Guachimontones, the unusual pre-Hispanic city of western Mexico with conical pyramids

The ruins of the ancient pre-Hispanic cities of Mesoamerica today are not only a valuable source of information about those civilizations but also an invaluable attraction for tourism, the engine of the economy of several countries. But in that dynamic there are some cultures and places that have concentrated attention, leaving others somewhat on the margin. Everyone wants to visit the Mayan and Mexican archeological sites - if they are completed with Teotihuacan - the Totonacs, Purépechas, Zapotecs are in the background ... Well, there is still one more unknown, the one called the Teuchitlán Tradition and its settlement of Guachimontones.

Mural Guachimontones. Photo Jorge Monroy on Vimeo
Mural Guachimontones. Photo Jorge Monroy on Vimeo

In order to analyze it, it is necessary to rest geographically with respect to what is usual in Mexico, where the weight of the Mayan and Mexican heritage always lends attention to the Yucatan and the central valley. Guachimontones is in the state of Jalisco, which is located on the Pacific coast, with capital in Guadalajara and one hour from it. Not even its inclusion by UNESCO in the World Heritage Site in 2004 has served to make us familiar, which, ironically, helps to protect it and facilitate its study to experts.

Much of that ignorance about their existence lies in the fact that, in front of places like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Cobá, Palenque or Tulum (not to mention Mexico City, the old Tenochtitlán), of which in general we have news from the sixteenth century and, in any case, were rediscovered in the nineteenth century, Guachimontones was not found until 1970 (from a documentary review of 1938) and only began to dig from 1996, which is why it has hardly been removed to the light the hundredth part and, consequently, few have heard of him.

As we said before, that has its positive side because the deterioration of the ruins was important, given that, for centuries, the locals pillaged their stones in order to reuse them for their own buildings, as happened with the Egyptian pyramids or many buildings of Ancient Rome during the Middle Ages. That's why Guachimontones was also included in the World Monuments Watch list that WWF (World Monuments Foundation) makes with monuments that are in danger for various reasons.

In fact, there are almost a thousand archaeological sites located in Jalisco and it is estimated that they could be double. And that's only counting the big ones, be they cities or ceremonial centers, not the smaller towns. This reveals the importance of the place and forces us to go a little deeper into the culture that inhabited that environment. What today is the current state was populated, at different times, by Toltecs, huachichiles, caxcanes, sayultecas, tecuexes, cocas. Also by the mentioned Teuchitlán Tradition, that extended until the adjoining Nayarit.

It was previous to many of the reviewed ones, locating its beginning around the IV century a.C, surely related to the predecesora Tradition of the Tombs of Shot, generic name that gives itself to a series of independent towns but with similar cultural identity. However, its period of splendor reached around 200 AD, during the Late Preclassic Period, to disappear in the Classic, around 900 AD. (or the 600, the dates are uncertain), in such an abrupt way that it is considered that it must have been due to some external factor, probably related to the rise of the Tarascan neighbors.

Teuchitlán is a word that comes from the Nahuatl teoztitlán ("a place dedicated to the divine" or "place dedicated to the god Tenoch"), although some people derive it from tepetitlan ("place next to the hills"). Today it gives its name to a modern municipality of just under ten thousand inhabitants, of which Guachimontones is barely a kilometer and a quarter away. Guachimontones (or Huachimontones) is a more recent term that combines the Náhuatl cuauhtli (tree) and chinamitli (wall) with the Spanish mound, although another version replaces the first two with huaxe, a type of tree very abundant in the region.

There is no shortage of authors who disagree, at least partially. Phil Weigand, the late archaeologist who started the excavations in the mid-nineties with his wife Arcelia García (both of the Colegio de Michoacán), believes that, despite the etymology of the name, the language of that town was not Nahuatl origin, preferring rather the totorame (a variety of the Cora uto-Azteca, typical of Nayarit). What does seem is that Guachimontón can be translated as "closed place", alluding to the unusual architectural constructions that characterize the site.

Unusual because they are made up of circular concentric groupings of buildings, each one around a conical stepped pyramid, something unique in the world. To all this the unique funerary structures known as shooting tombs are added, constituting the whole a specific style. It occupies some 90 hectares, which in their heyday should have reached 24,000, although their center should be on the hill Huachimontón, a little further north of the current site.

As in other places, these circular seats were for the exclusive use of the social elite (rulers and priests), since it was a rigidly stratified and decentralized society, as was the case in the rest of Mesoamerica. That the squares were organized around the pyramids indicates that they were ceremonial places in which this structure (that of Circle 2 is 60 meters high and 13 terraced terraces topped by another 4 that represented a calendar) was the temple, being Ehécatl the most important god of his pantheon.

Ehécatl was a divinity associated with the wind, like the Quetzalcoatl (Toltec and Aztec (Edahi for the Otomíes, Kukulkán for the Mayans), with whom he assimilated, was considered one of those responsible for the creation and was associated precisely with the circle because it is infinite (it has no beginning or end), just like the air, which is why often its temples had that plant, which in turn helped its circulation. "One of the manifestations of adoration to Ehécatl was that of the Voladores, in that the priests climbed on top of towering posts to be dropped by a rope attached to their feet, spinning while playing a musical instrument imitating a bird.

It is known that the tradition of the Voladores, which has survived until today in Mexico as a folkloric spectacle, was part of Guachimontones because at the top of the pyramids there are holes of the thickness of those masts where these were inserted. But the pyramid, although conical, is not the only structure that there is with reference to the rest of Mesoamerica; there are also, for example, the ballgame courts, where that curious mixture of sport was developed (one had to try to pass a rubber ball through a stone ring without touching it with the extremities), religious rite (the loser was sacrificed) and political-administrative game (territorial division, signature of agreements, etc).

In Guachimontones is the largest known court, 111 meters long by 24 wide, although there are many more, each with some of the functions explained above. Also, each square was surrounded by a stepped sidewalk. Between this and the center of the square rose up to a dozen stepped platforms, each topped by a residential building made of wood and clay, and in whose underground area were placed funerary crypts. There were ten of these circular complexes plus four other rectangular squares.

Likewise, gardens fed by springs gave the sidewalks the touch of beauty that extended the other vegetable version, the agrarian, formed by the chinampas and neighboring lands of a nearby lake, irrigated by systems similar to the Maya of Calakmul, which gave three annual harvests, in principle enough to feed the 25,000 inhabitants that are calculated to the city during the peak period (about 40,000 if the entire region is counted). Unfortunately, these systems were so good that the peasants of later times reused them, causing irreparable losses in the archaeological record.

Evidently, the local economy extended to other sectors, such as the development of tools and crafts with materials such as obsidian, copper, gold, silver and malachite. And that, in spite of everything, Teuchitlán did not stop being a minor territory dependent on another more important, the lordship of Etzatlán, where lived the colimas or tecos, fierce warriors who later rejected an attempt of Purépecha invasion and several Spanish expeditions until that were conquered by Gonzalo de Sandoval, one of the captains of Hernán Cortés.

The Circle 1, also called The Great Guachi, is not the only remarkable one; the 2, baptized like the Iguana, second in size (105 meters of diameter and 360 of perimeter, with 10 platforms) and separated of the previous one by the long field of the game of ball, also is conserved acceptably. It is interlaced by a common temple with the third, El Azquelite, something smaller. Along with all that, later architecture of the Postclassic appeared, with rectangular rather than circular arrangements, more practical and denotative of the new times (although the temple of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl of Tenochtitlán would also be built circular).

Although the number of tourists approaching Guachimontones is far from the massive influx of Yucatan or Teotihuacán, in 2012 an on-site interpretation center (named after Phil Weigand) was opened to inform both the city and the Tradition Teuchitlán, as well as the state of archaeological excavations. It includes a small museum with recovered pieces and guided tours.

Sources: The civilization Teuchitlán (Phil Weigand and Christopher S. Beekman in La Jornada) / The Old West of Mexico. New Perspectives on the Pre-Hispanic Past (VVAA) / Political Boundaries and Political Structure: The Limits of the Teuchitlan Tradition (Christopher S. Beekman) / Teuchitlan Archaeological Project (Phil Weigand and Efraín Cárdenas) / Prehispanic West México. A Mesoamerican Culture Área (Eduardo Williams in FAMSI, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies) / Wikipedia

The original text of this article was published by the La Brujula Verde at the following address.

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