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Published: October 2nd 2016
Mueso de Valle de Tehuacan is a small museum in the center of town. It covers two salient aspects of the development of Tehuacan; the first being the process by which corn was cultivated and crossbred to turn a grass with virtually no nutrition into the fat, juicy corn on the cob that is familiar today. The second being the movements of the nomadic peoples who initially inhabited the lands, only congregating in large groups when it rained heavily, and the eventual means by which they came to settle in one place; agriculture. Firstly, I think it's important to say that the perception is that the Aztecs were the first people to settle the region on a large scale. The Popolocans were the inhabitants of Tehuacan initially, and were actually conquered by their more famous overlords. Much less is known about them simply because they're such a small group, but I feel that this deserves a mention, historically. I love history, and find the Aztecs to be of particularly interesting and unique stock. They actually had government propaganda in every dwelling, and had a set of religious beliefs that I am more in sympathy with than most other religious doctrines available to us, or indeed still practiced by believers today. Those religious beliefs were polytheistic, essentially. Their gods were perceived as having similar faults to humans; jealousy, cowardice, and so on. They had the usual gods for the sun, moon, and death, but also a god for corn. A clear indication that this religion was man-made, as they seem to be in general. The sun was correctly identified as the giver of life, and animals were given large significance; snakes, jaguars, and other animals that inhabited the Americas at the time were all given status within the religious texts of the tribe. Of course, they sacrificed people, but we also know why. They lived in fear of their sun god, Huitzilopochtli (not ashamed that I googled the spelling of that), who they believed controlled the sun and needed sacrifices every day. If he didn't get the requisite sacrifice, the sun simply wouldn't rise the next morning, and the end of the world would begin. I often wonder whether they all truly believed this, and what it must have been like to live every day with the fear of this possibility. Clearly, given their proclivities for war for the necessity of taking prisoners as slaves and sacrificial victims, this was almost certainly a commonly held belief. In terms of their origin, it's generally recognized that the Aztecs migrated from harsh conditions, whether climate related or after difficulties with neighbours, in the North of Mexico. Their own legend/account goes that they were journeying in search of a numinous sign that would indicate the perfect place to build a city. Their leader saw an eagle perched on a cactus with a captured snake, near an enormous lake. They then built Tecnotitlan, which was to be renamed Mexico City by the Spanish.
Back to the actual museum though! Two things about the exhibit fascinated me. Firstly, the paltry, rudimentary offerings of nature were invariably half their current size when man first started cultivating them, and secondly, the typical museum vibe of imagining the people who made the items that had been carved, sculpted, or cut from the few materials available to them. Such was the ingenuity of the Aztecs, for example, that their religious sites and tombs were built to coordinate precisely with the movements of the sun and moon, throughout the year. Knowing, as we do now, that their paths change throughout the year, this is no mean feat. It is a widely known fact that the most advanced and widespread civilization in the Americas preceding the conquistadors never advanced past the stone age. They had writing, were capable of building the extraordinary pyramids we can still see today, and they had levels of mathematics that suggest a highly advanced civilization. On slightly less impressive or imposing grounds than the aforementioned pyramids, but no less admiring, I imagine a native squatting down to scoop up the clay, rock, or wood available to him/her and beginning their work on a cup, tool, or spearhead... What were they thinking as they worked? Did they whistle a tune whilst crafting? Did any of them conceive the thought that thousands of years later a strange, large white man would be gawping at the finished product of their labors in a museum? My imagination often wanders into this mode of thought in museums, and I often spend far longer than is needed for the absorption of facts wandering around the exhibits and imagining scenarios in which they were used. I turn into a zombie esque being that wishes to consume facts and daydreams, rather than the usual brains.
Back to the size of the foodstuffs available to the ancestors of the people I see and speak to every day (a thought that never fails to amaze me)... The corn, avocados, and green tomatoes bore almost no resemblance to their size and shape today when men here started cultivating them. Avocados were barely bigger than a strawberry, and the green tomatoes were smaller still. How many generations of sentient endeavour passed before these foodstuffs became not just edible, but nutritious? Seemingly dozens, if not hundreds. There's a wonderful chart in the museum that tracks the growth in size of corn over the 18 millennia since people have inhabited the area. "You can see why the people here are smaller than us!" Remarked my fellow museum goer, "The food they had doesn't look up to much."
The museum was all in Spanish, and we gobbled up the information available about events and practices following the inhabitation of the valley of Tehuacan some 18,000 years ago, right up to the last periods of freedom before the Spanish control. It was smaller than I was expecting, but that meant that I could devote my attention to reading each exhibit as thoroughly as was possible in another language. There are numerous museums in Puebla, to the North of here, and still larger numbers of them in Mexico city. Exciting stuff!
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