September 2019

My group worked on the Totonac Civilization. I found that all other cultures; Tarascan, Zapotec and pueblo were all dependent on maize to sustain the large populations of their cultural centers. Large stone temples were features of Tajin, Monte Alban of the Zapotecs and Tzintzuntzán, the major urban center of the Tarascans. The temples in the centers were necessary to guarantee fertility and the approval of the Gods in other endeavors, such as war. A ruling aristocracy and a hereditary priesthood topped a hierarchical social structure, with a lower class entirely relegated to agricultural production. The myths and rituals, all fertility cult deities were based on essentially the same cosmological  understanding, that civilization was born with the creation of maize. Interestingly, we have the Pueblo living in the north in many smaller groups, with no central urban capital. The harsher less fertile land, with scarce rainfall led to development of irrigation to ensure the food supply. Less people in the workforce, over a larger, area afforded women a more prominent role in a society. One that valued the necessity of their work alongside male farmers. Also, smaller communities did not support the rigidly stratified upper classes of urban religious where priests the elite consumed but did not work.

Richard Bein    

The Totonac is an ethnic group located in originally located in central Mexico but has its most recent links to coastal lowlands and further into the mountainous highlands. The origins of the Totonoco are uncertain. The creation myth Totonacs are centered around sustaining the crop common to all of central Mexico, namely corn or maize. After the great flood that destroyed the earth, the people who remained wandered the earth aimlessly. They lived by eating small animals and hunting the occasional deer. They ate roots, grass, and insects. They lived under the sky and were subject to the cruel punishments of the god of thunder and storms. One of these unfortunates was a musician who was forbidden to play his flute for fear of its magical powers. He was condemned to death when he continued to play but created a child before his death with a beautiful maiden. The son they made was the future God of Maize who died shortly after being born. His mother buried him, and a maize plant sprouted and grew from the grave. It yielded many ears and kernels that were planted again and again. The wanderers remained near the grave of the maize God and built him a fine tomb. They then built houses for themselves and became settled, devoted to the god of Maize.

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  The Totonac’s government was structured with a leader who was supported by a council or group of elders. There were three casts within the Totonac’s, nobles and religious leaders, commoners, and servants. Their society was heavily involved in agriculture with simple forms or irrigation and grew multiple crops of maize in a year, as well as beans and cotton. The crops were stored in silo-like structures.


The religious practices of the Totonacs included human sacrifice and cannibalism. The origins of these practices can be traced back to their worship of Gods such as Mictlantecuhtli, Quetzalcoatl, and Cinleotl. Most of the cosmology behind these idols involves the creation story with multiple rounds of creation and destruction, many of them involving lesser Gods creating the world and irritating greater Gods who then destroy the lesser gods. These introduce the idea of duality that is reflected in the idea of human sacrifice used to appease the Gods in exchange for not destroying the earth. The practice of human sacrifice was also used to avoid bad harvests and bring favorable weather.  The spiritual practices include the use of “Santa Rosa” or marijuana. The Totonac’s have a strong belief in supernatural forces, such as witches(evil) and healers(good).

The Spaniards

            With the landing of the first Conquistadors, Spanish began suppression the indigenous peoples of the area. One of the first interactions Conquistadors had with the indigenous population was with the Totonac. Cortez and his company of Conquistadors, numbering about 500 men and 11 ships arrived on the small island of San Juan de Ulua a mile off the mainland coast of Mexico. The Spaniards brought guns, artillery, and horses. On Good Friday, 1519 they landed near the Totonac town of Chalchicueyecan close to what is now Veracruz. They were first met by canoes carrying the Mexica (Aztec) Governor. The Aztecs, probably aware of the goal of the expedition, reaching their capital of Tenochtitlan, were welcomed coolly, but respectfully. At landfall Cortez, himself was first to be received by the Indian inhabitants. A later written account of the meeting describes the Spaniards as being welcomed “with signs of love.” It is likely they were also aware of the purpose of 500 heavily armed men on their shores and saw the Conquistadors as potential allies in removing the Mexica yoke. They “gave Cortez food; maize cakes, beans, meat fish and turkeys. The Totonacs laughed and were pleased. Cortez gave them presents for their chief; two shirts, two doublets (velvet and satin) gold belts, two red berets and some breeches.” The red berets impressed the Indians, who believed that the God Quetzalcoatl painted himself red. After the initial meeting, the native Totonacs brought the Spaniards gold objects and feathers, for which they greedily traded glass beads and needles. After several days emissaries arrived from the Aztec king Montezuma. Their primary mission was to appease the strangers, while also needing to know whether these were men or new unknown Gods. The Totonacs readily accepted the Spaniards as foreign Gods sent to aid them in freeing themselves from Mexica oppression.


Graulich, Michel, Doris Heyden, Ulrich Köhler, Berthold Riese, Jacques Soustelle, Rudolf Van Zantwijk, Charles R. Wicke, and Karl A. Wipf. “Myths of Paradise Lost in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico [and Comments and Reply].” Current Anthropology 24, no. 5 (1983): 575-88.

Koontz, Rex. Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajín. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Accessed September 16, 2019. https://ebSource Citation.

Navarro, Carlos Garma. “Totonac.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures, vol. 8: Middle America and the Caribbean, Macmillan Reference USA, 1996, pp. 263-266. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 16 Sept.           

Ochoa, Lorenzo. “Totonac and Tepehua.” The oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Edited by David Carrasco, 249-50. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2001.

Stresser-Péan, Guy. The Sun God and the Savior the Christianization of the Nahua and Totonac of the Sierra Norte De Puebla, Mexico. Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2009.         


The Zapotec’s were a polytheistic society, which means they believed in multiple gods. Their most important gods were Cocijo who powered lightning and rain, Coquixee who controlled the supernatural, Zaa who controlled the clouds, Xoo controlled earthquakes, and Quiji controlled fire and so on. The Zapotec’s had partaken in many different ritual offerings. Particularly in sacrificing. The ones who did most of the sacrificing were called Ueza-Eche. The Zapotec sacrificed a lot of different animals including humans. After a human was sacrificed, they would bring the heart and blood to the Uija-Tao so that they could then be offered to the supernaturals. The Bigana (entry level priest) would be the ones to please all of the levels above. Some of those duties included burning incense, offering mainly small animals to be sacrificed, and even offering their own blood to be drawn from the vein under the tongue and behind the ear. The priest would use a sharp bone, a stingray spine, or long fingernail grown just for the purpose of bloodletting. The blood then would be caught on feathers or sometimes grass and offered to sacred beings. Of the human sacrifices prisoners would be sacrificed. Afterwards their flesh would be cooked and ate. Children were sacrificed if they received rain to honor Cocijo (god of lightning). Later on it was later discovered that the Zapotec had shaman-like caves where they took hallucinogenic mushrooms to reenact meetings with the gods, and as well talk to their dead ancestors

Power of the Priest

The priesthood had different levels of priest. High level priest were called Uija-Tao, ordinary priest were called Copa Pitao. Young men who were being educated into the priesthood and lesser religious workers were called Bigana, Pigana, or Pixana. It is said that the Uija-Tao or great seer was the one who saw the supernaturals and would have consultations with them about important matters and he would then transmit the messages to others. He would put himself in an ecstatic state (via hallucinogenic mushrooms) and would believe what he was seeing. The Uija-Tao recieved much respect from the Zapotec lord because of what he could do. Having the power to connect with the supernatural, he could direct what heavenly gifts and punishments were given out. The Zapotec lord would keep him closely to seek advice.

Picture of Monte Alban Temple of the Zapotec

Zapotec Architecture

The valley of Oaxaca was originally populated due to its prime central location where agriculture flourished. Every growing season, the Zapotec used canal irrigation to help water their crops. Their crops consisted of maize, beans, squash, sugarcane and coffee. This continued agricultural success led to the formation of religion, and eventually the building of temples to honor the deities who brought the Zapotec people grain and rain. The decision was made to build the temple, called Monte Alban on the valley floor of Oaxaca. This decision was made because of the ease of clearing trees and undergrowth from the Oaxana Valley floor. Kowalewski (1990) estimates that workers cleared the valley floor, consisting of 2150 km in around 4 years.

NW view across the main Plaza of Monte Alban
Map of Tarascan Empire, Pre-Colonial.


Structure & Symbolism

One important part of the Pre-Columbian Tarascan empire’s culture is their relationship with their rituals. One specific ritual the Tarascan people participated in was called a “Cúrpite”. Cúrpite is translated to “those who come together, attach themselves, or join in”. The translation represents the importance of inclusion at the celebrations that these Cúrpites are a part of. The Cúrpites are celebrated usually starting on December 8, the date of the Immaculate Conception and go until February 2nd, the raising of the Christ Child. When participating in the Cúrpites, the participants are typically inebriated, dressed wearing typical clothing in untypical ways, and parading through people homes. It was common for the participators to wear masks, cloaks, headdresses, aprons and other accessories. The clothing worn during the Cúrpite and the time of year the Cúrpite is performed, is thought to represent the Three Kings or the “Santos Reyes”. The dances are supposed to be portrayed as wild and disorderly, all while maintaining their traditions as a culture. The Tarascans were however polytheistic and worshipped gods and goddesses represented by the sun, moon, warfare, hunting, rain, childbirth, and fertility. 

Image result for pre columbian tarascan curpite
Here is a representation of Tarascan conflict, more focusing on the fashion.

Gender, Hyper-masculinity, and Class

In the Cúrpite, the typical participants are young, drunk bachelors. The men spend a lot of money on expensive traditions, just to participate in rituals, and the money spent on these events caused controversy in communities, mostly between men and women. Men were the main participants in the events, while women were expected to cook food, prepare for parties, and do the other preparatory work, while men dressed up, got intoxicated, and paraded around town. Men were also represented with a high level of masculinity. A man’s masculinity was symbolized by a strutting rooster, and he would dress up in a headdress, a colorful bibs, aprons, and a cloak that resembled a rooster’s wings. This represented a more masculine factor in the Tarascan population, opposed to many other tribes that valued a women’s role in communal affairs and were sometimes even thought of as matriarchal. Men had the majority of control, especially in the nobility and royal family. The royal family his nobility were the elites of the land. They were kept in a completely separate category as the poor people of the community, and made sure their lives overlapped as little as possible. The royalty had the power to distribute land and owned all profitable parts of the land as well. Suppression of the poor was a common theme, and there was little possibility of increasing your social class, due to the inherent power of the royals. 

Geographical Impact

These rituals were most evident in the communities of the Tarascan people. The most significant community to the Cúrpite ritual was Tzintzantzun. Tzintzantzun was the capital of the Tarascan empire, and it held a lot of value to the rituals that took place in Tzintzuntzan. One reason Tzintzntzun was so relevant to the  Cúrpite was because it was the main cultural epicenter for the Tarascan people. It was where most events were occuring and attracted the biggest following of people. The rituals were tied to the land because the land and the rituals had lived together for the history of the Tarascan people. Tzintzuntzán was also the religious center for the Tarascans, which made it even more common to find rituals like the Cúrpite around town. 



Tzintzuntzán at its prime was in the heart of the Michoacán region in ancient Mexico. The Michoacán region was made up of different kinds of landscape scaling from a low land area with many small lakes , to dense forestland, to deep valleys of the dessert and to ranges of mountains and volcanos. The Tarascans found that they would prefer their homes in the dense forest land rather than the excruciating heat.In the height of the Tarascan dominance, Tzintzuntzán had a population of 35,000 people, making it the second largest community at this time in MesoAmerica.  Geographically they were close to the Aztecs, which lead to disputes and communication between cultures. The city is located right on the banks of Lake Patzcuaro. At the time Tzintzuntzan had a plethora of valuable gems and minerals most commonly obsidian, jade, onyx, serpentine, and copal, along with many more. The mountainous basin made the region a perfect land for mines, which was one successful part of the Tarascan economy. Tzintzuntzan was where the king resided, which meant that was where all political, religious, and economic affairs were handled.

Ancient ruins at the Tarascan capital, Tzintzuntzán

Urban Planning

Tzintzuntzán, at its peak occupied 6.74 square kilometers, or 2.60 square miles, and had a population between 25 – 35,000 people. To further discuss the urban planning that went into the empire, one must first define ‘zoning.’ Zoning is the different uses of land within a given area, or more plainly, the determined purpose of that space. Through the archeological digs, one can discern that a number of these ‘zones’ existed within the city, namely public spaces, such as, religious and educational spaces. There were also industrial and commercial zones, places where items were crafted, and then taken to a different location to be bought and sold. Within Tzintzuntzán evidence also suggests remnants of residential, burial, agricultural, and recreational zones. Another important facet is the proof of defensive zones, such as walls and ditches. Tzintzuntzán was a bustling hub of activity, whether it be more intellectual or relaxation based. The planning was both respectful to the lands and consciousness of the purpose the spaces served. 

Significance upon Empire

While the Tarascan empire was made up of several diverse and vibrant cities, Tzintzuntzán claimed the title of capital, and additionally, was the key urban center within the empire. The city had many appealing characteristics to outsiders, one being the fact that the king resided there. Tzintzuntzán was home to a hospital specializing in wounds received during battle.  On the opposite end of the activity spectrum, Tzintzuntzán also had a zoo that likely housed eagles, lions, and tigers among other animals. This key urban center held numerous kinds of appeal to those under Tarascan leadership and those beyond. 


Bishop, Joyce M. “”Those Who Gather In”: An Indigenous Ritual Dance in the Context of Contemporary Mexican Transnationalism.” The Journal of American Folklore 122, no. 486 (2009): 391-413.

Malmstrom, Vincent. “Geographical Origins of the Tarascans.” Geographical Review 85, no. 1 (1995): 31-40.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilization of Mexico and Central America. David Carrasco, ed. Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001.

Pollard, Helen Perlstein. “An Analysis of Urban Zoning and Planning at Prehispanic Tzintzuntzan.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 121, no. 1 (1977): 46-69.

Williams, Eduardo. “Pre-Hispanic West Mexico: A Mesoamerican Culture Area.” Foundation for the Study of Mesoamerican Studies.


The Pueblo people were indigenous to what is now the southwest United States mainly Arizona and New Mexico. The Pueblo people are made up of mostly Hopi, Anasazi, and Zuni people. However, there are over 19 identified tribes that fall under the title of Pueblos. These groups practice very similar religious beliefs and have similar systems of construction as well as irrigation. The history of the Pueblo can be traced back 7,000 years. Spanish conquerors noted that the people of this region lived communally, peacefully, and their lives revolved around scarce water sources to plant their corn harvests. Today some 60,000 Pueblo people still reside in the southwest United States. Many still live on reservations created by the U.S government.


The region where the Pueblo people resided in present day New Mexico is a desert environment. It is very dry, arid, and water is scarce. Thus, agriculture was the basis of society and how they went about their daily lives. The pueblo people revolved around the staple crop of corn. However, they also planted gourds and melons during harvests too. The harvest was a communal effort that men and women participated in. The local “cacique” or chief would be tasked with watching the sun to tell the people when to start planting the crops. The Pueblos created vast irrigation systems along the major rivers in New Mexico. The foundation for the Pueblo being successful in their agriculture began with their ancestors, the Anasazi. The Anasazi were known for agricultural development, paving the way for the Pueblo to invent irrigation systems, proving just how intelligent they truly are. These irrigation systems are what allowed them to survive the harshness of the desert, and also this is how historians have identified these groups of people that resided there.

Pueblos Farming
Pueblo Irrigation

Gender Roles

Pueblo society had relatively equal roles between men and women. Their lives revolve around the harvest and all hands on deck were required for this to be successful. There are however some differences between eastern and western pueblo gender roles. In the east the society tended to be more matriarchal. The women were sometimes “caciques” and would have control over many men for the harvest. Often in the east women would be in charge of the land and control those who work on it. However, there really wasn’t ownership of the land as it was communal. Private land did not really exist in this society. In the west the story is a bit different. Men were more dominant, but women still had very important roles. They would help with the harvest or have large gardens they would tend to to feed their families. In both the east and west women could make advances towards men for courtship and often were the ones doing this. Also, they had the ability to separate from men they were tied down with relatively easily. Furthermore, they could deny courtship however they may be reprimanded by their fathers or other dominant male figures in their lives.

Three Pueblo women posing with pottery.

According to the Babcock article, Pueblo women potters represent stability as they work to form and mold pottery. This article hits on the fact that Pueblo women are often viewed as walking around in long dresses with pots on their head, and in some ways, this has become their symbol. At least the symbol that anyone who is not actually in Mexico sees. However, the irony is that in reality, they most often did not look like this. This is just how other cultures tended to view them. This article makes some interesting points as it compares the pottery to the women of this culture, insinuating that there are comparisons to be made between the two, marking them as “products of desire”. While it may seem a bit disrespectful to compare women to pottery, I do not think that was the intention. The author is very keen on letting us know how important the woman’s role in society is. As I stated earlier, she is the sign of stability and reproduction. It is obvious that communities could not last without women. I love how Babcock states that women “give life to everything they touch.” When we stop and think about this, it really is true! The women of this culture fed the men and kept them healthy and they also brought new life into the world, allowing community to expand. Essentially, their role was to keep society growing while men supported them by hunting and farming.

Society & Leadership

The society revolved around harvests so the leadership roles were based around this as well. The “cacique” would watch the sun waiting for the harvest and tell his workers when to start planting. There was a class of priests as well that were charged with the task of pleasing the Kachina gods as well as blessing the lands for good harvests and rain. The priests would let the people know what the gods were feeling. They had a large role in the community by upholding the beliefs system and keeping people motivated through the harvest season. Essentially, the priests were the highest “caste”. Then there were the local “caciques” that had the blessings for a higher role by the priests. Then there was the working class that harvested, collected water, and built things for their society. Even though there was a clearly defined society here it was very egalitarian. It was very communal and the idea of private property did not exist to these people.

Pueblo Cacique


The Pueblos had a complex belief system with a creation story as well as beliefs that gave meaning to their natural environment. The Pueblos believed in the idea of the “spider grandmother” (Gogyeng Sowuhti). This deity was seen as a good thing and would bring these people medicine, technology, or good tidings. This being could take the form of a woman or a common spider. Along with this being there were many “Kachinas”. There were possibly hundreds of Kachinas that described the water, wind, earth, fire, etc. The Pueblos used them to explain natural phenomena as well as supernatural occurrences. In their creation story the “spider grandmother” created the Earth with “Tawa” the sun god. From their creation all other beings populated the land. The “Kachinas” arrived when man first came into existence and populated the land. The “Kachinas” helped humans develop their society in many ways until they stopped worshipping them then they returned to the “underworld”. The main “Kachinas” or gods that the Pueblos worshiped was the sun god “Tawa” and the harvest god “Patung”. Corn mattered so much to these people that they believed it to come from a deity and literally make up their bodies. The Pueblos also believed that the gods lived in the rivers so this gave even more significance to protecting the water supply.

Kachina Gods
Kachina dancing ritual


 Anderson, Frank G. “The Pueblo Kachina Cult: A Historical Reconstruction.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11, no. 4 (1955): 404-19.

Babcock, Barbara A. “Pueblo Cultural Bodies.” The Journal of American Folklore 107, no. 423 (1994): 40-54. doi:10.2307/541072

Danver, Steven, “Pueblo” in Native People of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures, and Contemporary Issues. ed. vol. 2. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, Inc., 2013

 Wittfogel, Karl A., and Esther S. Goldfrank. “Some Aspects of Pueblo Mythology and Society.” The Journal of American Folklore56, no. 219 (1943): 17-30. doi:10.2307/535911.

The Maya are a grouping of indigenous whose centers of power shifted over the pre-Columbian period.

Mayan Worldview

The Maya regarded the universe as four-sided. At each corner of the world a tree grew and its color corresponded to the color of that direction: red for the east, white for the north, black for the west, and yellow for the south. The species of tree is known in mesoAmerica as the Ceiba tree, with a flat bark and voluptuous, exposed roots. In the middle was another tree known as the tree of the world and it grew so high that its branches pierced the thirteen layers of the heavens. The underworld had nine layers.

What moved in the world was a succession of deities. The location of deities influenced decisions about when was best to go to war, to plant crops, to conceive a child, and so on. As a result, understanding which deities were where at any given time, a responsibility shouldered by the large class of priests, was all-important and calendars were elaborate. Source: Inga Clendinnen.

Visual representation of the universe as a tree with its levels above and below ground SOURCE: Duke Univ.

A Ceiba tree in Chiapas, Mexico. SOURCE: Alejandro Linares Garcia/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Notions of Time

Maya views of time, which shares with other pre-Columbian peoples a cyclical view, elaborated the most complex systems and calendars of any group. The Maya understood the solar cycles and maintained a calendar of 365 days, but they also simultaneously observed a ritual calendar, based on lunar cycles, that comprised 260 days with 13 months of 20 days each. Each day was understood to be a combination of a letter and a name. All possible combinations or permutations that are exhausted in 52 years, which marks a major cycle where the combining begins again. Time was believed to begin at some point in the distant past for the Maya in a main calendar far in the past at what equates to 3133 b.c.e. according to our calendar (which is worth noting begins at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

A widely circulated claim was made prior to the winter solstice of 2012 that that date marks the end of the universe “according to the Maya”. When you consider that Mayas uses a number of calendars or systems of distinguishing days and other, longer cycles, the prediction of the end of the universe loses the sense of certainty that some were using in reporting this prophecy. According to anthropologist Dr Quetzil Castañeda, the 2012 date does appear in one specific calendar excavated, but he dismisses its significance because so many calendrical systems existed and changed over locations and time.

In one Maya calendrical system, a day is understood as a combination of a name and a number and these combine in permutations that last 52 years. SOURCE: Linda Schele

The Popol Vuh of the Highland Maya

The Spanish conquerers led by Pedro Alvarado arrived in 1524 in the area of Guatemala where a subgroup of highland Maya called Quiche are found. Alvarado burned their city of Utatlán and enslaved its residents. A bishop named Francisco Marroquin followed the military conquest with evangelizing the Maya and established altars to conduct baptisms in 1534. Any remnants of pre-Columbian religion were considered idolatry by the priests and destroyed.

The Popol Vuh writings contain stories and doctrine that were originally in Maya system of writing, a sort of hieroglyphics, that existed before the Spanish arrived. From 1554-1557 a Maya wrote from memory this content in the form of Maya phonetic text or in other words using Spanish alphabet to reproduce the sound of the Maya language conveying the Popol Vuh content. This book was hidden and kept a secret from Spaniards in the city of Quetzaltenango for almost 150 years. Then in 1701 a parish priest and Dominican monk based in Quetzaltenango and named Francisco Ximénez persuaded locals to show him the text and he made a copy first in the original Quiche Maya language and from that made a translation into Spanish. The original text has been lost.

Guatemala SOURCE: Lonely Planet
Book plate of an early copy of Popol Vuh. Notice the translator’s name: Francisco Ximenez


Casteneda, Quetzal. email communication. Aug., 2012

Schele, Linda & David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Zapatistas and Lopez Obredor

A look at the cradle of the EZLN uprising 25 years ago and the ongoing struggles with paramilitary groups and a new president’s plans for a ‘Maya Train’.