Mexican Farmers Unearth Ancient Statue of Elite Mesoamerican Woman
Farmers tilling the soil in a citrus grove in the Huasteca region along Mexico’s Gulf Coast unearthed something ancient and unusual. Hitting a hard object they assumed was a rock, the farmers dug down deeper to remove it. According to PHYS.org, what they had actually found was a six-foot-tall (1.8 meters) white stone statue of a Mesoamerican woman. She was buried in a position of peaceful repose, but facial features were contorted by an open-mouthed, wide-eyed expression that suggested she’d seen something shocking and unforgettable.
The farmers discovered the statue of a Mesoamerican woman in the Huasteca region in Mexico by chance when tilling the soil. (María Eugenia Maldonado Vite / INAH)
Identifying and Dating the Mesoamerican Woman
After removing the statue from the ground, the farmers quickly notified local authorities. Word was eventually passed on to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, which dispatched archaeologists to investigate the discovery. These experts confirmed the statue’s antiquity, deducing that it was constructed and erected sometime between the years 1450 AD and 1521 AD, presumably by the Huastec people who had inhabited the region at that time.
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If this is correct, the statue would date to the era just before the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the Gulf Coast. The Huastec region was the site of one of the most appalling episodes associated with the Spanish conquest, when the brutal and fanatical conquistador Gonzalo de Sandoval had 400 Huastec nobles and 60 chiefs burned to death to intimidate the Huastec people into submitting to his authority. He later sold 20,000 Huastecs into slavery, decimating the population and leaving Huastec society in ruins.
Assuming the statue is accurately dated, it is a relic that foretells an epic tragedy. The wide-eyed look of shock and horror that animate the woman’s features could be seen as prophetic, as if the person who carved the statue somehow anticipated the coming apocalyptic disaster. The statue is a relic from a society that was on the verge of being utterly destroyed by ruthless invaders who would murder their leaders, enslave the strong, and rule the rest with an iron hand defined by its intolerance and contempt.
The citrus farmers then alerted authorities of their discovery. Experts are now trying to work out who or what the statue of the Mesoamerican woman represents. (María Eugenia Maldonado Vite / INAH)
Deciphering the Identity of the Mesoamerican Woman
According to National Institute of Anthropology and History officials, this is the first statue of this type found anywhere in the Huasteca region. Based on the elaborate headpiece and fine clothing the woman represented in the statue is wearing, Institute archaeologist Maria Eugenia Maldonado Vito believes the statuesque woman was someone of elite status.
“This could be a ruler, based on her posture and attire, more than a goddess,” Maldonado wrote. Alternatively, she said the statue may represent “a late fusion between the Teem goddesses and women of political or social status in the Huasteca.” The goddesses she mentions were associated with fertility cults. Statues and figurines that venerate and immortalize fertility goddesses have been found all across the globe and represent a common motif from ancient times. Consequently, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the Huasteca statue may have some connection with fertility rites and observances.
But that is only one possibility, and maybe not the most likely explanation. “There are quite a few pre-Hispanic depictions of elite women and female rulers elsewhere,” explained Susan Gillespie, an anthropology professor asked to comment on the discovery of the Huasteca statue. “[They are] best known among the Classic Maya, but also in Classic Zapotec bas-reliefs and Post-Classic Mixtec codices.”
The Huastecs were originally descended from the Maya. They created their own distinct culture following their separation from their progenitors, which occurred approximately 2,000 years before the time when the statue of the woman was constructed. But they likely preserved at least some cultural traditions from ancient times, meaning that overlaps between their cultural practices and those of the Maya were to be expected.
Interestingly, the statue seems to reveal some Aztec influence. The Aztecs were just beginning to make intrusions in Huastec territory by the middle of the 15 th century AD, in military campaigns that were destined to bring the Huastecs into the Aztec Empire before the century ended. Given the contact between the Huastecs and the Aztecs that was occurring at this time, a cultural fusion that would help shape artistic choices was inevitable.
“Colonial era Aztec documents mentioned women ‘rulers’ or at least holders of the crown to pass on to their successors,” Gillespie is quoted as saying in PHYS.org. “Women were highly valued in the pre-Hispanic era, drastically losing their status only after the conquest.”
The statue of the Mesoamerican woman has an open mouth and a wide-eyed expression. Experts are trying to work out who or what she represents. (María Eugenia Maldonado Vite / INAH)
Archaeology Always Begins with a Solitary Find
Since the Mesoamerican statue bears no inscriptions or identifying markings of any type, it is impossible to tell who the woman is or what exactly her status might have been. Unfortunately, it is also impossible to know for sure if she really was carved by a Huastec artist, or even if the statue was constructed in the Huastec region.
Not only is this the only such statue ever found there, but the place where it was found has never before produced any notable archaeological finds. This raises the possibility that the find was not legitimate, and that the statue was transported to Huastec from another location by unidentifiable sources at an unknown date.
“If there is only one such find, it’s hard to say whether it is significant, or even correctly identified,” Gillespie confirmed. “Archaeology works best with repeated occurrence, to show a pattern.” Of course, archaeologists haven’t yet had much of an opportunity to identify such a pattern, if it exists. This may be the first such statue ever found in Huastec, but that doesn’t mean it will be the only one.
Its discovery may launch an exciting new era of exploration—now that archaeologists know where to look, there is no telling what they might find in the months and years ahead. Today’s brand new archaeological site may be tomorrow’s treasure trove of invaluable artifacts, which would have remained hidden indefinitely if not for that first fortuitous discovery by citrus farmers.
Top image: The statue of a Mesoamerican woman was discovered in Álamo Temapache, Veracruz in Mexico by citrus farmers. Source: María Eugenia Maldonado Vite / INAH
By Nathan Falde