Mexico has a new protected archaeological monument. The site is a 1,000-year-old ceremonial center of the Otomi or Hnahnu people, an indigenous group that still inhabits the area around the Sierra Madre mountains. The announcement is the first of its kind in a decade, a long absence due to a severe lack of budgetary funding available for archaeological research in the country for the past several years.
On 20 September 2022, the announcement by the National Institute of Anthropology and History Mexico , or the INAH, listed Cañada de la Virgen as the 49th zone of archaeological monuments in the country. According to a Reuters report, Cañada de la Virgen is the modern name of the pre-Hispanic site that is located near the quaint mountain town San Miguel de Allende which attracts tourists from all over the world every year.
Cañada de la Virgen is located near San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. ( INAH)
Cañada de la Virgen, the Ancient Otomi and their Language
The archaeological site is an ancient Otomi ceremonial center and consists of a large stone temple complex and many ancillary structures. It covers a total area of more than 722 hectares (1,784 acres). Many of the structures are built in alignment with the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies. This lends the site a certain individuality among contemporary Mesoamerican sites , flourishing as it did between 600 and 900 AD, the Mesoamerican Epiclassic period. Many Maya cities also belong to this period.
The structures have an axis of symmetry with the rising and setting sun and moon and the whole visually dominates the central basin of the Laja River, indicating its ritual importance. It has a sunken patio that is characteristic of the archaeological tradition of Guanajuato. The pyramidal bases are ordered around this patio, which was a site for ritual practices, a meeting place and a seat of elders.
Archaeologists have concluded that Cañada de la Virgen was a site for practicing complex funerary rituals, since most of the human and animal burials are oriented to celestial movements, calendrical events and requests for rain. Another unique feature is the hydraulic engineering system designed to collect rainwater in ponds. A large reservoir for water storage formed part of the architectural layout of the site.
Experts have concluded that Cañada de la Virgen in Mexico was located along a major trading route and that it was a popular pilgrimage site. ( INAH)
Trade and Pilgrimage at Cañada de la Virgen
Past digs at the site have uncovered artifacts from both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts suggesting that apart from its ritual importance, Cañada de la Virgen was also located along a major trading route. It is likely that the priestly class lived at the ceremonial center. Populations living around the site spread across the region and Cañada de la Virgen became a popular pilgrimage site. It is believed to have been part of a larger social organization that incorporated around ninety pre-Hispanic settlements.
Some of Cañada de la Virgen’s structures follow Teotihuacan architectural traditions, modified and adapted to local patterns, probably related to the population movements that preceded and were part of the fall of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan is the famous ancient metropolis northeast of Mexico City that has many tall pyramids and temples.
Archaeologists believe that a version of the modern-day Otomi language may have been spoken in Teotihuacan. The ancient Otomi lived largely around the present-day central Mexican states of Puebla, Hidalgo and Guanajuato, where Cañada de la Virgen is located. In the 14th century the Otomi were conquered by the Aztecs and assimilated were within the vast Aztec empire.
Cañada de la Virgen is the first new protected national monument to have been approved by the government in a decade. ( INAH)
First New Protected National Monument in a Decade
The INAH statement particularly mentioned that the declaration of Cañada de la Virgen as a protected national monument is the first such under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. This highlights the drastic budgetary cuts for archaeological research as part of austerity measures under the present government. The last time a monument got protected status in Mexico was in 2012, when a collection of petroglyphs in southern Sinaloa was declared an archaeological site known as Las Labradas.
A project that emphasizes the indifference of López Obrador’s government to ancient culture and heritage is an under construction multi-billion-dollar tourist train in the archaeologically rich Yucatan Peninsula. Experts fear it will not only damage delicate ecosystems, but also as-yet undiscovered ancient sites and artifacts. Taking into account this bigger picture, the recent granting of protected status to the Cañada de la Virgen site assumes greater importance.
Top image: Cañada de la Virgen is a protected national monument in Mexico. Source: INAH
By Sahir Pandey