Izapa: A Crossroads of Trade

April 1, 2017                  Chiapas, Mexico

Our tour’s first destination today was the ruins of Izapa. To get there, we drove east from Puerto Chiapas until we were just a few miles from the Guatemalan border. Our guide, Cora, told us the history of Izapa. It was the first major city built by the Mayans, and according to Internet research I did later, it did have pyramids (actually, they were temples) at one time. Tourists cannot visit the entire site, because archaeological research is still being conducted. One thing that is known is that it was a crossroads of trade and was occupied by other indigenous peoples. The Aztecs, who were warriors, tried to conquer it once, but the Mayas negotiated with them, giving them 200 sacks of cacao seeds, feathers, and slaves. Cacao seeds were like money, so literally money grew on trees!


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A drawing of how this portion of Izapa would have looked during occupation. The ball court is at the top, marked by #126-127. The Watchman is behind it to the left. 


Archaeologists have found artifacts at Izapa that originated in South America and in what is now the Midwestern United States. In its heyday, Izapa was home to about 35,000 people. It is believed they traded with native peoples of Peru, because at Nazca archaeologists found three items which were unique to the Maya – one was an artifact painted with a blue dye from a plant from this area. Another was a figurine of a frog made in a typical Mayan style. Cora told us the Mayans were “good sailors”, which I had never heard before.KODAK Digital Still Camera

Research I have done since does indicate a connection between the Olmecs and the Mayas, the Olmec being an older civilization. The Maya were definitely influenced by the Olmec, since all of the peoples of this hemisphere were migratory at some point. The large heads created by the Olmec depict them wearing headbands, which would originally have contained feathers, like the Mayas of Izapa, who worshipped a feathered serpent and wore this headband that represented the snake. Many of the gods of the various indigenous groups were the same, but using different names. Quetzalcoatl, the major god of the Aztec/Mixeca, the Mayas called Cuculcán, but it was the same god.

Linguistically, the Mayan language is not related, as far as I know, to that of the Olmec or Aztec. The latter spoke Nahuatl since Nahuatl can be divided into several dialects. I’m not sure of the linguistic history of the Mayan language. According to Wikipedia  , the Mayan language family has no demonstrated genetic relationship to other language families. Similarities with some languages of Mesoamerica are understood to be due to diffusion of linguistic traits from neighboring languages into Mayan and not to common ancestry.

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One of the mysterious standing stones scattered throughout the site. 

The excavated portion of Izapa, Cora said, is only a small piece of the entire city. When restoring it, furthermore, archaeologists used cement to hold the stones together, but the Maya would have used mud and sand – and eggs! – as mortar. There is one large mound of sand and dirt with stones scattered among it that has not yet been reconstructed, but there is a ball court, several 3-tiered platforms and a variety of stelas (for which Izapa is most known) and standing stones.

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The ball court


The ball court is a feature common to indigenous people from central Mexico south – the Aztecs and the Zapotec had them and probably others too. It was not just a game – it could decide one’s fate. If there was a problem that the community couldn’t resolve, for example, the two sides would play on the ball court and the solution suggested by the winning side would prevail. It was also used to decide the fate of groups of captives. Cora had told us the Maya were not a warrior society, yet they wore the feathered serpent headdresses to fortify them in war, they took captives (obviously in battle) and they practiced human sacrifice – although this may have nothing to do with war and everything to do with religion: appeasing the blood lust of the gods. In fact, the victor in a ball game was sometimes the one sacrificed and this was considered an honor, because one was sacrificing one’s life to benefit the entire society by keeping the gods happy.
Cora stopped in front of one of the stelas, which are stones with carved pictures on them.

In this case, the carving was weathered to the point of being difficult to discern, so Cora passed around a colored copy of the picture once imprinted on it. It was part of a codex, a series of pictures that told a story or stated a rule. The stelas found at this site were protected from handling and further erosion with green tin roofs overhead and chicken wire fences around them.

While she was talking about this, I noticed a commotion to the left of where I was sitting on a low stone wall on one side of the ball court. Several members of our group were crowded around something they were looking at on the ground and one man was taking a picture. It was a black scorpion! It fled by running along the bottom of the stone wall and it was probably a good thing that I had stood up to see what they were looking at because the venomous creature was headed in my direction!


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Dale asked about some stones that were sticking up from the ball court walls. Cora said they were just part of the ball court but I’m not so sure. There were other such stones standing about the grounds seemingly randomly, but what I noticed was that they all appeared to be facing north. I knew which way was north because Cora led us to another noteworthy artifact beyond the ball court: a pillar-like structure, called The Watchman, which she said was the carving of a man crouched and looking in the direction of a volcano to the north. She said that this structure also functioned as a clock or calendar, the sun appearing directly behind it at certain times of the day or year, and the Big Dipper rising directly above it at night.

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The Watchman


Next, she showed us another wire fence and tin roof protected group of three stone objects. The one on the right was an elongated piece of stone with a snake’s head carved on one end and the stone was hollowed out in the middle along its length. This was a piece of an aqueduct and it represented the god Cuculcán. The other two pieces in the group appeared to have some relation to the first, one being a large bowl-like object with a deep well in the middle, but Cora didn’t explain what they were.
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After that, she gave us 20 minutes of free time to explore the site further. We were to meet at the bus at 10:40. I checked my watch, which said the same time as hers: 10:20. Dale and I went in different directions. He immediately climbed one of the platforms and went off to take pictures. Several other people did the same.

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There were no trees in the restored area and no wind. It was very hot and I was glad I had a hat, and that I had applied sunscreen on the bus. I had forgotten the bug spray, however, so waved away the small insects that always seem attracted to me.


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Izapa’s hot, dry climate is the perfect habitat for this little fella!


I climbed up and down a couple of the three-tiered platforms for a different perspective. I discovered a large sign, in English, which described the “don’t miss” stelas and other objects. I read and photographed the sign and started to make my way to the other stelas in the direction of the bus. KODAK Digital Still Camera

Panama Cruise C 645I was so absorbed that when Dale called to me from the bus, I was surprised to see that everyone else had already gotten back on the bus! I was the last one! Possibly everyone else had just gotten too hot, because there were five minutes left in the 20 minutes of free time. However, since everyone else was ready to go, I had no choice but to comply.  Dale said he got pictures of everything, including the signs, so I wouldn’t have to miss anything.

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