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Ancient Art and Architecture of Mexico and Central America

Water in Ancient American Ritual and Survival

Curricular materials created for the 2015 SAIL seminar:

Sustainability on the Margins: Investigating Adaptation and Change in Jordan

My goal was to produce a module in an existing course on Pre-Columbian (ancient) art of Mexico and Central America, to help students understand that environmental challenges are not a recent phenomenon, and ancient peoples developed very sophisticated ways of dealing with droughts, floods, and other extreme water environments. Understanding historical reactions may help us deal with similar issues in the present day. This course (a three-week block at Cornell College) is typically offered twice in every three-year period, however, there are other courses at Cornell College, such as an Anthropology course on the Maya, and Environmental Studies courses, which may also benefit from some of the readings and methods in this course.

Note: Content adapted from the curricular project.

Overview

Although the title of this course is “Ancient art and architecture of Mexico and Central America", it has always bridged a range of disciplines by drawing upon archaeology, ethnography, anthropological theory, and other areas. For students majoring in Biology, for example, I encouraged them to write papers on statues of particular animals, or the importance of the jaguar or bat in pre-Columbian culture. One Economics major once wrote his final paper on the salt trade in the Yucatán peninsula in the 1400s. However, I had not previously been as explicit about the role of the environment in shaping culture in this area.

The SAIL seminar exposed me to a range of ecological perspectives, and thinking through the ways ancient peoples made a home in the Jordanian desert (which can help us think about how to better use water today) was influential in thinking about a comparative American case. This module helps students think about how “hard” sciences (such as Ecology) may be more closely intertwined with artistic and ritual practices than they might have expected.

The learning outcomes for the course were: 1) Become aware of some of the different conditions at disparate times and places in which there was significant water scarcity or overabundance in the Pre-Columbian Americas, 2) Evaluate how different peoples such as the Mayas, Aztecs, Olmecs and others sought to control their water environment, and examine their success or failure in such endeavors, 3) Examine the interconnections between pragmatic responses to water issues and the artworks / visual culture / ritual created to explain and work with these issues, and 4) Apply this knowledge to consider how modern Mexicans might better use and conserve their water resources in the present day.


Goals

Updated Jan 19, 2017

Content/Concept goals

  • To become comfortable understanding and employing some of the specialized vocabulary, often in Spanish or an indigenous language, which is used to discuss these water management systems.
  • To gain a more nuanced and specific understanding of ancient indigenous peoples’ relationship with their ecosystems, beyond that they were “connected to nature.”

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

  • Reflect on how water scarcity (or overabundance) has cascading effects that go beyond a lack of potable water itself, and may include, at different stages of the problem, political unrest and warfare, famine, and disease.
  • Be able to transfer knowledge gained in one section of the course to another, and understand how similar problems may give rise to different solutions, reflecting different environmental conditions as well as political and cultural structures. 
  • Transfer the knowledge to the present day as well. 

Multidisciplinary Analysis

Students should be able to draw data from a range of different disciplines, from art history to archaeology to hydrology and ecology to create a more holistic body of knowledge about pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. This develops the ability to read analyses from fields they may not be as comfortable with, helping them understand how to read unfamiliar texts and vocabulary in their academic and personal life.

Other Skills/Goals

  • A very clear idea of the geography of this region by creating a simple map with plot points of important sites and physical features.
  • A focus on the geography and hydrology of this region by using the ArcGIS narrative mapping platform.

Activities

Updated Jan 19, 2017

Due to the compressed nature of the Block plan teaching schedule, in general this would be presented on Day #2 of a 2-3 day section on each culture. Each of these 2-3 day sections are equivalent to about three weeks of a semester calendar.

Day #1

Environmental Concerns and Culture in Mesoamerica: an overview

The two readings for this day give an overview of Mesoamerican water management (Lucero) and look at the cascading effects of climate change and drought in Syria, a situation that students are probably at least somewhat familiar with (Kelly et al.) The juxtaposition of these two articles allows for the discovery that water issues are not something unique to the present day and the era of 21st-century climate change. Discuss with students what they know about the ecology and environment of Mesoamerica; they likely think it’s all tropical jungles, but you can show slides of desert parts and discuss arid landscapes. Show how even portions with a great deal of rainfall need to find ways to contain and store their water. Discuss how shortage of water can lead to conflict and war as well.

Key Readings: Lucero, Lisa J. “Water Management in Lowland Mesoamerica.” Report for UNESCO. http://www.anthro.illinois.edu/faculty/lucero/documents/10-LuceroUNESCO.pdf  Read pp. 1-12 top (end of paragraph). Kelly, Colin L. et al. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(11) · March 2015.

 

Day #2

The Olmecs

We generally tend to think that of drought as the main problem related to water, but in tropical lowland areas, another issue may be maximizing swampy and seasonally flooded lands, as well as channeling and controlling large amounts of rain. Discuss what the term “islotes", their use at the site of San Lorenzo, and how this shows the depth of time in Mesoamerica, given that the site flourished ca. 1500-1100 BCE.

Key Reading: Miller, Mary. The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012. (General course text) Monument 52. 

 

Day #7

Ancient Oaxaca and Water Control

One of the interesting features of the site of Monte Albán in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, is how it sustained a fairly large population of about 25,000 with only a single small spring at the top of the mountaintop where it is sited. The reading discusses how the people at the site made the most of the rain they did have, using several sizes of drainage channels, and collecting and de-silting water in large reservoirs on the sides of the site. Hoobler’s article discusses the artworks which show a preoccupation with that water and associated abundance and fertility. Some good questions might include: What does it mean that the symbols of the “control” of water (effigy figures who hold water jars) are found in the tombs of the elite?

Key Reading: Hoobler, Ellen.“The Future in the Past, the Past in the Future: Monte Albán and the Zapotecs.” In El Futuro: Proceedings of the XXXI International Colloquium of Art History of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Mexico DF: UNAM 2010. 

 

Day #8

The Megacity of Teotihuacan: How to ration water for a huge population

The case for Maya droughts as the reason why civilization fell in those areas is fairly well-known in the general population, but Teotihuacan is a lesser-known and understood civilization. It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time of its apogee ca. 500 AD, and yet it fell dramatically, across only a few decades in the 700s. Many theories for why have been proposed – there is evidence of burning in the central core of the city, there may have been invaders or internal destructors. However, recent evidence shows that megadroughts began to occur at about the time the city began to diminish. First, discuss the obvious importance of water for the city and use the website Mexicolore, particularly pages on the coccoliztli illness.

Key Reading: Acuna-Soto, Rodolfo et al. “Drought, epidemic disease, and the fall of classic period cultures in Mesoamerica (AD 750-950). 

 

Day #10

The Early Classic Maya and Water

The case of the Maya collapse due to drought is perhaps the best known to laymen. To complicate this picture, to give an indication of early Maya cities, and to show the importance of water in Maya ritual and art, the French article discusses the case of Palenque, with plentiful water which needed to be managed with a still-existing aqueduct. (Use the video on this, in web resources, to give them a sense of scale and size.) Students will get to practice new vocabulary, such as bajos (seasonally flooded swamps) and micro-watersheds (the use of existing and man-made depressions in the ground for storing water) and get a sense of the complexity of Maya control of water and their surrounding environment.

Key Reading: French, Kirk et al. “Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence for Water Management and Ritual at Palenque,” in Precolumbian Water Management edited by Lisa J. Lucero and Barbara W. Fash, 144-152. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

 

Day #11

The Collapse of the Ancient Maya

As highland sites further south in the Yucatán Peninsula began to dry up, populations were forced farther and farther north, and developed strategies to deal with their new surroundings. There was much more development of the cenotes, naturally-occurring caverns and reservoirs in limestone that are prevalent in the northern Maya region. The Haug et al. is a fascinating case that looks at sediment cores from the Venezuelan basin. Students can discuss the broader question of how to find answers to questions that have not been asked before.

Key Reading: Haug, Gerald H. et al. “Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization.” Science (299) 2003: 1731-1735. 

 

Day #13

The Venice of the New World: Mexico City

After examining how numerous cultures such as the Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos and Maya were dealing at times with severe scarcities of water, the Aztecs literally built their capital on an island in the middle of a lake system. The finding of the island was an essential part of their myth and lore, enshrined even today in Mexican culture, and shown indirectly on the flag of Mexico. While managing a city with minimal bedrock (largely created agricultural lands and canals for transportation was already a challenge), Mundy’s article made clear that the Aztecs centered a great deal of ritual around the celebration of the diversity of water in their environment, making offerings in whirlpools within the lake, and slowly managing this aquatic ecosystem.

Key Reading: Mundy, Barbara E. “Water and the Sacred City,” in The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

 

Final Class

Central Mexico Today

As a counterpoint to the Aztec class, this session looks at how centuries of the Spanish colonial efforts to drain the lake systems at the center of Mexico have succeeded a bit too well. With climate change and a decrease in rainfall, the Mexico City region, a megacity with an estimated 20 million inhabitants, is suffering from lack of water. Considering the range of strategies that that pre-Columbian peoples pursued at different times and places, and taking into account the solutions in the article (and the trailer for H2OMX documentary, in web resources section), what are some ideas that you have about how Central Mexico (or other parts of the region) can confront the water crisis in which it now finds itself?

Key Reading: Romero Lankao, Patricia. “Water in Mexico City: What Will Climate change bring to its history of water-related hazards and vulnerabilities?” Environment and Urbanization 22 (1), 2010: 157-178.


Resources and Materials

Selected Readings for Environmental concerns and culture in Mesoamerica

Lucero, Lisa J. “Water Management in Lowland Mesoamerica.” Report for UNESCO. Available at  http://www.anthro.illinois.edu/faculty/lucero/documents/10-LuceroUNESCO.pdf  Read pp. 1-12 top (end of paragraph that concludes at the top of the page.)

Kelly, Colin L. et al. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(11) · March 2015.

 

Selected Readings for The Olmecs

Miller, Mary. The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012. (General course text)

Cyphers, Ann and Judith Zurita-Noguera “A Land That Tastes of Water,” in Precolumbian Water Management edited by Lisa J. Lucero and Barbara W. Fash, 33-50. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

Web Resources

Chinampas

Overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ay78bCwXe8

Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zANQy_gjC0I

Fun: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esxybDSk6qw (Shows someone in the US making these. Students will laugh, you could have them weave paper strips together to look at how this might work)

Video about San Lorenzo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwXERWd-3h4

 

Selected Readings for Ancient Oaxaca and Water Control

Hoobler, Ellen.“The Future in the Past, the Past in the Future: Monte Albán and the Zapotecs.” In El Futuro: Proceedings of the XXXI International Colloquium of Art History of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Mexico DF: UNAM 2010.

O’Brien, Michael J. et al. “Functional Analysis of Water Control Features at Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico.” World Archaeology 11(3), 1980: 342-355.

 

Selected Readings for The Megacity of Teotihuacan

Acuna-Soto, Rodolfo et al. “Drought, epidemic disease, and the fall of classic period cultures in Mesoamerica (AD 750-950). Hemorrhagic fevers as a cause of massive population loss. Medical Hypotheses (65), 2005: 405-409.

Lachniet, Matthew S. et al., “A 2400-yr Mesoamerican rainfall reconstruction links climate and cultural change.” Geology, 40 (3), 2012: 259-262.

Pasztory, Esther. “The Iconography of the Teotihuacan Tlaloc,” Dumbarton Oaks: Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology (15) 1974: 3-22.

Web Resources

Video made by an archaeologist in the 1960s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1GTgxOCMBk

Aztec capital: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nS6MpVbB_g

 

Selected Readings for The Early Classic Maya and Water

French, Kirk et al. “Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence for Water Management and Ritual at Palenque,” in Precolumbian Water Management edited by Lisa J. Lucero and Barbara W. Fash, 144-152. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

Lucero, Lisa J. “Water Management in Lowland Mesoamerica.” Report for UNESCO. Available at  http://www.anthro.illinois.edu/faculty/lucero/documents/10-LuceroUNESCO.pdf , pp. 8-34.

Web Resources

Video of an archaeologist walking Palenque’s aqueduct: http://www.history.com/topics/maya/videos/wonders-of-latin-america-lost-worlds-palenque

 

Selected Readings for The Collapse of the Ancient Maya

Brown, Clifford T. “Water Sources at Mayapan, Yucatán, Mexico” in Precolumbian Water Management edited by Lisa J. Lucero and Barbara W. Fash, 171-185. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

Haug, Gerald H. et al. “Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization.” Science (299) 2003: 1731-1735.

Oglesby, Robert J. et al. “Collapse of the Maya: Could deforestation have contributed?” Journal of Geophysical research (115) 2009: D12106.

Web Resources

Guillermoprieto, Alma. “Sacred Cenotes of the Maya.” National Geographic, August 2013.  http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/guillermoprieto-text  and see related images at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/07/pictures/110706-human-sacrifice-bones-maya-chichen-itza-ancient-science-mexico-cenote/

Dynamic map showing locations of cenotes in Mexico – see how they are gathered in the north of the Yucatán Peninsula: http://maps.esri.com/legends/Mex_geography6/index.html

A cameraman dives into a cenote at the Maya site of Dzibilchaltun: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06VjBuLHtps (music in background; sound not needed)

 

Selected Readings for The Venice of the New World

Mundy, Barbara E. “Water and the Sacred City,” in The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

 

Selected Readings for Central Mexico Today

Romero Lankao, Patricia. “Water in Mexico City: What Will Climate change bring to its history of water-related hazards and vulnerabilities?” Environment and Urbanization 22 (1), 2010: 157-178.

Web Resources

One project initiated to deal with water scarcity: http://islaurbana.org/english/project/distrito-federal/

Trailer of recent documentary (H20mx) on water scarcity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD-esayfmEw (in Spanish)

 

Additional Resources

Webmap precipitation in Mexico: http://maps.esri.com/legends/Mex_geography6/index.html

ArcGIS mapping platform: https://www.arcgis.com/features/index.html


Lead Partner
Ellen Hoobler
Assistant Professor, Cornell College
Art History
ehoobler@cornellcollege.edu
ACM Program Funding
SAIL
Award
-
Funding Cycle
2015-2016
Project Duration
Keywords
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