A Roar of Jaguars

In the past few years, I’ve realized that, in the Native American tradition, I seem to have an animal totem, the jaguar. This past year when I started my second memoir, I understood my deep connection to this apex predator of the Americas and included an illustration:

My Totem Jaguar

I also realized that this magnificent feline has been lurking in my background for at least 35 years. At a yard sale I’d bought a carved-wood figurine and stashed it away as a curiosity.  Later I gave it as a birthday gift to a friend, who returned it explaining that there was some spirit in it which didn’t “resonate” with him.  Stashed away again, it sat on a shelf for decades—following me around to various domiciles.  Then about a year ago I recognized it for a jaguar-priest or shaman from some South or Meso-American tradition.

My Jaguar Priest Figurine

It suddenly made sense that this jaguar figurine was probably why some 30 years ago I’d gotten so involved in the Aztec milieu. I soon learned that this New World King of Beasts had originally roamed throughout most of the South and Meso-American jungles and even ranged north into the American Southwest (apparently now making a comeback in southern Arizona!).

I also learned that the noble jaguar was central to the mythologies of basically all the ancient civilizations of the New World (just as the lion was to those of the Old). First off, I found it in the Aztec calendar, as the 14th day of their agricultural month and in the second week of their ceremonial count of days (tonalpohualli).  Starting with the day Ce Ocelotl – One Jaguar (those with this birth day-name coincidentally being destined for sacrifice), that second week was under the patronage of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent.

I already knew that the Aztec ceremonial calendar had been more or less inherited from the much earlier Maya and then discovered that it, just like its patron deity, was also revered by the even earlier Olmec. Then about three years ago in considering that maybe the sacred calendar’s count of days had originated in the still earlier Chavín civilization in Peru, I learned that the jaguar was for them also a major deity, often seen as an ornate man-jaguar.  Do note this Chavín were-jaguar’s startling snake-locks!

Chavin Were-Jaguar

If my suggestion that the count of days originated at Chavín de Huantar is correct, that ritual (more like a religion), was carried north by trader-missionaries to populations along the Pacific coast. Ultimately they crossed the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and proselytized the Olmec with the sacred way of telling time.  While many surviving Olmec sculptures are of infant were-jaguars, I’ll show you their dramatic animal.

Olmec Jaguar

Coincidentally, earliest calendar lore has it being brought by a god, namely the Plumed Serpent, who was also the bringer of maize (and culture). Between the calendar, the jaguar, and this legendary civilizer deity, they had a rather well-rounded theosophy, even if some rituals might have involved sacrifices frowned on nowadays.

It’s now become reasonable to think that the early Maya were “civilizing” in Yucatan at much the same time as the Olmec were hard at it in Veracruz. More mercenary missionary work was probably what took the calendar to the Maya.  They hugely elaborated and ornamented the new “faith” with their own deities and even started writing about it in glyphs.

Along with calendar, the jaguar deity (B’alam) came to the Maya, but their representations of it were generally not anthropomorphized.  I found a spectacular relief at Chichen Itza on Google Images, apparently a repro in gold (!), that’s both naturalistic and stylized.  Not to gross you out, but I bet that’s a heart it’s holding in its paw and licking.

Mayan Jaguar from Chichen Itza

Of course, the third part of the religion was the Plumed Serpent, the civilizer deity whom they called Kukulcan (or Gugumatz).  This Triad then moved west and north to early Teotihuacan, where the Serpent likely became known as Quetzalcoatl, or maybe that was amongst the later Toltecs.  That calendar religion reigned across the centuries and other areas of Mexico, as shown by this jaguar totem from the Zapotecs, possibly a funerary urn.

Zapotec Jaguar

Eventually, the barbarian Aztecs came out of the north and adopted the local religion, and it came to be known and misunderstood as the “Aztec Calendar.” In their historical or genealogical picture-books, many of which were from other cultures like the Mixtec, the were-jaguar shows up as jaguar warriors.  These “jaguar-weres” were simply humans wearing jaguar pelts.

In their religious documents, the jaguar is generally depicted as a divine animal such as these two from Codex Borgia, (adjusted and adapted to prepare for drawings in my next icon).  By the way, those wavy figures represent the jaguar’s roar.

Jaguars from Codex Borgia

Modelling mine on the image on the left, several years ago as my first attempt at drawing on computer, I drew a jaguar with a realistically patterned pelt (and more aggressive demeanor). Intended to be the apotheosis of the Lord of the Animals, the drawing had to wait some three years to be enthroned in YE GODS! Icon #11 – OCELOTL.

My Jaguar–Lord of the Animals

But I’m not done with this roar of jaguars! Recalling that the historical range of the jaguar reached up into North America, there is the possibility that the creature may have been known, or at least recalled, by populations outside of the desert Southwest.  I’m talking about my other favorite topic, the Mississippian “civilization.”

I found a trace of the calendar and image of a heavily stylized man-jaguar in the Southeast and drew this fanciful animal below from a shell gorget (from Fairfield MO across the river from Cahokia) for a book on the Indian mounds.  (See my Gallery of Pre-Columbian Artifacts.)

Jaguar Gorget – Fairfield MO

In the magazine “Ancient American,” Vol. 21, No. 116, I wrote about the cult of the Plumed Serpent in North America, which shows that the trinity of Calendar-Jaguar-Serpent was a Pan-American “religion.”  Small wonder I feel the jaguar my totem—it’s the totem for all Americans.

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Heretical History

During my recent exhibition (entitled YE GODS! Icons of Aztec Deities), I gave a series of 15 lectures on the Aztec codices and Aztec mythology, culture, and history, branching out in later sessions to New World history in general. From the beginning, I stressed to my listeners that as an independent researcher and theoretical historian (a “historician”), I like to consider probable answers for puzzling questions which the academic establishment refuses even to recognize. I warned them to get ready to hear some historical heresy.

For example, in lecture 10 (Continuity of Culture and Art in Mesoamerica), I discussed the continuity of the ceremonial calendar from the Olmec through the Maya and into the cultures of central Mexico (culminating in the “Aztec calendar”). Then I proposed that the calendar may well have been invented at Chavín de Huantar in Peru.  I published the convincing circumstantial evidence in the article “Source of the Mesoamerican Ceremonial Calendar” in the magazine Ancient American (Issue No. 115) and noted probable diffusion via sea-farers sailing north up the Pacific coast to reach the early Olmec.  That was Heresy No. 1.

Then in lecture 12 (Mesoamerican Relations with Mississippi), I broke some startling news which was corroborated by the website www.peopleofonefire.com, issued by Richard Thornton, a researcher of Native American heritage.  He has discovered convincing linguistic, DNA, and archaeological evidence that populations from Meso- and South America migrated into the Southeast of North America hundreds of years before the European “discovery.”

Independently, I had previously identified a shell gorget from northwestern Alabama depicting the Mesoamerican Fifth Sun, Four Earthquake, and in my article “Mesoamerican Influences in Mississippi” in Ancient American (Issue 118), I presented ethnographic testimony that (probably under pressure from the aggressive imperialism of the Toltecs), a tribe of Totonacs from Vera Cruz had migrated into the Muscle Shoals area to become the Chikasa (Chickasaw).  Though well-documented, that was Heresy No. 2.

In lecture 14 (Mesoamerican Relations with the Anasazi), I expanded on a proposal by Frank Joseph in “Advanced Civilizations of Prehistoric America” that the Huari of Peru (likely an evolution/reincarnation of the more than three millennia-old culture of Tiwanaku from Lake Titicaca) had migrated up the Pacific coast, through the Sea of Cortez, and up the Colorado River to become the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon. So I was merely guilty of repeating Heresy No. 3.

However, in that context I uttered my own Heresy No. 4: that some populations from the west coast of Mexico may possibly have sailed up the coast and “colonized” the Pacific Northwest.  As I noted to my audience, I made this heretical proposal simply on the basis of a linguistic coincidence (something I generally don’t much appreciate in others’ arguments).

Namely, the city of Seattle was supposedly named for the “chief” of a Native American tribe on the Olympic Peninsula. Well, it just so happens that Ce Atl is the Nahuatl day-name (One Water) of the goddess of water, Chalchiuhtlicue, the Jade Skirt.  She was earlier the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, likely with the same calendrical name, which may have also held for the Maya goddess of water, but deity names in that even earlier culture are rather confused.

Mesoamerican goddesses of water

As a name for the Pacific Northwest area, a people, an important “town,” or even a chief, One Water seems a legendarily appropriate name for a Mesoamerican “colony” in that area. Such a colony might have happened due to social turmoil amongst the classic Maya, to later aggression by the Toltecs on populations in western Mexico, or even as more recent Aztec (Nahua) imperial “exploration.”  In any case, my heretical suggestion was basically a frivolous “teaser.”

For a couple weeks, that’s what it was for me too, simply an intriguing possibility—until I started reading “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” (edited by Bernard DeVoto). Their first mentions of the Salishan (“Flathead”) tribes in the western Rocky Mountains didn’t give me pause, but when that characteristic kept appearing amongst the tribes down the Columbia River, I had to stop and wonder.

While that exploratory expedition wintered at the mouth of the Columbia, they had much communication and commerce with the many coastal tribes. On March 19, 1805, Captain Lewis took the time (in his fairly “scientific” manner) to write:

“The Killamucks, Clatsops, Chinooks, Cathlahmahs, and Wâc-ki-a-cums resemble each other as well in their persons and dress as in their habits and manners. their complexion is not remarkable, being the usual copper brown of most of the tribes of North America.  they are low in statu[r]e, reather diminutive, and illy shapen; poss[ess]ing thick broad flat feet, thick ankles, crooked legs wide mouths thick lips, nose moderately large, fleshey, wide at the extremity with large nostrils, black eyes and black coarse hair.  their eyes are sometimes of a dark yellowish brown the puple black.  the most remarkable trait in their physiognomy is the peculiar flatness and width of forehead which they artificially obtain by compressing the head between two boards while in a state of infancy and from which it never afterwards perfectly recovers.  this is a custom among all the nations we have met with West of the Rocky mountains.  I have observed the heads of many infants, after this singular bandage has been dismissed, or about the age of 10 or eleven months, that were not more than two inches thick about the upper edge of the forehead and reather thiner still higher.  from the top of the head to the extremity of the nose is one straight line.  this is done in order to give a greater width to the forehead, which they much admire.  this process seems to be continued longer with their female than their mail children, and neither appear to suffer any pain from the operation.  it is from this peculiar form of the head that the nations East of the Rocky mountains, call all the nations on this side, except the Aliohtans or snake Indians, by the generic name of Flatheads.”

Chinook woman and child

Surely I am not the first to note that Captain Lewis has described in exquisite detail the traditional Maya practice of skull deformation. (That same practice also occurred in other parts of the world and among certain tribes of the American Southeast who—per Heresy No. 2 above—migrated there from Mesoamerica.)  With this official testimony, it seems more than probable that this widespread cultural practice in the Pacific Northwest came from a coastal colony of the Maya. The also widespread practice of nose-piercing (as in the Nez Perce tribe and others) could just as easily have disseminated from such or later Mexican settlements.

Considering this distinct possibility, I believe it’s high time someone ran a DNA study of the surviving Northwest tribes to see if they actually do have markers of Mesoamerican populations. Likewise, it would make sense for someone with the expertise to compare the languages of those tribes with those of Mesoamerican peoples. There is a distinctly Nahuatl-ish sound to the names of the Tlingit and Kwakiutl tribes…

But even without such genetic or linguistic evidence, I will now make bold to propose that there was indeed a Mesoamerican colony (or colonies) on the Pacific Northwest coast. And having uttered that blasphemy, I’ll prepare for the academic inquisition to try and burn me at the stake.

Source of Aztec Calendar

A friend mentioned that the Aztec ceremonial calendar of 260 days might be based on the zenithal passage of the sun at some particular latitude. I calculated:  260 calendar days / 365.25 solar days = 0.7118 of the annual cycle X 93.6 degrees per year (back and forth between the Tropics) = 66.62834 X .5 = 33.3142 degrees – 23.4 from Tropic of Capricorn to Equator = 9.9142 degrees N (9o 54’ 51”).  I was surprised that this latitude runs through Costa Rica.

Reading the book “Cycles of the Sun, Mysteries of the Moon” by Vincent H. Malmström (University of Texas Press, 1997), I was even more surprised that the professor of geography announced the latitude as 14.8 degrees N, without showing calculations. He then identified the pre-Olmec site of Izapa as where the calendar was probably invented.  By my count, at 14.8 degrees N, the southern lap of the sun’s cycle lasts about 297 days.  That’s way off.

Let’s assume that the invention of the calendar happened 1400—1100 BC to allow time for it to get to Izapa and, as Malmström so reasonably proposes, cross over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into the early Olmec area. But there were pre-Olmec cultures all along the Pacific coast from Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and down into Costa Rica.  As a matter of fact, in Costa Rica the Las Mercedes site (from 1500 BC) lies on the slope of the (active) Turrialba volcano at 10.167 degrees N.  It’s worth noting that Turrialba’s peak is at 10.01 degrees N, so Las Mercedes is directly east, which would make for a huge gnomon.

Now I read in “The Art of Mesoamerica” by Mary Ellen Miller (Third Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2001) that the unworkable Izapa proposition has survived in scholarship for at least four more years. But this author proposes the human nine-month birth cycle as more likely.  I calculate 9 x 30 days = 270—close but no cigar, and too variable.  Miller argues that a zenithal source of the ceremonial count “seems an unlikely basis for a calendar first recorded to the north of the 15-degree latitude.”  Given the astronomical bent of the ancients, I’d say it’s an exquisitely likely basis for a calendar, whenever or wherever first conceived or recorded.

IF the 260-day ceremonial calendar was based on the sun’s zenithal passage, THEN it must have been invented at a latitude where that time period obtained—approximately 9.9 degrees.  That latitude also runs along the Caribbean across the northern sections of Colombia and Venezuela, but there don’t seem to be any significant culture sites in those areas from appropriate times.

If not in Costa Rica, then how about at 9.9142 degrees South? That imaginary line runs across the Amazon basin just slightly north of the Beni region in Brazil and Bolivia —which by the way hosted an enormous hydrological culture from 4000 BC to 1300 AD(!).  Though they built canals, causeways, raised fields and living sites, we essentially know nothing about them.

That latitude also crosses the Andes in Peru, running right through Chavín de Huantar in the Ancash valley. It was the main site of the earliest South American civilization (1200—400 BC), which occupied many other sites in the region and along the coast.  Other sites were even older though, like El Paraíso (2500—1100 BC).  But the Chavín culture was the first to produce distinctive art and ceremonial architecture, specifically truncated pyramids.  Chavín de Huantar lies directly east of an Andean peak which again could serve as a magnificent gnomon.

Significantly, there are many obelisk– and slab-shaped stelae/gnomons at the site, the main one being the Lanzon stela, a 15+-foot stone spire with wonderful decorative carvings. It stands within a pit in the “temple” and extends up through a hole in the roof, a foolproof way to demonstrate the exact zenithal passage of the sun.  By the way, the figure carved on the stela points eloquently upward with one hand and downward with the other.  Of course, this site’s 260 days between the sun’s passages are on its northern lap between the Tropics.

I propose that Chavín de Huantar was the birthplace of the 260-day calendar, which probably was what caused its rise in ceremonial importance around 1200 BC, turning it into the cultural and religious hub of that first civilization and a destination for pilgrimages and rituals. Even though no archaeological traces of a 260-day calendar have been found amongst these non-literate Andean civilizations, they may well have observed it religiously alongside the solar calendar, which is precisely how it worked later in Mexico.  And it got to Mexico by sea.

The Chavín and other even earlier Pacific coastal cultures were accomplished sea-faring folk using balsa-wood rafts and boats. (Balsa trees grow all along the coasts of South and Central America.)  There was a lot of maritime activity, trade, and exchange among the various cultures long before the Chavín.  In the dim past maize was brought from Mexico to the Andes, and the art of metal-working passed in the opposite direction. The Pacific coast from western Mexico down to northern Chile was one enormous “economic zone” of productive ecologies between sea and mountains.  The Chavín were the first efflorescence of those cultures (fertilized by contacts with the Beni?), and wherever they went, they understandably preached their religious calendar.

Besides the calendar, the Chavín spread other concepts of their culture and art all along the coast. Their pyramids and intricate figures and motifs of jaguars, caimans, and serpents bear a distinct resemblance to the architecture, themes, and imagery of the later Maya and other Mexican cultures.  The Chavín anthropomorphic jaguar and truncated pyramid must surely have accompanied the ceremonial calendar across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to inspire the Olmec—and subsequent Mesoamerican cultures.