Cradle of Mesoamerican Civilization?

By Marco M. Vigato on November 17, 2020


In search of a Lost Cradle


The oldest Nahua legends speak of a mythical place called Tamoanchan, considered to be the cradle of all Mesoamerican civilizations and a sort of terrestrial paradise from which the ancestors of the Aztecs and the Toltecs would go out to repopulate the earth after a great Flood. According to the early colonial historian Bernardino de Sahagún (1500-1590 AD), the original inhabitants of Tamoanchan had come from the Sea: “They say the came to this land to rule over it…they came from the sea on ships, a multitude of them, and landed on the shore of the sea, to the North…from there they went on, seeking the white mountains, the smoky mountains…led by their priests and by the voice of their gods. Finally, they came to the place that they called Tamoanchan…and there they settled [1].” These learned men invented the sacred books, the count of destiny, the book of years and the book of dreams. Tamoanchan has been since identified with a number of places in ancient Mexico, including Tula and Teotihuacan, but these are likely later associations from a time when its true location had already become lost and shrouded in legend. 


The oldest Mesoamerican Civilization


The earliest historical traditions locate Tamoanchan far from the coast, in the province of Cuauhnahuac near present-day Cuernavaca. From there, the tribes that would become the ancestors of all later Mesoamerican civilizations spread to the North, East and South to give rise to the civilizations of the Toltecs, the Olmecs and the Maya. These people called themselves the Chan, the “People of the Serpent”, and the very name of Tamoanchan may have come from them [2].

In 1911, the bishop of Cuernavaca, Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete formulated a theory that Tamoanchan was once a real place, whose ruins were to be found in the Southern part of the state of Morelos. He believed that the civilization of Tamoanchan was older even than that of the Olmecs and had spread throughout Mesoamerica from a single point of origin. A few years earlier, Plancarte had collected rumors of the discovery of immense stone ruins in the remote mountains of the Sierra de Huautla, to the South of Cuernavaca, which he believed could point to the location of Tamoanchan. These ruins were of a cyclopean kind, entirely different from the crude constructions of the Aztecs and of an antiquity so remote that no record of their builders had survived in the records of the Conquest.

A view of the great megalithic walls surrounding the Acropolis of Chimalacatlan. Some of the stones measure over 3 meters long, with an estimated weight of between 5 to 8 tons.

“A most ancient and famous work”


The ruins were again rediscovered in 1948 by the archaeologist Florencia Müller, who similarly considered them to be of very great antiquity. In the absence of datable remains, she tentatively attributed them to the Olmecs, whose presence in the region is attested since at least 1,200 B.C. [3] The largest structures were located near the village of Chimalacatlan and consisted of a number of megalithic stone platforms occupying the artificially-leveled summit of the Cerro del Venado. The walls survived up to a height of nearly 8 meters in certain points and were built of huge blocks of stone measuring up to 3 meters long, laid in regular rows without mortar. Immense efforts had certainly gone into the construction of the massive walls and terraces, yet no trace could be found of the original builders and inhabitants. The only ceramic and a few tombs found at the site dated to a much later period than that of the construction of the walls. Nor was there any trace of the structures that were intended to be built on top of the megalithic platforms.

One large stone platform measured some 40 by 30 meters and would have once contained a sunken courtyard also lined with megalithic stone blocks. A partially carved rock surface and some giant monoliths on the upper terraces of the site are all that remains of a great unfinished structure that may have been a temple. Some of the stones that had been prepared for the construction, only partially detached from the natural bedrock, would have weighted as many as 20 tons. A number of cylindrical column shafts, each measuring about 2.5 meters long, were also found nearby. More constructions were certainly planned near the summit of the hill, where the rock was artificially flattened and carved, but these were either dismantled or were never built. Even so, the ruins of Chimalacatlan are not only the largest and best-preserved examples of cyclopean megalithic architecture in all of Mesoamerica, but also quite possibly the oldest.   

Lost Cities of the Mexican Highlands


With the exception of some consolidation work conducted by the Mexican National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH) during the early 2000’s, and in spite of their enormous historical importance, the ruins of Chimalacatlan remain today in a state of near complete abandonment. Yet they are by no means the only megalithic ruins in the area. When the famous explorer and archaeologist William Niven visited the region in 1891, he recalled walking for miles among the ruins of ancient habitations that would have once formed part of an immense prehistoric city: “broken walls, ruined buildings, huge in size beyond comprehension…marked the slopes as far as the eye could reach”; he later wrote in his diaries. [4] Some of the buildings he encountered were larger than those of Mitla and covered an immense area: “It must have been an immense nation that once dwelt here”, he observed; “and this city, or chain of cities, must have been fully as large as Babylon, or Thebes, or Memphis, or other famous cities of antiquity.”

It must have been an immense nation that once dwelt here...and this city, or chain of cities, must have been fully as large as Babylon, or Thebes, or Memphis, or other famous cities of antiquity.

William Niven, 1891

In January 2019 we were accompanied on an expedition into the Sierra de Huautla by the responsible for Culture of the municipality of Tlaquiltenango, Prof. Rogelio Ortega Gallardo. Our goal was to photograph the ancient ruins that were said to exist near the village of Huaxtla. Just as described by Niven over a century ago, the ruins cover an immense area and extend over several hilltops and across great ravines. Everywhere one could see the remains of fallen walls, badly dilapidated pyramids and stone platforms. Although the thick vegetation only allowed to appreciate a small portion of the site, the style of the ruins appeared to be entirely similar to that of Chimalacatlan, as consisting of huge megalithic stone blocks arranged in regular courses. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the walls remained intact, the rest having fallen long ago. The local villagers confirmed that the ruins extend for several miles in all directions, but no systematic mapping of the site has ever been carried out. According to information provided by Prof. Ortega, at least 41 sites with megalithic architecture are known to exist within the municipality of Tlaquiltenango alone, which would have formed part of a nearly continuous chain of cities. There are moreover legends of a network of ancient tunnels extending throughout the entire region, including a walled-up entrance under the ruins of the colonial convent of Las Bovedas.

The Unknown megalithic civilization of Mexico


The mysterious ruins that are found in the Southern part of the state of Morelos are among the largest to be found in the entire American continent and could also turn out to be among its oldest. They belong to a time possibly earlier still than that of the Olmecs, and may indeed turn out to be those of the legendary lost city of Tamoanchan – The Cradle of Mesoamerican civilization. A mighty megalithic civilization once reigned over much of Central Mexico, which left behind the great stone ruins of unknown date that the later Toltec, Maya and Aztec invaders encountered and appropriated. The quality of the stonework of Chimalacatlan, as well as the many more examples of rock-cut surfaces and megalithic architecture found throughout Central Mexico, would put this civilization on a par, if not with those of Peru, at least with that of the equally mysterious builders of the great cyclopean cities of Italy, Greece and Turkey. We can only hope that in future years more of the past of this fascinating region will be revealed as its ancient cities are also rescued from centuries of oblivion.  

Note: This article first appeared on Ancient Origins on February 9th, 2019: Link here


[1] Bernardino de Sahagún, Codice Matritense de la Real Academia, folio 191,192

[2] Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete, Tamoanchan: El Estado de Morelos y el principio de la civilizacion, Imp. El Mensajero, Mexico, 1911
[3] Florencia Muller, Chimalacatlan, Acta Anthropologia, Mexico 1948

[4] Robert S. Wicks and Roland H. Harrison, Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods, Texas Tech University Press, 1999, p. 43

[5] Mario Cordova Tello, Juan Pablo Sereno Uribe, Sur de Morelos: Chimalacatlan, INAH, http://consejoarqueologia.inah.gob.mx/wp-content/uploads/1_proychimala.pdf

[6] Morelos Turistico, Turismo Tlaquiltenango http://www.morelosturistico.com/espanol/pagina/z_146_Tlaquiltenango__Turismo.php

© 2021 by Marco M. Vigato