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Discovery of Crocodile Carving Sheds Light on Political Rift Between Two Related Centers in Ancient Mexico

Discovery of Crocodile Carving Sheds Light on Political Rift Between Two Related Centers in Ancient Mexico


Archaeologists have unearthed a stone carving of a crocodile that possibly had ritual significance to the pre-Columbian Zapotec people at the city of Lambityeco in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico.

The architecture of Lambityeco was similar to the nearby bigger city Monte Alban, says an article on, a sign of close ties between people of the two cities. But the people of Lambityeco shifted in their apparent allegiance. Archaeologists say evidence of the shift comes in the form of changes in architecture, which had been similar to Monte Alban but which was later changed.

From previous excavations, in the 1960s, researchers had assumed differences in artifacts meant that the two cities were not closely tied, despite iconic frescoes that were similar in each town. Because of the differences in artifacts, the 1960s team of archaeologists dated Lambityeco to a later period than Monte Alban. This theory held sway for decades.

“Nevertheless, more recent reanalysis of materials from Lambityeco has shown that the site was actually contemporaneous with Monte Albán, leading to new questions,” says the article.

The more recent excavations over the past four years by Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas of The Field Museum and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have turned up evidence of a richer history at Lambityeco, states.

A lintel of a tomb previously excavated at Lambityeco

A lintel of a tomb previously excavated at Lambityeco (Wikimedia Photo/HJPD)

The civic-ceremonial area of the town at its founding closely resembled Monte Alban, the report says. After some years, it was remodeled so that it no longer imitated the larger town, says. This shift may have resulted from a rift between the two cities.

One of the key changes was to the ball court of Lambityeco. The archaeological evidence shows both cities had a northern entrance to their ball courts, which were important to Mesoamerican peoples for both sporting and ritual purposes. Later, at Lambityeco, the entrance was moved to a northeast corner and some frescoes were covered over, apparently to further differentiate the two towns.

The stone crocodile carving was moved too. Researchers believe it was part of a staircase to the top of the temple in the center of the civic-religious area.

“We believe that this crocodile stone was originally a part of a stairway leading up to a temple at the heart of the civic-ceremonial center of Lambityeco,” said Linda Nicholas, archaeologist at The Field Museum. “However, when the people reconstructed the core area of the site, the entrance to the temple was blocked and the stairway was dismantled.”

The stone retained religious or ritual significance, even though it had been moved, the article states. People apparently burned incense in front of it.

A statue of a deity from Lambityeco

A statue of a deity from Lambityeco (Wikimedia Commons/Daderot)

Lambityeco was a source of salt for other cities in the Oaxaca region. People of Lambityeco are believed to have dissolved the salt from the water and boiled the water to obtain crystals, says an article on This salt was not the poisonous type that various vicious ancient peoples did when they wanted to ruin life for native peoples. This was good salt that would, in fact, have properties that would heal poisonous salts. And of course good salt adds flavor to and preserves foods and contributes to the well-being of those who consume it. says Lambityeco was a major part of Zapotec trading and produced 90 percent of the Monte Alban empire’s salt.

The site says evidence shows hunter-gatherers settled the area of Lambityeco around 700 BC. Then, around 600 BC to 600 AD, Monte Alban weakened and Lambityeco and other sites started to flourish and increase in population.

But Lambityeco was abandoned around 750 AD, and scholars believe the people moved to Yagul.

The new research at Lambityeco is trying to uncover the reasons behind the apparent rift in relations between Monte Alban and Lambityeco, which says has a rich pre-hispanic history.

Featured image: The crocodile stone of Lambityeco was moved and turned upside down, but people apparently still used it in ceremonies and burned incense before it. (Credit: © Linda Nicholas, The Field Museum)

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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