Tom

Gidwitz

Tamtoc - Page 4

Tamtoc lay dormant for nearly a millennium, until new arrivals took up residence between A.D. 500–900, Córdova and Martínez say. But who they were, or where they came from, remains a mystery. They shifted the city’s heart eastward from the spring to a plaza surrounded by round and rectangular platforms up to 26 feet high that were plastered in stucco, intricately painted, and topped with thatched-roof houses and temples.

In the 1960s, Stresser-Péan excavated skeletons and offerings buried in the city’s new center. The skeletons were poorly preserved, and buried with seashells, ceramics, and projectile points. He thought the bones in the platforms were offerings and those in front of the structures belonged to elite graves. 

During this period the spring apparently still retained its links to the concept of feminine fertility. Córdova and Martínez found one skeleton buried beneath a structure there, near two small ovens used perhaps for cooking ceremonial food. She was a high-status woman with an intentionally deformed skull and filed teeth, forty-five years old, at a time when few reached thirty-five.

After A.D. 900, Tamtoc was virtually empty again, but it rose once more two centuries later and reached its zenith not as a city of Venus, but of a hyper-macho Mars. Standing guard before the city’s huge ceremonial plaza was a massive stone warrior sculpted in high relief. Only his lower half survives, three tons of powerful legs and an intimidating penis marked with ritual scars.This was an era of increased trade, competition, and violence, as new groups such as the Nahuas and Otomi fled turmoil in Central Mexico that followed the fall of Teotihuacán, a powerful city of 100,000 people that collapsed in about 750 A. D.

This could well be the time when the ancestors of today’s Teenek arrived. Linguists Stephen Houston and John Robertson have shown that key similarities between the Teenek language and Mayan languages indicate the Teenek could have migrated to the Huasteca as late as A.D. 1000. Córdova says this was the time when “the people that the world calls the Huastecs” flowered, and the region’s distinctive black-on-cream and black-on-white clay ceramics and masterful statues of slim, tattooed figures appeared. Tamtoc’s residents enlarged its existing platforms and public spaces, widened its streets, and built grand buildings with imposing staircases and painted murals.

But if political turmoil threatened from outside, disease worked within. At the spring, Martínez and Córdova found eighteen foot-high painted stuccoed mounds, each capping a small cylindrical grave. The team recovered evidence of thirty-four individuals, almost all women in their 20s and 30s. Wrapped in funeral shrouds and wearing green fluorite jewelry, they were propped up in sitting positions and facing east “as if they are all waiting for something to happen,” says forensic anthropologist Patricia Hernandez. Perhaps they were victims of an epidemic—their bones were ravaged with painful lesions that Hernandez suspects were from vertebral tuberculosis. Three ill children were buried apart, as were four hunchbacks, their bodies bent, perhaps, by the same disease.

But at around 1350, this occupation, too, came to a swift end. By the mid-1400s, Aztec conquerors ruled from Tamohi, a city five miles upriver where Zaragoza, Davila and José Maurilio Perea Salas are now digging.These overlords extracted a heavy tribute from the region of fine textiles, shells, and featherwork that they shipped to their capital of Tenochtitlan. Tamtoc was all but empty.

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Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz