LA QUEMADA: THE OVERLOOKED PRE-HISPANIC ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE WITH A MYSTERIOUS ORIGIN
Updated: Jul 22
Just 56 km (35 mi) south of the city of Zacatecas is the large, impressive archaeological site referred to as La Quemada. I discovered this site by chance while I was working in central Mexico and was completely blown away by this not so frequently visited complex. Below is a look into what you will expect to find when you arrive there and a little background information to give you a more enjoyable visit.
Why so Significant?
Uniquely situated on a hillside, this archaeological site is believed to have been occupied between 500 to 900 AD, although evidence suggest that the site may have been occupied at an earlier date. The largest lingering question is: who resided here? Some scholars have suggested that it may be a Teotihuacan enclave, a Toltec emporium, a Tarascan bastion, the Chicomoztoc of the Aztec legends or a Caxcan center. If you’re unfamiliar with some of names, here’s a brief summary of who and what they are:
· Teotihuacan- An ancient Mesoamerican city 40 km NW of modern Mexico City. This site predates the Aztecs, may have been multiethnic.
· Toltec culture- They are a pre-Colombian Mesoamerican culture that ruled a state centered in Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico in around 900-1150 A.D. They were known for having fierce warriors who were organized into orders representing animals and gods. Many Aztec rulers are believed to have revered the Toltecs, claiming descendancy from their royal line and adopting aspects of their culture (Minister, C. 2019).
· Tarascan civilization- A large empire that covered 75,000 km2 (~46,600 mi2), roughly occupying the modern state of Michoacán and parts of Jalisco and Guanajuato. Their administrative, commercial and religious center of the empire was at Tzintzúntzan, which contained a population of 35,000 by 1522 CE. Historically, they are known to have been in conflict with the Aztecs, however there is some evidence that they may have also traded amongst each other (Cartwright, M. 2013).
Chicomoztoc - This is the mythical place of origin for the Aztecs and other ethnically and/or linguistically similar groups. In the stories of the Nahuatl-speaking people it is represented by having seven caves, where each cave held one of seven groups of the Nahua people (Chicomoztoc: The Place of the Seven Caves. (2017).
·Caxcan - A partly nomadic indigenous group that occupied central Mexico who participated in both the Chichimeca War (1550–1590) and the Mixtón Rebellion (1540–1542).
Regardless of who occupied it, the complex was ultimately the burnt and abandoned and what we see today is what remained. La Quemada even translate to “The Burned”.
What to Expect to See There
Beyond the mysterious origin and grand scale of this site there are plenty of exciting things to see. Below I’ll describe someone of the more interesting areas and give you some archaeological/historical context.
Salón de las Columnas- This is the largest structure at La Quemada (41 by 30 m). What remains today are 12 columns which are believed to be roof supports. During the fire the roof collapsed on to the floor, leaving baked clay fragments that rest on top of carbonized debris of beams. Radiocarbon dates taken from these beams suggest that the construction took place between 600-750 AD. A discovery of human bone fragments in the interior area of the northeast corner of the Hall suggest a ritual use, possible in relation to human sacrifice.
Juego de Pelota- This ball court is a common architectural element of Mesoamerican sites. Frequently, religious functions have been attributed to the game, possibly being in association with the solar cycle, human sacrifice and fertility cults. This particular court is 70 m long and contain numerous floors of polished clay. Human burials have also been discovered beneath the floors. Given its position in the core of the site archaeologists believe it represented and important element related to ceremonial activities.
La Piramide Votiva- This highly identifiable pyramid used to be covered on all four sides by masonry wall cover. The southern face contains a stairway that ascends to the top of the structure, where a small temple or alter is believed to have existed. This pyramid is believed to be the main temple at La Quemada.
Patio Circular (Conjunto piramide)- An architectural complex with a small pyrmind built on a platfor which is integrated into the side of the mountain and a circular pit that is surrounded by a semi-circular patio wall. It is believed to have been constructed during the middle of the 7th century. Skeletal remains of ~250 individuals were discovered at the foot of the pyramid, believed to have been placed there on the eve of the sites abandonment. Some skulls show perforations that indicate they were hung prior to deposition and other bones contain cut marks. On the top of the pyramid, a small shrine was found built with skulls, jawbones and longer bones mixed with adobe. This particular section of the site was not covered over by later constructions, which archaeologists believe that it may indicate that an important ritual was performed here.
El Cuertel- possible living quarters? Originally thought to be a barracks.
Ancient roadway through the Valle de Malpaso- Roadways composed of stone and clay built between 600 to 900 AD are believed to have connected to other villages (up to 200 smaller sites (hamlets and ranches) where the majority of the population lived. More than 170 km of roadways have been discovered.
La Ciudadela (the Citadel)- This is one of the latest architectural structures built at the site, with only a brief occupation between the 8th and 9th centuries. It consists of a group of rooms (northwest) and a pyramid (northeast) around a square court and central altar. The large room and its elongated anteroom contained a solid roof with wooden posts, where the smaller temple (discovered at the top of the pyramid) was built of perishable material. Both of these buildings have been destroyed by the fire. A human burial was identified in the fill of the pyramid with a votive offering, believed to have been used in the inauguration of the sanctuary. This consists of a polychrome bowl, four cups and a mosaic of turquoise, pyrite and obsidian. The potential ceremonial application of the region is also suggested by the astronomical orientation of the main axis, which is determined by the centers of the altar and pyramid and runs through the solstice line.
How to Get There
Taking the federal highway 54 Zacatecas-Guadalajara, heading towards Villanueva, this archaeological site can be found 56 kilometers south of the city of Zacatecas.
Cartwright, M. (2013, December 11). Tarascan Civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Tarascan_Civilization/
Chicomoztoc: The Place of the Seven Caves. (2017, July 28). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/chicomoztoc-the-place-of-the-seven-caves.html.
Minster, C. (2019). 10 Facts About the Ancient Toltecs. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-ancient-toltecs-2136274