The Pathfinders

The graveyard of the Mexican town of Antiguo Tamuín lies behind a high black gate and a low stone fence. Its neat rows are ablaze with color: sky blue crosses and day-glo wreaths;  snow white, lime and lemon yellow monuments; plastic flowers in pumpkin and pink. But among the scores of tidy plaster tombs are a dozen rough mounds of stone and cement, set cockeyed in the graveyard’s grid. These casket-shaped mounds — so old their plaster has eroded away — date from the sixteenth century, when the Spanish conquistadors reigned.

On a cloudy day in late November, two archaeologists, Patricio Davila and Diana Zaragoza are standing in the cemetery staring down into a six-foot pit where one of these mounds once stood; at the bottom, a physical anthropologist carefully brushes dirt from a set of ancient bones.

Davila and Zaragoza are a husband and wife team with the Mexican government's Instituto Nacional de Arqueolgía e Historia (INAH). This cemetery has intrigued them since they first set eyes on it more than forty years ago, and, after only a few week of study, they have found it richer with history than they had ever hoped. Here, in this small town on the Tampaón River about 170 miles northeast of Mexico City and fifty-five miles west of the Gulf Coast, they have found the Conquest in microcosm: the remains of a pre-Hispanic temple destroyed by the Spaniards and replaced with a chapel, sacred Indian ground usurped by a convent and graves of Spanish soldiers and Catholic priests.

It is not a complete surprise to find evidence of brutality and conflict in Antiguo Tamuín, for it lies at the heart of the Huasteca, a place of wars, migrations, and natural disasters, of powerful cities that mysteriously rose and fell, a cultural crossroads that is one of Mexico’s most fascinating and least understood regions. The Huasteca includes what are now parts of six modern Mexican states between the Gulf coast and the peaks of the Sierra Oriental. Davila and Zaragoza, almost alone, have been researching here for the past thirty years, unveiling a zone that seems to lie apart from the rest of Mesoamerica and whose place in North American history is almost completely unknown.

Some of the earliest occupations date to 700 BC and are marked by small clay figurines. Centuries later brightly painted pottery and stone sculptures appeared, and cycles of migration, occupation and abandonment recurred until the Spanish arrived. Today the Huasteca is home to descendants of pre-Columbian migrants who moved north from the Maya area and from the central highlands to the west: Nahua and Teenek, Otomis, Tehuas, and Totonacs.

“Some people say its the end of Mesoamerica,” says Davila, “others say it’s the beginning of the Southeast. It’s a frontier, the border of the super-area cultures.”

Davila is well over six feet tall, with wavy dark hair, glasses, a goatee, and a patrician's upbright bearing. He was born in San Luis Potosi, 150 miles west of here, and grew up on his grandfather’s Huasteca ranch. He stands head and shoulders over Diana Zaragoza, a Mexico City native, with wire-rimmed glasses, braided gray hair, and a steadfast gaze. For years the pair had the Huasteca’s archaeology almost all to themselves — it is a horrendous place to work, with temperatures that routinely climb well past 110°F, swarming ticks and ravenous mosquitoes. “People like to work in friendlier places,” Zaragoza says, but she is able to dig here, she jokes, because “they say that I drank the water from the river.”



Copyright © 2010 Tom Gidwitz