Characters and historical events ››
- Machu Picchu
- El Dorado
- K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo
Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places
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Origin and historyMachu Picchu is an Inca settlement located in the High Andes of Peru in the Urubamba Valley, north of Cuzco. The site, perched high above the Urubamba river, has been variously described as a fortress, imperial retreat and ceremonial precinct. It was founded by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui in c. 1450 CE, had capacity for around 1,000 residents at its peak, and ranked amongst the most sacred of all sites for the Inca. Following the collapse of the Inca empire, Machu Picchu was abandoned and forgotten, only to be rediscovered in 1911 CE by the explorer Hiram Bingham.
by Mark Cartwright
PurposeMachu Picchu (meaning 'old hill') was an imperial estate founded by and belonging to Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the Inca ruler, in the mid-15th century CE. The ownership of the site was later passed to Pachacuti's successors. On its rediscovery by the explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 CE (although local residents in the valley had always known of the site's existence) it was claimed as the last capital of the Incas. However, this proved to be untrue when the actual final capital was discovered at Vilcabamba, further downstream in the Urubamba Valley.
Another hypothesis concerning the site posed by early historians was that Machu Picchu was a fortress and the strong walls, large towers, and dry moats were cited in support of this theory. The need for fortification perhaps sprang from a series of severe droughts which made the competition for resources fierce. This would also explain why the site was not occupied for very long as when the water situation improved the necessity for such citadel sites declined. Once again though, further study has revealed that most of the architecture was designed for religious purposes and the fortifications may well have been put in place to ensure only a select few could enter this sacred site. In further support of this interpretation, a road was discovered which linked the site to several residential settlements dotted along the valley. The most likely purpose of Machu Picchu, then, was as a sacred site, probably to the sun god Inti and with the additional purpose of reminding the recently conquered local population of the power and might of Pachacuti and the Inca empire centred at its capital Cuzco. The site was abandoned by the Inca shortly before Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors arrived. The invaders never reached Machu Picchu, though, and the site would remain unknown to the wider world for 400 years.
Materials & LayoutMachu Picchu is a fine example of the Inca practice of shaping architecture around the natural terrain. Ridges were made into plateaus for building upon and slopes were terraced using stone bulwarks. Further, constructions were made to aesthetically blend with their surroundings. For example, the profile of the Sacred Rock actually mimics one of the mountain peaks behind it. Finally, very often windows and doorways were deliberately positioned to capture the best views of the surrounding mountains.
Rock was a material the Incas had special reverence for. Stone was even thought of as a living substance.
Rock was a material the Incas had special reverence for. Stone was even thought of as a living substance and in the Inca language (Quechua) the word for it translates as 'to begin'. Stone was shaped with great skill and natural rock outcrops were moulded to suit various purposes. For example, below the Torreón (Observatory), a room was carved out of a natural cleft in the rock and used as a temple to the sun god Inti. The Intihuatana Stone ('Hitching Post of the Sun'), also known as the intiwatana, sitting at the highest point of the sacred complex, was carved with great care into a device for astronomical observations and made a tangible link between the earth and sky. The carved stone pillar on top of the polygonal stone base was used like a sundial to record the movements of the sun and, during solstices, priests symbolically tied the sun to the earth using a cord.
The site of Machu Picchu is composed of two distinct areas: a central complex of closely packed buildings arranged around a central square and a series of western terraces. The structures on the east and southern sides were likely residential and follow a pattern of single-roomed dwellings with an enclosed patio. However, the exact function of most of the buildings at the site is not known for certain. Many of the buildings display the great rock carving and masonry skills of the Inca. The buildings use locally quarried granite, one of the hardest stones, which was cut with great precision and then finished when in position to produce walls of blocks so well fitted together that mortar was not necessary. The irregular lines of blocks also create a pleasing aesthetic effect and make the structures highly resistant to earthquakes.
ArchitectureAmongst the most impressive structures at the site both for its size and unusual curved masonry is the D-shaped tower known as the Torréon, mentioned above. The single window of the tower was aligned with the Pleiades stars as they appeared in the 15th century CE and the building's astronomical purpose is further evidenced by the presence of a stone protruding from the floor which may have been used to plot the sun on the June solstice. The Temple of the Three Windows is another impressive example of fine stone work and was also used as an astronomical observation post. The many administrative kallanka buildings also employed fine stone blocks made to fit perfectly together. These buildings also had stone pegs protruding from their gables to which a thatched roof would have been attached. Another type of building is the prison-like structures which may have been used to house captured nobles until a ransom was paid. The complex also has a cavern structure and a sacrificial stone block sculpted into the form of a condor.
Water was supplied to the site via 14 natural springs whose waters were collected and re-located via 16 cut-stone channels. Another curious feature is the stone steps which lead from Machu Picchu up to the small retreat Huayna Picchu (meaning 'young hill'), perched on a rock outcrop. Some graves have been excavated at the site but these typically belong to individuals of lower rank such as administrative staff resulting in a paucity of high value grave goods, and there are a peculiarly large proportion of female remains. Pottery finds have offered some clues to daily life at the site and derive from four separate locations, amongst which is the Chuma blackware.
Excavations and reconstruction are ongoing at Machu Picchu, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and despite its remote location it continues to draw tourists from around the world having safely secured its status as one of the most recognisable and photographed ancient sites in the world.
Origin and historyEl Dorado ('Gilded Man' or 'Golden One') referred to the legendary kings of the Muisca (or Chibcha) people who populated the northern Andes of modern-day Colombia from 600 CE to 1600 CE and the name is especially associated with their coronation ritual held at Lake Guatavita, just north of modern-day Bogotá. Over time, El Dorado extended its meaning to refer to a lost golden city and even an entire region. When the Spanish Conquistadors heard these incredible tales of a city paved in gold they tried every means possible to find it. Ultimately though, the Spanish, and the explorers and treasure hunters who followed them, never did find the fabulous treasures of El Dorado.
by Mark Cartwright
The Significance of GoldIn the cultures of ancient Colombia gold had long been a popular material for metalworkers. The metal actually had no particular value as currency other than as a raw material for exchange and, indeed, it seems that, unlike in other Americas cultures, gold was not limited to the nobility but also owned by lower stratas of society. Rather than its intrinsic value, then, gold was esteemed because of its lustre, incorruptibility, spiritual associations (especially concerning the sun), and workability in the hands of craftsmen. Skilled Muisca artisans produced stunning works of art using the full range of the goldsmith's repertoire, especially the lost-wax technique.
Gold and gold alloy artworks were offered in vast quantities to the gods and buried at sacred locations so that the balance of the cosmos was maintained and natural disasters averted. Very often the offerings were figurines known as tunjos which represented in fine detail people carrying objects such as shields, weapons and musical instruments. The most famous example of a tunjo is a golden raft with cast figures wearing jewellery standing upon it, the significance of which is discussed below. The raft was found in a clay vessel inside a cave and it now resides in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá.
The Muisca esteemed gold because of its lustre, incorruptibility and association with the sun.
So driven were they by their thirst for riches, the official Spanish government objective of exploration in northern South America was, in fact, to find gold, melt it down and ship as large a quantity as possible back to Europe. The association between ancient Colombia and the precious metal is further reflected in the Spanish King's choice of name for his new territory: Castillo del Oro. Of all the stories of gold and emeralds scattered across ancient Colombia there was one particular tale which especially aroused the interest of the Spanish invaders. This was an account, reported by eye-witnesses, which involved the lavish ceremonies performed during the coronation of a Muisca king.
The Gilded ManThe legend of El Dorado appears in most Spanish accounts of the region's conquest such as Fernández de Oviedo's Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535-48 CE) but was later documented in greatest detail by Juan Rodriguez Freyle in 1636 CE, who claimed to have been told the details by the nephew of the last ruler of Guatavita. One of the oldest representations of the legend in art comes from an engraving of 1599 CE by Theodor de Bry which shows two attendants applying gold to the body of a third individual.
According to the legend, then, amongst the Muisca, when it was necessary to crown a new monarch, the man who would be king prepared for his great day with a period of abstinence. Secluded in a cave, he was forbidden chilli peppers, salt and women. When the coronation day finally arrived the future king travelled to Lake Guatavita, a remote lake formed in an extinct volcanic crater, in order to give offerings to the gods so that they might bless his reign. This he did by going to the centre of the lake on a raft. The raft, made from reeds, was laden with treasures of gold and emeralds and on it were placed four large incense burners. The incense was moque and the braziers, joined by those set around the shores of the lake, gave off clouds of thick smoke which must only have added to the mystique of the ceremony.
The most fantastic treasure of all, though, was the royal person himself. He had been stripped naked and entirely covered in a sticky layer of resin on which was blown fine gold dust. The result was a sparkling man of gold; literally a 'gilded man'. Also travelling on the raft were four attendants, less spectacularly attired but still weighed down with heavy gold jewellery on any part of the body it could be hung from. The great moment came when, accompanied by mass trumpets and singing from the shores, the raft arrived in the very centre of the lake. At that moment silence fell on the crowd and the attendants threw the fabulous treasure of gold and jewels into the lake and the people on the shores also threw their golden offerings into the sacred waters. The climax of the ceremony came when the golden king himself leapt into the lake and when he emerged, cleaned of gold, he had become the king of the Muisca.
Later HistoryFrom Sir Walter Raleigh to 20th century explorers, extravagant and costly expeditions to find El Dorado and its riches have been mounted over the centuries but none have had success. In the 1580s CE Antonio de Sepúlveda had perhaps the most ambitious scheme to find the gold when he cut a slice out of Lake Guatavita's crater edge in order to drain the lake and find the treasure which must have accumulated on the lake bed from centuries of coronation ceremonies. Some gold artefacts were found around the edges of the lake but before the lake could drain completely a landslide blocked the cut and so the water level of the lake began to rise again. Faced with a mutiny from the local population, the Spanish were forced to give up their search.
Another ambitous expedition in 1909 CE involved the English company Contractor Limited. They too sought to drain the lake and they were more successful than the Spanish. The method this time was to dig a tunnel under the lake and drain it that way. However, when the lake was emptied another problem arose and this was that the soft mud bottom of the crater was too deep to support any weight. Even worse, the mud quickly baked in the sun and became cement hard. Returning to Bogotá for drilling equipment the treasure hunters must have been crestfallen when they got back to the lake because in their absence the mud had also solidified in the drainage tunnel, blocking it so that the lake had filled back up again. With no more money to continue the project the English, like the Spanish and countless others before them, were forced to abandon the project with only a handful of small artefacts taken from the edge of the lake.
The cummulative results, then, of these expeditions have been hugely dissapointing. Some gold has been found, as too have stone beads and pottery, but nothing, so far, to match the fabulous riches described in the legend of El Dorado. Perhaps, though, this is fitting as, after all, the original owners of the gold and jewels had intended their offerings for the sun and for them to remain for all time where they were given, at the bottom of a lake in the remote mountains of Colombia.
Origin and historyCahuachi, located on the southern coast of Peru, was the most important sacred site of the Nazca civilization. The Nazca flourished between 200 BCE and 600 CE, and Cahuachi covers a similar time period. The site, which was used for harvest festivals, ancestor worship, and burials, is dominated by a series of huge ceremonial mounds and plazas. These have been a rich source of Nazca artefacts ranging from mummies to textiles, all well-preserved in the arid climate.
by Mark Cartwright
Location & FunctionIn a particular spot of the southern Nazca Valley the Nazca River flows underground for a short stretch, and it was at this place, on the south bank, that Cahuachi was built. The water table here would have survived most droughts and so was considered a sacred place or huaca by the Nazca. The water was managed using underground aqueducts and cisterns with terraced entrances to irrigate the surrounding area and ensure a constant supply. The sacred nature of the site is further indicated by the high number of lines or geoglyphs on the surrounding desert floor. In another attempt to incorporate nature into their urban landscape the Nazca built huge mounds on top of a close grouping of around 40 hills. The site was linked to the other important Nazca centre Ventilla by a sacred road which crosses the San José desert.
Tombs at Cahuachi contain mummies both of venerated individuals wrapped in fine textiles & sacrificial victims.
There is no archaeological evidence of a residential area at Cahuachi (refuse, plain pottery etc.), and pilgrims to the site probably stayed in tents for their brief visit. There are, though, some buildings which were probably used for storage or as workshops connected to the religious activities of the site. The presence of plazas suggests regular gatherings of a large number of people with the largest space measuring 47 x 75 metres. These plazas, in places, have holes and the remains of wooden posts suggesting large canopies were erected over them. The entire sacred area is enclosed by a 40 cm high wall. Cahuachi, then, was a site of pilgrimage, worship, and burial, and it eventually spread to cover over 150 ha.
Burial MoundsThe 40 burial mounds at Cahuachi were built using earth and adobe bricks. The earliest structures date to before 100 BCE while the latest were constructed c. 550 CE, consistent with the timeframe of the Nazca in general. Mounds were used as a place of burial for family or kin groups, with each mound containing the tombs of specific groups. This is a typical feature of the Nazca: shared cultural practices but carried out on an individual basis without any discernible influence from an integrated political power. In many Andean cultures ancestor worship was prevalent, and so we can imagine that pilgrims visited Cahuachi with that aim, regularly reopening tombs to add new mummies.
The largest mound, known as the ‘Great Temple’ consists of six or seven terraces made from earth set on top of a natural hill and contained within adobe brick supporting walls. It reaches a height of 30 metres. Besides tombs in its interior, there are also small chambers in which were placed large numbers of clay panpipes, indicating music was an important part of Nazca ceremonies. The best-preserved tomb is at another mound and is referred to as the Room of Posts. It contains a central altar surrounded by columns supporting a roof. The walls are decorated with inscribed images of panpipes and faces with shining rays.
Archaeological FindsAlthough many of the tombs of Cahuachi have been looted, occasional finds of intact burials have revealed mummies wrapped in fine textiles. Some of these mummies - of men, women and children - show signs of being sacrificed. The individuals were Nazca people, not captured enemies for example, and they display such typical features of Andean burials as a perforated skull, removal of the tongue and placing it in a pouch, excrement in the mouth, and eyes and lips sealed using cactus spines. Some tombs contain evidence of animal sacrifice.
Other finds at the site include pottery, typically of finer quality than those for daily use, and painted with animals and hybrid human-animal figures, especially felines, monkeys, birds, lizards, and spiders with human faces. Textiles were often buried inside large ceramic jars. The images woven into or sometimes painted on the cloth show similar themes to the pottery decoration, along with scenes of bountiful harvests and agriculture. Many textiles have borders depicting staring human skulls. Two extraordinary finds are a single length of cloth measuring 7 metres by 60 metres and a store of 50 women’s wrap dresses. These latter have images of hummingbirds very similar to those depicted in the famous Nazca lines geoglyphs across the nearby desert floor. Finally, in one specific area of Cahuachi, perhaps a workshop for weaving, excavations have found various instruments and tools used to make textiles such as spindles, dyes, cotton threads, and looms.
AbandonmentCahuachi was abandoned from the mid-6th century CE, perhaps due to climate change as the local environment became more arid. Earthquakes, too, may have been a contributing factor to the centre’s decline. It is interesting to note that the number of geoglyphs created at this time increased, perhaps indicating the urgent need for divine help to meet the crisis. The mounds were systematically covered with earth and so the abandonment of Cahuachi was both planned and deliberate. The site did continue to receive votive offerings and burials for centuries after, though, indicating that local peoples continued to ascribe a sacred nature to Cahuachi long after the Nazca culture had disappeared.
Origin and historyTlahuizcalpantecuhtli, 'Dawn Lord,' was a Mesoamerican god who represented a menacing aspect of Venus, the morning star, and was one of the four gods which held up the sky. The people of the ancient Americas believed his rays could damage people, crops, and water sources. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli played a key role in the Aztec creation myth and was 12th of the 13 Lords of the Day in the Aztec calendar.
by Mark Cartwright
Venus, the Morning StarTlahuizcalpantecuhtli (also spelt Tlauixcalpantecuhtli) represented the dual aspect of the planet Venus, known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star. Venus was especially important in the religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of cities, notably at Teotihuacan, Toltec Tollan, Maya Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations.
Each aspect of Venus - morning and evening - was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star. In typical Mesoamerican duality, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli was imagined as both and as the twin brother of Xolotl, and thus, above all, he represented the morning star aspect of Venus, which was considered a menacing one. Mesoamerican peoples considered the morning star particularly dangerous when it first appeared above the horizon each year (its heliacal rising). The rays, imagined in the form of atl-atl darts, were thought harmful to certain classes of people and to have a negative effect on maize and water.
For ancient Mesoamericans, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli was one of the four Skybearers, the gods who held up the sky.
The SkybearerFor ancient Mesoamericans, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli was one of the four Skybearers, the gods who held up the sky. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli was, thus, associated with the direction East and the year date Acatl. The Skybearers may have helped the cosmos by holding it up, but they had another, less charitable aspect during eclipses and the Aztec New Fire ceremony to renew the sun each 52 years. Then they joined the Tzitzimime, star demons which could descend, eat up humanity and destroy the world if the sun did not return.
The Aztec Creation MythIn the Aztec creation myth Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, both as himself and as an avatar of Quetzalcoatl, plays a crucial role. When the twin brothers Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl sacrificed themselves at Teotihuacan to create the sun and moon of the 5th and last epoch of the Aztec cosmos they needed something or someone to kick-start themselves into motion and set off on their respective orbits. Nanahuatizin called for a blood sacrifice, but Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli was having none of it and, instead, threw an atl-atl dart at the sun. The throw missed, and Nanahuatzin returned the favour with more accuracy, striking Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli smack on the forehead, instantly turning him into stone. In this state, he is known as Itztlacoliuhqui, the god of cold, snow, and ice. The rest of the gods saw that only a sacrifice would set the sun and moon in motion, and so Quetzalcoatl removed their hearts for that purpose. The offering worked, and the 5th and final cosmos began.
Art & ArchitectureVenus was often symbolised by a skull, and so too, representations of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli depict him as a feathered serpent with a skull face. As the god was also closely associated with Mixcoatl, he sometimes wears the markings of that star god – white spots around a black field. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli usually has five white spots representing stars, one on each cheek, and one on his forehead, nose and chin. One of the earliest examples of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli in art is a rock painting at Ixtapantongo from around the 10th century CE.
Besides influencing the general town planning of many Mesoamerican cities, several specific buildings were aligned to the rise of Venus. Notable amongst these is the 24-room House of the Governors at Uxmal, constructed in the 10th century CE. Perhaps the most famous of all is the Caracol astronomical observatory at Chichen Itza which was constructed c. 800 CE.
Origin and historyEhecatl was a Mesoamerican god of air and winds, especially those which brought rains. Regarded as a manifestation of the great feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, he was sometimes known as Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl, in which guise he helped create humanity in the Aztec creation myth and gave the gift of the maguey plant. He was also associated with the cardinal directions, colours, and several calendar dates.
by Mark Cartwright
Name & AssociationsEhecatl means 'wind' in nahuatl. Possibly of Huastec origin, who built many circular or curved temples in his honour, he was adopted by the Aztecs, who thought he was born from flint on the day 9 Wind, which was his other name. They also named the 2nd day in the Aztec calendar after him. Ehecatl acquired various associations besides the wind in general, amongst them the calendar dates 6 Ehecatl the sun, 7 Ehecatl the day humanity was created, and 9 Ehecatl the winds from the four quarters. He is the patron of the second trecena (a time period of the calendar) 1 Jaguar.
As the god was regarded as a manifestation or wind aspect of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important deities in the Mesoamerican pantheon, he is sometimes referred to as Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl. Thus, two more dates carry his name: 1 Ehecatl Iztac Tezcatlipoca ('White' Tezcatlipoca being the equivalent of Quetzalcoatl) and 4 Ehecatl Xolotl (Xolotl being Quetzalcoatl's twin). Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl was also one of the four sky-bearing deities, specifically in the direction west. Ehecatl was regarded as the patron of merchants and was associated with spider monkeys, perhaps because of their great speed.
In Postclassic sculpture and codices, Ehecatl wears a conical hat and duckbill mask.
Creation MythologyEhecatl features in the Aztec Creation mythology, first, as the 2nd sun of the cosmos Nahui Ehecatl, and then during the creation of the present world with the 5th and final sun. According to one version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl took on the guise of Ehecatl and descended into the Underworld where he stole the bones of the inhabitants of the former worlds in order to create humans in this one. Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the Underworld, was none too happy about people popping into his realm whenever they felt like it and so would only let Ehecatl go free if he could somehow get music from a conch shell. Ehecatl cleverly had worms bore holes in it and bees buzz inside it to produce a tremendous sound, thus ensuring his liberty.
Ehecatl also helped in the movement of the 5th sun and moon. These had been created when the twin brothers Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl had thrown themselves into a sacrificial fire. The problem, though, was that neither celestial body could move and so Ehecatl, in one version at least, was called upon to blow them into their respective orbits.
Ehecatl & MayahuelEhecatl is sometimes credited with giving the important maguey plant (Agave americana) to humanity. This type of cactus was useful for its spines and its juice was fermented into the alcoholic drink pulque. The story begins with Ehecatl persuading Mayahuel, a beautiful young goddess, to descend from the heavens and become his lover. Down on earth, the two embraced as a pair of intertwining trees but their raptures were soon rudely interrupted by Tzitzmitl, the 'grandmother' goddess, who was Mayahuel's guardian. The elderly goddess split the tree in two and fed the pieces to her demon followers, the Tzitzimime. Ehecatl, being a more powerful god, was unharmed in this episode, and so he gathered what pieces of Mayahuel he could find and planted them in a field. These remains then grew into the maguey plant. Two other gifts to humanity besides pulque which are often credited to Ehecatl are music and maize.
TemplesThe Mesoamerican temples dedicated to Ehecatl and other wind gods are distinctive in that they are circular as opposed to the usual square pyramid, or they incorporate a curved end. The roof of such buildings was typically conical too. This design may reflect the desire to make them aerodynamically welcoming for the winds of the god they honour. The doorways are usually formed as the jaws of a giant snake. This may well be in imitation of the caves Mesoamerican peoples considered entrances to the Underworld where the winds were thought to originate from.
Representation in ArtThere are no known representations of the god prior to the 12th century CE, although two stelae from Maya Seibal, dating to the 9th century CE, depict a god with a beak-like face. Ehecatl is most frequently portrayed in Postclassic sculpture and codices, wearing a conical hat and duckbill mask or buccal (although sometimes the corners of the bill have fangs, a common feature of rain gods) which covers the lower part of his face. If coloured, then his body is painted black and his facemask red. He sometimes wears shells, especially the conch shell (ehecacozcatl or 'wind jewel'), worn as a pectoral, with which he whistled his way out of the Underworld. Shells may be another clue as to the god's coastal Huastec origins. One of the most famous statues of the god is from a temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl at Calixtlahuaca in the Toluca Valley. The god stands 1.76 m tall, rigid and ready to blow his divine winds through his beak mask. It is now on display in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo
Origin and historyYax K'uk' Mo' (pronounced `Yash Kook Mo') was the founder and first king of the dynasty that ruled the Maya city of Copan (in modern day Honduras) for 350 years. Known formally by his royal name, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', he reigned for eleven years from 426-437 CE. His name is translated as `Radiant First Quetzal Macaw' or `Sun-Eyed Green Macaw' or even `Sun In The Mouth of the Quetzal Bird'. The many interpretations of his name are reflected in the various theories regarding his origins. He was not native to Copan, and scholars speculate that he may have come from Teotihuacán, from Tikal or Caracol, or from some other region entirely. All that is clearly known is that a man named K'uk Mo' Ajaw emerged from some locale distant from Copan in 416 CE, took part in some kind of military action, and became king in 426 CE.
by Joshua J. Mark
That he ruled well, and was greatly respected, is attested to by the tributes of later rulers and the archaeological record which makes clear that Yax K'uk Mo' essentially built what is today recognized as the Maya city of Copan. Information regarding his life comes from engravings on stele, monuments, and temples found at Copan and nearby Quirigua including (though by no means limited to): the famous Altar Q (commissioned by the last king of Copan, Yax Pasah, depicting the 16 kings of Copan beginning with Yax K'uk Mo'); Copan Stele E (which tells of his wounding, or `downing', in the military engagement of 416 CE); Copan Temple II (which was dedicated as `The House of Yax K'uk Mo'); The Xulpi Stone (a funerary marker dedicated to Yax K'uk Mo' in 437 CE); and the Motmot Marker (a Maya lowland monument) which is the first depiction of the king.
Place of Origin & His Famous `Goggles'K'uk Mo's name connects him with the city of Tikal, especially owing to the Hombre de Tikal statue which, though headless, depicts a warlord and is carved with the name `K'uk Mo'. Scholars disagree, however, on whether this is a depiction of the great king of Copan or another warrior. The Mayanist David Stuart has pointed out that the designation `K'uk Mo' was fairly common in the region. Even so, Yax K'uk Mo' was also known as `Lord of the West' (the only ruler of Copan to hold that title), which was an honorary designation carried by kings of Tikal and, most notably, by the early ruler of Tikal Siyaj K'ak' who initiated the rise of that city in 378 CE and whose exploits Yax K'uk Mo's rise to power seem to have emulated. Some depictions of Yax K'uk Mo', however, present him in Teotihuacán attire and adornments; his `goggles' are associated with the rain god Tlaloc, venerated in the city of Teotihuacán, which also link him to that region.
The `goggles', which some writers have speculated are proof of ancient alien activity in the rise of the Mayan civilization (as they resemble pilot's goggles), are not eye protection but, rather, part of the king's ceremonial headdress.
The `goggles', which some writers have speculated are proof of ancient alien activity in the rise of the Maya civilization (as they resemble pilot's goggles), are not eye protection but, rather, part of the king's ceremonial headdress. The title `sun-eyed' (Kinich) in his name was also used by rulers in Teotihuacán who wore similar headdresses with what appear to be goggles over the eyes. This adornment over the eyes possibly represented the ruler's separation from the common people and association with the penetrating gaze of the gods (as represented by the sun). David Stuart, however, argues against Teotihuacán as point of origin claiming that Yax K'uk Mo's name represents birds native to southern Mesoamerica but not to the region around Teotihuacán. Stuart writes,
All in all, one can simply conclude from the earliest dynastic art and inscriptions that K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' was a Maya king, but with important foreign contacts and associations" (239). Stuart also points out that the Motmot Marker is a purely Mayan creation, is the earliest depiction of Yax K'uk Mo', and presents him in Maya dress. Stuart then concludes that "he was a Maya lord thoroughly imbued with Teotihuacán traditions. (193)
His contacts with Teotihuacán, his military experience, and probable early political skill, all enabled him to expand the power and prestige of the city of Copan to the point that it can be said he re-founded the city.
Copan, Quirigua, & TikalThe city of Tikal was at the height of its power at the time of Yax K'uk Mo's appearance in Copan. The historian Maria Longhena writes, "A series of factors, including the strategic position of Tikal in the Maya cultural area and its historical development recorded on its monuments, have recently led epigraphers Nikolai Grube and Simon Martin to formulate a theory that Tikal and Calakmul together held a dominant position over other Maya city states of the Classic Period" (243). It is because of Tikal's prominence that scholars have surmised that Yax K'uk Mo' probably was supported by that city's regime in his ascent at Copan or that his rise to power was the result of a coup initiated by Tikal which was first attempted in 416 CE and accomplished in 426 CE. The neighboring city of Quirigua was founded by the kings of Copan prior to Yax K'uk Mo's arrival and was subordinate to the mother city throughout most of its history.
An inscription on the top of Altar Q at Copan tells how the founder, then known as K'uk Mo' Ajaw, traveled from far off and, on 5 September 426 CE,
is said to have `taken K'awiil', in the sense of grasping a scepter in the form of the snake-footed deity, thereby marking a transition to regal status. Three days later, now carrying his full royal name, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' he comes to the wi te' naah, which may translate as "Root House", a structure linked to the foundation of dynasties, with strong central Mexican associations. On this occasion, at least one other lord from the region, the king of Quirigua, is known to have acceded. The location [of the Root House] is not stipulated but its distance from Copan is implicit in the 152 days that intervene before the founder's `arrival here' at Ox Witik, the principal place name of Copan (Martin and Grube, 192).
This inscription is interpreted to mean that Yax K'uk Mo' received his commission (or power) from Tikal (associated with the 152 day journey), went first to Quirigua, to install a ruler loyal to his cause in that city, and then came (or marched at the head of an army) to Copan. Upon his arrival, he would have found a small but impressively constructed city in a fertile valley close by the Copan River; in the eleven years of his rule the city would expand through massive building projects which raised huge temples and pyramids in the style of both Tikal and Teotihuacán.
The Xulpi Stone & The Hunal TombYax K'uk Mo' presided over the festival at the end of the 9th Baktun with his son, K'inich Popol Hol, on 11 December 435 CE. A Baktun is a time period of 394 years, or 20 Katun cycles of 144,000 days, the beginning and ending of which was marked by important celebrations by the ancient Maya (and by their descendents in the present day). It is unclear whether his son had assumed rule at this time and Yax K'uk Mo' had retired or if they were joint rulers, but it seems that father and son performed rituals of equal importance at this festival. The Xulpi Stone, a funerary marker dated 30 November 437 CE, was commissioned by K'inich Popol Hol in honor of his father, and so Yax K'uk Mo's death is dated to that year but it is possible he died earlier than the date on the stone. A significant aspect of this marker is that Yax K'uk Mo' is personally linked with Siyaj K'ak', the Warlord of Tikal, who also arrived `mysteriously' in that city in 378 CE and initiated the building projects and expansion which made Tikal so prosperous.
In 2000 CE, archaeologists working at Copan uncovered the tomb of an early king now recognized by most scholars to be K'inich Yax K'uk Mo'. The central position of the tomb in the city and the personal items interred with the body all strongly suggest identification with the first great king of Copan. More significantly, however, as the historian Geoffrey E. Braswell notes, these items correlate precisely with Yax K'uk Mo's depiction on Altar Q: "the individual in the Hunal tomb suffered a severe parry fracture of the right forearm consistent with the depiction of K'inich Yax K'uk Mo's warrior portrait on Altar Q, in which he is shown holding a small shield protecting his right forearm." Strontium isotope analysis of the skeleton's teeth revealed that he was not native to Copan but spent his youth south of the city in the Peten Basin and only lived in the area of the city in the last years of his life. Further support for the Hunal tomb's skeleton being that of Yax K'uk Mo' is the neighboring tomb of the so-called "Lady In Red". It is thought that Yax K'uk Mo' legitimized his rule of Copan by marrying a noble woman of the city. Careful analysis of the "Lady In Red" skeleton shows that she was born in the Copan region, her rich attire designates her as royalty, and her proximity to the king's tomb links her as a close relative.
The Xulpi Stone and the Hunal Tomb, when considered with Altar Q and the rest of the inscriptions at Copan (such as the badly eroded Hieroglyphic Staircase), seem to substantiate Yax K'uk Mo' as a warlord from Tikal who emulated the life of the early hero Siyaj K'ak' and created a metropolis at Copan that he hoped would mirror the grandeur of the mighty Tikal. He succeeded in his goal and laid the foundation of a dynasty which, for 350 years, concentrated on the development of art, culture, trade, expansion through military campaigns, and magnificent building projects. The 16 kings of Copan are honored as equals in their representation on Altar Q because of the uniformity of their efforts and accomplishments in improving the lives of the citizens of the city. All seem to have followed Yax K'uk Mo's policies and vision for the city and each cared for and improved upon the efforts of their predecessor. In 1988 CE, excavations at Copan uncovered a crypt next to Altar Q which contained the remains of 15 jaguars which had been sacrificed in 775 CE by the last king of the dynasty, Yax Pasah, in honor of his 15 predecessors. This, along with the record each king added to, illustrates the cooperative and progressive vision of the rulers of Copan in that, instead of trying to personally surpass their predecessor, they honored the former ruler by maintaining the same vision and policies.
The Decline of CopanIn 738 CE the thirteenth king of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ubaah K'awill, was captured by the king of Quirigua and beheaded. Longhena writes, "This marks a dramatic moment for the political and military prestige of the city of Copan which, at that time, was enjoying a particularly splendid period and must have been one of the most important and populous Maya cities" (252). Quirigua had clearly thrown off its vassal status by this time and was actively competing with Copan for primacy. Copan seems to have become increasingly populated during this time and artworks from the period depict more military conflict than works from earlier periods. Large building projects continued during this time but, when the sixteenth ruler of Copan, Yax Pasah, took the throne in 763 CE, he initiated a different kind of art. His reign is marked by more modest buildings and an emphasis on the history of the city.
Under Yax Pasah the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which was first built in 710 CE to chronicle the history of the city, was refurbished and Altar Q was created. The attention paid to both of these monuments, and the further hieroglyphic art commissioned under the reign of Yax Pasah, reflect a concern with recording the glory of the past in an uncertain present. Yax Pasah's rule ends the dynasty founded by Yax K'uk Mo', and the last king of Copan, a ruler by the name of Ukit Took, left behind him an unfinished altar and no improvements or renovations to the city's structures. The population of Copan declined as resources became more and more scarce. Overuse of the land, and a population grown too large for the water supply, led to a steady exodus from the city and a sharp decline in its prestige. The Katun Celebration of 810 CE was held at Quirigua, not Copan and, by 830 CE, the city was abandoned.
Origin and historyYaxchilan, located on the banks of the Usumacinta River in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, was an important Late Classic Maya centre. The Maya dated the founding of their city to 320 CE, but Yaxchilan flourished between c. 580 and c. 800 CE, benefitting from commerce via the Usumacinta River and trading in copal resin and dyes processed from Brazil wood. Remains of stone pilings suggest the site once had a bridge or toll gate. Impressive in both architecture and sculpture, the site displays evidence of warfare before its collapse in the 9th century CE.
by Mark Cartwright
Unfortunately, the buildings of Yaxchilan have suffered from damage and erosion by floods over the centuries. However, further from the river are several small hills on the west and east sides upon which platforms and terraces were constructed. Much of the surviving architecture is in the Petén style, as seen at sites such as Tikal, and contact between the two sites is established through royal inter-marriages. In addition, narrow multiple entrances and ornate roof combs remind of Palenque.
Yaxchilan is noteworthy for its sculpture both on free standing stelae and on buildings, especially lintels.
One of the most impressive Petén-style buildings is the symmetrical Structure 33, built c. 750 CE, which is approached by a double platform with staircases and whose comb is supported by interior buttressing. The structure was built in honour of the mid-8th century CE Yaxchilan ruler Bird-Jaguar (ruled 752-768 CE) whose likeness appeared in stucco decorations in the centre of the building’s roof comb. In front of the building is a carved stalactite which represents a sacred cave. Bird-Jaguar went on to expand Yaxchilan and constructed no fewer than eleven more buildings and 33 monuments.
Yaxchilan is also noteworthy for its sculpture, both on free standing stelae and on buildings, especially lintels where the scenes can only be seen from directly below. Early figures are depicted from the front and are relatively unremarkable, but from the mid-8th century CE figures are rendered in profile and designs become more dynamic, often framed by Maya glyphs. Stela 11 shows two standing figures in costume on the front, probably signifying the accession of the ruler Bird-Jaguar alongside his father and, in a quite different style, the reverse side again shows Bird-Jaguar, this time represented as the god Chahk, attacking three kneeling victims with his sceptre.
Scenes on limestone lintels, carved in high relief, typically portray rituals such as a worshipper drawing blood from his tongue in the presence of a priest and Bird-Jaguar standing over a kneeling captive. Another vivid scene, from Temple 23, shows a giant double-headed snake creature from the mouths of which emerge a warrior and the war and rain god Tlaloc, who both tower over a kneeling worshipper, identified as Lady Xok’, wife of the Yaxchilan ruler Shield-Jaguar (r. 681-742 CE), who sees the monster in a blood-letting induced vision. This scene, as indicated by the glyphs, occurred on 23rd October 681 CE, the accession of Itzamnaaj Bahlam II, ‘Shield Jaguar the Great’. Traces of red, greens, and yellows indicate that the panels were once brightly painted. These violent scenes are amongst the earliest to show such graphic episodes of religious life and conquest, although they would later become common in the art of the Toltec and Aztec civilizations.
Origin and historyMitla, located in the eastern portion of the Valley of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, was an important site of the Zapotec civilization. Gaining prominence from the early Post-Classic period (c. 700-900 CE), Mitla became the most important Zapotec city following the decline of the long-time capital Monte Albán. The city was contemporary with first the Toltec and then the Aztec civilizations and continued to be inhabited up to the Spanish conquest. The site is most famous today for its huge rectangular building, the Hall of the Columns, which is richly decorated in geometric relief carvings.
by Mark Cartwright
The Zapotec name for the city was actually Lyobaá which meant 'Land of Rest', as Mitla is the later name which derives from the Nuahtl word Mictlan, meaning the 'Place of the Dead'. Both names refer to the legend that Zapotec kings, priests, and great warriors were buried in a huge chamber under the city. Archaeology has, however, yet to discover evidence of such a chamber.
The Zapotec name for the city was actually Lyobaá which meant 'Land of Rest'.
Mitla is modest in size compared to other surviving Mesoamerican centres, but it does boast an impressive collection of buildings. These are grouped into five distinct zones built along a north-south axis, two dating from the Classic period and the other three from the Post-Classic. The earlier groups are sacred precincts which were re-used later in the city's history. The most important of the Post-Classic buildings is the group known as the Group of the Columns - eight buildings arranged to form two precincts. These structures were constructed using slabs of trachyte and are best described as long rectangular halls built on each side of a plaza which leave the four corners open. They stand eight metres high and the walls and corners lean slightly outwards as they rise, much like the buildings at Maya Uxmal. The halls, probably used as palaces and perhaps even as the residence of the most important priest in the Zapotec culture, had flat roofs supported by monumental wooden beams and cylindrical stone columns. Colonial accounts, especially by one Father Burgoa, describe features of the interiors of these buildings, such as the jaguar skin-covered throne of the High Priest, the cleanliness of the palaces, and the ceremonies of human sacrifice which were regularly carried out there.
The most important architectural feature of the Mitla halls, however, are the mass of high relief carvings, either carved into the stone or in other cases built up of individual stone pieces like a mosaic, which cover their exterior walls. The reliefs are set in over 150 panels displaying a wide variety of intricate geometrical designs originally set against a red painted stucco background which must have made the patterns even more striking. The most common forms are strep-and-fret, meander, and key motifs, sometimes incorporating spirals and diamonds. The designs were most likely inspired by textile patterns and may represent specific family lineages or geographical places. Large cruciform tombs have been excavated under several buildings at Mitla and they, too, are decorated with geometric designs.
The art of Mitla is best seen in metalwork and painted pottery, while from the 10th century CE painted manuscripts were produced. Murals were added to some of the buildings in the centuries before the Spanish conquest and show Aztec influence. Scenes showing gods, warriors, and hunters beneath either the rising sun or starry skies and sky bands were painted typically in red on a grey plaster surface. That Mitla was increasingly under threat from attack in the late Post-Classic period is attested by the presence of a fortress on a hill near the city and the fact that the Aztecs established a garrison at Mitla from c. 1450 CE. Post-conquest, a church was built atop the northern-most building group.
Origin and historyCuicuilco is an ancient settlement site in central Mexico, now located in southern Mexico City. Prominent in the late pre-Classic period, around 500 BCE, it is noted for its large circular temple mound, one of the earliest monumental structures in ancient Mesoamerica and influential on many later pyramid monuments built by the Maya and Aztecs amongst others. Buried in several metres of lava and abandoned Cuicuilco remains one of the most enigmatic early urban centres in the Americas.
by Mark Cartwright
A Large Urban CentreCuicuilco was inhabited just at the period when Mesoamerican villages were transforming into larger population centres which would in turn become the great cities of the region in later centuries. At its height the town may have had a population of up to 20,000 people, its prosperity based on the fertile land in the surrounding lagoon basin of the Mexico Valley. Several small platform structures, houses, and plazas have been excavated at the site, which is estimated to have covered 400 ha (1,000 acres), demonstrating that it was one of the first large settlements in Mesoamerica.
The Temple PyramidThe site of Cuicuilco is dominated today by the massive circular temple pyramid or mound. The structure was constructed sometime in the 5th century BCE (confirmed by radio-carbon dating). The earth, sand, and rubble mound is 135 metres (443 feet) in diameter at its base and 23 metres (75 feet) high. The total volume of the temple is 60,000 cubic metres (2 million cubic feet). It has four levels with inwardly sloping sides which decrease in size. The four levels were each faced with volcanic stone rocks and slabs fixed in place using a clay mortar. The construction of the temple mound was in two separate stages. First, two levels were built with a temple on the top level. This was likely an attempt to secure a dry and permanent platform above the floodplains below. In a second building programme, the mound was enlarged by adding another two higher levels, again with a temple on the top level.
Cuicuilco, with a population of 20,000, was the first large settlement in Mesoamerica.
The stone altar found by archaeologists on top of the pyramid was originally housed in a dual temple structure with a cone roof. Adding an extra four metres to the already impressive height of the temple, this structure was aligned with the sun on the equinox. The altar bears traces of red pigment (cinnabar), suggesting its purpose was for sacrifices in religious ceremonies. Excavated next to this altar was a ceramic figurine, dating to c. 300 BCE, representing an old man carrying a brazier on his back. The historian R.E. Townsend suggests this may indicate rituals at the altar involved fire. In later Mesoamerican cultures we know that priests were responsible for maintaining temple fires.
The top of the temple was accessed via a ramp and three flights of monumental staircases on the east side while the west side had four flights of steps. The circular form of the mound is very similar to later Huastec and Tarascan structures, and the layered monument with stairways is an early form of the large temple pyramids which would dominate such Mesoamerican sites as Teotihuacan, the great Maya cities, and the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.
To the side of the temple mound are burial sites. Their excavation has revealed pottery, incense burners, and clay figurines of local manufacture. The figurines are typical of Mesoamerican art of all periods and represent human figures, animals, and birds. Standing females are the most common type, with details such as mouth and oval eyes deeply incised with a single line.
DestructionCuicuilco was devastated by a lava flow from the nearby Xitli volcano at the end of the pre-Classic period, perhaps around 200 BCE. Around 150 years later (or perhaps even c. 100 CE) there was another eruption and Cuicuilco was definitively abandoned leaving its neighbor Teotihuacan to dominate the region for the next 500 years. If the later date is accepted for the second eruption, then it is likely that more powerful Teotihuacan had already taken over Cuicuilco. The flow covered both the temple mound and the site’s burial grounds in up to seven metres of lava making excavation impractical in most places. Nevertheless, parts of the site were excavated and its temple mound rediscovered in the 1920s CE.
Origin and historyViracocha was the supreme god of the Incas. He is also known as Huiracocha, Wiraqoca and Wiro Qocha. Considered the creator god he was the father of all other Inca gods and it was he who formed the earth, heavens, sun, moon and all living beings. When he finished his work he was believed to have travelled far and wide teaching humanity and bringing the civilised arts before he headed west across the Pacific, never to be seen again but promising one day to return. In his absence lesser deities were assigned the duty of looking after the interests of the human race but Viracocha was, nevertheless, always watching from afar the progress of his children.
by Mark Cartwright
Alternative NamesAs the supreme pan-Andean creator god, omnipresent Viracocha was most often referred to by the Inca using descriptions of his various functions rather than his more general name which may signify lake, foam, or sea-fat. These other names, perhaps used because the god's real name was too sacred to be spoken, included Ilya (light), Ticci (beginning), and Wiraqoca Pacayacaciq (instructor).
The Creator GodIt was believed that human beings were actually Viracocha's second attempt at living creatures as he first created a race of giants from stone in the age of darkness. However, these giants proved unruly and it became necessary for Viracocha to punish them by sending a great flood. In the legend all these giants except two then returned to their original stone form and several could still be seen in much later times standing imposingly at sites such as Tiahuanaco (also known as Tiwanaku) and Pukará.
As the supreme pan-Andean creator god, omnipresent Viracocha was most often referred to by the Inca using descriptions of his various functions.
Then Viracocha created men and women but this time he used clay. He also gave them such gifts as clothes, language, agriculture and the arts and then created all animals. Even more useful was Viracocha's decision to create the sun, moon and stars and so bring light to the world. These heavenly bodies were created from islands in Lake Titicaca. Finished, and no doubt highly satisfied with his labours, Viracocha then set off to spread his civilizing knowledge around the world and for this he dressed as a beggar and assumed such names as Con Ticci Viracocha (also spelt Kon-Tiki), Atun-Viracocha and Contiti Viracocha Pachayachachic. He was assissted on his travels by two sons or brothers called Imaymana Viracocha and Tocapo Viracocha. The god was not always well received despite the knowledge he imparted, sometimes even suffering stones thrown at him. Ending up at Manta (in Ecuador), Viracocha then walked across the waters of the Pacific (in some versions he sails a raft) heading into the west but promising to return one day to the Inca and the site of his greatest works.
WorshipViracocha was actually worshipped by the pre-Inca of Peru before being incorporated into the Inca pantheon. In Inca mythology the god gave a headdress and battle-axe to the first Inca ruler Manco Capac and promised that the Inca would conquer all before them. The god's name was also assumed by the king known as Viracocha Inca (died 1438 CE) and this may also be the time when the god was formally added to the family of Inca gods. Worshipped at the Inca capital of Cuzco, Viracocha also had temples and statues dedicated to him at Caha and Urcos and sacrifices of humans (including children) and, quite often, llamas, were made to the god on important ceremonial occasions. As other Inca gods were more important for the daily life of common people, Viracocha was principally worshipped by the nobility, and then usually in times of political crisis.
Viracocha in ArtIn art Viracocha is often depicted as an old bearded man wearing a long robe and supported by a staff. One of his earliest representations may be the weeping statue at the ruins of Tiwanaku, close to Lake Titicaca, the traditional Inca site where all things were first created. Here, sculpted on the lintel of a massive gateway, the god holds thunderbolts in each hand and wears a crown with rays of the sun whilst his tears represent the rain. Another famous sculpture of the god was the gold three-quarter size statue at Cuzco which the Spanish described as being of a white-skinned bearded male wearing a long robe.
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