Field notes from Mexico 6 — a botanist in the museum

On my last day in Mexico, my hosts kindly took me to see the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. First of all — wow. It’s absolutely spectacular, and if you have even the slightest interest in human history, culture and archaeology then you should go. Much like the British Museum* in London, you simply can’t take in the whole place in a single day. In fact, you would struggle to do so in a week.

In a single afternoon I was only really able to take in two archaeological sections: the Mexica empire, and the civilisations of the Pacific coast. The former were characterised by a militaristic state, the latter by their complex cultures and fine crafts. In fact, I was even more focussed, as I was specifically looking for evidence of botanically-inspired features among the artefacts, and I found plenty.

Many of them, interestingly, were related to cacti. This surprised me. Although Central America is the cradle of cactus diversity, and they are the most distinctive feature of Mexican dry vegetation, they are also relatively unimportant as crops and a minor component of most systems. Evidently they were considered worthy of carving into stone though.

In the section on the Mexica, rulers of the Aztec Empire, there is an altar with an Opuntia (prickly pear) clearly depicted on the rear face. This distinctive cactus provides a useful resource: its pads, once cleaned of the spiny glochids**, are cooked as a vegetable, known today as nopales, a word which derives directly from the Nahuatl as spoken by the Aztecs. Likewise the fruit, tuna, is still harvested and eaten widely in Mexico. The name Opuntia itself, however, is from the reference by Theophrastus to a plant in the classical Greek city of Opus which could grow from a leaf that was stuck in the ground. He wasn’t talking about a cactus though, because although they are now invasive in some parts of the Mediterranean, they definitely hadn’t arrived there in 300 B.C.


Opuntia isn’t solely used for food though; one of its more surprising appearances was in a reconstruction of a burial chamber from La Cueva de la Candelaria, on the border between the modern states of Hidalgo and Durango, which was occupied around 1100–1300 AD. The bodies each rest upon a layer of Opuntia pads. It hardly seems like comfort — no-one would do that if they were alive — perhaps these were provisions for the journey beyond?

Other cacti have more entertaining functions, such as peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a favourite hallucinogen for ritual and recreational use. It appears as a design on a large pot, and also in my favourite piece in the museum, a ring of revellers surrounding a shaman who is clearly holding a cactus in his hand. Both are from the Tumbas de Tiro tradition of West Mexico (200–600 AD).

RIMG2623To finish off the cacti, how about this metre-tall carved columnar cactus, probably from the genus Cereus? I definitely coveted this for a corner of my living room. It’s thought to be a boundary marker between two territories, and has the face of a legendary Mexica leader carved into its base. What interests me is that this kind of cactus isn’t present in that area, at least not in the modern world. Was it chosen because it was a feature of the landscape back then, or alternatively because it would stand out as unusual?

Other plants have important cultural associations. I’ve mentioned Agave before on this trip, particularly with reference to the manufacture of the alcoholic beverage pulque. I learnt much more in the museum though. Pulque had its own god, Ome Tochtli, which translates as ‘Two Rabbit’. Adults were only permitted one drink of pulque in any sitting (size not specified), and drunkenness was heavily frowned upon, lest one lose control and fall under the violent spell of Cenzon Totochtin, or ‘Four Hundred Rabbits’ (which, wonderfully, is the name of a popular brand of mezcal). So remember kids, two rabbits good, four hundred rabbits bad.

RIMG2635Another impressive piece of Mexica sculpture was this calabaza (Cucurbita moschata), a relative of the modern pumpkin. This magnificent piece was the size of… well, a ripe pumpkin. Alongside maize, which appeared in countless exhibits, beans and chilli, this was one of the staple foods of the peoples of central Mexico.

Not all the exhibits were carved in stone. One of the most important documents held by the museum is the Botorini Codex, a long pictographic account painted on fig bark by an Aztec artist around 1530–1541, so not long after the Spanish arrived. It tells the legend of how the Aztec arrived in the Valley of Mexico after leaving their original home of Aztlan. They decided to settle there due to the abundance of resources, but their first action was, of course, to cut down the trees. This is a useful reminder that tropical deforestation is by no means a new phenomenon, even if its intensity has increased in the modern world. One puzzling mystery though: why does the tree have arms?


A section from the Botorini Codex illustrating the clearance of forests in the Valley of Mexico following the arrival of the ancestors of the Aztec.

Finally, I’ll finish with another Mexica carving. On first inspection it looks like a bird sitting in a stylised flowering tree. But look more closely and you’ll see that the bird is eating some kind of caterpillar. In other words, it’s an archaeological representation of a tritrophic interaction! Perhaps they would have been unsurprised by findings of ecologists in Panama 500 years later that birds protect trees from herbivory.


Bird eats caterpillar eats tree. Tritrophic interactions in archaeology!

* Which is an order of magnitude larger again, thanks largely to the pillaging of cultures around the world in the name of empire, such as in the notorious case of the Elgin Marbles.

** Bristly patches of spines on some cacti, which often have barbs and detach when touched. I recommend a bar of soap to remove them. Then throw away the bar of soap before anyone else uses it by accident.


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