An Ancient Surprise
Georgia State University’s Christopher Morehart and his wife walked about an excavation area in winter 2007 at Lake Xaltocan, a drained lake in the northern basin of Mexico where he was studying ancient agriculture and how people interacted with their environment.
Someone besides the assistant professor of anthropology and his research team had been digging around with artifacts on the surface. But they weren’t ordinary remnants of an ancient society. They had ritual significance, and as the Moreharts looked around, they found human bones.
“My wife and I were noticing that they were cranial material,” Morehart recounted. “She put her hand in the dirt, felt like she had a big shard, and it was the entire frontal of a cranium. My very easy, straightforward agricultural study just took a turn to being a more complex study.”
Morehart, with fellow researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the support of the National Geographic Society, has been working at the Xaltocan site to learn more about the newly uncovered location where human sacrifice took place.
Further digging from that initial research revealed at least 31 individuals had been sacrificed, with their skulls lined up toward the east.
“There is pretty good evidence that these individuals were sacrificed and decapitated,” Morehart said.
The sacrifices dated between A.D. 660 and 890, between the collapse of nearby Teotihuacan and the rise of the Aztec empire, known as the Epiclassic period.
The researchers found figures similar to deities worshipped in the region, such as Tlaloc, the god of rain and water, buried with the cranial remains.
“There was some sort of ritual going on where offerings were being given to gods associated with the Earth, gods associated with rain and also interestingly integrating human sacrifice, which at the same time has connotations of violence, conflict and warfare,” Morehart said.
The researchers found pollen from ceremonially significant flowers and the burning of incense, he said. They found that people continued to conduct rituals at the spot even after the period of sacrifices. As later and different peoples arrived in the area, they most likely recognized the sacred significance of the site. They did not continue human sacrifice, but performed rituals and even directed a major canal right through the shrine.
“Probably the people who populated the area later, who formed a new farming system, came upon this spot not unlike my wife and I did, “ Morehart said. “They saw things that looked familiar, thought them significant and for them it probably keyed conceptual models for religion and ritual.”
Even today, it’s a site of ritual. Morehart’s team found last summer evidence of contemporary rituals such as burying “spell bags” at the site.
“It’s a fascinating area in terms of long-term continuity and ritual, and it fits very well into my interests into understanding how people interact with their environment in multiple ways,” Morehart said. “This provides us with insight into how religion and practices are also relevant in understanding how people interact with their environment.”
During 2012, Morehart used the support of a National Geographic Society grant to dig further, finding even more skulls that are still under analysis by researchers at UNAM.
In line with one of Georgia State’s goals of providing research opportunities for students, Morehart noted opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in his greater research project, called the Northern Basin of Mexico Historical Ecology Project. Students can also learn more about the site at Xaltocan.
Students interested in this research can contact Morehart at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about anthropology at Georgia State, visit cas.gsu.edu/anthropology.
Jan. 7, 2013