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Chicomóstoc -- La Quemada, Zacatecas

CHICOMÓSTOC/LA QUEMADA – Ruined Ancient Mexican City, 22º30 N, 102º50 W.
This site is located 50 kilometers southwest of Zacatecas (elegant, picturesque state capital city with multiple touristic resources, services and sites). The archeological zone sits off Highway 54, about ten kilometers before that road reaches the quieter municipio town of Villanueva (some services available). [Continuing 200 km south on #54 will bring you to Guadalajara.]

La Quemada was possibly the capital or leading ceremonial center in the Chalchihuites culture-zone which filled the eastern frontal hills and valleys of the Sierra Madre Occidental -- an area of present-day northern Jalisco, western Zacatecas and southwestern Durango. This culture-zone was the northwestern limit of "civilized" mesoamérica during the "classic" period -- roughly first through ninth centuries A.D.

La Quemada is the most spectacular remnant from that time, and includes a ballcourt, pyramid and palace complex. From here important trade routes went, and have always gone, north toward the turquoise mines and distant pueblo peoples of northern Chihuahua and New Mexico.

Spanish conquerors entered the Zacatecas area in the 16th century looking for gold mines. The Mexican Indians who accompanied them said their ancestors had left this country several centuries earlier, moving south toward central Mexico to create the Toltec and Aztec cultures. When the Mexican Indian auxiliaries saw the ruins of La Quemada, they said this was Chicomóstoc -- "7-Caves" -- where their ancestors had emerged from the earth womb.

Behind many myths stands ritualized history. It is generally accepted that ruling peoples living in central Mexico (el altiplano) at the time of the conquest were descendants of migrants who came from the north in the 10th through 13th centuries a.d. -- most notably important parts of the Aztec and Toltec cultural mix. Presence of defensive walls at La Quemada indicates the existence of warfare, and "La Quemada" means "the burnt place." Armed struggles combined with ecological problems (drought?) may have led to the abandonment and destruction of this site, and the entire Chalchihuites zone, sometime around 900 a.d.

What is more controversial is speculation on the question of whether these peoples may have originally migrated north a thousand years earlier, carrying mesoamerican habits like ballcourts and ceremonial centers -- such as are found abandoned at La Quemada.

Marie-Areti Hers, writing in the July-August 2002 edition of Arqueología Mexicana, puts forward exactly that thesis, based on recent archeological advances in northern Mexico, as well as her reading of Book X, Chapter 29, of Bernardino de Sahagun's seminal work Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España. While she admits that this proposal has not received universal acceptance, she says that in the 1st and 3rd centuries a.d., organized migrations left central Mexico and its early classic centers like Teotihuacan, moving north and west into the Sierra Madre Occidental, and that they built La Quemada (Chicomóstoc) as their new regional ceremonial center. Eight centuries later, whether because of environmental factors (drought?) or social pressures (war?), they abandoned this area during the post-classic retreat, returning south again to participate in the creation of the Aztec and Toltec cultures, as well as the Purepecha of Michoacan and the west.

On a related note, Phil C. Weigand, writing in the September-October 2001 edition of Arq.Mex., mentions that some investigators believe the Tezcatlipoca god-practice-worship had its origins in the north. This might help the reader reflect on the ritual conflict between that god and Quetzalcoatl as a kind of north-south struggle which was chronicled in the stories of the fall of the Toltecs, and which overshadowed the conquest of the Aztecs. But here I speculate as a poet.

Whatever is the truth of this/these matter(s), the fact remains that in the first millennium a.d., in these regions of Zacatecas and Durango, there was a mesoamerican culture zone which built towns and a few ceremonial centers (or cities), evidencing ball courts and other hallmarks of the civilization that stretches from here to the jungles of distant Central America. This is the frontier of Mesoamerica, which was lost to drought and war (??). La Quemada is its most notable example of ruins from that millennium. No doubt they held a powerful position, sitting on the trade routes to the north, a precious link between the civilization to the south and the distant turquoise mines to the north, a thousand miles away, in the lands of the pueblo peoples of what we now call Chihuahua and New Mexico.

Additional sites of Chalchihuites culture to visit:

  • Altavista, at Chalchihuites, Zacatecas; and
  • Cerro de Huistle, at Huejuquilla el Alto, Jalisco.

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