequences that such contact brings in its wake.
Where agriculture was practiced under especially favorable conditions—and usually such geographic areas were discovered by accident rather than by conscious design—it was even possible to produce more food than the local inhabitants actually needed at any given time. The significance of being able to produce surplus food can scarcely be overemphasized, for by releasing some workers from the day-to-day chores of tilling the fields, it permitted a diversification and specialization of labor that had never before been possible. In the Old World, such specially favored areas of food production had been found in the so-called exotic river valleys of the Near East, such as the Tigris and Euphrates, as early as 4500 B.C.; in the Nile Valley of Egypt by 4000 B.C.; in the Indus valley of Pakistan by 3500 B.C.; in the valleys of the Amu and Syr Darya in Central Asia by 3000 B.C.; and in the Wei river valley of north China by 2500 B.C. In every instance a desert climate with cloudless skies, twelve hours of daily sunshine, the absence of frost, little or no vegetation cover to clear, and rich alluvial soils coincided with a continuous supply of water from the adjacent river—true “Gardens of Eden” in which only the totally lazy and indifferent could have failed to enjoy the blessings of plenty. Indeed, each of these exotic river valleys was either the cradle of a civilization in its own right or, at least, the beneficiary of a diffusion which first began in Mesopotamia and was later emulated elsewhere under remarkably similar environmental conditions.
In the New World there is good evidence that the model of “hydraulic” civilizations described above was first replicated in the Atacama Desert of Peru where about 40 short exotic rivers cut their way from the Andes to the Pacific. However, in the region that we have called Mesoamerica, no such exotic river valley environment exists, though a somewhat similar lacustrine setting eventually gave rise to the region’s largest metropolis, Teotihuacán, and later to its most sizable heir, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Nevertheless, in the latter region, archaeologists are now agreed that the oldest, or “mother,” culture of the entire region is that of the misnamed “Olmecs,” but who these people really were and where they came from are still matters of some dispute.
Increasingly, however, the evidence seems to be pointing to the region known as Soconusco, which lies in the Pacific piedmont of southernmost Mexico and the adjacent area of Guatemala. It is to this region that many of the earliest hallmarks characteristic of a more advanced indigenous society have been traced, among them a hierarchical political structure; an urban way of life; monumental architecture, a distinctive feature of which was a ritual ball-court; a highly developed religious pantheon; a sophisticated calendrical system coupled with a knowledge of astronomy and mathematics; and the use of a hieroglyphic form of writing. Thus, it is more than likely that the “Olmecs” were in reality the Zoque, a people who inhabited the region of Soconusco at this critical juncture in history—indeed, it may be that the very name of the region itself incorporates evidence of the Zoque presence. (Ironically, “Soconusco” is often translated as “cactus fruit”, a term that seems strangely out of context in a region whose predominant vegetation is rain forest.)
Why Soconusco should have become the cultural “hearth” of civilization in Mesoamerica can probably be explained by the fact that its fortuitous natural endowment had favored the production of a surplus of food even before farming had become a viable option. Backed by the highest volcanoes in all of Central America, Soconusco ranges in climate from tropical super-humid to sub-polar and its native vegetation varies from rain forest to alpine tundra, or páramo. Its brackish mangrove-laced lagoons have a richly diversified fauna of marine life that includes fish, shrimp, lobster, mussels, turtles, and aquatic birds, while roaming through the foothills are deer, tapir, and peccary. Even at a hunting-and-gathering level of subsistence it is likely that little more than 10 to 15 man-days per month were required to feed a relatively dense sedentary population.
When agriculture did begin, the first crop that seems to have been cultivated was manioc, or cassava. A root grown from a shoot, it could be literally be stuck into the ground at any season and harvested whenever a hunter, fisher, or fowler came home empty-handed. Shredded on obsidian-studded boards and pounded into a paste, it was leached of its poisonous juices before being shaped into large tortillas and fried. Although cassava served well to still one’s pangs of hunger, it had neither the nutritive value nor taste of maize, so when the latter crop was introduced about 1500 B.C., it quickly became the preferred staple of the people’s diet. Indeed, it was probably here in Soconusco that this much-hybridized plant first established its “bridge-head” on the North American mainland following its arrival from coastal South America. It would also appear that a distinctive style of ceramics may have accompanied its introduction, for a type of pottery found at Ocós on the coast of Soconusco and dating from the same time period clearly indicates a tie to Ecuador. Indeed, sea borne contacts between South America and Mexico may well have been commonplace by at least 2000 B.C., for numerous artifacts and cultural traits tracing to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have been discovered along the Pacific coast of Mexico as far north as the states of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit. Without a doubt, Soconusco played an active part in these exchanges as well, for it was endowed with a variety of commodities that gave it a special prominence in trade, including cacao, quetzal feathers, and rubber.
The arrival of maize was, to be sure, a major event in its own right. But unlike manioc, maize could not simply be “stuck in the ground” or harvested at any time it suited the farmer. Grown from seed, maize had to be planted according to a timetable that corresponded closely to the arrival of the monsoon rains. Sown too early, the seed would dry out and die before the rains came. Sown too late, the seed would be washed away by the intense downpours before it could take root. It is for this reason, therefore, that the first experimentation with a calendar appears to have begun in the Soconusco region sometime shortly after the arrival of maize, i.e., about the middle of the 14th century B.C.
Interestingly, the first attempt to calibrate the cycle of the seasons was predicated on the interval between zenithal passages of the sun over Soconusco. From the time that the noon-day sun passed over the region on its annual ‘migration’ southward—an event which occurs on August 13 -- until it once more passed overhead on its return northward—on April 30-- a total of 260 days were counted, each of them being assigned a number ranging from 1 to 13 and a name in a sequence of 20. Of course, the next zenithal passage of the sun (again on August 13) took place after an interval of only 105 days, so it was quickly realized that such events did not recur on days with the same numbers and names. Furthermore, whereas calibrating the moment of the sun’s zenithal passage was simple enough (because any upright pillar or post could be used to define the absence of its shadow at noon), there was no easy way to indicate that day in advance. As a result, the Zoque priest who devised the count found that he could not identify the day of the sun’s zenithal passage until after it had happened and then only by pinning down the sun’s position against a more precise “marker” than the zenith. In effect, this meant that not until the sun was setting on the horizon—a point that he could define with an artifact of his own devising, whether it be a simple stela, a structure, or an alignment of some kind—would he have a means of knowing when his count had been completed. Thus, as a result of a lack of knowledge regarding angles as well as of instruments to record them, this first Mesoamerican venture into astronomy laid the ground-work for what was to become a “horizon based” system of observation, for other than the zenith, there were no “fixed” points in the heavens. A further consequence of having to record the day of the sun’s zenithal passage “after the fact” was that it established a very distinctive Mesoamerican mind-set when it came to measuring time: to wit, a day hadn’t really existed until it was over. Only then could the events of that day be firmly identified as having taken place on that day. Of course, the real problem with utilizing the zenithal passages of the sun to calibrate time—original and innovative as the notion was—was that it didn’t really predict the advent of the monsoon rains with sufficient accuracy to help the farmers plant their corn. Nonetheless, this novel 260-day count took so strong a hold on the people’s imaginations and lives that it was adopted as a sacred almanac by every subsequent high culture in Mesoamerica. Indeed, as we will see, it served as the very corner-stone of their developing civilization.
From the internal structure of the sacred almanac it is clear that this initial attempt to calibrate the seasons occurred in the year 1359 B.C. and that the geographic locus of this experiment was the large ceremonial site known as Izapa, situated in the foothills of Soconusco immediately adjacent to the present border of Guatemala. Interestingly, it was in this same locale that an attempt to refine the measurement of time was made some 35 years later—perhaps even by the same priest who had set the sacred almanac in motion. This second calendar defined the year as being 365 days in length, divided into eighteen twenty-day “months” which were followed by five “useless” or “unlucky” days. The beginning of the year was fixed by the rising of the sun over the highest mountain in all of Central America, the volcano Tajumulco (4,220 m or 13,842 ft), as seen from Izapa—in this instance, an “horizon-based” event which takes place on the summer solstice (June 22). Not only did this secular calendar begin on a different date than the sacred almanac, but the counting of its days also took place in a novel manner. Although each “month” consisted of twenty days, the days were numbered 0 through 19, rather than 1 through 20, making this the first time in world history that the concept of zero was used. Of course, to the Zoque priest who created the calendar, zero did not stand for “nothing” but rather for “in progress”, because according to his logic a day couldn’t really be said to “exist” before it was completed. In other words, he conceived of his tally working like an odometer records distance in a car, i.e., a mile isn’t counted until it’s actually been driven!
Perhaps it was the development of a calendar that permitted the Zoque to successfully adapt the cultivation of maize to their monsoon rain-forest environment that occasioned an increase in population, but, whatever it was, within the following century they began to show signs of a vigorous territorial expansion. One prong of their expansion led southward through the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala and into the fringes of what today is El Salvador. Once the heavy forest cover had been stripped from this region of rich volcanic soils, many new ceremonial centers arose in the midst of what soon became densely settled agricultural areas. Another prong of settlement pushed northwestward along the Pacific coastal plain of Mexico, but in this direction the climate rapidly became drier, the soils poorer, and the vegetation scrubbier, so this region held little attraction for them. By the time they reached the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, however, the mountain wall of the Sierra Madre that defined the inland limit of Soconusco ended abruptly and a lowland gap opened invitingly toward the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, even as they roamed through the thorny scrub-forests of Tehuantepec they could see ahead of them rain-heavy clouds pushing in from the sea to the north. Once they had moved across the continental divide (which here reaches scarcely 200 m or 650 ft above sea-level), they found themselves in the largest alluvial lowland in all of Mexico—an expanse of tropical rain forest far vaster than that from which they had come in Soconusco. It was into this lush, green environment—one in which they felt totally at home—that they made their most vigorous and concerted penetration beginning about the year 1300 B.C.
The most dramatic evidence of this Zoque push into the Gulf coastal plain probably comes from the dispersal that took place in the Maya-speaking peoples who previously inhabited the region. As the advance of the Zoques from the south thrust a wedge into their midst, the Maya were driven along the coast both to the east (where the bulk of their people took refuge) and to the northwest (where a smaller fraction of their numbers sought safety). As a result, the latter group—the Huasteca—is the only Maya-speaking people who do not reside in the far south and east of Mexico and who are totally cut off from their linguistic relatives.
It was here in the verdant rain forests of the Gulf coastal plain that the first clues of the mysterious people known as the “Olmecs”, or “the rubber people from the south”, came to light. The mystery began in 1862 when a ten-ton “Colossal Head” carved from basalt and seemingly depicting a personage with Negroid features wearing a helmet was uncovered as the forest was being cleared to make way for a sugar plantation. Soon other “Colossal Heads” and exquisitely carved artifacts of jade began showing up elsewhere throughout the jungle and gradually the outlines of several major ceremonial centers were also laid bare. By the 1960’s the Gulf coastal plain of Mexico had not only been identified by the archaeologists as the “Olmec metropolitan area” but the culture itself was being hailed—by the Mexicans at least—as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. Radio-carbon dating helped to establish that the Olmec ceremonial centers were in existence as much as 1,000 years earlier than the oldest comparable sites of the Maya, and that many of the cultural traits which had long been attributed to the latter were in reality creations of the Olmecs, among them both the calendar and the writing system used to record it.
However, as the “Olmec metropolitan area” is examined more closely, its Zoque underpinnings can be clearly discerned when a comparison is made of the key ceremonial centers of the region in terms of their location in space and their origins in time; indeed, the Zoque expansion into the Gulf coastal plain represents a classic example of geographic diffusion. As the Zoque poured through the Tehuantepec Gap into the valley of the Río Coatzacoalcos, they constructed the first of their major ceremonial centers on the banks of this great river at San Lorenzo about 1200 B.C. Following the “principle” they had learned at Izapa, they were careful to lay out their “city” so it was oriented to the highest mountain within view, in this case to Zempoaltepec (3396 m or 11,138 ft) at the winter solstice sunset. As the Zoque debouched farther out into the coastal plain, they founded their next oldest settlements at La Venta to the east and at Laguna de los Cerros to the west, both around 1000 B.C. Again, they deliberately chose sites for their ceremonial centers so that they were aligned to a solsticial event over the highest mountain that was locally visible, in the case of La Venta to the Volcán San Martin at the summer solstice sunset and at Laguna de los Cerros to the peak of Cerro Santa Martha at the summer solstice sunrise.
If the Zoques had continued their expansion into the lowlands of Tabasco to the east, which is quite likely, it is apparent that any evidence of such settlement in that area has been all but destroyed by the subsequent meanderings of the great Grijalva and Usumacinta rivers. Here, the block of the earth’s crust beneath their common delta is steadily sinking under the ever-accumulating weight of the sediments which the rivers are depositing, so whatever centers of population the Zoques may have founded in Tabasco three millennia ago have long since disappeared into the swamps. Northwestward along the coastal plain, however, the record of their presence is far more complete, and their expansion likewise appears to have been far more rapid. For example, Tres Zapotes was founded about 800 B.C., Cerro de las Mesas probably not much later, and shortly thereafter Olmec settlements show up in central Veracruz state (Remojadas and Zempoala), in the highlands of Puebla (Cholula and Chalcatzingo) and in the Valley of Mexico (Tlatilco and Cuicuilco). And, without exception, the Olmec principle of solsticial orientation was retained in the siting of each of them.
One of the most recently discovered Olmec sites—and also one of the most “surprising”—is Teopantecuanitlán, located in the Balsas river valley of the western Mexican state of Guerrero. Not only did its “offside” geographic location come as something of a shock to archaeologists, being so far removed from the “Olmec metropolitan area”, but its dating was equally as disturbing -- 1000 B.C.! Yet, like all the previously discovered Olmec sites, it too, showed a solsticial orientation to the highest mountain in the surrounding region—in this instance, to Teotepec (3704 m or 12,149 ft), the loftiest peak in the Sierra Madre del Sur, as well as an architectural alignment to the August 13 sunset. Moreover, it likewise appears to have the oldest recognizable numerals used in any Mesoamerican inscription. The fact that Teopantecuanitlán is located in the very heart of the region from which the Olmecs derived their jade no doubt helps to explain why it became such an important outpost at such an early date.
Unlike the initial Zoque expansion across the Tehuantepec Gap, which most likely involved a fairly sizable movement of land-hungry settlers, these further Olmec probes along the Gulf coast and up onto the Meseta were no doubt accomplished by relatively small bands of missionary-warriors—an elite vanguard of a dynamic, cohesive society with its own distinctive and powerful economic, social, and political character. There is no question that Olmec religious beliefs exerted a strong influence on the other peoples and cultures of Mexico because one of their principal deities—the jaguar—came to be represented well beyond the limits of its natural habitat. By the same token, the fact that the Olmec calendar was designed for use in determining the arrival of the life-giving monsoon meant that in all of the cultures where it was adopted the rain-god soon was elevated to one of the highest positions in their respective religious pantheons. And, in the eventuality that the rain-god somehow failed to meet the farmers’ needs, either in terms of timing or adequacy, each of these cultures likewise adopted the well-established Olmec practice of human sacrifice to placate him. Because representations of armed warriors carrying spears and taking prisoners occur in art throughout the sphere of Olmec influence, it is quite apparent that the “gospel” they carried was not accepted peaceably by all of the peoples with whom they came in contact.
Another prong of Olmec expansion can be traced up the valley of the Río Tehuantepec into the highlands of Oaxaca where the principal “converts” were the Zapotecs. Their main ceremonial center, Monte Albán, dates back to at least 600 B.C., but differs from virtually all other such settlements in Mesoamerica in being located at the top of a mountain—a 500 m (1600 ft) eminence which overlooks the present-day city of Oaxaca. Thus, it is clear that the site owes its existence to the earlier Zapotec culture rather than to the Olmecs, for it would have been sheer chance that Monte Albán’s mountain would have happened to line up with another mountain—and specifically the highest within view! -- on any of the key dates of the year. Nevertheless, Olmec influence can no doubt be seen in the structure known as Mound Y, whose large, irregular stonework not only indicates that it was one of the earliest buildings constructed at the site but whose doorway is also squarely oriented toward the sunset position on August 13 -- a date which has no local astronomical significance whatsoever. Even more conclusive a clue, however, is the Zapotec version of the calendar, which only recently has been shown to have begun on August 13 and to have run for 260 days through 13 numerical permutations of 20 day-names and then to have completed the year by repeating the first 105 number- and name-permutations over again. Furthermore, the many calendrical inscriptions at the site all employ the Olmec system of numerical notation, a dot indicating a “one” and a bar indicating a “five”—a fact which led many earlier researchers to assume that the Mesoamerican calendar must have had its birthplace in or near Monte Albán.
Beyond the mountains to the northwest of Monte Albán lived a people who posed a constant threat to the Zapotecs and who ultimately moved in to conquer them. These were the Mixtecs, or so-called “cloud people”, who, because of their geographic location, were not reached by Olmec missionaries and the innovation of the calendar until sometime after the Zapotecs. Indeed, archaeologists date their ceremonial center at Huamelulpan to ca. 300 B.C., and although not much remains of the main pyramid there, its massive foundation stones not only bear carvings of calendrical glyphs in virtually mint condition but they are also squarely oriented to the sunset position on August 13.
Ironically, what was to become the most triumphant breakthrough of the calendar and the religious ideology that embodied it came in the Valley of Mexico, due primarily to a natural catastrophe that occurred there about 200 B.C. The volcano Xitle, located a short distance to the southwest of the ceremonial center of Cuicuilco, began an ominous eruption, sending streams of lava cascading down toward the ancient settlement. The priests and the people had plenty of warning, so there was nothing to do but evacuate, and this they did by rounding the shores of the great Lake of the Moon to the northeast, thereby putting that body of water between themselves and the fiery volcano. Almost immediately they set about laying out an even grander metropolis, conceived and constructed on an immense scale in the relative safety of the broad lake plain and commanding a low pass out of the Valley of Mexico toward the lowlands of the Gulf coast. Not only did it occupy a strategic location for trade but it also controlled a very valuable resource that it could exchange for products from other regions—namely obsidian, or volcanic glass, highly prized for making tools and weapons because of the razor like edges it yielded.
We know the city only by the name the Aztecs called it: Teotihuacán, or “place of the gods”. They gave it this name because of the colossal size of its pyramids, despite the ruined condition in which they found them many centuries later. Even today the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon loom out of the plain like miniature mountains. Thinking these pyramids to be the resting places of gigantic deities, the Aztecs called the broad avenue running down the middle of the site the “Street of the Dead”. What the Aztecs did not know, and what remained to be demonstrated only a quarter-century ago, was that the entire city had been constructed according to a meticulous grid oriented toward the sunset position on August 13 -- once again proving the pervasive role of the sacred calendar which had come into being well over millennium earlier and more than 1000 km (600 mi) away to the south. Almost just as surprising was the discovery, confirmed in 1993, that Teotihuacán, like all Olmec-inspired ceremonial centers, owes its precise geographic location to the fact that it, too, is solsticially oriented. In this instance, however, the mountain in question is not visible, because a low ridge obscures the southeastern horizon. Yet, at the crest of this ridge, precisely on the azimuth of the winter solstice sunrise between Teotihuacán and the highest mountain in Mexico, the Volcán Orizaba, or Citlaltepec (“the mountain of the star”) (5701 m, or 18,700 ft), lie the remains of what was most likely a “relay-station”. From this point, priests atop the Pyramid of the Sun could easily have been alerted—whether by smoke signals or the reflections of a polished hematite mirror—that the sun had once again begun its long-awaited return to the north. What is perhaps the most impressive aspect of this entire scenario is that, even in their terror-stricken flight from Cuicuilco, the Olmec priests dared not defy the age-old practice of aligning their ceremonial centers with the highest of mountains, and in this case they chose the grandest peak of all to mark the location of what was ultimately to become the greatest of all Mesoamerican metropolises.
Perhaps the commotion caused by Xitle’s eruption, the abandonment of Cuicuilco, and the founding of Teotihuacán so preoccupied the priests of the plateau that an innovative refinement in the Olmec calendar that occurred about the same time escaped their notice. Or, it may have been that word of this new development simply never reached the meseta, a “victim” of what the geographer calls “distance-decay”. Or, if it did reach their attention, perhaps they saw no merit in it and rejected it on that account. Whatever the explanation may be, we will, of course, never know, but about the same time as the lava began streaming down over Cuicuilco, a priest somewhere back in either the “Olmec metropolitan area” or in Soconusco itself came up with a truly remarkable idea—one that would leave them forever the poorer for having missed or ignored it.
The innovation consisted of meshing the 260-day sacred almanac with the 365-day secular calendar into what archaeologists have come to call the “Long Count”. Although the idea was simple enough, the ingenuity of it marked a quantum leap in intellectual sophistication because it not only gave the Olmecs a sense of history but it also provided them with a “timetable” for the world’s creation.
With two time-counts running concurrently, it was soon apparent to the priests who oversaw them that their lowest common denominator amounted to 18,980 days, which equates to 73 rounds of the 260-day sacred almanac and to 52 cycles of the 365-day secular calendar. Thus, if the beginning day of the sacred almanac, 1 Imix, had fallen on the beginning day of the secular calendar, 0 Pop, in a given year, then it would take 52 years before the same two day-names and -numbers would again coincide. Small wonder, then, why all Mesoamerican societies came to believe that “history repeats itself” every 52 years.
For most of the peoples to whom the Olmecs bequeathed the calendars, no further sophistication seemed necessary. After all, the average longevity of a typical person in those days was probably not much more than 30 years, so it would have been a rare individual indeed who would have lived to see the same day-names and -numbers recur within his or her lifetime. In fact, in many of the cultures the 52-year period was itself equated with a “lifetime”, whereas a double period of 104 years was referred to as the lifetime of “a very old person.” As a result, in most of the cultures, important events such as births and deaths and accessions to power by key members of the society were seldom specified more closely than to the 52-year period in which they occurred. Thus, if we find glyphs telling of a personage by the name of “1 Reed”—which was an element, for example, in the name of the god-king Quetzalcóatl—we know that the given individual was born on a day with that number and name, but we can’t pinpoint the calendar year in which the event occurred unless we know the specific 52-year cycle during which it took place. This custom of citing dates only in terms of a given 52-year cycle has been called the “Short Count” by archaeologists.
We can only guess at what it was that led to the development of the “Long Count”. Perhaps it was simply the dissatisfaction with a time-reckoning system that had so little concern for history that it couldn’t define the great events of a society closer than to a given 52-year period. Or perhaps it was an attempt to “squeeze” more precision out of the two time-counts, neither of which recorded the celestial cycles with convincing accuracy. Or was it intended to facilitate more sophisticated computations, such as those involved in the prediction of eclipses? Or perhaps it was just some priest’s means of “guesstimating” when the world had begun? After all, these kinds of questions have likewise prompted the various dabblings which have occurred from time to time in Western civilization, not alone with our present Gregorian calendrical system but with the previous Julian system as well.
The first clue as to when the Long Count was devised was found in Maya calendrical glyphs which always mention a day called “4 Ahau 8 Cumku” as the beginning date of their count. Although many researchers have advanced hypotheses as to what the corresponding date must have been according to the Christian calendar, three of them—an American in 1905, a Mexican in 1926, and an Englishman in 1927 -- all produced solutions which came within a day or two of each other and which are more closely in accord with radio-carbon dates and astronomical observations than any of the other proposed correlations. Named for the three independent researchers who worked it out, the Goodman-Martínez-Thompson correlation fixes the beginning date of the Maya Long Count as August 13, 3114 B.C.
The perceptive reader will immediately recognize the key importance of the month and day mentioned in this date, but what of the year? Realizing that it is far too old to record any historical event in Mesoamerica, students of the question quickly concluded that it must be a mythological date of origin, akin to that of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus or to the creation of the earth as defined by Bishop Usher. Subsequent study of the internal structure of the two calendars suggested that they were meshed into the Long Count in the year 236 B.C., a finding that has more recently been confirmed by detailed computer analysis. The great beauty of the Long Count was that it not only gave each and every day its own unique number and name, but it also gave the priests a benchmark against which they could calculate the number of days which had elapsed since “the beginning of time”, or “the creation of the present world”. Naturally, with such a running count underway, it was a relatively simple matter to keep records of the intervals between events like eclipses, thereby allowing the priests to predict their next occurrences, so the Long Count greatly enhanced the accuracy of Maya astronomy as a result. Interestingly, a similar line of thought produced a very similar result and for very similar reasons in Europe nearly 1800 years later when Joseph Scaliger devised the idea of the Julian Day number in 1582 -- which, despite the rather “quaint” premises on which it is based, still remains a useful tool in modern science today.
If the timing of the Long Count’s creation is no longer in doubt, the same cannot be said for the locus of its creation, although it is possible to narrow it down to either the “Olmec metropolitan area” or Soconusco. The rationale for this is that the six oldest and most geographically “fixed” inscriptions bearing Long Count dates all occur along an axis that stretches across the Tehuantepec Gap. Two of the inscription-bearing stelae were found in Guatemalan Soconusco, three others were discovered in the Gulf coastal plain, and one was located in the Grijalva depression of Chiapas state about half way in between. Small as the data sample is, it appears that the birthplace of the Long Count most likely was to be found in the “Olmec metropolitan area” for, ironically, of all the peoples of Mesoamerica, it was only the Maya who ultimately made use of it. And it was they who made the most prodigious achievements in pre-Columbian astronomy and mathematics as a result.