Center for World Indigenous Studies
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The light footprint of indigenous west Mexico

Published: November 8, 2009, Author: MHirch

Imagine if you will ships toweringly loaded with oyster shells and vessels traveling the Pacific Ocean carrying textiles, wood, ceramics and copper and tin and you might think such sights not unusual at all. But, imagine that these ships are made of balsa wood and the oysters are a variety of pink, red and white spondylus oyster found only in the depths off the coast of western Mexico’s state of Colima. Imagine too the papyrus vessels carrying goods up and down the coast every six months from and to the Pacific Mexican coast from and to what is now Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. Having had such a vision you would in fact be recounding the three-thousand years of trade between the territories of the Nayarie (mostly now in the western Mexican states of Nayarit, and Jalisco) Purépecha in Michoacan and Chichimec in Colima.

Western Mexico is intimately connected to the west coasts of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and by extension Bolivia through three powerful bits of evidence: the funerary custom of burial shafts, the presence in the burial shafts of caches of ceramics in the design of northwestern South America, and the widely used and prized oyster shells from the coast of Colima. The distinctive cultural region of western Mexico is like no other in Mexico.  Its historical ceremonial buildings and squares contained round and rectangular thatched buildings placed in grand circles (Unlike Mayan, Toltec and Aztec constructions in the Valley of Mexico and in the region of Oaxaca that are rectangular and constructed with pyramids and straight arteries of road and walkways.)  Western Mexico appears to have acquired metal working technologies from northwestern South America and as a result developed extensive mining of copper, tin, gold and silver.

Perhaps the most striking cultural reality of western Mexico is its practice of ceremony in the form of great parties where people shared vast quantities of tamales, zapote negro and blanco, mamey, amaranth, camote, squash, varieties of fish, deer, and occasional dog and capomo.  All this and more celebrating a god for weeks and depicting the event in groups of clay human figurines holding fruits, cups of juice and beer, with little buildings, and a clay floor–“ceramic photos,” I call these displays. They are captured events in every sense like one might take a photograph.  The detail of these figures and other hollow ceramic figures help tell the stories of the ancestors of modern indigenous peoples in western Mexico.

The economies of indigenous west Mexico and indigenous northwest South America and the Andean Spine were based on the arts and crafts of ceramics, fishing and reuse of sponsylus shells, ceremonial parties, weaving of textiles, propagating amaranth, squash and beans, careful use of wild plants and animals for food and medicine and trade with neighbors and across the seas.

Thousands of years of civilization continues in western Mexico even as a few generations of newcomers have joined in the region. The great “Nayarie, Xalisco, Chichimec and Purépecha” societies living today have a deep heritage in this land of western Mexico and in the indigenous societies of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

With all of this social, economic and political activity up and down the Pacific Coast for several thousand years, the indigenous peoples of west Mexico and northwest South America and the Andean spine made a small footprint on the environment…disturbing it very little.  Industrial societies described as “developed” have much to learn from the truly developed indigenous societies of the Mexico’s Pacific coast.

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