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Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica

Abstract and Keywords

The commonalities of belief and custom deeply rooted in time struggle to document what underlay the course toward social complexity in both North America and Mesoamerica. Among these commonalities were certain ideas relating to conception, life, death, and mourning; to the renewal of life in the human and natural worlds; and to perceptions of those worlds. These ideas formed a psychological infrastructure that could be drawn on in creating cosmologies or legitimizing human actions through mythical precedent. Attention to a few such commonalities follows, allowing consideration of how peoples in North America and Mesoamerica charted the particular courses they did toward civilization, beginning from comparable bases in the material and nonmaterial worlds.

Keywords: North America, Mesoamerica, belief, custom, commonalities, psychological infrastructure, human actions

Interest in prehistoric commonalities between Mesoamerica and North America has typically examined the role that Mesoamerican civilizations may have had in influencing the development of high cultures in North America’s Puebloan Southwest and Southeast of Adena-Hopewellian and Mississippian times (Ekholm 1940; Griffin 1966; Kehoe 2005; Kelley 1966; Phillips 1940; Riley 2005; White and Weinstein 2008). For the Southwest, this was a logical pursuit. There is undisputed evidence of some continuities of language (Utonahuan or Uto-Aztecan family); unquestioned evidence of trade relations in turquoise, copper bells, and macaw feathers; and some shared technologies not found in North America outside of the Southwest, the true loom with heddle and the spinning of cotton for example. For the Mississippian Southeast, there were town plans featuring plazas flanked by house and temple mounds of truncated pyramid form, whose builders practiced new fire rituals and human sacrifice and created art styles with themes reminiscent of Mesoamerica. Underlying both Southwestern and Mississippian developments, as they came into prominence and climaxed, was an economy based on cultigens introduced from Mesoamerica, most importantly maize.

More difficult to document in the ground have been the commonalities of belief and custom deeply rooted in time that underlay the course toward social complexity in both North America and Mesoamerica. Among these commonalities were certain ideas relating to conception, life, death, and mourning; to the renewal of life in the human and natural worlds; and to perceptions of those worlds. These ideas formed (p. 53) a psychological infrastructure that could be drawn on in creating cosmologies or legitimizing human actions through mythical precedent. Attention to a few such commonalities follows, allowing consideration of how peoples in North America and Mesoamerica charted the particular courses they did toward civilization, beginning from comparable bases in the material and nonmaterial worlds.

The Sweat Bath

The sweat bath was and still is associated, among Native peoples from Alaska and Labrador to Guatemala, variously with birth, renewal, and spiritual cleansing. Nowhere, however, was the sweat bath elevated to such prominence as at the Maya site of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. There, sweat baths were created in stone on the vaulted summits of three pyramids and assigned duty as the symbolic birthplaces of a triad of Maya deities (Houston 1996). The humble domestic sweat bath experience became a metaphor of gestation, the model for the phenomenon of divine birth in the cosmology of a major civilization.

Competitive Sports

The concept of a cultural North American Southwest can be expanded slightly southward to include the Casas Grandes or Paquimé site and area of adjacent northwestern Mexico. This location is still well outside of Mesoamerica as formally defined, but trade routes northward from Casas Grandes are believed to have been major conduits of Mesoamerican influences into the southwestern United States. Ball courts found at Casas Grandes were Mesoamerican in outline and sometimes contained adult human remains as apparent sacrificial offerings. Ball courts were also made by the Hohokam people in Arizona but were oval and not of the classic Mesoamerican I shape.

The Southeast also shared with Mesoamerica the idea of team sports, but typically of a different sort. In playing lacrosse the Cherokees, Creeks, and others use racquets for catching and tossing the ball, a practice not found in the familiar Mesoamerican ball game. Natchez ball players propelled the ball with blows from the palm of the hand.

It is possible the Southeastern ritual sport of chunkey diffused southward. Certain flat, round, ground-stone objects found in San Luis Potosí state, Mexico, recall the biconcave, discoidal chunkey stones used in the sport of that name in the north (Dávila 2005). Chunkey was a regional variation on the hoop-and-pole game found throughout North America, sometimes with explicit fertility symbolism (earth and lightning, buffalo cow and buffalo bull).

(p. 54) Mourning and Sacrifice

Mourning rites were universal and sometimes included ritual dramatization of events in mythical history, such as the Creation. In North America, mourning rites were normally limited to services for death by natural attrition or in combat. In Mesoamerica, however, some mourning events were preempted for state use. In the Aztec Great Feast of the Dead, multiple deaths were scheduled for the occasion of a horrifying furnace sacrifice; a mourning event was transformed into a demonstration of authority and intimidating state power (Durán 1971:212–213; Sahagún 1971:59, 111). In eastern North America, mourning rites evolved in complexity through the Woodland and later periods but were adapted to the need for establishing and maintaining peaceful relationships within and between egalitarian polities (Hall 1997).

Both the Aztec Great Feast of the Dead and an Algonquian version of the Great Lakes region Feast of the Dead featured pole-climbing contests (Durán 1971:208; Hall 1997:36–40). These contests probably originated as a means to simulate, and through sympathetic magic to aid or hasten, the ascent of spirits into the afterworld. The ideas underlying ritual pole climbing and the relationship of poles as World Tree and Spirit Trail metaphors to mourning are deeply rooted in North America and Mesoamerica and do not require recent diffusion as an explanation for their distribution (e.g., Hall 1998, 2005). Competitive pole climbing was a feature of the Kutumit or Notish mourning ritual of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California (Du Bois 1908).

In historic times, Aztecs and some northern Mississippi valley tribes shared the practice of performing blood autosacrifice by running peeled wooden skewers specifically through slits in their left arms and depositing them at the base of a mourning pole symbolizing the Path of Souls, in the case of the United States, or at the base of an idol of the sun, in the case of the Aztecs (Durán: 1971 [1574–1579]:191; Hall 2006b). The practice was part of an act to aid the shade of the deceased in its travel along the Spirit Trail. This was relevant to worship of the sun because in Aztec belief the sun died every evening, traveled through the underworld, and was reborn in the morning. Blood offered in sacrifice nourished the Aztec sun for its travels. For the Mayas, a related practice is attested on the tomb of the king Pacal by the imagery of a blood-letting tool deposited at the base of the World Tree symbolizing the path of Pacal’s soul entering the Maya afterworld (Schele et al. 1999:113). Blood autosacrifice of this kind in North America—depositing bloodied skewers at the base of the mourning pole of an important figure—was possibly of Mesoamerican derivation because it was limited to tribes believed to have once lived at or in close contact with ancient Cahokia.

Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica

Figure 5.1 Tethered warriors in Mexico and the Great Plains: (a) Plains Dog Soldier tethered to a crook lance and holding a wooden quirt, from Hall (1997: fig. 19.5a), after Mails (1973:48); (b) tethered warrior in the Aztec gladiatorial sacrifice, after Berlin et al. (1947: pl. 15m–n); (c) Comanche quirt in the form of the hearthboard of a fire drilling set, from Hall (1997: fig. 19.5b, after Rollings 1989:47).

Plains Dog Soldiers corresponded in some respects to Aztec no-retreat warriors. Under certain circumstances, a member of a Plains Dog Soldier society might tether himself with a sash to a crook-shaped staff stuck in the ground, pledging no retreat, and defending himself with only a wooden-handled quirt (Figure 5.1a, c). The no-retreat stance of Dog Soldiers paralleled the Aztec gladiatorial sacrifice in which a slave or captive was tethered in place with a cord and obliged to defend himself with only a wooden club (Figure 5.1b; Sahagún 1971:74–77, 154–155).

(p. 55) The Aztec sacrificial victim was flayed after death and his skin worn by a warrior impersonating the Flayed God Xipe Totec. This was a literal interpretation of the metaphor of reincarnation or rebirth as skin shedding, a metaphor attested to also for the Winnebago in North America and the Amazonian Barasana (Hall 1997:163). Symbolic reincarnation was a major element of the mourning ritual known as Spirit Adoption in eastern North America. In the case of the captive killed in the Aztec gladiatorial (p. 56) sacrifice, the person who provided him was said to have acted like a father to his captive, calling him “son” and simulating mourning of his death (Sahagún 1971:77–78).

The prototypical Calumet ceremony in midcontinental North America contained a simulated, balletlike combat and death followed by symbolic reincarnation of the deceased in the person of a mourner. When the mourner was additionally given an identity with the earth, the symbolic reincarnation amounted also to a world renewal ceremony (Hall 1997:53–57, 2006b:211). The usual explanation for the flaying and “reclothing” in the Aztec gladiatorial sacrifice is that it represents the renewal of the earth in the spring. It would thus seem that from an ancient shared base in mourning behavior a ritual drama of death and reincarnation in the human and natural worlds moved in Mesoamerica away from figurative expression in the direction of stark reality.

Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica

Figure 5.2 Representations of fire drilling kits: (a) belt and sword asterism within the Orion constellation; (b) Aztec mamalhuaztli (fire sticks) constellation, after Sahagún (1953: fig. 21); (c) Lakota Hand Star constellation, from Lankford (2007: fig. 9–3b); (d) mamalhuaztli glyph, after Starr (1920); (e) drilling fire, Mexico, after Berlin et al. (1947: pl. XXII–8).

In pre-horse and pre-bow-and-arrow days, the Dog Soldier quirt (see above) may have been an atlatl dart fending stick in the form of the hearthboard or lower board of a set of fire drilling sticks (Figure 5.2d–e). In Indian belief, the power of shields (and presumably, once, fending sticks) to protect lay in their power, enhanced magically by their shape or decoration, to attract and thus intercept or deflect missiles. The hearthboard is the female half of a set of operating fire sticks when viewed as a metaphor for human procreation and renewal.

The practice of Aztec warriors to burn spots on their wrist in the pattern of their Fire Sticks constellation (Nahuatl mamalhuaztli), probably only the three stars of Orion’s “belt” asterism (Figure 5.2a–b), has a parallel in northern Plains ethnoastronomy, where these three stars form the wrist within Orion as the Hand Star constellation (Figure 5.2c; Hall 1998:61–62, 77–78). An Orion constellation association for Aztec fire sticks complements certain Dipper (Ursa major) associations of Dog Soldiers (Hall 2005:119, fig. 3). In each area, scarification in this manner was related to beliefs regarding the passage of spirits into the afterworld (Hall 1998; see also Figure 5.2c).

Certain iconographic themes appear in the Southwest by AD 1350 that in Mesoamerica were associated with the rain god Tlaloc and in the Southwest arguably with the cult of Kachina rain spirits. In the Southwest and Southeast feathered, horned, or antlered serpents appear in art between AD 1000 and 1300 that have prompted comparisons to the Mesoamerican Feathered Serpent deity Quetzalcoatl and to his wind god avatar Ehecatl.

Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica

Figure 5.3 Victims with splayed postures on pole frames: (a) Mexican scaffold sacrifice, after Berlin et al. (1947: pl. 15i); (b) Natchez captive, early eighteenth century, from Le Page du Pratz (1972 [1774]:355).

Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica

Figure 5.4 Bisected circle or atlatl grip motif and its transformations in Mexico and North America: (a–b) Aztec day sign Ollin or Motion; (c) splayed posture of victim in Pawnee arrow sacrifice; (d–e) Mixtec day sign Motion; (f) Hopewell jar, Louisiana, from Ford (1952: fig. 23); (g) Glyph P, Zapotec; (h) generic atlatl and dart; (i) atlatl and dart motif from a Preclassic pottery stamp, Tlatilco site, Mexico, after Field (1967: fig. 29); (j) Hopewell jar, Illinois, after Henriksen (1965: fig. 30a); (k) Hopewell jar, Louisiana, from Ford and Willey (1940: fig. 32d); (l) Caddoan jar, Arkansas, from Ford (1952: fig. 23); (m) Preclassic bowl, Veracruz, after García Payón (1950: pl. 12, no. 4).

Human sacrifice had arrived in the Cahokia area of Illinois by the 11th century AD, possibly even earlier, sometimes in forms duplicating Mesoamerican rites to promote fertility in maize agriculture (Fowler et al. 1999:77; Hall 2000). The arrival of these rites coincided with the opening phase of the Mississippian development at what became the first and largest community of Mississippian temple towns and population aggregations north of Mexico. Human sacrifice approaching the Mesoamerican scale and model—161 sacrificial victims in one small mound—survived three centuries or less at Cahokia itself. A version of the Mesoamerican scaffold sacrifice by arrows did, however, survive into the 20th century among the Skiri band of Pawnees on the Plains and, long enough to be actually witnessed (without the fatal climax) by anthropologists (p. 57) and described in detail (Figures 5.3a, 5.4c; Hall 1997:86–94). Compatible elements of these Mesoamerican introductions were pervasive in influence and are recognizably incorporated into the Pawnee Hako ceremony, the Ponca version of the Plains Sun Dance, and elsewhere (Hall 1989, 1997, 1998, 2006b). The Pawnee scaffold sacrifice and the Ponca Sun Dance recognizably included dramatizations of the five-sun creation story found in the iconography of the Aztec Sun Stone.

Clowning, Contraries, and Reverse Behavior

Ritual humor and use of contrary or reverse behavior or language is known historically and still practiced locally today, in varying degrees, in both Mesoamerica and North America. Contrary behavior originates in the belief that actions are reversed in the (p. 58) underworld and in the night sky, which is seen as the equivalent of the underworld. Contrary behavior is thus associated also with the dead, with the night sun in the underworld, with plant germination, and with the fertility of animals whose spirits abide in the underworld until their time to be incarnated. Contrary behavior may be associated with institutionalized clowning and ritual humor, as in the case of the Hopi Koshares and other clown societies of the Pueblo area, or used merely to indicate a symbolic presence in an ancestral homeland, as among the Huichol of western Mexico (p. 59) (p. 60) and Skiri Pawnee of the Plains, especially when that homeland existed in the night sky (e.g., Hall 1997:133, 189 n10).

Clowning in North America is widely associated with fire handling and disdain for heat and fire. Because such disdain is known, in California, to have been associated with persons representing ghosts of the cremated dead, there is an implication that this feature of clowning could have roots deep in a time when cremation was an important feature of mortuary ritual. Contrary behavior is difficult to document archaeologically, especially relating to language. There are, even so, unexplained but possibly related instances of Mayan hieroglyphic texts written in reverse (e.g., Houston 1998).

One class of sacred clowns in the Southwest typically have bodies painted white with black stripes and black circles around their eyes and mouth; the practice compares as well with the preparation in Mexico of certain 16th-century Huexotzincans and Tlaxcalans who participated in an annual ritual animal drive and hunt there. The bodies of these men were painted with white stripes, and they had similar black rings around the eyes and mouth. In the northern Plains, Cheyenne Contraries too participated in ritual animal drives, though of a symbolic nature with the animals only impersonated. The bodies, arms, and legs of these clowns were painted white.

New fire, important in the Busk and an important part of the Huexotzincan and Tlaxcalan ritual hunt as well, honored Camaxtli aka Mixcoatl, the hunting god who was the first to drill fire (Durán 1971). Witthoff (1949) believed that the green corn ritual (the Busk) in the Southeast was a modification of preexisting hunting ceremonialism to accommodate the increasing importance of corn. Some important tropical American influences appear to have begun within a more ancient Gulf- Caribbean theater of interaction that must have once extended from Central America into eastern North America (Hall 2006a).


Native societies of the Southwest followed their own road toward climax with the Chaco phenomenon followed by its own decline and diaspora (Lekson, this volume). Mesoamerican influences began with the northward spread of some technologies and cultigens during the first millennium AD, with infusions only much later of religious ideas and organizing principles that mark recognizable changes of course in the trajectory of southwestern development. Mesoamerican influence survived visibly into the present in the Puebloan Southwest in the form of ceremonies by societies of Kachinas, ritual dancers who represented returning spirits. Beliefs in a relationship of spirits of the dead to rain clouds became the organizing principle behind Mesoamerican-inspired sodalities of Kachinas who conducted community-wide ceremonies integrating multiclan pueblos.

(p. 61) This contrasts with eastern North America, where some religious ideas and practices appear to have been shared with tropical America by 1000 BC, or not long afterward, and to have been reinforced through the centuries by periodic contacts from the same direction (Hall 1997: fig. 14.6, 119; 2006a). Such contacts might have involved linguistic exchanges, producing the seemingly cognate relationship of the Cherokee words selu and Selu for corn and Corn Mother with the Nahuatl root xilo- (phonetically šilo-) as in xilotl “green corn ear” and Xilonen, Green Corn Goddess (Hall 2000). Such exchanges could also have involved only semantic sets, such as the equation of “earth” and “motion” in ritual references to the Evening Star in certain Pawnee songs (e.g., Hall 1997:96). In the Skiri Pawnee scaffold sacrifice, diffused from Mexico, the victim personating Evening Star assumed the splayed posture of the Aztec day sign Ollin or motion, whose Maya equivalent was Caban earth (Figures 5.3a, cf. 5.3b, 5.4a–c).

The Ollin glyph is a version of the bisected circle motif derived from the imagery of an atlatl handle or grip and atlatl dart that symbolize the earth, sky, and path of the sun (Figure 5.4h; Hall 1997: fig. 11.3). In Mexico this imagery is as old as the Middle Preclassic period (1250–400 BC) but is more evident in later times (Figure 5.4a–b, d–e, g, m). In North America the bisected circle has been found on ceramics of Hopewellian age (100 BC–AD 400) in the upper and lower Mississippi valleys with a late survival in the Caddo area (Figure 5.4f–l; Griffin 1966). This use of an atlatl grip as a cosmogram is, however, preceded by more than 500 years in eastern North America with the widespread use of atlatl handles in the form of a composite bird-crocodilian creature logically representing earth, sky, and water in the manner of such later-period Mesoamerican deities as Cipactli and Itzamna (Hall 1997: fig. 14.5; 2006a).

It appears easier to perceive some commonality of thought in the matter of cosmology between Mesoamerican and eastern North American Indian minds during Hopewellian and earlier times than is possible between Hopewellians and the centuries more recent though regionally proximate Mississippians. Even so, it can be no coincidence that the explosion of development around Cahokia was accompanied at its inception by the sudden appearance there of human sacrifice on a scale until then not known in the Americas north of Mexico. This was a development that arguably involved contacts with a state-level Mesoamerican society of a pre-Aztec time level (see also Alt, and Peregrine and Lekson, this volume).

Unlike Teotihuacan and Tula, Cahokia disappeared, leaving neither myth nor history. What is known of Cahokia is known only from archaeology and from what can be inferred from the ethnographies of tribes believed to have once lived at Cahokia or in its environs or sphere of influence. These would be, principally, the Siouan-speaking Omaha, Ponca, Osage, and Kansa; secondarily, the Siouan-speaking Iowa, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Missouri, and Oto; and third, the Pawnees and other Caddoan-speaking nations farther to the west and southwest (Hall 2004:100–103). These ethnographies contain tantalizing details that beg to be placed in broader context (Hall 1998, 2005).


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