2017‎ > ‎

Banding & bounding sortie #3, Cantona

In the little over a half-century that I have been visiting Mexican archaeological sites in the northern deserts, the central valleys, the Gulf plain, the Yucatán, and the Soconusco, I never got to Cantona. Never, in fact, even heard of it. But then one lazy afternoon when I was reading a map, which I sometimes do to pass the time and fire up the imagination, I saw the telltale three-dot-triangle in the middle of a hunk of southeast Puebla, distant from any village or even road. Then last year, when Linda and I were driving up to the Sierra Norte de Puebla, we picked a road that theoretically should have gone near the mysterious Cantona. Nope, not a sign, not an indication, just a big Empty of dusty, corn-stubble milpas, with volcanic cones poking up on all 360-degrees of horizon.


Note to self: Read up on this; check Google Earth; plot out a route.


Which I did. And what I read suggested that Cantona was unlike any other pre-Columbian city site in Mexico. Or, for that matter, the whole of the Americas. Middle-American pre-Columbian city sites, say from East Saint Louis to the middle of Costa Rica, for all their incredible variety and their temporal span of 3,000 years from the beginnings of agriculture to the coming of the Europeans, tend to lay themselves out in accord with certain general conceptions about how people ought to live and worship together. House mounds, temple mounds; right angles and sensitivity to the cardinal points; elites in the middle and poor folks on the periphery. There are notable exceptions, dictated by geography, needs for defense, and available building materials, but after one visits a half-dozen city cites in this part of the world, one feels a comfortable familiarity when walking into the seventh.


But Cantona . . . .! The word was that it was big. Bigger than big. Like archaeologists have mapped 500 streets! And that many of those streets are raised, and run between chest-high walls. And that opening from these streets are neighborhood house compounds, each with five or eight house mounds and a religious space or two enclosed within protective surrounding walls. Not towering square blocks, like say Perú’s Chan Chan, or midtown Manhattan,

  but walls that wander in irregular shapes, adapting to the terrain, each enclosing an area the size of maybe a football field. And that the whole thing sprawls out forever and covers an entire vast lava flow. It was arguably the largest city in the Western Hemisphere before the coming of the Europeans.


Well, Abby and Matt and I found Cantona on our way back south from Cuetzalan and the cloud forest. We found it off a dirt road in a corner of a Big Empty between Tesquiquixtla, Zacatepec, Tepeyehualco, and Tezuitlán–all of them household names, no doubt, and future tourist Mecas— in a little valley bounded by the cones of small volcanoes. At 2,600 meters in altitude (about 8,500 feet) it is high and dry. It seems to be named for a nearby cattle hacienda that has risen again from a predecessor destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. The pre-Columbian city site blankets all twelve square kilometers of a rugged lava flow. Archaeologists, who have been working here for over twenty years, have excavated and restored for visiting a little less than one percent of the site, including a handful of tall temple mounds on one of the higher parts of the lava flow.

Abby and Matt and I explored for three hours, and covered less than half of that excavated less than one percent, and from the top of each of the restored mounds that we climbed we could see unexcavated mounds and walls and streets extending in every direction to the limits of what we could perceive and beyond.


The city seems to have thrived for about 500 years, and to have been abandoned around the year 1000 as were Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, and many other Classic Period sites. Its 3,000+ mapped neighborhood compounds must have housed an enormous population. I tried to do the math in my head. Say each compound held five families (5 x 3,000), each with, say, 6 family members (15,000 x 6). 90,000+ people?! Could this be true? I cranked up the Google satellite view, and zoomed to maximum magnification, and quickly realized how the grid of streets covering that terrain could easily have summed to 3,000

compounds . . .  why there must have been . . . plus or minus . . .  well, really a whole lot of people.

No wonder there were so many sports arenas in Cantona: archaeologists have already found 24 separate ball courts. Lots of stone phalluses, too.


Among the compounds archaeologists have found a number with significant detritus from working obsidian, the volcanic glass that abounds near these volcanic cones and is pretty scarce in much of the rest of Mexico. Like, for example, the central valleys of Oaxaca, where all the obsidian for tools had to be imported from the north. On the other hand, there is little evidence of sophisticated pottery making in Cantona. An economy based on trade? OK, but . . . people still had to eat. Agriculture from the surrounding plains? For a city of that many people, think of the commute to the far off farms! And without the wheel, and without beasts of burden to haul things around. And what did they do for water? There doesn’t seem to be any on the lava flow. The nearby volcanic cones seem to be mostly ash (and some of them are currently being mined for ash), and not likely water sources. Were there aqueducts bringing water from the super volcanoes Orizaba and Perote and Citlaltéptl? I didn’t read about them, or see any physical signs. Though we did see that someone had taken care to Catholicize the site, and Cantona had its own spiny cheerleader.


With the time we had, we traipsed around a little bit and visited the museum. Took some pictures. Appetite has been whetted. I could come back. There’s a little hotel/restaurant at the edge of the lava flow by the turn in to the INAH site museum. It looks like an acceptable place to hole up for a couple of days of exploring the lava flow. I’d need to wear strong boots and bring lots of water and sunscreen. I’m looking forward to it, maybe sometime this spring, or later this year. Come on down if you’d like to join me.