San Miguel Ixtapan
The Mexican Tiwanaku
By Marco M. Vigato on November 5, 2021
An Andean influence in Central Mexico?
Over the past century, dozens of carved megalithic stone slabs of unknown origin and function have been uncovered in the southern part of the state of Mexico and the north of Guerrero, mostly around the small archaeological site of San Miguel Ixtapan, Tejupilco. Further excavations, beginning in 1995, have revealed the remains of extensive megalithic architecture consisting of huge blocks of basalt and andesite, many weighting several tons, showing remarkable similarities with South American artistic and architectural styles.
The early explorers
The first mention of the existence of significant archaeological artefacts in this part of the state of Mexico dates to 1908, however, it was not until 1960 that the American archaeologists Charles R. Wicke and Maudie Bullington produced the first photographs of a number of enigmatic stone slabs from the church of San Miguel Ixtapan and the nearby Hacienda de Guadalupe. In their article titled “A possible Andean Influence in Central Mexico” for the prestigious Cambridge journal American Antiquity, they wrote: “Stone slabs recently discovered in the region near Tejupilco in the state of Mexico are sculptured in a simple, low-relief, bold, geometric style unlike known Mesoamerican styles but with striking parallels in the Peruvian Andes”. According to the two authors, the reliefs “represent an art style […] which has never been described in the literature of Mesoamerican archaeology. Furthermore, it seems impossible to associate it with any known Mesoamerican sculptural style. The isolated location of the reliefs in southwestern state of Mexico near the Guerrero border has certainly contributed to their obscurity.” (Wicke and Bullington, 1960)
All the slabs appeared to bear the same mysterious ornamentation, consisting of an inverted T-shape over a rectangular frame with double or triple moldings, their sizes varying from about 1.26 meters (4.1 ft) long to over 1.60 meters (5.3 ft).
Despite the initial interest caused by Wicke and Bullington’s report, however, the slabs were quickly dismissed as Colonial-era artefacts. Critics suggested that this type of precision carving in rocks as hard as andesite and basalt (6-7 hardness on the Moh scale) would have required the use of metal tools of which there is no evidence in the archaeological record.
One of the remarkable stone slabs from the site of San Miguel Ixtapan, Tejupilco, Mexico.
The first scientific excavations
Excavations conducted at San Miguel Ixtapan starting in 1995 revealed numerous additional archaeological structures, including a large pyramid, a Mesoamerican ball court and a monumental stairway built of huge blocks of basalt. They also uncovered a sealed chamber on one side of the main pyramid. The chamber, known as “Recinto de las Esculturas”, contained two huge megalithic slabs covered in intricate geometric patterns similar to the one photographed by Wicke and Bullington in 1960, together with several idols in a peculiar, crossed-arms pose. This discovery showed beyond a doubt that the slabs are indeed ancient artefacts, and not Colonial-era sculptures produced with metal tools in modern times.
The chamber and archaeological context in which the slabs were found has since been dated to the late Classic or Epiclassic period, about 700-900 AD. There is however evidence that the slabs may be in fact much older, and that they were only appropriated by a later culture.
While the excavated portion of the site is still very limited, the evidence uncovered suggests that it was already inhabited in the pre-Classic period (ca. 1000 BCE – 250 AD), and possibly much earlier, during the Formative period of Mesoamerican civilization.
According to information published by the municipality of Tejupilco, the earliest evidence of human occupation in the area dates back to 12,000 BCE, in the form of cave paintings at the Cueva de los Monitos site in the Sierra de Nanchititla. In the early 2010’s, workers digging to install a lightning rod on top of a still unexcavated pyramid basement uncovered an intact burial which has since been dated to 2000 BCE. This is nearly 2,000 years before the beginning of the site’s recorded history. Next to the burial was also found a necklace and jadeite stone mask of exceptional artistic workmanship, which are now exhibited in the San Miguel Ixtapan site museum. The civilization that produced the artifacts is entirely unknown.
This region was certainly important in ancient times for the production of salt, a tradition that continues to this day in the many salt mines and evaporation ponds that are found along the steep basaltic cliffs flanking the course of the Rio Aquiagua.
The incredible scale model (“Maqueta” stone)
One of the most remarkable discoveries made at the site of San Miguel Ixtapan is that of a huge scale model of what appears to be a large prehispanic city or ceremonial center containing numerous pyramids, ball courts, sunken plazas and monumental stairways and platforms. The model was first uncovered in 1985, and it was its discovery that prompted the first large scale excavations at the site.
Archaeologists disagree as to the age of the model, but a consensus seems to have formed around a date in the Epiclassic or early Post-classic period (ca. 700 to 1200 CE). It was carved out of a huge 3 by 4 meters (10 by 13 ft) basalt boulder and is similar to other architectural stone models found at Xochicalco in the state of Morelos, Plazuelas in Guanajuato and Valle de Bravo, also in the state of Mexico.
If there is no doubt that the model represents a large pre-Columbian city of exceptional size and sophistication, the question is: What city?
The excavated portions of the site of San Miguel Ixtapan do not seem to match any of the architectural features of the stone model, a fact that has led archaeologists to speculate that the model either depicted a city that is still lost, or one that was yet to be built. It is also possible that the model had a purely ritualistic function, and did not bear as such a direct relationship to any real place, being rather the imaginary or idealized representation of a sacred city or a ceremonial center. The model nevertheless appears to suggest a kind of monolithic architecture that finds its closest parallels in the rock-cut temples of Malinalco, Acatzingo de la Piedra, near Tenancingo, and Tezcotzingo, also in central Mexico.
High-precision megalithic stonework
The most striking aspect of the site of San Miguel Ixtapan, and what called the attention of the early researchers and explorers of the region, is however its sophisticated megalithic stonework, represented by numerous andesite and basalt stone slabs of unknown function showing elaborate geometric designs.
Over several visits conducted in the first months of 2021 by the present author accompanied by members of the ARX Project research team and archaeologist Victor Osorio Ogarrio, director of the archaeological site and museum of San Miguel Ixtapan, we could identify and document over a dozen of these megalithic stone slabs, only a handful of which had been already described by previous authors.
Three andesitic stone slabs with geometric carvings in the church of San Miguel Ixtapan (two in the buttresses to the north and south, one standing in front of the church past the entrance arch).
One undecorated basalt stone slab on one side of the plaza facing the church
Two green stone slabs in the “Recinto de las Esculturas” of the archaeological site of San Miguel Ixtapan, partially covered over with stucco.
A fragment of a large basalt stone slab from Juluapan, now housed in the site museum of San Miguel Ixtapan.
A broken basalt stone slab at Rancho “I” – The same photographed by Wicke and Bullington in their 1960 article, when the slab was still intact and laying on the grounds of the Hacienda de Guadalupe.
A large intact basalt stone slab, facing upside down, at Rancho “I”, located a short distance from the one above already reported by Wicke and Bullington.
A basalt stone slab standing partially buried near a looted mound at the Hacienda de Guadalupe, photographed by Wicke and Bullington in 1959 and now lost.
Two undecorated andesitic stone slabs and the fragment of another andesitic slab with T-shaped geometric decoration on the Cerro de la Guitarra, excavated by treasure hunters from a nearby mound.
A basalt stone slab with geometric carvings from the site of Pinzán Morado (Los Pinzanes), about 15 kilometers to the northwest of San Miguel Ixtapan, found inside a looted mound and reburied by the INAH (Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History).
In addition to these 14 slabs that are known with certainty from the area of San Miguel Ixtapan, 5 more are known from eyewitness accounts and personal communications:
2 more slabs near the Hacienda de Guadalupe (Reported by Wicke and Bullington based on eyewitness accounts but already lost at the time of their visit).
One undecorated slab in San Francisco Tejupilco (Victor Osorio Ogarrio – personal communication), probably still in situ.
One slab excavated by treasure hunters from a looted mound near the entrance arch to the town of san Miguel Ixtapan, now lost.
One or more slabs laying in the riverbed of the Rio Aquiagua, downstream from Rancho “I” (Victor Osorio Ogarrio – personal communication).
The size of the slabs ranges between 1.2 meters (4 ft) long by 0.9 meters (3 ft) wide, up to 1.8 meters (6 ft) by 1.6 (5 ft) wide, with a thickness of between 20 and 60 centimeters. The largest slab from Rancho “I” is believed to weight between 3 and 5 tons.
The decoration consists of an inverted T-shape above a rectangular frame with a double, triple, and in some cases even quadruple molding around it. It is not known whether the slabs were meant to be displayed horizontally or vertically, nor whether the T-shape formed the bottom or top of the slab (The assumption that the T-shape was inverted is based exclusively on the fact that most of the known slabs have been found with the inverted T-shape at the top and the rectangular frame at the bottom. The slabs in the “Recinto de las Esculturas” do not conform to this pattern and appear to have been placed there in secondary use).
The slab found standing in front of the church of San Miguel Ixtapan is unique in that it contains two marked protrusions in the bottom part of the inverted T-shape.
Cave symbolism and the mysterious Cerro de la Muñeca
What could be the meaning of the inverted T-shape that features so prominently in the sculptural tradition of San Miguel Ixtapan? If we leave aside interpretations based on the ‘Ik’ Maya glyph, taken as a symbol of Wind and thus of the god Quetzalcoatl, the most convincing explanation is that the inverted T-shape may signify a cave, possibly an artificial cavern or tomb.
An almost identical symbol appears on the Map of Cuauhtinchan II as a representation of the sacred cave and place of origin. In this respect, it differs from other depictions of natural caves in that it exhibits s a geometric profile (possibly an artificial opening surmounted by a lintel), and may thus refer either to an artificial cave, or to a modified natural cavern (Medina and Tucker, 2008).
This cave symbolism is certainly very ancient, for it is found already in Olmec art dating to the formative and pre-classic period (most notably at Chalcatzingo, in the Mexican state of Morelos).
Among Mesoamerican peoples, the cave was seen as the physical representation of Chicomoztoc, the legendary place of origin. It may have also had a funerary association, for mortuary bundles were usually deposited in caves and are frequently depicted in codices in the interior or near the mouth of caves. The inverted T-shape may thus represent a symbolic entrance to the underworld, the dwelling of the ancestors.
One such artificially enhanced cave may have existed in the Cerro de la Muñeca, a prominent relief to the north of San Miguel Ixtapan in whose direction many of the ceremonial pyramids and platforms at the site appear to have been aligned.
The enigmatic profile of Cerro de la Muñeca, seen from the archaeological site of San Miguel Ixtapan
Evidence of trans-oceanic contact with South America
The style of stonework found at San Miguel Ixtapan is extremely precise, with clear-cut right angles and perfectly planar surfaces. Beyond their great similarity with Peruvian stonework (like at Ñaupa Iglesia and Baño de la Ñusta in Ollantaytambo), as already remarked by Wicke and Bullington, the monolithic slabs, andesitic pillars and other basalt and andesite architectural elements of San Miguel Ixtapan evoke images of the great archaeological sites of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku in Bolivia.
There is presently no explanation for how exactly this style of megalithic stonework, which is unparalleled in Mesoamerica, could have made its way from the highlands of Peru and Bolivia to central Mexico, over 5,000 kilometers away.
Like a buried Tiwanaku still awaiting proper archaeological discovery and recognition, only future excavations under the thick alluvial silt that covers much of the site may one day reveal the true extent of the megalithic architecture of San Miguel Ixtapan. Preliminary measurements show that the ancient site must have been extensive, occupying an area of at least 3 by 1.5 kilometers, and was possibly destroyed in a natural cataclysm (an earthquake or a landslide?) that left most of the structures deeply buried under a thick layer of sediments.
According to colonial sources, the area of San Miguel Ixtapan was inhabited by peoples speaking a non-Nahua language, called Chontal (literally “strangers” or foreigners”) by the Aztecs. Among these peoples were certainly the Tarascans, also known as Purupecha, a people whose exact geographical origin has long intrigued historians and ethnologists.
The latest research suggests that the Tarascan may have reached the coasts of Mexico from either Ecuador or Peru (Malmstrom, 1995). Such would be proven by the existence of close trade links in pre-Columbian times between the west of Mexico and South America, as well as by the great linguistic affinity that exists between the Quechua and Purupecha languages, together with the diffusion in this part of Mexico of typically South American metallurgical techniques. Up until colonial times, the Tarascans were known as skilled workers of gold, silver and copper, who possessed weapons and tools of metal unlike any others in Mesoamerica.
An endangered site
The site of San Miguel Ixtapan and its extensive megalithic remains are now threatened by urbanization and looting. One of the largest megalithic stone slabs photographed by Wicke and Bullington in 1960 on the grounds of the Hacienda de Guadalupe was broken as recently as the early 2000’s by vandals and treasure hunters. Many more slabs have since disappeared and are only known through eyewitness accounts.
The whole region comprising the southern part of the state of Mexico and the north of Guerrero is a hotspot of narco and criminal activity, which also extends to antiquities trafficking and the looting of archaeological sites. Nearly everywhere one finds the traces of holes and trenches dug by treasure hunters, who systematically demolish the ancient monuments in their search for valuable artefacts that they can sell on the antiquities market.
A non-profit cultural association, the ARX Project, is now involved in the documentation of the surviving megalithic monuments of the region, supporting the safe removal of the most endangered artefacts to the local museum of San Miguel Ixtapan, where they can be studied, preserved and displayed to the public.
You can follow the progress of the San Miguel Ixtapan conservation project and receive updates on our latest archaeological explorations through our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ARXprojectMX/.
Note: this article first appeared on Ancient Origins on November 5, 2021.