[ Click the image above or here for the story from Science/AAAS ]
Thought I’d pass along an interesting report on a study about the possibility of chocolate being found in North American pottery bowls.
Chocolate was used by many Mesoamerican cultures, usually as a sacred drink for the elite, but not always (and not the sweetened drink or candy we know today, of course). The possibility of it showing up in North American bowls like these shows that a more robust trade was going on between the peoples of the tropics in Central America and parts of Mexico and those of the more northern zones represented by the U.S. This is controversial, but I think there is a high chance of it being so.
A number of years ago, I was in Monument Valley enjoying the rare treat of talking with a loquacious Navajo man. Most Navajo are quite reserved, especially around strangers. This young man was very open and verbose, so we talked a good while about many things. In that discussion, I remember him bringing up the Kokopelli legend and iconic art image. Kokopelli was the humpbacked flute player that appears all over the West in rock art and in ancient legends and is so commercialized today on everything made to sell to tourists in the desert southwest.
He told me that in his tradition, Kokopelli was remembered as a real person – an itinerant trader who, a very long time ago (as much as 1,200 years according to current estimates), came up out of Aztec Mexico and even more southerly lands. He brought trade goods like the copper bells, shells, and parrot feathers that have been documented in the North. He was unusual in that he was able to move freely between tribes without being killed. This was because he was not only a tradesman, but also a healer. The legends tell and the artworks show him playing his famous flute, and my friend said this was probably to announce his presence to a tribe he was approaching. They knew his flute and song and allowed him to come without a violent challenge, even if he had just come from an enemy tribe. They did this because he could bring healing techniques and medicines from his southern cultures. Although I have no proofs of it, I would presume many of these were shamanic techniques as well. To these northern tribes, he was an exotic traveling shaman/medicine man. The humpback was probably derived from his large sack of trade goods that he swung on his back. Kokopelli took advantage of his celebrity status and the power it brought him. Although you won’t see it much in the tourist art, he is often portrayed with an erection, and was known to engage with the tribal women wherever he traveled. Modern archeologists even consider him a fertility deity figure.
I think there is so much we do not know about pre-Columbian people’s range of travel, capacities of trade, and interactions with distant, foreign cultures. Places like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico seem to have been religious centers linked to such trade of goods and ideas. It’s fascinating that, with our modern technologies, this new research is finding the traces of tropical chocolate still lying in the grit and whorls of these wonderful northern bowls.
The name “Tikal” has always held an air of exotic adventure for me, and rightly so. It is the name of one of the most famous and best understood of the ancient Mayan lowland cities, featuring some of the most iconic pyramidal structures in the world. When visiting Belize a few years ago, I took a rather adventurous day trip across the border into Guatemala to see this World Heritage Site.
The city’s original name is Yax Mutul. The modern name, Tikal, is from the 1800’s. The city is no small place. It stretches over more than six square miles and features over 3,000 individual structures from small rooms to the numerous massive pyramids, some taller than 200 feet. Six such pyramids form the main complex, rising sharply out of the Petén jungle like broken stone teeth. Tikal boasts six of the famous Mayan ball courts.
Tikal was home to as many as 90,000 people during its prime. It was established around 2,400 years ago and was abandoned about 1,100 years ago.
[Click on photos for a larger image.]
“We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Over-soul, from Essays: First Series, 1841.
The idea of the “axis mundi” or world axis, represented by a “world tree” was important to ancient Mesoamericans. In Mayan lands, it was called Yaaxché and was believed to be a ceiba tree like the one in this photo. This amazing tree is only found in the tropics. No temperate zone tree looks like this! It has such a fantastic form and color, it almost seems like it must come from an alien planet – plus, it is simply huge. Whitish gray bark is topped with lines of dark red brush-like leaves and blooms. It is believed that the Maya planted four ceremonial ceiba trees at important sites like this: one at each cardinal direction. They are still highly regarded and respected by modern Mayans and other tribal people throughout the tropics.
The world tree reaches from the underworld realm through the human dimension and up into the spirit dimensions, connecting mankind with these esoteric realms in a directly shamanic manner. Some also understand the tree to represent the band of the Milky Way.
“All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man… the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”
– Chief Seattle