Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mysterious Calixtlahuaca: Memo to TV producers

Memo to TV producers:

Tonight I watched the PBS/National Geographic show, “Ghosts of Machu Picchu” that emphasized the mysterious nature of this Inca site. When you make your million-dollar documentary on Calixtlahuaca, here are some of the mysteries you could emphasize. Based on the fact that many of the so-called “mysteries” that structured the Machu Picchu show have not been at all mysterious since John Rowe’s 1990 paper (Rowe 1990), I will list some “mysteries” of Calixtlahuaca and their solutions (so that you can avoid the real information until the end of the show, for dramatic effect).

  • Why was the main pyramid circular in form? Was this a sacred shape, perhaps a symbol of the cosmos? Might the shape relate to the statue of the wind god found buried in the pyramid? Could it indicate that the people of Calixtlahuaca were in tune with the weather and the cosmos? You can use haunting and spooky flute music in this segment.
    • Reality check: The role of circular temples and the wind god has been known since the first codices were studied, and the topic was thoroughly analyzed in Pollock (1936).
  • Why did so many of the human long bones excavated at Calixtlahuaca in the 1930s have deep parallel notches? Could these have been sacred musical instruments that produced an eerie percussion sound used in secret rituals? Why did these skeletons disappear after 1935?
    • Reality check: The uses of these objects as musical instruments has been understood at least since Seler’s work over a hundred years ago (Seler 1992). We don’t know what happened to the bones, though.
  • Why was this city built on a hill? Was it to worship the gods of the sky, or perhaps the sun god? Can this be explained by the “sacred landscape theory” that explains Machu Picchu according to Nova last night? (actually I prefer Rowe’s more prosaic explanation). Just like Machu Picchu, there were sacred volcanoes to the south and the east of Calixtlahuaca (and probably to the north and west, although I haven’t looked yet).
    • Well, I guess I have to admit that the placement of the city on a hill is really a mystery of sorts, something that we are working on. But it is hard to attribute the location to a “sacred landscape theory” when nearly all other Aztec-period cities were NOT built on mountains, whereas the basic belief system was widespread.

Sincerely yours,

M. E. Smith, skeptical archaeologist

Now, here are some REAL mysteries, but probably not the kind of mystery that TV producers would be interested in:

  • Why do so many people insist in attributing mystery to archaeological sites and ancient peoples? Weren’t ancient people humans like you and me, living regular lives like people all over the world? Why must the past be portrayed as mysterious and so very different from the present?
  • Why do people seem amazed that ancient peoples did the things they did? Inka stonework is admirable for its skill and aesthetics, but there is nothing mysterious about it. They put thousands of people to work cutting stone, they had expert masons, and they took whatever time was needed to do things right. The Mayas had an advanced calendar and writing system, and they were pretty smart people, but there is nothing mysterious about this. (And no, the world will NOT end in 2012). The Aztecs used one of the most highly productive agricultural systems known to the preindustrial world (chinampas, or raised fields), but this is not mysterious. They had the skills, the labor, and the economic and political structure to do what they needed to do.


Pollock, Harry E. D.

1936 Round Structures of Aboriginal Middle America. Publications, vol. 471. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC.

Rowe, John H.

1990 Machu Picchu en la luz de documentos del siglo XVI. Histórica (Lima) 14(1):139-154.

Seler, Eduard

1992 Ancient Mexican Bone Rattles. In Collected Works in Mesoamerican Linguistics and Archaeoalogy, pp. 62-73, vol. 3. Labyrinthos, Culver City.


Anonymous said...

Great webpage, very interesting - and funny! I much enjoyed your comments on the documentary of the 'mysterious Inca'. You've definitely grasped the much used tactic in archaeological documentaries of posing rhetorical questions. Just remember to leave them unanswered, by which they can work as facts, and you'll get the million-dollar TV-contract in no time. Keep up the good work, it's interesting reading.

Best regards, Casper Jacobsen, Copenhagen, Denmark

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