Córdova and Martínez are still trying to unravel the roots of Tamtoc’s three occupations to discover if the city grew organically from small settlements or from migrants who brought complex societies to the site.
“In many cultures the common people are local, and the rulers are from different regions,” says Martínez. Tamtoc’s skeletons hint at this: the Classic-era high-status woman found by the spring was tall and large-boned, while others elsewhere on the site were small and slim. Next year, Martínez will dig along Tamtoc’s river bank, where she suspects settlement was early and long-lasting, probably home to ordinary people who fished the teeming waters; Córdova will search for elite graves near government buildings and by a large ritual mound overlooking the lagoons.
The results may reveal links between Huasteca settlements and mound building cultures in the United States. For decades, archaeologists have theorized that North America’s Late Woodland and Mississippian cultures drew inspiration from the Huasteca, but Davila and Zaragoza’s excavations at Tamtoc in the 1990s convinced them that cultural influence, and perhaps actual migration, spread from north to south. They unearthed objects that seemed to come from the American Southeast in about A.D. 900—a fragment of a sheet of hammered copper, a pointed metal hand tool, a piece of engraved shell, a cache of a dozen whole and twenty fragmented Cahokia projectile points, and pottery that could have come from sites to the north such as Etowah, and Moundville. When they dug into a terrace beside the site’s western mound, they found that, like the mounds at Cahokia, it had been piled up layer-by-layer in basket-sized loads, with dirt from pits that became the lagoons around the site.
“We dug and dug and dug,” says Davila, “but I understood nothing.” Then he read Garcilaso de la Vega’s La Florida del Inca, an account of the 1539 Hernando de Soto expedition to the Southeast. It describes huge Indian trade and war canoes that plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the rivers of the Southeast. “We think there was a migration by sea,” says Davila.
Scholars have long recognized that both the Southeast and Huasteca had towns with artificial lagoons and platform mounds with thatched structures on top, engraved shell jewelry, imagery of feathered dancers, stone pipes, and ghostly pots that represent the dead with closed eyes, open mouths, and filed teeth. They have theorized that the cultural influence flowed from Mesoamerica northward, but the Tamtoc artifacts, other mounds in the Huasteca, and the region’s incised shell gorgets, post-date their earliest North American counterparts.
University of South Florida archaeologist Nancy White says that major cultural influences, as well as people, may well have traveled north to south. “We know other things may have moved from North to South America, things that may be considered less important or equally important, like tobacco.” The Mississippian motifs of the Late Prehistoric period that appear in the Huasteca do indicate that “at this late time people were probably moving around and sharing these ideas, but just a few things.” In the field, Martínez and Córdova want to see for themselves.
Physical anthropologist Carlos Karam has taken bite molds of about thirty contemporary Teenek and is comparing the inherited contours of their molars and bicuspids to Tamtoc skeletons and to ancient and modern Maya. He’s checking the DNA of modern Teenek against that of ancient Tamtoc skeletons; strontium isotopes in Tamtoc teeth, absorbed in telltale amounts from drinking water, might reveal where the city’s dead grew up.
“This is a hypothesis we are testing, and we have not found enough information to confirm it, yet,” Córdova says. Martínez and Córdova think it will take ten years to complete their excavations. But just as important to them is making Tamtoc into an instructive oasis in this disrupted landscape. They plan to stock the restored lagoons with fish, reestablish the fruit trees that once thrived here, and demonstrate how ancient Tamtoc sustained itself. This year they will begin construction on a site museum and teaching center where local students will work side by side with archaeologists, study artifact restoration and conservation, and learn about indigenous people.
For the Teenek who come to the site, however, Tamtoc will always be sacred, regardless of the fine details of its past. As the sun sets, the celebrants wind their way out of Tamtoc and gather on the broad lawn just outside the city. The dancing continues, the men side by side in parallel lines, the women in wide circles. Some archaeology students join in, stepping forward and back to the hypnotic high-pitched phrases of the violins and guitars.The night wears on, and the spectators drift away, but the Teenek stay to dance beneath the stars. Some of the dances are so involved that their steps cannot be completed in a single night.
“We preserve the rituals and ceremonies that come from our pre-Hispanic ancestors,” says Chief Martínez. “Right now we are following what they left us – the rituals, ceremonies, our language, our music – and we do it through the stories that the generations have passed down to us.”