Xochicalco – Ancient City of Flowers

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, featuring deeply cut relief carvings, sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Cuernavaca, Mexico, had a relatively brief history from 650 AD – 900 AD. The Mayan civilization of that time was in decline experiencing strife and rebellion. Xochicalco was built as a walled, fortified city on the highest mountain overlooking the rich farmland of Mexico’s central valley, suggesting a need to defend itself against warring factions. Cisterns the size of modern swimming pools were built to gather and store rainwater since the city had no permanent water supply. Scholars estimate the population of the city at its peak may have reached 15,000 inhabitants.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

Xochicalco grew rapidly as a cultural, commercial, and religious center. Although not a Mayan city, Xochicalco modeled itself on Mayan ideas of organization and construction. The city was terraced with plazas on different levels that were connected by a complex network of pathways and stairs. The uppermost level was the site of the temple where priests carried out the most important rituals of the day.

The indigenous Nahuatl word Xochicalco translated literally means “in the place of the home of flowers,” most likely a reference to the prolific blooming of wildflowers in November following the region’s rainy season. While research might reveal the actual name of the city as it was known at the time, I have not discovered it.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for spectators.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for large numbers of spectators overlooking the arena.

Games played on the stylized playfields of the day had some similarities to the modern-day games of soccer, basketball, and football. The fields were shaped like a capital letter “I” with carved stone ‘goals’ or hoops on each side. Spanish observers of the games described seven-man teams who wore protective padding on their heads, shoulders, torsos and legs. Players moved a solid ball weighing an estimated eight pounds and 8” in diameter made of vulcanized rubber.* Players were not permitted to use their hands or feet. While scorekeeping remains a mystery, one observer witnessed a player putting the ball through a hoop. He expected the crowd to jump up and cheer. In actuality, the spectators jumped up and ran away while being chased by players on the scoring team. It was later explained the scoring team was allowed to take the possessions of the spectators. Thus, the winners were trying to chase down the wealthiest spectators in an effort to claim their clothing and jewelry as a victory prize.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

Almost all of the structures now visible at Xochicalco have been restored by modern archeologists prior to the 1990’s. The new school of archeological thought has become one of consolidation as opposed to restoration. That is, only enough work is performed at a site to preserve it as it was found, thus keeping everything ‘genuine.’ These academics refer to old school archeologists as ‘pyramidiots,’ a derogatory reference to rebuilding sites according to an academician’s ‘best guess’ as to what structures actually looked like. In defense of the old school, I will point out that the site at Xochicalco would appear today mostly as piles of rubble had there been no restoration projects. You will need to decide for yourself which approach is the most appropriate.

*Note – Ancient Mesoamericans learned to vulcanize rubber over 3,000 years before Charles Goodyear obtained the U.S. patent for the process in 1847.

See more of Xochicalco on this short video:

living in Mexico

The Amazing Maya Nut

Indigenous women sort Maya nuts for processing.

Indigenous women sort Maya nuts for processing.³

The Maya rainforest remains one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, second only to the Amazon rainforest. We tend to think of ancient rainforests as virgin forests, untouched by human hands. It might be more appropriate to think of the Central American rainforest as The Garden of the Maya, because the Mayans found numerous ways to utilize its incredible diversity. Studies have shown that 90% of the plants found in the rainforest are useful to humans, and there is evidence to suggest the Maya nut was an important food source for the Mayans.

The Maya nut tree can grow over 100 feet tall at maturity. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The Maya nut tree can grow over 100 feet tall at maturity.⁴

You may have never heard of the Maya nut. This nut grows on a tree (Brosimum alicastrum) indigenous to central and southern Mexico and Central America. Commonly called ramón or breadnut, the Maya nut is believed to have been a food staple of the Maya civilization dating back thousands of years. Now it is part of a revival effort helping to feed the hungry throughout this region.

Indigenous people in Mexico and Central America roast the nuts and then grind them to varying degrees of coarseness. They mix it with cinnamon to make a healthy tea drink, and children love it for its chocolaty flavor. The tea contains traces of tryptophan, which is great in the evening for helping children relax and get a good night’s sleep.

The Maya nut is a superfood, high in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, potassium, folic acid and vitamins A and B. It is also a good source of complete protein with a chemical structure similar to that of red meat. With additional minerals like iron, it is a healthy nutrient for pregnant women and helps lactating women produce more milk.

Maya nuts are easily harvested as they fall to the ground when mature.

Maya nuts are easily harvested from the ground when mature.⁴

Many indigenous people in Mexico and Central America have barely enough food to avoid chronic hunger. The Maya nut is now being cultivated as a food source that is nutritious and sustainable. There is the temptation to sell Maya nuts to industrialized countries where many people seek its nutritional benefits. However, the profits from sales of the nuts alone are insufficient to replace the food needed to maintain a healthy diet. Efforts are underway to provide refined products like tea and flour for sale to industrialized countries because sales of these items provide significantly higher profits.

Many delicious snacks are prepared from Maya nut flour.³

Fine foods are prepared from Maya nut flour.³

Cecilia Sanchez Garduño, PhD, the featured speaker at a recent meeting of the Newcomers Club of Cuernavaca, is a doctor of botany. At this meeting I was able to taste a sample of a snack cake she shared with us, and it was delicious! It reminded me of gingerbread. Her years of work both with the Maya Nut Institute¹and on her own have benefitted hundreds of rural and indigenous women and helped them form numerous businesses to produce and market Maya nut products and to teach workshops to other women.² Anyone interested in learning more of her work and how to help can contact her via email at sanchez_garduno@yahoo.com.

Children get a healthy snack during their school day.³

Children get a healthy Maya nut-based snack during their school day.³

References
¹ http://mayanutinstitute.org/
² http://mayaforestgardeners.org/forestgardening.php
³ Photo credit: Maya Nut Institute
⁴ Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

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