Recently we took a trip with a friend to see the circular pyramids of Los Guachimontones recently. Here is the main one:
The cultural group that made these structures is called the “Teuchitlan tradition,” named for the town that is nearest to the Los Guachimontones site.
The sign below shows a timeline for the site, with monument construction from 350 BCE to 350 CE, and occupation from 500 BCE.
It says something about the neglected state of archeology in Western Mexico that the biggest site, this one, from a culture that lasted over 1000 years, was just discovered in 1970.
Here is a more complete overall Mesoamerican timeline for the last 3500 years. Agriculture started about 7000 years ago. Complex civilizations started to emerge about 3000 years after that. The first were the Olmecs.
I had wanted to visit Los Guachimontones since I first got here. I had heard that they were about the most ancient archeological site in Jalisco. I am very interested in the prehistory of Mexico. From our time in India, I have a pretty good idea about the last 5000 years there, but very little sense of the time in Mexico before the Aztecs. This will be a chance to start to get to know more.
It is about a two-hour drive to the Guachimontones from Ajijic. It is a nice drive, through the Mexican countryside, with mountains as a backdrop, lining our way. The map below shows the route we took.
As we neared the site, we passed over waterways. As I have learned, researching Los Guachimontones, the availability of water was one of the keys to the prehistoric development here.
As we approach the site we drive into the low hills that surround the big lake in this valley, La Vega Lake.
Here’s the lake.
Our first glimpse of the site is of stone walls that support a number of terraces or platforms.
Then we see the main pyramid. This site is more than 2000 years old. It is really my introduction to a period of Mexican prehistory that I know very little of. How exciting!
Surrounding the pyramid are a number of these stone-lined platforms. Our guide tells us that these were used by important people to watch the ceremonies that were done at the pyramid, the ancient “1%,” I guess. After more reading though, I learned that they were really used for temples, at least the platforms that faced the big pyramid.
These platforms are well-made. As I look at the site, I see that many people worked on these to build them. This is a site of great ancient importance, to be worthy of such an effort. It also says something about how rich and productive agriculture was here 2000-3000 years ago, to be able to support this kind of project that takes many workers away from basic farming to build this center. This was a populated area with rich farms. It supported somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 people, a pretty big city for 2000 years ago.
We can see that the ceremonial center is on a low hill, above the lake. The ancients chose a nice location for the spiritual center.
The Mesoamerican Agricultural Calendar
Our guide told us that, for the main pyramid, it is built in two sections, with the lower 12 levels representing the 12 months, and the lunar cycle, and the top four representing the four cardinal directions, their related colors and deities, and with four “Yearbearers” of Mesoamerican calendars. A Yearbearer is one of four gods for whom each year is named. (There is a long explanation, if you are interested, here.) We know about these Yearbearers and the calendar through several Mesoamerican codices (books) which have been recovered and, at least partially, translated, as well as various calendars that have been found.
It is significant that the same basic calendar was used widely in Mesoamerica by a range of different cultures and over a period of at least 2000 years. This says there was probably some set of common beliefs, shared by many different cultures, ideas that help bind people together. Besides the calendar itself, another thing that is shared is an annual cycle of year-beginning festivals based on this calendar. The primary ceremonial time was probably at the Winter Solstice. Then, the new year would begin, followed with twelve 30-day months and a five-day year-ending festival. Days for each of four the Yearbearers, plus the new year day, made up the five extra days needed to fill the 365 day annual solar (and agricultural) calendar.
The four Yearbearers are represented by the top four levels of the main pyramid. A pole at the top comprised the fifth level, five being the number of days needed to fill out the 365 day calendar.
The Mesoamerican Ritual Calendar
The calendar system is more complicated, though. Besides the 365 day “agricultural” calendar, there is a 260 day ritual calendar. Each day has a presiding god. It tells lucky and unlucky days. From Wikipedia on this 260 day calendar:
The exact origin of the 260-day count is not known, but there are several theories. One theory is that the calendar came from mathematical operations based on the numbers thirteen and twenty, which were important numbers to the Maya. The numbers multiplied together equal 260.
Another theory is that the 260-day period came from the length of human pregnancy. This is close to the average number of days between the first missed menstrual period and birth, unlike Naegele’s rule which is 40 weeks (280 days) between the last menstrual period and birth. It is postulated that midwives originally developed the calendar to predict babies’ expected birth dates.
A third theory comes from understanding of astronomy, geography and paleontology. The Mesoamerican calendar probably originated with the Olmecs, and a settlement existed at Izapa, in southeast Chiapas Mexico, before 1200 BCE. There, at a latitude of about 15° N, the Sun passes through zenith twice a year, and there are 260 days between zenithal passages, and gnomons (used generally for observing the path of the Sun and in particular zenithal passages), were found at this and other sites.
The Calendar Round
These two systems come together to create what is called the “Calendar Round.” This is a 52 year cycle. Every 52 years the two calendars come together and they reach a common ending of the year, and will have a common beginning of the new year. This would be the time of the biggest festival. In fact, it is still celebrated around Lake Chapala, 2000 years later. Even today, 2000 years later, the tradition remains. Every 52 years, on New Year’s day, local people will go to special places, like San Juan Cosala, and throw objects into the lake, offerings to the gods. The last night of the old year, they will put out all fires and lights and wait to see if the new year and 52 year cycle will begin. The sunrise brings the new beginning!
The big pyramid is now called “La Iguana pyramid.”
The platforms surrounding the main pyramid were probably for the most important temples or maybe people, such as rulers and head priests. This shows that the society was stratified into sets of different classes.
In the hills behind the main site, there are other mounds where the whole complex spread. They were part of the ancient center, a part that is not restored. This was a major cultural gathering place, in fact the largest such place for the culture. Thousands of people would gather here during big festivals, perhaps as many as 25,000. Where did they all stay? How were they fed? Even if if were ‘just’ 1000, that’s a lot of food, water and sewage.
Here is one of two other pyramids at the site.
This has just four levels. At the top of these were poles. A person, maybe a priest, would "fly" from (or on) the pole at the height of the celebration.
The primary god here was the God of the Wind, called Ehecatl in the Aztec tradition. Since the wind blows from all directions, Ehecatl is associated with all four directions.
The system of gods, including this air (or wind) god, is also shared throughout Mesoamerica. Ehecatl was, to the Aztecs, a form of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent which was worshiped by many Mesoamerican cultures. Like the calendar, this worship was another unifying factor in Mesoamerican cultures, common enough to be found in Western Mexico (also called the Occidente, for the West Mexican Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range) 2000 – 3000 years ago.
The pole at the top of the pyramid was used by a “Bird Man,” “flying” from the pole.
Below is a clay representation of the Ehecatl “Bird man.” (From Misconnect.)
These clay models are one of the primary sources of information about this culture. They left no written records, and they disappeared about 900 AD.
Ehecatl is the god of the wind. Actually, the name Ehecatl is from Aztec roots. We do not know what name was actually used by these people for this god at the Guachimontones site. So much of the Teuchitlan tradition is not known. Perhaps with more archeological work, things will be better known. However, it is known that he was a gentle god, and did not need the rivers of blood of later Aztec gods.
There is a strong Mesoamerican tradition of pole flying, called today The Danza de los Voladores ("Dance of the Flyers"), or Palo Volador ("pole flying"). Below is a photo from "El Tajin Los Voladores" by Frank C. Müller. Pole flying was practiced from northern Mexico to Nicaragua. No one really knows how old this “dance” is.
Under the trees pictured below is an unrecovered platform near the four-level pyramid.
The recovery of this site was largely the responsibility of one man, Phil Weigand and his wife, Acelia García Weigand, over a period of about 40 years. They were led by their study of obsidian blades and discovered Los Guachimontones in 1969. (More about Phil and Acelia later.) Until that time this major culture was unknown.
By about 200 CE the town that grew up near the Guachimontones pyramids, called Teuchitlán, meaning "place dedicated to divinity," was a small city, with at least 25,000 inhabitants. They were fed by produce from hundreds of chinampas, small artificial islands irrigated by canals, dams and floodgates. Canals to distribute water were a big part of the infrastructure that underlay this culture and evidence of the social organization of these people.
The Obsidian Economy
Looking over the site to nearby mountains. The Tequila volcano is in the background.
This volcano was one of the richest Mexican sources for obsidian, and was an important part of the Teuchitlan economy. At this time the economy was booming; they traded in salt from the flats of Sayula, southwest of Lake Chapala, and, most important, they were situated right next to the third largest obsidian deposit in the world. Before metallurgy was developed in Mexico, obsidian was used to make the sharpest cutting blades possible, and items of personal adornment. Altogether the culture controlled more than 1,000 obsidian mines, from which some 14,000 tons of the precious volcanic glass were extracted.
In Teuchitlán’s workshops, skilled craftsmen fashioned the obsidian into knives, spear heads, mirrors of extraordinary quality, unique, ultra-thin earrings, and flat-bladed swords called macahuitls, capable of chopping off an enemy’s leg or a horse’s head with a single blow. They used obsidian, as well as copper, gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. In a society without hard metals, obsidian was a precious material that could be shaped and flaked to make a very thin and sharp blade. (In fact, obsidian scalpels are still used by surgeons today!) Obsidian makes a much finer and sharper blade than conventional steel. Perhaps, though, the decline in the desirability of obsidian with the introduction of metallurgy in Mexico brought about the decline in these people.
West Mexico, especially Michoacán, was an original source of metallurgy about 600 CE, starting with beaten copper items, rings, and lost-wax cast bells. Michoacán was the technological hub, and it spread to the adjacent zones of Guerrero and Jalisco.
In addition to large deposits of obsidian, Lake De Vega added to the richness of the environment.
One part of the later period of the Teuchitlan tradition included canals from the lake to flourishing farm plots.
It must have been a lovely site, with platforms, small buildings, and pyramids set out before the backdrop of mountains and the lake. Many people gathered here for celebrations.
The Ball Game
Between the main and unrestored pyramid was the main ball court, pictured below. This was, in its day, the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, 111 meters long. There are places for fans to sit and watch, and cheer on their favorite player.
The roots of the game are from the Olmecs, 3500 years ago. There are two opponents, each wearing just a thick girdle or yoke, made of heavy cloth and leather. These are traditional waist and hip protectors, no other protective gear is used. They direct the stone ball with their hips. One way we know this today is that broken hip bones are found in most male skeletons that have been found at this site. Other places used a rubber-coated ball, weighing as much as four pounds. But these guys used stones, much heavier than four pounds. Wherever this game was played, it is associated with serious injuries among players.
Archeologists think that at the major celebrations there would be a special match. This was an all-day event, starting at dawn and ending at sundown.
Points were made by getting the ball into a corner in one of the L-shaped legs at each end of the court and immobilizing it. Interestingly, points were lost for errors and the game could end up with a negative score if the players didn’t play impeccably. At the end, as a special "reward," the winner was sacrificed, I guess to Ehecatl. So far this is the only sacrifice I have heard of, so these people were much less bloodthirsty than the Aztecs!
It is also known from archaeological excavations that ball courts were the sites of sumptuous feasts, although whether these were conducted in the context of the ballgame or as another event entirely is not as yet known. My guess is that, of course they happened together, as a part of one of the big annual celebrations done at site like this, all over Mesoamerica.
There is one unrestored pyramid at the site, a large one, shown below.
Now it looks like a big mound with trees growing on top. Maybe someday there will be further work, and more of this site will be restored.
Only in 1999, after intensive mapping and investigation, did Phil Weigand’s team, which by then numbered eight archeologists, begin to excavate and eventually to restore these ruins. Today, most of the mounds in the central area have been cleared of their jungle-like overgrowth and now you can stroll along the smooth, circular walkways surrounding what were once shining, terraced pyramids built of stones cemented together with a special Mesoamerican mortar, which has proven surprisingly resilient and weatherproof. This restoration went on until Phil Weigand’s death in 2011. No further such work has been done since then.
More views of the site. Let your imagination run wild. What was it like then?
View from nearby hill. (From www.mexconnect.com.) It is easier to see the scale of the site from up here. Lake De Vega is visible in the background to the left.
Photograph showing the three pyramids and surrounding platforms. From www.guachimontones.org.
Below, an artist’s rendition of the site, showing the structures built on the platforms. These buildings next to the big pyramid are thought by the Guachimontones archeologists to have been temples. Circles of dancers indicate the scale. From www.vallarta.com.
Here is a map of the site. From guachimontones.org.
A cross-section, showing the shaft tombs under the platforms that surround the main pyramid. From Famsi.org. I will talk more about these shaft tombs later.
This is another view of the Tequila volcano, the source of all the obsidian.
The Guachimontones Interpretive Center
El Centro Interpretativo Guachimontones is a new facility that does a great job of educating visitors.
To give a sense of history, plaques are in the sidewalk as we approach, giving dates for the emergence of various living things.
The first living thing shown are bacteria, which they date as 2.5 billion years ago.
Insects, 360 million years ago.
Amphibians, 300 million years.
Primitive birds, 145 million years.
Flowering plants, 130 million years.
Humans in Jalisco, 25,000 years.
Mexican agriculture, 7000 years.
The Teuchitlán Mural
Stepping inside, we are greeted by a giant curved mural showing scenes from the time of this culture. Photo below from guachimontones.org.
It was painted by a team of four painters led by Guadalajara painter and muralist Jorge Monroy, and finished in 2010. From Mexconnect.com article on Jorge Monray:
The mural covers 125 square meters of wall space and is painted in acrylics. Monroy pointed out that this work is mainly based on imagination. Since documentation, especially graphic documentation, of life in Teuchitlán 2000 years ago is scarce, "This was an exercise by trial and error, with the final decision often in the hands of the archeologists. Creating it called upon every talent I could muster." As an example of this process, Monroy pointed to the image of the Bird Man, flying high above the circular pyramids. "The feathers are authentic in the sense that they come from birds found here in the past, but we don’t know how these were attached to the Bird Man’s body. However, in burials here, archeologists found individuals wearing great numbers of bracelets, each with a small hole in it. We decided to use these to hold the feathers."
The next photos, taken on our visit, are of sections of this mural. It is large, and fills your visual senses.
Here is the flyer, the Bird Man. They show a single flyer suspended on a rope from the top of the pole, not the four that are seen in the Danza de los Voladores as it is performed today.
The image of dancers and acrobats, on the right in the detail shown below, may have been taken from a recovered clay model, probably left in a grave.
Below, a man holding what looks like a flute. This instrument was used in these festivals of the Wind God. They felt that flutes sound like birds, and birds have a special relationship with the Wind God.
Another section of the mural shows the artist’s rendition of the site with its structures, houses and temples, and people celebrating. The form of the people in a circle with their arms interlocked is a common recurring theme in this culture. Are they dancing? I think I like a society that admires dancers more than warriors.
Below, these three men participate in a Funerary Cheek Piercing Rite. That’s right, they would push a pole through their pierced cheeks and join three men together!
The skeletons shown below are laid out as they were found in the graves of the “Shaft Tomb” tradition that was an element in this culture earlier than the circular pyramids, dating back to at least 300 BCE. I will have a photo below of a reconstruction of the first such grave found.
Below is a reconstruction of the first Shaft Tomb that was discovered undisturbed by vandals. These Shaft Tombs had a shaft dug into the ground for a few feet, then opened up to a larger tomb area where the remains and the offerings were laid out. It is these remains and offerings that are depicted on the mural. It was discovered nearby, in Huitzilapa, Jalisco, at the foot of the Tequila Volcano, in 1993, pretty recently. This reconstruction of excavated shaft tombs is housed at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, México City, Image from Wikipedia.
More Funerary Cheek Piercing Rites. You can see the men with the rod pierced through their cheeks.
Another image of a Shaft Tomb grave.
This image with the shoulder pads is based on a small ceramic piece. Maybe this is some kind of warrior image? Or ball player? I would think that the latter is more probable. So far I have not seen warrior figurines here.
The man in the striped shirt is dressed differently from all the others on the mural. I bet he is some kind of priest, in special dress.
I think this must be a priest or a shaman, too.
Mother and child.
Another image of the man with the shoulder pads. His face is painted in this one. He looks like he is doing something with a bowl. Is he eating? Or grinding something? Or making music?
Ball players. The ball is stone. They are shown here as if they hit it with their arms and shoulders, but most of the male skeletons found here have broken hip bones, not shoulders.
Here are two actual pieces found at this site.
Phil and Acelia Weigand
Across from the mural there is an exhibit about this history of the archeology of Los Guachimontones. Everything starts with Phil Weigand.
Phil as a kid was interested in archeology. He signed up as a “gopher” at an archaeological excavation in his own state of Indiana, in the USA. “It was my own servicio social,” he says, “six weeks among the mosquitoes and poison ivy in southern Indiana.” He never graduated from the high school. In his twenties he was bored with life and went to Mexico, first to Zacatecas and then to Chapala, in Jalisco. It was in Chapala that he was introduced to Acelia García in 1958, when Phil was just 21. They were later married.
Acelia must have been interested in archeology, too. During the 1960s and 1970s western Mesoamerica was considered as an area of simple cultures, all defined solely by pottery styles, without social complexity, without monumental architecture, and everything that was significant came from the Toltecs.
In 1962, though, Acelia made a big discovery. It was the first sign that the existing ideas of ancient Western Mexico were wrong. While on vacation in the Tequila Valley near Teuchitlán, at the hot springs of El Rincón, she found several outstanding obsidian blades. She described the event in a film, “Phil Weigand, an Explorer for All Times:”
“The kids were diving near a huge fig tree in a small, natural pool when I saw these shiny pieces of glass under the water. I told them to be careful because there were broken bottles or something down there and they could get cut. However, in those days there were no restaurants or bars around there. So the kids started pulling these shiny things out and they said, ‘No auntie, they’re not bottles, they’re knives!’ Well, all of them were long, sharp, prismatic blades of obsidian and I brought thirteen of them back to our house in Etzatlán. Now at that time, Felipe (Phil) was working in Durango, but when he came back, I showed him these blades: ‘Look what I found,’ I said, but I couldn’t get him to pay any attention to them for seven years. Seven years it took for me to lead him up to the obsidian workshop from which those blades had washed down to the swimming hole!”
The Weigands ended up finding a huge obsidian workshop nearby, where millions of blades and sharp pieces of rock were piled up to three feet deep across two acres at the foot of the extinct Tequila volcano. This workshop was evidence of a developed culture, since you are not going to find such a workshop in some small out-of-the-way place.
So in 1970 the Weigands started what was planned as a one-year project exploring the Tequila Valley. This project ended up lasting for the rest of Phil’s life, 41 years more.
The Weigands started by examining aerial photos of the valley. "We found hundreds of buildings shaped like concentric circles, mostly around the volcano," Phil says. "They were everywhere!" A large area above the town of Teuchitlán, called Guachimontones, was especially interesting. "We finally reached a circular compound whose beauty, symmetry, and monumentality far exceeded the expectations we had formed from the aerial photographs." Later, Weigand recalled the moment: “I stood on the largest pyramid, looked around and thought, ‘This is unexpected.’”
From 1970, the Weigands were investigating, interviewing and registering over 2000 archaeological sites which allowed them to formulate the first hypotheses that western Mexico had been home to an unknown civilization, the Teuchitlán tradition. Intensive excavations and restoration of Los Guachimontones started in 1999.
This complex society, responsible for the area’s shaft tombs, reached its peak between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350, when more than 50,000 people may have lived within 15 miles of the Tequila volcano. At its height, the Teuchitlán tradition was the cultural center of west Mexico, with unique, complex architecture and a trade network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona in the US.
Interestingly, they were not the first Western archeologists to make this discovery. In 1895, the British archaeologist Adela Breton came to the Guadalajara region. His observations and drawings illustrate clay sculptures, high-status burials and the existence of monumental ritual circles near Teuchitlán. However, his notes and articles were forgotten until recently, considered unimportant because scholars already ‘knew’ the prehistory of Western Mexico.
Below is an aerial photo of Guachimontones at the time of its discovery by the Weigands.
From 2013, after extensive restoration.
The Cultural Exhibit
A burial is shown with this model below. It is not the shaft tomb tradition though. I think this is a later one, done during the time of the circular pyramids.
Showing how stone ‘forms’ were used to build the stone and mortar walls with accuracy.
Three Developmental Phases
Three developmental phases from this area are shown, differing in the clay pottery and decoration styles.
The first example below shows the Loza Ahualulco phase and their pottery. Loza means pottery, Ahualulco is a village about 10 km west of Teuchitlán. It was from 200 – 400 CE. The pottery designs are simple, maybe just a colored stripe.
Loza Teuchitlan shows the pottery local to Teuchitlán, (ca. 400-700 CE).
Loza Oconahua burial. Oconahua is a village about 30 km west from Teuchitlán. Their phase was from from 450 to 900 CE. The pottery has pretty elaborate monochrome designs.
Activities Shown in Paintings
Woman making corn tortillas, long a traditional food in Mexico.
Figures in a circle, dancers performing the cadena, or chain dance, like those shown in the ceramic figures from this culture.
Somebody, a king or maybe a high priest, carried on a litter. Obviously a high ranking person.
A view of lakeside, with the unique Mexican water gardens, chinampas, small artificial rectangular islands.
Ceramic Figures from Throughout the Region
Next there is a series of ceramic figures. These are different styles and different cultural groups on all sides of the Teuchitlán’s at roughly the same period as their culture. Each has its own style and look.
Zacatecas, from Zacatecas culture (300 – 600 AD). Zacatecas is north of Jalisco and Teuchitlán.
Lagunilla figurine, from Michoacán, to the northwest of Teuchitlán. From 200 BCE-CE 200.
Ameca-Etzatlan figurine, 200 BCE – 100 CE. From about 30 KM west of Teuchitlán.
Chupicauro was once a source of considerable influence in central Mexico, particularly in ceramic production, encompassing the present Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. The main site is in Guanajuato, east of Teuchitlán. From about 500 BCE – 0 CE)
Colima-Comala figurine, from 200 BCE – 300 CE. From an area south of Teuchitlán, along the Pacific coast.
Colima-Comala dog figurine. This type is very well known and often copied and for sale in shops and by craftsmen.
Lagunilla Belanos figurine.
Clay models, most found as items included in graves, are one of the main sources of information about the Teuchitlán’s.
Clay model of several houses and celebrating people.
Another structure, people upstairs. Is that a person below? Did they make graves in the lower level? Not sure. I have read something that indicates the lower section was somehow for the dead.
A model (behind the reflection on the glass case) showing a flyer on a pole.
Building with lower floor, with a person and a dog. There is a sitting person and dog on the second floor, which is more spacious.
The figure in the center-left is holding a ball. These must be ball players and fans.
Fans watching a ball game. Notice they all wear conical hats.
Pyramid Building Done in Stages
The archeology work shows that these pyramids were not originally built the way we see them today. Instead, this painting shows four times when the pyramid was expanded.
A model of the whole site. It covers several hundreds of acres, and has a few places where circular pyramids were built. Most of the 217 acre site is unrestored.
This map shows how widely the Teuchitlán tradition had spread. They have found over 400 sites in the western Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima.
“Research has shown that the Teuchitlan Tradition was a pioneer in forging a civilized lifestyle in Western Mesoamerica. It probably evolved around 1000 B.C. and achieved an outstanding degree of social organization.”
And to think, 50 years ago this culture was unknown. What will we learn in the next 50 years about the prehistory of Western Mexico? I was surprised to hear that the west somehow had a different past than the rest of Mexico. Maybe this past is why the local Mexicans around Lake Chapala are so friendly. Their history is not one of conquest, unlike the rest of Mexico, rather it is one of pretty peaceful development and coexistence.
For me this visit to Los Guachimontones filled me in on a big part of the ancient history of the region, but I am left with even more questions than when I started. Visit this place, think about the past and let yourself wonder.