Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lost Cities of the Mexican Highlands

The mysterious ruins of Chimalacatlan

      In a remote mountain region to the South of the Central Mexican state of Morelos, stand some of the most enigmatic megalithic ruins of all of Mesoamerica.

The impressive megalithic Acropolis of Chimalacatlan rises on top of a high ridge overlooking the Sierra de Huautla and the vast plains of Morelos and Guerrero. [Photo by Author]
      Mexico and Central America are rightfully famous for their impressive concentration of ancient Pre-Columbian ruins, covering a time span of several thousand years, from the Olmec civilization of the early pre-classic and formative period (1,400 BC to 400 BC), to the great Maya civilization of the lowlands of Chiapas and Guatemala (beginning 750 BC), to the bloodthirsty rituals and military organization of the great Aztec empire (1,325 AD to 1,521 AD). 
Yet, for how impressive the architectural and artistic achievements of these great Pre-Columbian civilizations (suffice to mention the great Maya pyramids, palaces and ballcourts), megalithic stone architecture seems to be largely absent from the landscape of ancient Mesoamerica.

      Certainly, many Mesoamerican civilizations were familiar with cutting and raising large stone monoliths. As an example, one could easily cite the over hundreds of stelae erected by the Mayas of the Classic Period (250 to 900 AD), some of which weighting over 60 tons [1], or the equally impressive Olmec stone heads (weighting betwen 6 and 40 tons [2]) and Aztec monoliths. The most famous Aztec monolith, the celebrated Stone of the Sun, or Piedra del Sol, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City, in fact a massive stone calendar and cosmologic monument, weights an estimate of nearly 25 tons [3]. Even more impressive, the Tlaloc monolith (originally from San Miguel Coatlinchan and now decorating a fountain outside of the same Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City), weights in excess of 168 tons and is also believed to date to the Aztec period [4].

      In spite of these astonishing feats of engineering, the use of large and often very large stones seemed to be limited to free-standing monuments, while smaller stones, adobe and concrete were the materials of choice throughout Mesoamerica for all large scale constructions and pyramids. Even the most impressive Maya pyramids, as well as the even larger pyramids at Teotihuacan and Cholula, were built almost exclusively of small, incoherent stones and adobe, mixed with concrete and stuccoed or plastered on the outside.
Unlike the Andean region of South America, with its impressive megalithic architecture as in the region of Cuzco, capital of the Inca empire, and Tiwanaku, nothing on the scale of the impressive megalithic walls and constructions of Peru seems to have ever characterized Mesoamerican architecture. 

      There is however one remarkable exception to this rule, which is as impressive in its monumentality and scale as it is also remarkably unknown to the public at large, including many of the very specialists in Mesoamerican archaeology and architecture [5]. This is the case of the megalithic platforms and walls of Chimalacatlan, in the south of Morelos and near the border with the state of Guerrero. 

"A most ancient and famous work"

      The ruins of Chimalacatlan are located within the boundaries of the municipality of Tlaquiltenango, amid the stunning natural setting of the Sierra de Huautla. 
It takes about 40 minutes to reach the tiny village of Chimalacatlan from the municipal capital of Tlaquiltenango, and during the rainy season, another 30 to 40 minutes to walk the steep and muddy trail leading up to the ruins. 

      The site lamentably lacks almost any kind of tourist infrastructure, with the exception of a decaying panel at the end of the trail, informing you that you have finally reached the site. What you will find, however, will more than compensate the effort required to get to this remote location. 

The first structured encountered on the Mesa del Venado (and the only one at least partially cleared from the thick vegetation covering the hill) is a ceremonial ballcourt resting on top of a high dry stone platform. [Photo by Author] 
A detail of the wall construction on the Mesa del Venado shows the use of mid-sized, roughly cut stones around the corners of the structures. Although of not particularly accurate workmanship, these platforms are remarkable for the use of dry, unmortared stone. [Photo by Author]
The little ceremonial ballcourt on top of the Mesa del Venado is one of the most distinctively Meso-American structures at the site, although it possibly dates to a later phase of occupation than the megalithic walls of the Acropolis, when the settlement expanded to engulf the nearby hill. [Photo by Author]
      The first ancient construction encountered on the site, occupying a plateau know as Mesa del Venado, is a vast ceremonial platform complete with a ruined pyramid, almost entirely covered by the lush tropical vegetation of the area, and a small ballcourt game. 
Here for the first time the unusual character of the ruins of Chimalacatlan starts to emerge. The ballcourt itself rests on a large platform, built with carefully arranged unmortared stones: Even though the general quality of the masonry and stone construction is quite poor, the presence of dry walls and unmortared stone construction is striking when compared to the architectural style of other nearby sites like Xochicalco. 

      The main ceremonial center of the ancient city occupies the hill right opposite to this first group of ruins, called Cerro del Venado. The trail to the top runs amidst giant cactuses and copal trees forming a scenery of stunning natural beauty in one of the largest protected areas of tropical dry forest in all of Mexico.

      The site itself is arranged on a set of dry stone platforms, placed at different levels, once connected though a system of monumental ramps and stairways of which only few sections emerge from the thick underbrush and vegetation. Unfortunately, the lower platforms are currently in a very ruinous state, still awaiting excavation and proper consolidation works. It seems, however, that the platforms formed a set of plazas at different levels, roughly following the profile of the natural elevation.

The decaying sign at the entrance of the site. You can zoom in the image to read an English and Spanish description of the ruins, as well as a map of the major structures still visible on the mountain. [Photo by Author] 
The long ascent to the Acropolis is finally compensated with the impressive sight of this megalithic stone wall, that closes the path from the lower terraces. [Photo by Author]
      It is not until one reaches the middle portion of the hill that one encounters the first spectacular examples of megalithic architecture at the site. 
The megalithic buildings consists of a set of two superimposed platforms, at slightly different elevations,only the first one of which appears to be complete on all four sides. 
The lower platform is perfectly square and measures about 40 meters on each side. Its outer walls reach at least 7 to 8 meters high at the North-West corner, and are entirely built of massive ashlars, some of which over 2,5 meters long. The construction is of remarkable quality and accuracy, consisting of several layers of carefully laid out and jointed megalithic stone blocks. 
The second platform shares the exact same characteristics of the first one, including the slightly inward-sloping walls and fine megalithic masonry. Only the main facade of the platform survives in its entirety, while the remaining sides terminate abruptly after 25 or 30 meters against the natural bedrock.

The great megalithic wall facing the ravine on the North-West side of the Acropolis. The wall continues without interruptions for a length of about 60 or 70 meters, and encircles the Acropolis on three sides (the fourth one is the natural bedrock). Some of the stones are over 2,5 meters in length and might weight in excess of 5 or 6 tons. [Photo by Author]
The point where the lower platform joins the upper megalithic platform is marked by a beautiful angle, where the wall reaches again an heigh of about 5 to 6 meters. [Photo by Author]
The height of the wall delimiting the perimeter of the second (upper) megalithic platform decreases progressively as the slope of the hill increases, until leveling down to the level of the natural bedrock. This would have made it rather unsuitable to serve a defensive purpose, and suggest instead a ritual or ceremonial use of the megalithic platform above. [Photo by Author]
      The longest continuous stretch of megalithic walls, facing a deep ravine and joining the two platforms, covers a length of about 60 or 70 meters, and forms a beautiful angle where the two platforms join at different elevations, the second (uppermost) platform being slightly larger at the base than the lower one. 

      The top of the lower platform is occupied by what appears to be a sunken patio or courtyard, a feature not uncommon at other Olmec sites in the Region (like Chalcatzingo and Teopantecuanitlan, which might provide important elements for the dating of the megalithic platforms of Chimalacatlan). The top of the uppermost platform was also artificially leveled around a natural rocky outcrop, and is occupied by several large boulders, still in the rough, which might have been intended as part of some sort of megalithic temple or construction, which was however never completed.

In this view, taken from the South-West corner of the second (uppermost) megalithic platform, the rubble filling of both platforms, behind the megalithic retaining walls, can be clearly appreciated. The top of the first (bottom) platform is occupied by a sort of sunken patio, also delimited by large megalithic blocks, which is suggestive of the ceremonial use of the site. [Photo by Author]
A detail of one of the megalithic stone blocks on the uppermost platform, measuring over 2,5 meters in length. Interestingly, most stones appear to be cracked , something which might be compatible with exposure to very intense heat. The natural erosion has also cancelled any trace of tool marks, and is itself suggestive of the high antiquity of the site. [Photo by Author]
The megalithic wall on the North-East side varies in height between 4 meters to as little as one meter, where it reaches the level of the natural bedrock. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the same North-East angle, as seen from the lower platform. Note the very accurate workmanship and placement of the megalithic stone blocks delimiting the second (upper) platform. [Photo by Author]
The center portion of the upper platform wall is composed of more irregular stone blocks, not nearly as finely jointed as the wall portions to its left and to its right. This is possibly suggestive of later repairs, or even of the presence of a doorway in this part of the wall, that was later closed. [Photo by Author]
Near the North-East corner of the second (upper) megalithic platform, the lower platform forms an angle with it that mirrors the similar angle on the North-West face of Acropolis. The lower wall here is not even one meter tall, and would have certainly served no defensive purpose. [Photo by Author]
The Western side of the Acropolis is delimited by a low wall, less than 3 meters high, which nevertheless shows some remarkably accurate megalithic construction (compare with the dry stone wall to the left, which is of much cruder construction). [Photo by Author]
Another view of the lower megalithic platform, from the North-East. It is unclear whether the wall was actually meant to be higher (as the layer of stones placed here above the level of the platform would appear to suggest), or was only meant to act as a monumental retaining wall for the platform itself. [Photo by Author]
      Above this second platform, the natural bedrock was laid barren and cut into what would appear as canals and trenches up until the top of the hill. There, the peak is occupied by a large pyramid-like structure, consisting of four super-imposed terraces, all sharing the same trapezoid shape with the exception of the top platform, which is a perfect square. From the uppermost platform, located almost at the center of a spectacular natural amphitheater of mountains, the view stretches far away to embrace the entire Sierra de Huatla and the plains of Cuernavaca. Although some larger stones were employed in the construction of this pyramid, and a few well cut stone blocks are visible on some of the terraces, the workmanship is generally poorer than the rest of the megalithic platforms, employing smaller and more irregular stones.

Above the second megalithic platform and along the rather irregular path leading up to the top of Cerro del Venado, the natural bedrock lies (perhaps artificially?) exposed. The very deep trenches and pits cut into it might not be entirely natural, and could instead be part of an abandoned attempt at sculpturing the summit of the hill into terraces. [Photo by Author]
The uppermost platforms on the Cerro del Venado, all built of smaller, less regular stones, rise directly from the natural bedrock underneath them. [Photo by Author]
The view from the top of Cerro del Venado stretches over the entire Sierra of Huautla. [Photo by Author]
The very summit of the Cerro del Venado is occupied by this massive four-tiered pyramid. Each level is trapezoidal in shape, retained by high dry-stone walls which, although lacking the megalithic precision and monumental appearance of the lower platforms, have survived remarkably intact the ravages of time over many centuries. Some larger stones of rather regular appearence, perhaps belonging to an earlier, megalithic, stage of construction, are to be found amidst the dry-stone masonry of this pyramid. [Photo by Author]
      The general feeling is that an impressive surge of construction led the unknown inhabitants of Chimalacatlan to build the massive megalithic walls and platforms that we see today, designing an entire system of terraces and platforms around the summit of the hill, only a small portion of which was however completed by the time the site was apparently abandoned. 
Construction on the site might have resumed at a much later point in time, perhaps centuries later, when the more crude constructions were added, which included the ballcourt game on the Mesa del Venado, and the terraced pyramid which occupies the summit of the hill and incorporates several partially carved megalithic blocks that were likely part of some older, perhaps unfinished structure occupying the summit.

A lost civilization?

      In spite of the little interest that currently sorrounds the ruins of Chimalacatlan and their impressive megalithic constructions, a much larger controversy was sparkled by their early discovery at the end of the XIX Century. 
Indeed, the first mention of the ruins of Chimalacatlan in the Sierra de Huautla might date back to the early times of the Spanish conquest. A passage in the Relacion Historica de la Nacion Tulteca, composed between 1600 and 1608 by Fernando de Alva Ixtlixochitl, one of the early native historians of the New Spain and descendant of the old kings of Texcoco, seems to refer to vestiges of a very similar kind to the ones of Chimalacatlan, also in the province of Cuernavaca. 

Describing some of the most ancient seats of the Toltecs, Ixtlixochitl describes the ruins in this terms:

"In Cuauhnahuac [The ancient name of what is nowadays the city and district of Cuernavaca - NdA] they built a palace with a city, a most ancient and famous work, a palace all built of large stones, of large cut stones without mortar, nor plaster, nor wood, but all of stone, carved and jointed together." [6]

Of course, the Toltecs mentioned in Ixtlixochitl's account must not be the historical Toltecs, but rather the "mythical" Toltecs, to whom all kinds of wonderful and prodigious things were attributed by the Aztecs and by the later inhabitants of the Central Mexican highlands. 

      The modern discovery of the ruins of Chimalactlan must however be attributed to a certain Don Lorenzo Castro, Cura of Tlaquiltenango, who discovered the ruins towards the end of the XIX Century. 

      The then bishop of Cuernavaca, Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete, informed of the discovery, also took a very keen interest in the enigmatic ruins of Chimalacatlan, to the point of identifying them with the long lost capital of the Olmecs, or Tamoanchan, a mythical place believed by the Aztecs to be the seat of the Mesoamerican equivalent of the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of the first Mesoamerican civilizations, if not of mankind itself [7]

      Doubtless, the links between Chimalacatlan and the Olmec civilization run much deeper than the legendary accounts, and are also stressed in a recent paper by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Antropologia (INAH). [8]

      According to the authors, the ruins of Chimalacatlan might date to the middle Pre-Classic period, that is to say, to a time between 800 and 600 BC, due to their striking similarity with other sites in the state of Guerrero, especially with the early Olmec site of Teopantecuanitlan, where large megalithic stone blocks were also used in the construction of a set of sunken patios and courtyards. 
Other sites with megalithic stone architecture might also exist in the remote wilderness of the Sierra de Huautla, but knowledge of these sites is still very scarce. The sites of Huautla and Mesa de los Tepalcates seem to share similar architectural features with Chimalacatlan, including the use of large megalithic stone blocks measuring over 2 meters in length. As of now, however, almost no documentation exists of these sites outside of the above mentioned report.

A view of another one of the monumental platforms at Chimalacatlan, towards the summit of the Cerro del Venado. Some of the stones used in the construction are fairly large, although the workmanship is not nearly as accurate as that of the lower megalithic terraces. Similar ruins are said to exist at several other places in the remote wilderness of the Sierra de Huautla. [Photo by Author] 
Evidence of ancient quarrying at Chimalacatlan. A large rectangular block still lies in its trench next to several other ones at various stages of completion. The quarries were located uphill from the main megalithic platforms, at a distance of some one hundred meters. [Photo by Author] 
Additional quarrying is visible near the summit of the hill of Cerro del Venado. Aerial and satellite photographs do indeed show large, regular trenches cut in the natural backrock where the hill was likely intended to be cut into additional terraces and platforms, none of which was however completed at the time most monumental construction at the site suddenly ceased. [Photo by Author] 
Again near the Western side of Acropolis, the contrast between the megalithic stone wall to the right and the much cruder dry-stone wall to the left is almost suggestive of two entirely different epochs of construction. [Photo by Author]
A view of the main ceremonial stairway approaching the Acropolis from the North-West. The height of the megalithic stone wall to the left diminishes with the slope from as much as 7 to 8 meters at the North-West corner to as little as 2 meters towards the top. [Photo by Author]
      Interestingly, the very modern day name of the municipal capital of Tlaquiltenango (from the nahua, Tlakiltenamko), where the village and ruins of Chimalacatlan belong to this day, literally means "polished" or "dressed walls", with the hieroglyphic for the city name showing a set of regular, polished constructions accompanied by the depiction of a tool commonly used for polishing stone. No significant ancient remains survive in the town of Tlaquiltenango itself, except for its Franciscan (and later Dominican) convent, built in 1540 and one of the oldest still standing in the Americas, also likely built on top of Pre-Columbian ruins and re-using much of the ancient stones. 

      Still to this day, the area is filled with legends of a once large and populous city, simply known as La Ciudad Perdida - The lost City, believed to have since time immemorial vanished in the unexplored mountain ranges and ravines of the Sierra de Huautla. There are even rumors of underground tunnels and caves that would lead to the fabled lost city. One such tunnel is rumored to connect the present day convent of Santo Domingo in Tlaquiltenango to the Churches of Zacatepec, Tetelpa, Galeana, Las Bovedas and Jojutla, which also occupy the sites of former Pre-Columbian settlements.[9] 

      It is not know who the original inhabitants of Chimalacatlan and its nearby sites were, but it is very likely they imported their megalithic technique and refined architecture from some other place, perhaps from the Olmec heartland on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. 
The absence of artifacts clearly relatable to the megalithic structures also significantly compounds the problem of the origins of their builders and the question of their date. 


[1] The QuiriguĆ  Stela E, believed to be the largest at any Maya site, measures 10.6 meters (35 ft) from the base to the top, and weights between 59 and 65 tons. Source:

[5] One of the most extensive studies of pre-Columbian architecture in Mesoamerica (Maria Teresa Uriarte, Pre-Columbian Architecture in Mesoamerica, INAH Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 2009), fails to mention the site altogether.
[6] Fernando de Alva Ixtlixochitl, Obras Historicas, Oficina tip. de la Secretaria de Fomento, Ciudad de Mexico, 1891, p. 38
[7] Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete, Tamoanchan: El Estado de Morelos y el principio de la civilizacion, Imp. El Mensajero, Mexico, 1911
[8] Mario Cordova Tello, Juan Pablo Sereno Uribe, Sur de Morelos: Chimalacatlan, INAH,
[9] Morelos Turistico, Turismo Tlaquiltenango,