The solemn procession winds through the ancient city, past the ceremonial plaza, the towering earthen mounds, and the palace where kings once reigned. In front, two boys carry an arch made of cempasúchiles, the Mexican marigolds known as the Flowers of the Dead, and a man in white swings a censer, sending billows of pungent smoke into the air. Close behind is the council of elders, their conical hats bright with pink and red feathers. Two hundred marchers follow, the women in blinding colors, the men in white pants and shirts.
It is the end of November at Tamtoc, a pre-Hispanic site in northeast Mexico, sixty miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Local Teenek and Nahua Indians are here celebrating Xantolo, when the spirits who rose on the Day of the Dead return to the Underworld, the harvest season ends, and the cycle of life turns anew. The Teenek visit the ancient site to honor their ancestors.
Walking in a place of honor with local dignitaries, draped in cempasúchil garlands, is archaeologist Estela Martínez from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH); on the edge of the procession, snapping photographs, is her co-investigator, Guillermo Córdova. They are the latest archaeologists to investigate the complicated history of Tamtoc, which takes its name from a large hill on the site which in Teenek is called “Place of the Deep Black Water.” Nestled in a bend of the Tampaón River, Tamtoc was the largest of a number of cities that once dotted the Huasteca, a vast region that includes what are now parts of six modern states and stretches from the Gulf of Mexico and across the broad coastal plain into the forested peaks of the Sierra Oriental. Centered around a ceremonial plaza the size of six football fields, Tamtoc featured a ball court, stelae, artificial hills and lagoons, and dozens of ritual and residential platforms. It is flanked by two man-made twelve-story mounds, visible from miles around. At its height 700 years ago, the city had grown to 15,000 people.
The marchers soon reach the showpiece of this 330-acre site, a 2,300-year-old carved stone slab as big as a billboard. Once Tamtoc’s spiritual heart, it represents water, sacrifice, and female fertility. Erected over one of the city’s many springs, the massive slab depicts two decapitated women whose necks jet blood into the hands and navel of a skull-masked priestess. The Teenek chief Flavio Martínez bows toward the slab. For his people, fertility, water, death, and corn are inextricably linked, and he prays for the blessings of Dhipaak, the corn god. As the Teenek light candles for the dead, some begin to dance, circling and stepping to the sacred rhythms of guitars and violins.
Local Teenek buried their dead here until the 1960s. “For us, Tamtoc is the ancestral town of the Teenek culture,” says Chief Martínez, “and we come today to worship our dead who are here and who gave us their wisdom. This is a thousand-year-old culture, and so we come to honor them with music, dancing, and offerings.”
Scholars had long thought that the Teenek, also known as the Huastecs, dominated the region’s culture, and that their arrival was part of a wave of migrations from the south. The Teenek language, which today has some 120,000 speakers, is a form of Mayan, and linguists had dated their arrival to about 3,500 years ago when it was thought that Teenek began to diverge from Mayan.
But a new linguistic analysis of both Teenek and the Mayan language family suggests that the Teenek are latecomers, arriving as recently as a thousand years ago. New excavations have revealed Tamtoc and other Huastec centers were occupied by a series of unrelated cultures. At Tamtoc, one of the few places where archaeology has been done in the Huasteca, Córdova and Martínez are charting a sequence of occupation and sudden abandonment, of possible epidemics and floods, of cultures that worshiped male power and female fertility only to mysteriously disappear. But of the origin and language of the people who built the towering slab, says Córdova, ”we know absolutely nothing.” Some later artifacts even suggest that Tamtoc was, for a time, an outpost of Mississippian culture, perhaps occupied in part by migrants from southeast North America itself. A north-to-south flow of cultural influence would throw a new wrinkle into our understanding of the relationship between North American cultures and Mesoamerica, and is just one of the intriguing puzzles that have emerged from the soil of the Huasteca, a region archaeologists have barely begun to explore.