Thursday, September 26, 2013

Trade Routes: 9th Century

Part 3: Toltec center of Tula
Over the centuries, trade centers grew to prominence, flourished and then declined and were replaced by a new center.  By the 9th Century, the Mayan trade center in Tikal was starting to decline.   The Ancestral Puebloan trade center at Chaco Canyon and the Mississippian trade center at Cahokia were just becoming power centers and the Trade center for the Toltecs in Mexico was in its prime.
Panoramic view of the ruins of Teotihuacan

The city of Tula rose to prominence after the fall of Teotihuacan around 900 and reached its height
between 900 and 1150.  By all accounts, Teotihuacan was a magnificent center in its prime with a population possibly reaching 250,000.  It was probably the largest city in the world around 500 A.D.  Since it had no fortifications, it was a city very comfortable with its position in the world.  And the archaeology suggests that although it was influenced by many different cultures, it was never invaded by a foreign military.  It was, it appears, defeated by climate change—severe droughts starting around 535 A.D. and lasting for extended periods. This theory of ecological decline is supported by archaeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century.  When it finally fell, it appears that there was an internal uprising against the ruling class that resulted in the burning of their palaces.
Tula, ancient Toltec capital

At that point, the Toltec city of Tula picked up the slack and became the dominant center in Mexico.  Unlike Teotihuacan, it was well fortified and supported a powerful military.  So, in the 9th century, it would have been the regional trade center and in my hypothetical trade route, it would have been one of the main stops.

It never grew to the size of Teotihuaca.  At its height, the population was probably only 60,000 with another 20,000 in the surrounding area.   The factors lending  to  Tula becoming the dominant center in its region were its fertile farmland, obsidian mines, and location (along the trade route).
The population would have been made up of the ruling and elite class, craftsmen, merchants and a large number of farmers.  About half the population was involved in mining and crafting of obsidian and the working of travertine and ceramics.  They became so well-known for their craftsmanship that later the Aztec words for craftsmanship were synonymous with the Toltec and Tula.

But, agriculture also played a prominent roll in the economics of Tula.  They traded chili peppers, amaranth, squash and maguey along with corn and beans.  They also harvested a number of wild plants like mesquite beans and cactus fruit.  They even domesticated dogs and turkeys.  The skilled farmers used irrigation to produce bounteous crops of corn.

Tula didn’t last as long as many of the Mexican empires and likely suffered the same fate as Teotihuacan.  The leeched soil and drying climate led to the decline of their farming culture.  Like Teotihuacan, the ceremonial center was burned and looted around 1179 A.D.  At that point, the trade center probably moved to Tenochtitlan.

I think it is clear that commerce and trade played a major role in the prominence and decline of the major empires of Native America just as it does in the world today and did in the Old World.  The centers of power in the world seem to be constantly changing, but the principles of prosperity seem to be unchanged throughout history.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ancient Trade: 9th Century

Part 2: Transition

As I mentioned in part 1, trade centers changed over time.   In the ninth century A.D., my hypothetical trade route ran from Tikal in the lowlands of Yucatan north through the Toltec capital of Tula (sometimes called Tollon), continued north to the Ancestral Pueblos of Chaco Canyon, then east to the Mississippi River city of Cahokia.
9th Century Trading Centers

The four cultures—Mayan, Toltec, Ancestral Puebloan, and Mississippian Mound Builders—were in transition.   Tikal and Tula were nearing the end of their dominance in their regions, while Chaco Canyon and Cahokia would dominate their regions for centuries to come.

Tikal was the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.  Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica including the Toltecs to the north. 

The name “Tikal” was not the name of the city in the 9th century.  It was named Tikal after its discovery in 1840.  It was most likely called Yax Mutal at that time.  The “Mutal” probably refers to
the emblem of the reigning dynasty and roughly means “Hair Knot” referring to the hair knot worn by the “Ahua” or Ruler.  “Yax” means “first”. 

I would like to share with you this description of trade by J. Eric S. Thompson from his book, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization:

“Throughout Middle America the principal medium of exchange was the cacao bean, with beads of spondylus shell and jade as secondary exchange units.  Cacao made an ideal currency.  Inflation was automatically controlled because if the value of the cacao dropped as a result of overproduction, more beans were taken out of circulation to make chocolate, the appetite for which was insatiable throughout Middle America.  It conformed to the law that the cheaper a desired product, the greater the demand.  Secondly, insect pests and decay made hoarding impossible; the beans shriveled and lost value.  Moreover, only certain localities were suitable for production.

“… Price depended on distance from the orchards.  … Because of its high value, there was regular counterfeiting of cacao money.  The skin of the bean was carefully lifted, the flesh removed and replaced with a wax or earth substitute or pieces of avocado rind were inserted beneath the skin of the bean to give it a well-filled look.

“… Traffic in cacao and other commodities gave rise to a wealthy merchant class.  Much of the trade in the Maya area was by canoe and was in the hands of the Chontal Maya. … Their dugout canoes, capable of holding forty or more people [were eight –feet wide] … maintained a service which girded the whole peninsula of Yucatan."

Items traded within the region were cotton mantles and loincloths from Mexico, wooden swords with pieces of flint or obsidian glued into slots down each side, little copper bells, plates and forges to melt copper, razors or knives of copper, and hatchets of sharp bright-yellow stone with wooden hafts and large quantities of cacao.  There would also have been spondylus shell and jade and salt from the north and northwest coasts of Yucatan.  The center of the canoes had covered galleys where the merchandise was kept and often women and children accompanying the traders rode inside out of the weather.

In the 9th century, these items among others would have been transported to the market in Tikal to be exchanged for exotic items transported in by foreign merchants .  These foreign traders would then haul their valuable bounty to the markets in the north.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ancient Trade: 9th Century

Part 1: The Great Trade Centers
One of the things that strikes me as I travel around to different ancient Native American sites is how focused the information is at each location.  I often get the feeling that this spot was completely isolated from the other sites in the Americas.  But then, I will run across some artifact that was found at the site that I know came from far, far away.  Or I notice some influence (like the bow and arrow or corn) that seems to have appeared on the scene and spread instantly across the continents.
Casa Bonito, Chaco Culture

This tells me that there was a lot more interaction among the different cultures than we give them credit for.  For instance, at Casa Bonita in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, they found chocolate and a parrot feathers from Central America and copper ornaments possibly fashioned at Cahokia, near St. Louis, Missouri and shells from the coast.  They had to have been trading with those cultures.  And archaeological evidence shows us that trade and communication throughout the ancient Americas was extensive and prolific.

In this series of articles, I want turn the clocks back to the 9th Century and propose a hypothetical trade route starting in Cahokia (near St Louis) connecting to Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) and Tula (or Tollon) in Mexico ending at Tikal in the Lowlands of Yucatan.  Not only were these great cities and cultural centers, there is good evidence that commerce had as much to do with their significance as anything else.

There is also good evidence that each of these cities were trading with other regional cities as well as internationally.  In the case of Chaco Canyon, for instance, it may have started as a regional center for the Ancestral Puebloan cities scattered all around the southwest.   It may have become the warehouse or storage cooperative for surrounding puebloans and then grown into a massive central storage facility, market and distribution center.  This area was notorious for erratic weather.  As populations grew, it became necessary to store surpluses in good years and then draw from them in draughts.  Hopefully, the draughts were localized and not widespread so that areas with better weather could support the less fortunate.

Cahokia was an enormous city—the largest city in the United States until 1780 when Philadelphia grew larger.  Cahokia was the home of the only known copper workshop in North America.   It hosted great ceremonies and games with a huge central plaza that had been meticulously leveled and surrounded by important mounds supporting great palaces on top of them.

All of these great trade centers were flourishing in the 9th century and, based upon the archaeological evidence, most likely traded with each other.
Mississippian City similar to Cahokia

So, what would it have been like?  Let’s start with Cahokia.  Picture a huge caravan of men and women carrying trading goods in tump baskets and on wood carriers approaching Cahokia from the west.  They send out a messenger to the leaders of Cahokia announcing their estimated arrival.  Cahokian leaders then send out messengers to other cities across the Mississippi valley and east coast and soon traders from the region flow into Cahokia with their goods.  Cahokia sponsors a great market with dances and feasts and special ceremonies.  They have already built great storage houses for just such events and have also built great houses for the visitors to stay in and have large open areas for the market and celebrations.  It is a grand affair with the market buzzing during the day and great feasts,  dances and religious ceremonies during the evening and nights.

The caravan has brought Turquoise trinkets from Chaco, cotton and obsidian from Tollon (Tula), parrot feathers and cocoa from Tikal.    They will
trade for corn, beans, squash, copper ornaments made in Cahokian shops, and shell beads and necklaces from the coast. 

In the meantime, the caravan brings news from around the world and sometimes new inventions like the bow and arrow, or advanced pottery techniques, or fertile seeds for new or improved crops.  The regional traders soak up the news and share news from the region that the caravan will carry back with them.

Over the years,  different trading centers may fall and others pop up, but the trading caravan adjusts and continues across the centuries providing a vital link between the cultures.

by Courtney Miller

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Great Sites: Weatherill Mesa

Mesa Verde National Park

Weatherill Mesa is remote and, therefore much less visited than the rest of the sites at Mesa Verde National Park.  But it is a real treasure to visit. 
Long House at Weatherill Mesa
Mesa Verde National Park
There are three main attractions, 1) the Ranger guided tour of Long House, 2) the Loop facilitated by the tram, and 3) the hike to the Step House site.

The Ranger guided tour of Long House is a must.  This site was unique for a cliff dwelling because of its large open-air plaza fashioned after a large kiva and the natural seep spring.  
The tour begins with a short ride on the tram to a covered area with picnic tables.  You follow the Ranger down a steep switch-back trail to the site.
At first, Long House doesn’t look like much, but you soon learn that there are a lot of very interesting and unique features.
A ladder takes you up into the upper level where the Ranger points out an area where they ground their stone axes on the sandstone.
There are also imprints of corn cobs in the plaster—maybe made by kids playing because further down are hand prints on the walls made by small children. 
Some commented that it reminded them of a day-care facility.

Up in this balcony area you see one of the features that I find fascinating—a seep spring.  Rain and snow melt seeps through the porous sandstone that makes up the alcove.  When it hits the slate layer, it seeps out into the alcove providing a natural source for water right in the dwelling.

Looking down on the plaza you can see another fascinating and unique feature of Long House—the open-air plaza.  It looks like a grand kiva with the walls and roof missing.  Here is a partial transcript of Ranger Sam's eloquent description of how the plaza was used. [video of presentation]
"For 700 years  after the Ancestral Puebloans left Long House, this is all [there was to] Long House [peaceful and quiet].

"But back in the day, when the Ancestral Puebloans lived here, this place would have been alive with the sound of people, with the sound of the community—songs, dancing, singing, laughter, especially this place where we are standing right now.  We call this place, this courtyard, the Great Plaza  or the Great Kiva.

"I like to imagine that over this [rectangular rock-lined] opening here and this [rectangular rock-lined] opening here,  they have stretched skins of deer skins or elk hides. And this is a drum, and they are beating drums and making music.  

"And over here [this big square pit] is a fire pit and they have a big fire going and they are singing and dancing around that communal life force, the fire.

"Over here [behind the fire pit] we have another interesting little hole in the ground and this is what is called a Sipapu, and “sipapu” means place of immergence.   And this little hole, or square I should say, represents where these people believe that their Mother, the Earth, had given birth to them up to the surface to meet their father, the sky, and this Sipapu is where they believed their spirit would go back into the earth when they died.

"And over here we have more drums.  There are people laughing, singing and dancing.   This place is alive with the sounds of the community.  And what is so great about this story is that although that sound, that laughter, that talking may not be here in Long House today, it is still going on.  So what happened to these people, where did the Ancestral Puebloans go?

"Well they were dry land farmers, right?  So they depended upon the rain for water for their crops.  So, what happens when it stops raining?  Their crops failed and you can’t eat.  And that’s what happened to these people in 1280, a drought struck this region that lasted almost 30 years.  They couldn’t eat and they couldn’t make do, so they had to put art and architecture aside and renew."

[They abandoned the cliffs and moved south to start over.]
After the Long House tour, you can catch the tram for a Loop trail around the mesa.  The Loop was fun.  There are nicely preserved pithouses protected by metal buildings.  The tram lets you out at the paved trail-head and then picks you up at the end of the trail.  There are some parts of the tram ride where the driver waits for you to look at cliff dwellings from the rim.

Then there is the hike to Step House.  Unfortunately, we got rained out of our hike to this unique site.  I really wanted to see this site because there is a reconstructed pithouse, a large concentration of rock art, and the ruins of two separate occupations side-by-side. 
I will be going back to Mesa Verde National Park and you should visit it, too.  This is archaeology at its most elegant and beautiful.  It is probably the last site of the Ancestral Pueblo Culture, the culture that was part of the Chaco Phenomenon that lasted for over 500 years.  It was a culture that rose to great heights in art, architecture, government, and social life.  There is every reason to believe that the people were happy, healthy, and prosperous.  It was a good life with little signs of war or conflict.  Their's was a culture to be admired, studied and learned from.
by Courtney Miller
My book, The First Raven Mocker, has just been released. 
See what the Cherokee were like in mythological times.
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