Most Important Archeological Site in Northwestern Mexico: Chametla

©40.DSC_0263It always amazes me how we can have hugely rich archeological history very close by that goes unsung and unvalued, while we all dream about seeing the more famous sites. You know what they say about prophets in their own land, and I guess that’s true about places as well; we don’t value those nearby.

I’ve told you before that archeological evidence indicates that Mexcaltitán, just three hours south of Mazatlán, was probably the original Tenochtitlán—that Mezcaltitán was the legendary Aztlán, where the Aztecs (Mexica) lived before they moved to the Valley of Mexico. It’s so very close, our own gorgeous little Venice, yet we hardly hear about it.

I’ve also heard many people say that here in Sinaloa historically there were no native peoples; that we don’t have indigenous crafts or artwork because this area was only populated after the discovery of minerals in the mountains and the influx of Europeans. Hogwash! I’ve written before about the Mayo-Yoremes in the northern part of our state. Down here in the south, Totorames lived on the coast. They spread over quite a wide territory, as most of southern Sinaloa was connected by estuary; using a canoe they could easily get from one place to another. The Totorames often fought with the cannibalistic Acaxes and Xiximes who lived up in the Sierra Madres.

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Joaquin Hernández

This week I learned from our friend, Joaquin Hernández, that Chametla—just 90 minutes from Mazatlán in the municipio of El Rosario—is the most important archeological site in all of northwestern Mexico! In Chametla are at least two pyramids built in pre-Hispanic times by the Totorames. Both were sacred sites, with platforms on top for sacrifices. Hernán Cortés himself visited Chametla, in 1535, before traveling over to La Paz; there are written documents and paintings that record this fact. Legend has it that he sat in the Cueva del Diablo looking out over the entire valley.

Near Chametla were 22 pre-Hispanic towns. What attracted so many Totorames to Chametla? The area is home to seven hills, which contain many caves. The Rio Baluarte runs through it; it’s very close to the Pacific Ocean; it’s fertile land; there’s jungle as well; and it’s right in the middle of the wonderful estuary system where historically mangroves and shrimp have thrived. In ancient times, there were three regions in southern Sinaloa: Sinaloa, Culiacán, and Chametla. Chametla comprised the territory from Escuinapa in the south to Piaxtla in the north. Only later was Mazatlán founded (on the present site of Villa Unión).

So, where are these pyramids? The first is the setting of the church in Chametla, at the foot of Cerro de San Pedro. I took some photos, but the pyramid is much easier to see live and in person. The church is built at the top, on the platform of the pyramid, while the lower part of the pyramid goes way beyond the church and down the hill. You can see that it’s man-made.

In 1935, when they were renovating the church, they found a secret passageway behind the altar that led to an underground cave. There they found “pagan” icons and relics, so the church quickly sealed it all back up. There was a second entrance to the cave just outside the church, at the entrance to where the original church was located. That cave entrance is now covered with a huge boulder. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Cool, huh? Not as visually stunning as a Chichen-Itza, by any means, as this pyramid has been built on and tweaked over and over throughout the millennia; it’s located right in the center of town. But, you can most definitely see its vestiges. The conquista of course was not just about conquering territory or even people; the conquistadores wanted to conquer the entire culture. So many churches are built on sacred sites of the indigenous peoples, as in Chametla.

And where is the second pyramid? It’s a 400-meter pyramid on which the local cemetery is built, also clearly visible. Local people say that when graves are dug, they almost always dig up pottery and other relics from the Totorame. The best specimens of these can be found in the small museum that is right next door to the church.

 

If you go to Chametla, I’d urge you to hike the 365 steps up El Cerro de la Cueva del Diablo. At the top is a man-made cave, obviously another sacred site, with a view of the entire river valley, estuary, ocean… The view is spectacular. It is in the cave that you’ll see an indentation that looks like two butt cheeks, and legend says that’s where Cortés sat. While he wasn’t in Chametla long enough to carve a seat, he may have enjoyed the gorgeous view, with the opening of the cave mirroring the curve of the hill it faces. On many of the hills in the area you’ll find platforms, indicating they were sacred sites; Loma de Ramírez has a 100 meter x 100 meter platform. The area is splendid for hiking, with a diversity of flora and fauna as well as elevation and lots of water.

Joaquin is quite the historian. He has spent much time researching, talking to locals, hiking around; traveling with him and his daughter was a joy. One final tidbit he told us? One of the seven hills in Chametla is called Cerro de las Cabras. However, no one has ever heard of there being goats on that hill. Joaquin found an old, old manuscript that referred to a hill in Chametla as Tetas de Cabras, or “Goat Tits.” His guess is that the vulgar-sounding part of the name was dropped or lost, so that only the goat part remains in modern times.

Joaquin speaks excellent English, as he lived and studied in San Francisco for several years. He frequently conducts presentations in both Spanish and English, so be sure to catch one if you are interested in history, literature… any of the many themes that spark the curiosity of this Renaissance man.

We happened to visit Chametla during the festival Chameitlán, celebrating 485 years since the founding of the town. I captured a photo of the cake and a few of the kids breaking the piñata. That’s Hernán Cortés on the piñata, the children told me—not at all like I pictured him to look!

After Mass, the cake and the piñata, there was a parade through town. We didn’t stay for it, but the young men in the Nautica band played, and the kids seemed to dress up as Indians. I also include a few other photos of the town.

If you enjoy hiking, history, archeology, kayaking, or if you’d just like to visit a small town and the estuary where the shrimpers still cast their atarrayas or hand nets, Chametla is a beautiful place to visit!

Deer Dances in Las Labradas on the Spring Equinox

The two gentlemen in the photo above very kindly explained
a bit about the dance to me, and walked me through the ceremony.
They live in a pueblo between Guasave and Los Mochis.

Last year we were privileged to welcome spring with the famous Deer Dance (danza del venado), conducted in the scenic oceanside setting of Las Labradas petroglyph park, a 30 minute drive north of Mazatlán. The dance was conducted by the Yeu Matchue, a traditional dance group of Mayo or Yoreme Indians.

The dance will be conducted again this coming Wednesday, March 21 in the same location, as part of Mazatlán’s International Friendship Week. Be sure not to miss this event!

The Mayo are considered to have the purest native blood in Mexico. While centuries ago they performed the Danza del Venado in full deerskin clothing with a bow and arrow (it’s the dance of the hunt, and I am Dianne, the goddess of the hunt, ha ha), to welcome the spring solstice at Las Labradas they wore white cotton manta (symbolizing purity), leather belts with deer hooves and bells, they wrapped their shins in leggings made of shells (representing snakes entangled in the deer’s legs), red bandanas (to honor the deer’s sacrifice of its blood), and sonajas or wrist and ankle bands made of nuts and shells. They carry red gourd maracas or shakers.

I grew up in northern Arizona, spending many weekends as a child in the 70s with my friends on the Hopi mesas. I was able to witness the Snake Dance, eat my fill of piki bread spread by hand over a hot rock, and play with the Mudheads. The deer dances soooo reminded me of the Kachina dances! Amazing similarities in dress, adornment, line dancing, movement, underlying beliefs of harmony with the environment, even the music and chanting. The noise makers (shells, gourds) were reminiscent of artisan rattles worldwide, whether from Africa, Asia, Oceania…

There were at least two dancers who wore taxidermic deer heads decorated with flowers, fastened to their heads with leather straps. They pranced, twitched, paused and sniffed, incredibly evoking the sense that we were watching a deer move through a clearing. It was eerie and beautiful to watch.
It was gratifying to see so many young people involved in the ceremony. It is obvious the young Mayo/Yoreme are eager to carry on the traditions of their elders and ancestors.
Above is a minute or so of video of the dance.
In addition to the boys with the headdresses, there were quite a few others dressed similarly but wearing masks. The masks were made of torote or poplar wood, both very sacred, and painted with smiling faces as well as Christian crosses, with long hair. Again, the long hair reminded me of the kachinas.

The musicians included a couple of fiddlers who sat in wooden chairs as they played, a large harp (played standing), gourds (sonatas de bule), jiruquias, and various drummers including a water drum.
The shaman had an altar or offering of fresh fruit, as well as a container of incense that he used for purification during the ceremony as well as to purify or bless the spectators afterwards. The purification ritual was very similar to what I’ve experienced at Teotihucán on the solstice, or in Mexico City nowadays on the street corners.
The dance was an interesting mix of indigenous and Christian ceremony, in the Mayo language and rhythms. When we arrived we saw several flags or banners with crosses on them on the beach. Beside these were placed the deer headdresses and rattles.

During the ceremony, the dancers made the Catholic sign of the cross and held their hands in prayer. It was evident that the Jesuits of the 16th century had much influence on these indigenous rituals.

As with almost any special event I’ve attended in Mexico, the Deer Dance ceremony also included fireworks.

An exhibition of the ancient ball game of ulama was also part of last year’s Spring Equinox events. It took place just outside the museum. A game is on the schedule for this year.

Las Labradas is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oceanside petroglyphs, mystical figures carved into the rocks, are dated by INAH at 1000-1500 years old and of Toltec origin. There is a small museum at the site.

Mazatlán is named after the deer, which in the Náhuatl language is Mazatl (Tlaloc in the Aztec).
If you’d like to attend this event next week you can drive north of Mazatlán on Highway 15, exiting at Km. 51 where you’ll see the large petroglyph marker on the west side of the maxipista. It is a dirt road after you leave the highway, through Chicayota to Las Labradas. Alternatively you can take one of the buses that the Sinaloa State Tourism Office has arranged, to depart from la Mujer Mazatleca monument in Olas Altas at 9:00 am. To reserve your spot contact mazatlanturismocultural@gmail.com, or telephone 191-2005. Be sure to wear white clothing.

Update May 26, 2012: Today the Noroeste ran an article about these dances, including some of the dancers photographed above. It’s in honor of Festival de la Juventud.