In the sixteenth century, Aztec noblemen and priests told Spanish chronicler Friar Bernardino de Sahagun that seafaring peoples landed long ago on the Gulf Coast shore and migrated inland into the mountains. The Aztecs called one group the Cuexteca, after their leader, Cuextécatl, a fierce warrior and wise man. But at a mountaintop feast, as the gods showed humans how to brew intoxicating pulque, Cuextécatl over-imbibed and flung off his clothes. The gods were so offended that they exiled him and his disgraced people to the sweltering plain.
The Aztecs conquered part of the Huasteca in the mid-1400s; when the Spanish arrived the Cuexteca lived along the lowland riverbanks and went about nearly naked in the tropical heat. Their skin bore decorative scars, tattoos, and piercings. They filed their teeth, deformed their skulls, and wore lip plugs and fan-shaped headdresses of palm leaves and feathers. They were also master stone carvers. At sites in the Huasteca, archaeologists have recovered elegant sandstone statues of men and women standing ramrod straight; some have skeletal death figures on their backs and bear dense tattoos with the same intricate designs that adorn the regions’ colorful ceramics.
The Aztecs scorned the Cuexteca as licentious drunks. Indeed, their art was rich in phallic imagery, including free-standing stone penes five feet tall and statues of priapic men who seed the ground as part of the agricultural cycle. Cuexteca appear in the Aztec Codex Borbonicus, dancing in a ritual honoring the Earth goddess Toci while wearing large erect paper phalli.
The Spanish, who corrupted the pronunciation of the Cuexteca’s name to Huastecs, corralled them into settlements and sent thousands as slaves to Caribbean plantation owners in exchange for cattle. By the late 1800s, the land along the Tampaón River had been divvied up into giant haciendas, whose owners put the local Teenek to work clearing vast tracts of forest for cattle ranches. Soon, the remnants of the ancient city were opened to the sky.
Some archaeologists call Tamtoc “The Black Site,” and, for a time, it did seem cursed. For years the hooves of wandering cattle ground to dust the painted plaster stucco that once covered the platforms. Hunters used the stelae for target practice, and looters had their way with the site. Archaeologists have faced death threats and charges of fraud. French ethnologist Guy Stesser-Péan was stricken with malaria when he dug here in the 1960s. INAH archaeologists Diana Zaragoza and Patricio Davila excavated in the mid-1990s, until the ranch manager suddenly turned hostile and chased them away. Even the elements conspire: The air swarms with rapacious bugs, and summertime temperatures soar past 120 degrees. Says Gustavo Dominguez, INAH's Tamtoc site manager, “You feel like your eyes are going to boil.”
The Mexican government bought much of Tamtoc in 2000, and a new dig began in 2001, which Córdova and Martínez have led since 2008. They have brought in remote sensing specialists, soil experts, botanists, and physical anthropologists, and they use the site as a training ground for the students they teach at the government’s Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
Martínez and Córdova have worked together for years. Martínez is effusive and intense—she is the project’s jack-of-all-trades, wielding a trowel, juggling the budget, and grappling with the powers that be. Córdova is more measured. Deeply contemplative and infinitely patient, he’s the one who explains what’s what to visitors, and he likes to ponder the social processes that repeatedly turned Tamtoc into an urban center. When he looks out from the top of the high mounds, he laments the lost native tropical forest and how sugar cane fields and cattle ranches have ravaged the land.