Drawing after Miguel Covarrubias – Indian Art of Mexico & Central America Death Gods, Smiling Faces and Colossal Heads: Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands
by Richard Diehl

Author's Note: Twenty years ago Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. Macleod kindly asked me to prepare the following essay on the archaeology of the Gulf lowlands to be published in their two-volume work The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Today it is quite out-of-date but hopefully can still serve as basic introduction to the subject. I encourage interested readers to examine more recent books and sources on Mesoamerican archaeology for more up-to-date treatments. I especially recommend Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (6th edition) by Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz (Thames and Hudson, 2008) and Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History by Susan Toby Evans (Thames and Hudson, 2008).

The Pre-Columbian Cultures of the Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast lowlands form one of Mesoamerica's richest and most diverse regions. The equally rich and distinctive precolumbian societies that occupied the region played a crucial role in the development of the Mesoamerican cultural tradition. During three millennia preceding the Spanish conquest the region oscillated between epochs of cultural leadership when Gulf Coast societies occupied a strategic position in the pan-Mesoamerican world and periods of stagnation, isolation, and even foreign intrusions when outsiders, generally from highlands of central Mexico, dominated its people and resources. Much of the region's history reflects dynamic processes in which local innovation and growth alternated with foreign infringement. Thus, the Spaniards' use of the region as a staging area for their conquest of Mexico was merely the one act in a saga of cultural interaction that began when maize and other highland plants were first taken to the lowlands five thousand years ago and that still continues today.

The key to this history lies in the region's wealth and resources, specifically land, food, exotic luxury goods, and trade routes. The Aztecs understood this clearly when they made conquest of the region a top priority early in their imperial history. Their vision of the region's wealth is reflected in their names for it: Tamoanchan (an untranslatable name suggestive of a mythical Utopia or earthly paradise), Tonacatlalpan "Land of Food," and Tlalocan "Place of Wealth" (Sahagun Book 2: 208–9, 226). Fray Bernardino de Sahagun's Aztec informants described the inhabitants of the southern Gulf Coast lowlands as follows: "These were rich, their home, their land, was really a land of riches, a land of flowers, a land of abundance. There was all manner of food; there grew the cacao bean, and the 'divine ear' spice, and wild cacao, and liquid rubber" (Sahagun Book 10: 187). Adjacent lowland zones were described in equally glowing terms. Thus, the outstanding cultural developments of the region's cultures and the desires of its neighbors to control its wealth are not surprising, and these two recurrent themes account for the area's tremendous importance in precolumbian times.

The Region and its Characteristics

Mesoamerican's Gulf Coast lowlands extend southeast from Mexico's border with the United States to the Yucatan Peninsula, but this chapter deals only with the region between the Soto la Marina River, approximately 200 kilometers north of modern Tampico, and the swampy floodplain of western Tabasco (Map 4.1). In addition to all of Veracruz state, our region includes adjacent portions of Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Hildago, Puebla, and Tabasco. The deeply eroded and dissected limestone ridges and valleys of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains separate the region from the highland plateaus of central and southern Mexico, while the Gulf of Mexico formed what ancient Mesoamericans, lacking deep-sea sailing capabilities, considered their most inviolable boundary until Spanish sailing vessels appeared on the horizon in the sixteenth century.

The Gulf Coast lowlands are a hot, humid plain less than 800 meters in elevation laced with streams, rivers, lagoons, estuaries, and swamps. William T. Sanders has characterized it as follows (1972:543): "The area has a fundamental ecological unity in several characteristics: (1) frosts are absent, permitting all year cropping where precipitation cycles permit; (2) crops classed as tropical may be grown; (3) rainfall, with few exceptions, exceeds 1000 mm. a year and averages from 1500 to 2000; (4) natural plant coverage is exuberant and tends to be tropical forest; (5) there are abundant permanent streams in addition to several major river systems with large basins and extensive flood plains." While correct, this generalized description necessarily masks the tremendous diversity created by differences in altitude, topography, precipitation, drainage, and soils. The resulting dynamic environmental mosaic exerted considerable influence on the ancient inhabitants and their cultures, as will become apparent in the following pages.

Traditionally, scholars have divided the Gulf Coast lowlands into three geographic provinces defined by the predominant language spoken in each during the sixteenth century: the Huasteca on the north Gulf Coast; the Totonacapan of central Veracruz; and the Olmecapan of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco. More recently S. J. K. Wilkerson (1974) proposed a quadrapartite division into the North Gulf Coast, North-central Veracruz, South-central Veracruz, and Southern Veracruz-Western Tabasco. Wilkerson's classification is based on the distinctive histories of each region as revealed by archaeological investigations rather than language distribution at one point in time. Each classification is useful in its own way and each will be employed here in turn. First, a look at the archaeological record of precolumbian cultures and traditions; then we will turn to the cultural and linguistic groups observed by Europeans after the Conquest.

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