In Mexico, there are as many places with archaeozoological data as you can imagine and that is why it is worth knowing what this discipline is, which allows us to understand and understand the role that some animals played in the different Mesoamerican societies.
This article aims to show some sites in Mexico that are archaeological excavation zones or areas of denunciation (work carried out by the Directorate of Archaeological Salvage, in response to public complaints addressed to the National Institute of Anthropology and History), in which archaeozoological remains have been found.
Fauna in archaeological zones
There are many sites in which archaeological excavations have uncovered a significant amount of archaeozoological remains, which very often have to do with the fauna that inhabited and interacted with Mesoamerican man. Ruins such as Xcaret (Quintana Roo), Palenque (Chiapas), Teotihuacan (State of Mexico) or Templo Mayor (Mexico City) show important faunal collections that illustrate a lot about the management of animal resources in these sites.
Located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Xcaret was approached for exploration during fieldwork seasons. These excavations made it possible to recover a large amount of malacological material (shells and snails) and skeletal remains of animals, including fragmented or complete bones of iguanas, turtles (marine and land), birds (such as the turkey), rodents (gophers, squirrels, and mice), white-backed skunks, canids (dogs or coyotes), tapirs, deer, and a fragment of a manatee rib. Of the non-American fauna, roosters, pigs, cows, and horses were identified. An important quantity of bones and shells that worked as buttons, needles, awls, earrings, or pendants were also found.
From the archaeological excavations at Palenque, Chiapas, it has been possible to recover a large number of faunal remains, of which four ceramic vessels containing different archaeozoological materials stand out for their peculiarity. The first of these vessels were found on the ceiling of the Foliated Cross, while the rest were recovered from the ceiling of the southwest gallery of the Palace. This material is made up of the full skeleton of a Tecolote of the genus Glaucidium, the ribs, phalanges, claws, and beak of a small bird, the mandibles, left maxilla, and scales of a Lacertilia (lizard), the bones of a small mammal (maybe a mouse), and a lot of freshwater snails.
Located in the center of the Basin of Mexico, Teotihuacan offers, in addition to a wide range of tourist alternatives, an unprecedented cultural attraction of archaeozoological research, since a large number of animal remains and iconographic representations (paintings, clay figurines, and sculptures) have been found there.
The most abundant faunal remains belong to species such as rabbits, hares, deer, pronghorn, dogs, wolves, skunks, gophers, squirrels, various species of rats and field mice, bats, cacomixtles, ducks, herons, moorhens, turkeys, turkeys, pheasants, vultures, rattlesnakes, freshwater turtles, Lacertilia, fish, and marine mollusks. Many of these materials belong to organisms that served as food or were used in ritual practices, but there are also worked bones and shells that were used as tools or ornaments, for example, strikers, needles, awls, pendants, and necklaces.
One of the archaeological sites that have contributed the most fauna to archaeozoological studies is located in the heart of Mexico City. Its malacological collection is extremely important, as is its collection of fish bones (marine and freshwater), reptiles (such as turtles, boas, rattlesnakes, lizards, and iguanas), and birds (turtledoves, pheasants, hawks, eagles, macaws, and small bird species). Mammals include deer, tapirs, pumas, wolves, wild cats, jaguars, dogs, coyotes, rabbits, hares, raccoons, opossums, cacomixtles, bats, and a large number of rodents.
Archaeological studies were carried out in the south of Mexico City, between Tláhuac and Xochimilco, to investigate a small fishing village that developed at the beginning of our era on a small artificial island. This community lived between what were, at that time, the lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco. The remains discovered were very diverse, but those of lake animals predominated: fish, a large number of turtles, ducks, and water hens. Others that also abounded were those of dogs, turkeys, deer, and rabbits.
Some Mexican states in which archaeozoological remains have been reported
Mexico has abundant fauna that is distributed in twenty physiographic zones. Due to this richness, it is materially impossible to carry out any type of archaeological excavation that does not yield archaeozoological remains. This diversity also implies a large number of relationships between man and fauna, a condition that still exists in much of the country.
Some examples of this are the use of iguanas as food in the south and southeast of Mexico; parakeets and songbirds as ornamental animals; of various species of reptiles and amphibians as food in different regions, which are used as raw material for the elaboration of ornaments in other parts or as a base for medicines in others.
Chiapas (Cueva del Tapesco del Diablo)
It was discovered in a canyon of the Sierra de Monterrey, and it contains ceramic materials that date to the classic period (the first half of the first millennium of our era), as well as a magnificent bone specimen belonging to a scarlet macaw (typical of the area) and the remains of the pechicafe grosbeak (which ranges from Baja California to Oaxaca). Of mammals, bones were recovered from a fig bat, forest rabbits, a spiny mouse, a mountain mouse, a rice-eating mouse, a rusty mouse, a bush-tailed peccary, and, finally, a harvest mouse, all of which are widely distributed in the country. It is important to point out that the grosbeak and the rabbits were part of an offering that was found inside a tomb at that time.
Quintana Roo (Punta Pájaros)
Punta Pájaros is located in the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Caribbean Sea; the ceremonial center of Chac Mool, which corresponds culturally to the Mayan area, is located there. At the site, several human burials were discovered, which were accompanied by dogs in a ceremony held at the end of spring. The total number of dogs found was thirty-seven, of which we were able to identify some of the common type or itzcuintlis, others with flat faces (called malix and considered common dogs of the region), and Xoloitzcuintles (hairless dogs). In addition, the discovery of snails, shells, and bone remains of birds, as well as a deformed raccoon, was reported.
Veracruz (Tres Zapotes)
Tres Zapotes is located in the municipality of Santiago, Tuxtla, Veracruz. In this place, the remains of three species of mammals and a bird were recovered; of the former, we can mention a young spider monkey and also a howler monkey (saraguato). The evident malformation of the long bones suggested that these animals were subjected to some type of captivity.
In the archaeological work at Comalcalco, in the northern plaza, several truncated cone-shaped vessels were found, which were called "urns", made of fine clay and placed upside down on a "brickwork". Three of them contained in their interior biological material such as, for example, four rectangular pieces of marine gastropod shell with perforations in their ends, nine fragments of manta ray spine, spine, and vertebra of a bony fish (Osteichthyes); turtle rib plates; crab archipod (arm); bone materials corresponding to at least three tlacuaches; a large number of carpal bones (hands) and tarsal bones (feet) of white-tailed deer, some of them worked. It is important to point out that several of these elements were part of ceremonial activity.
The material recovered was extracted from a residential area, a tezacathachco (a ball game building), and the "El Coltzi" cave. Bones of white-tailed deer, canids, frogs, or toads, as well as a land snail of the genus Oleacina sp. (very common in this area), were found. It is important to point out that the so-called "Structure 2" was associated with a burial in which a dog, the remains of a deer, and an unidentified bird were found. On the other hand, in the "El Coltzi" cave, the bones of an anseriform bird (a duck, goose, or swan) were recovered, most of which take Mexican territory as a place to spend the winter.
Aguamilpa is located in the central portion of the state of Nayarit, in the municipalities of El Nayar, La Yesca, Santa María del Oro, and Tepic. This physiographic province of the Sierra Madre Oriental is characterized by rugged topography with high plateaus and canyons formed by the Santiago and Huaynamota rivers. The site recovered tlacuache remains a complete bat skeleton, a badger skeleton, a pair of peccary skulls, deer bones and antlers, a vertebra and a rattlesnake rattle of the same name, several canid bone remains, a large number of flat and tubular beads, bracelets, pendants, and fragments of lamellibranch (clam) and gastropod (snail) shells.
Baja California Sur (La Costa)
Numerous archaeological sites in the country have reported the presence of malacological remains, which indicates that mollusks were an important natural resource for Mesoamerican peoples, so much so that they even incorporated these animals in tombs, monuments, or teocallis. Shells, snails, and fragments of utensils and ornamental objects made from the hard structure of the mollusk have been recovered from the excavations.
These were even used as currency, as elements of barter or tribute. The use of mollusks as food should not be overlooked; such is the case of Pinctada mazatlanica (mother-of-pearl shell), which perfectly met the nutritional requirements of the locals of the Californian coast. They also obtained pearls from it, which were and are highly valued.
Quitovac was approached in two areas of exploration work; one of them was called "Quitovac X" and the second "Cueva de las volutas" (Cave of the Volutes). It is from this latter source that the greatest amount of bone material was found.
The archaeofauna discovered—primarily turtles, birds, and mammals—was the result of intense human activity, as evidenced by a large number of shells and bones used to make ornaments after the animal meat was consumed.
Among the fauna found were turtles, birds, some fish, lizards, rattlesnakes, rabbits, rodents, canids, and some artiodactyls, including the peccary. It is important to point out that in Quitovac, the presence of a gastropod (Tripsycha triptych) is reported as part of an offering.
Guanajuato (Presas “La Gavia” y “La Purísima”)
The archaeozoological material from the state of Guanajuato was found in a deplorable state of preservation and is very heterogeneous. Even so, bones belonging to individuals of the Leporidae family and a small unidentified bird (most probably from the region) were recognized. In one of the excavated layers, a shell fragment of a freshwater mollusk was found.
In another area of the dam, bone remains of a medium-sized carnivore were reported, perhaps a juvenile individual of Canis sp. (dog, coyote, or wolf), which were found in association with a pre-Hispanic wall and earthen floor, which helps to conclude that the canid found was a native "domestic dog" or itzcuintle.
Michoacán (Cuenca lacustre de Zacapu)
In the Lomas de la Cuenca de Zacapu, Michoacán, in Loma Alta, a large number of bone and shell fragments were found, as well as complete pieces. A freshwater clam (Andonta sp.) stands out. Most of the bone remains and shell fragments come from the fill of the burial area and could not be identified due to their poor preservation.
Others, less destroyed, were classified as belonging to frogs, turtles, snakes, ducks, gophers, squirrels, mice, rabbits, dogs, weasels, deer, and some freshwater fish. On the other hand, the Guadalupe complex (Mich. 215) provided animal bones found in a ritual, non-domestic context, and here fish, amphibians, chelonians, ducks, canids, an opossum, and a large number of rodents, as well as non-American fauna such as bovines and equines, stand out.
The construction of an irrigation canal in Ajacuba destroyed thirteen archaeological sites before being reported to the then-Subdirectorate of Archaeological Salvage. In that area, despite being highly disturbed by looting and vandalism, evidence of settlements from the post-classic to colonial periods has been found, in which a total of 10,299 bone and malacological elements were analyzed. Of the former, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals were identified, while of the latter, a large number of mollusks were recognized.
worked, cooked, and boiled bones were found. Of the American fauna, we can mention pheasants, turkeys, owls, gray cranes, turtledoves, ducks, turtles, dogs, deer, peccaries, armadillos, rabbits, hares, gophers, squirrels, and mice, without forgetting the fish, frogs, and toads. Non-American fauna included roosters, hens, domestic cats, horses, donkeys, pigs, cattle, and sheep.
México Distrito Federal (Cerro de la Estrella)
Located in the capital of the country, in the political delegation of Iztapalapa, the Cerro de la Estrella was excavated at the beginning of the foundation works of the shelter of the Department of the Federal District. The excavation yielded dental pieces of a canid, incisors, and bones of gourds, various bone units of unidentified mammals, teeth of rabbits and hares, fragments of the jaw of a white-tailed deer, bones of at least five mice of the genus Peromyscus, some squirrels, toads (Bufo sp.) and salamander (Ambystoma sp.), marine and freshwater fish, a large amount of worked bones (most of them as awls), as well as non-American fauna such as roosters, pigs, and cows.
Human sites where archaeozoological remains have been found in Mexico
We have already mentioned that archaeozoological remains are not found exclusively in certain archaeological zones. It should not be thought that animal remains can only be found in certain places, as this is a serious mistake. Findings can be made in many different places. This happened, for example, during the construction of the Bancomer building (in Coyoacán, D.F.), line 9 of the Metro public transportation system (S.T.C.), the Metropolitano line B, and the introduction of the Gulf Coast of Mexico gas pipeline.
Bancomer Rescue (Coyoacán D.F.)
During the foundation works of the Bancomer building in Coyoacán, Mexico City, archaeological materials were recovered that were in a deplorable state of preservation. Some were identified by evidence that they had been cremated; others were worked; some were found in human burials (adult or child), sometimes on a floor or a wall as part of offerings. The remains were divided into two groups: those belonging to animals introduced by the Spaniards, that is, non-American fauna, and native or American material.
Of the former, bones of horses, cattle, chickens, domestic cats, pigs, sheep, and goats were recovered, while bones of rodents (mice, squirrels, and gophers), lagomorphs (rabbits and hares), canids (dogs, coyotes, and wolves), Anatidae (ducks, swans, or geese), and deer, as well as toads (Bufo sp.) and turtles (Chrysemys sp.) and It is important to note that the rescue also yielded a large number of bones and shells, mostly as awls or ornaments.
Rescue on Line 9 (Mexico City Subway Collective Transportation System)
From the sections Cd. Deportiva-Puebla, Troncoso-Cd. Deportiva, La Viga-Morelos, and Mazatlán-Chabacano, 1,609 bone elements were recovered and studied, mostly belonging to fauna introduced by Spanish human groups after the conquest of the Mexica Empire. The non-American fauna included poultry (roosters and hens), cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, mules, and pigs. Guajolotes, dogs, an almost complete skeleton of a duck (Aythya sp.), and numerous rodents and fish were identified among the American animals.
The monolith known as Coyolxauhqui, in the ceremonial center of the Templo Mayor, stands out for the fauna found, was denounced by electrical workers, and was attended by the then Office of Archaeological Salvage. This monolith was found at the foot of the Great Temple, on the stairway leading to the shrine dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (the god of war). It was surrounded by a series of wells or boxes that were identified as CISTAS 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
A complete skeleton of an eagle, a skull and skin of a crocodile, as well as a complete skeleton of a large canid (possibly a wolf), shells, and freshwater and marine snails were discovered in the first, which is the most important archaeozoological site due to its faunal content.
Gas pipeline rescue (Gulf Coast of Mexico; from Monterrey to Chiapas)
The archaeological remains obtained during the laying of the Gulf Coast gas pipeline, sections A, B, and C, were 2,756 elements and of these, we were able to identify 1,047 pelecypods (mollusks with a compressed body inside their two-part shell or valves) and 729 fragments of gastropods (mollusks with a well-developed shell) while the rest comprised crabs of the genera Mennipe and Callinectes sp. and vertebrates such as fish, freshwater and marine turtles, turkeys, ducks, some other unidentified birds and mammals such as mice, gophers, squirrels, rabbits, hares, dogs, some other type of canids, deer, peccaries and unidentified mammals of American origin; while the non-American fauna was represented by horses, cattle, pigs and poultry. It is important to point out that several of the shells were modified, carved, or polished, without forgetting the bones worked in the form of punches or ornaments.
As already mentioned, the collection of archaeozoological materials is not exclusive to the work carried out in archaeological sites but also occurs in the realization of infrastructure works such as the introduction of wiring (telephone or electricity, for example), drainage, drinking water, gas pipelines, the foundations of buildings, restaurants, stores, schools, parking lots, the opening or expansion of roads, or tourist complexes, among others.
It is important to point out that the different Mesoamerican cultures spread throughout the length and breadth of the country, always leaving some record of their presence and, consequently, of the fauna associated with man.
The archaeozoological study in Mexico is in its initial phase and is not always contemplated in the study plans of the archaeology or biology degree programs, resulting in an evident lack of knowledge of the archaeozoological study in the country.
It is increasingly urgent for Mexicans to learn about this discipline to recover the data contained in the remains, which allows us to reconstruct the enormous and important history of the relationship that has existed between fauna and the man who has inhabited this territory for many millennia.
Archaeozoology is currently done in three places in the country: the Biology Section of the Archaeological Salvage Directorate of INAH, the Paleozoology Laboratory of the Subdirection of Laboratories and Academic Support, also of INAH, and the Paleozoology Laboratory of the Institute of Anthropological Research of UNAM.
By Bernardo Rodríguez Galicia, Source: Correo del Maestro. No. 41, pp. 20-39.
ARROYO Cabales J. and Polaco, Oscar J. Homage to Professor Ticul Alvarez. Scientific Collection; National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Mexico City, 1997. 391 pp.
GARCÍA Cook A. and Arana, M. Raúl. Archaeological rescue of the Coyolxauhqui monolith. Preliminary report, Dirección de Salvamento Arqueológico (INAH) México, D.F, 1978. 94 pp.
POLACO Oscar J. The fauna of the Templo Mayor. Colección Divulgación; Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). Mexico, D.F, 1991.263 pp.