Sep 28, 2011

Catemaco Olmecs

Politicians of Catemaco pretend that Catemaco was civilized during the Olmec stage of local pre-hispanic history.

There is very little or no proof. Excavations on Isla Agaltepec and recently in Teotepec show only rudimentary occupation before 0 BC.

Nevertheless, politically it now seems to have become imperative to link Catemaco to the Olmec culture.

The first documented presence of settlers in Los Tuxtlas stems from sediment studies of a lake near San Andrés Tuxtla (neighboring municipality) which dated corn pollen about 5000 years ago. 

The next nearby presence dates from 3600 years ago when Olmecs initiated the first major Pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico around San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan southeast of present day Acayucan. The Olmecs progessively abandoned their centers wth the last one, actually in Los Tuxtlas, at Tres Zapotes, west of present Santiago Tuxtla, fading out about 2500 years ago, but continuing in a derivative version possibly until 900 AD
During its heyday, Olmec culture extended throughout central Mexico, extending to the Pacific and central America.

Apart from Tres Zapotes, few other significant archaeological finds of their presence in Los Tuxtlas have been made, including a sculpture workshop and assorted figurines primarily in Hueyapan, a municipality southeast of Catemaco.

The only significant find in Catemaco was documented in 1923, when Franz Blom, one of the earliest explorers of the area saw a small statue of Homshuk, a supposed Olmec deity parked next to a hovel in the city. Supposedly the figurine had been found on Isla Tenaspi, near the so called monkey islands.

The Olmec culture is one of the least understood in Mexico and abounds with speculations. They left no written, decipherable records, and the few that do exist are based on interpretations of  Maya hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, it is said  that they spoke a version of  the Mixe Zoquean language family, primarily based on there still being remnant speakers of that language in the Olmecs' principal known areas generally around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The third largest of this group of speakers are Popolucas, an indigenous tribe still present in the southern Los Tuxtlas, still dominant in Soteapan and well represented in northern Hueyapan, both neighbors of Catemaco.

Now here it becomes interesting. 
The Catemaco/ Los Tuxtlas area became largely depopulated after 200 BC, possibly because of  volcanism. The next substantial civilization were Nahuatl speakers arriving around 400 AD from the Tehotihuacan civilization centered on Mexico City. They erected Matacapan, a complex of perhaps 50,000 or more, northwest of Catemaco. Numerous subsidiary remnants have been found throughout Catemaco and in other nearby municipalities. 

Most of the historical artifacts still in Los Tuxtlas museums or cluttering up sidewalks, stem from that era. By the end of  the Teotihuacan hegemony, the Matacapan Nahuas where then over run by Pipils, a Nahuatl dialect tribe of speakers, possibly from Cholula. By 900 the Pipils were gone, on their way to form minor empires in Central America.

By the time of the Spanish conquest, Los Tuxtlas was principally a Nahuatl speaking territory. a hundred years later, it is estimated that 80% of the natives had died off.

So what happened to the Olmecs and speakers of their language? I have no idea.

Almost all place names in Los Tuxtlas are Nahuatl, with a few of Pipil origins, and a even less with Popoluca roots. Even the Popoluca territory, which within oral history included the eastern part of Laguna Catemaco, has standardized on Nahuatl for its place names. Catemaco and the northern Los Tuxtlas is principally mestizo, bereft of its indigenous roots. The current indigenous population of Catemaco is less than 600, mostly Nahuats.

In 1911, Catemaco's historic documents were destroyed by arson so there is no record of its historic indigenous components, aside from a ridiculous statement that Catemaco was discovered and founded by settlers from San Andrès in 1714.

The question then becomes from where arises the much hyped mysticism of Catemaco?

From the possibly previous residents (500 years ago) of now disappeared Popolucas and Nahuats now hidden in the communities of the Santa Marta Mountains!

Dozens of sociological studies have identified the beliefs of brujos, chaneques (sprites), nahuals (shape shifters) as originating within the indigenous communities which apparently did not have a major presence in Catemaco during historic times.

Even today, unannounced, there are "real" brujo events occurring in those mountains, that would put the Catemaco hype to shame.

I guess it is ok for the primarily rootless mestizo population of Catemaco to borrow the traditions of  its displaced progenitors.  Maybe soon, they will declare Halloween a Catemaco invention.

If anyone cares for my bibliography, send me an email.