Los Guachimontones (alternatively Huachimontones) is a prehispanic archaeological site near the Mexican town of Teuchitlán in the state of Jalisco about an hour west of Guadalajara.
It is the major site of the so-called Teuchitlán tradition, a complex society that existed from as early as 300 BCE until perhaps 900 CE.
Los Guachimontones represents the largest discovered site from a culture that once flourished in the Tequila Valley region between 300 BC – 900 AD/CE.
The reconstructed site and accompanying Interpretive Center were created to help people learn about the lost culture.
The Teuchitlan culture is known for its distinct circular, step pyramid structures (described as looking like a layer cake or bee hive) consisting of a round central altars (a style that is called “Guachimontón”) surrounded by a circular patio space, and a circular banquette on which sits four to sixteen rectangular or square platforms.
The connection between the Teuchitlan culture and the larger, older Shaft-Tomb culture (500BC-400CE) is blatant. Shaft-tombs are found directly underneath the platforms in the guachimonton structures. Though whether the shaft-tombs came first at the structures or not is still under investigation.
While the connection between the Teuchitlan culture and the greater Mesoamerican pantheon is unclear, there is evidence of some old gods worship. These possible connections are being studied primarily by the Colegio de Michoacan and they run the Los Guachimontones labs.
The origin of the name
It is unknown who named this site “Los Guachimontones”. It is believed that Guaje comes from the Nahuatl “Huaxe” word that, in combination with the Spanish word “montones” (bunches), could be construed to mean “bunch of gourds”, a common tree species in the area.
The word Teuchitlán is derived from Teotzitlán or Teutzitlán interpreted as “place dedicated to the divine”, “place of the God Tenoch ” or “place dedicated to the revered God”.
Guachimontón means an enclosed place, alluding to the constructions discovered at the site: concentric circles.
Although the name is of Nahuatl origin, archaeologist Weigand is certain Nahuatl was not the official language, which was instead perhaps Totorame or Chipcha. The Totorame language is a variety of Cora, a Uto-Aztecan language of Nayarit.
There are approximately 950 archaeological sites under investigation in the State of Jalisco. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Jalisco, there may be more than 2,000 archaeological sites in the state. These include more than just large cities or ceremonial centers, as archaeological sites are also considered to be “any place with vestiges of ancient human activity.”
Teuchitlán was a village dependent of the Etzatlán lordship, inhabited by tecos groups.
The specific architectural style of this site is called “Guachimontón”, due to the mounds and circular staggered-level structures. It is believed that such structures, in the particular case of the Teuchitlán, were used for ceremonies to honor the wind God Ehecatl. These included an analog of the Volador ceremony, where a priest climbed the pole to honor the divinity. The pole was placed atop the structure.
Possibly the city foundation goes back to the Aztecs, which erected it on a hill called Huachimontón, north of its current location. It was founded by members of Nahuatlacas groups that developed central Mexico during the postclassical period, however, it is known that buildings at Teuchitlán were built prior to such development. The creative culture that constructed “‘Guachimontones”‘ is called Teuchitlán tradition, its apogee was between 200 and 400 CE, disappearing in about 900 CE, possibly before the arrival of the Anahuaca colonists.
UNESCO has added the whole region, including the nearby tequila distilleries, to its World Heritage List. Due to heavy looting, the site was also included on the 2008 World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
American archaeologist Dr. Phil Weigand and his wife Celia Weigand discovered the Los Guachimontones site in 1969. Dr. Weignad, through drive-by and regular archaeological survey recorded over 200 guachimontones around Western Mexico, the majority being in the Tequila Valleys area in highland Jalisco.
The site had already been located, visited, and described in the book Enchanted Vagabonds (Dana Lamb, June Cleveland, Harper&Brothers, 1938). The local indigenous informed Lamb about the site, considered by them to be sacred. While the site was re-discovered in 1970, extensive unearthing would get underway only in 1996 once funding was finally secured, although one source indicates that excavation would not begin until 1999 with the assistance of then Jalisco governor Alberto Cárdenas. An understanding of the site and its former inhabitants remains limited and research is ongoing, yet important information is known, thanks to the work of the late US archaeologist Phil Weigand, his wife Arcelia García, and a research team attached to the Colegio de Michoacán (School of Michoacán).
Weigand proposed that the ruins are some 2,000 years old and were inhabited by an ancient civilization currently referred to as the Tradición Teuchitlán (Teuchitlán Tradition). This society existed from around 300 BCE until its fall in roughly 900 CE.
The site currently covers some 19 hectares, although it is estimated that during its apogee it consisted of over 24,000 and was inhabited by approximately 40,000 people.
As at many other ruins sites in Latin America, appropriation of structural stones has occurred. Los Guachimontones has not been an exception. For example, stones from the Calixtlahuaca site were reused in the construction of the nearby St. Francis of Assisi church, some of them containing petroglyphs. A sacrificial stone is located in the atrium of said church. From the Tiahuanaco site in Bolivia, stones were repurposed for the construction of a railroad passing close to the ruins to the north.
In the case of the Guachimontones ruins, they suffered years of neglect and site stones were appropriated in order to build streets and construct modern houses in the neighboring town of Teuchitlán.
The Teuchitlán tradition was a pre-Columbian complex society that occupied areas of the modern-day Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco. Although evidence of Teuchitlán tradition architecture appears as early as 300 BCE, its rise is generally dated to the end of the Formative period, 200 CE. The tradition is rather abruptly extinguished at the end of the Classic era, ca. 900 CE.
The Teuchitlán tradition is notable for its circular central plazas and conical step pyramids. According to researcher Phil Weigand, these unusual structures are “unique in the Mesoamerican architectural repertoire and indeed are not found anywhere else in the world”.
There are several characteristics of a ranked society present within Teuchitlán tradition societies — the circular plazas, for example, were restricted to the elite. However, based semi-fortified sites excavated in key mountain passes on the edge of the Teuchitlán core area, it is thought that the larger Teuchitlán tradition area was politically fragmented.
The last of the tradition
The onset of the Postclassic era in western Mexico, as elsewhere in Mesoamerica, was marked by abrupt changes. In roughly 900 CE, the circular pyramids, plazas, and concentric groupings began to be replaced by the more prosaic rectangular architecture – the Teuchitlán tradition had suffered a “total and definitive collapse”, a change so abrupt that it has been assumed that it was driven from outside, perhaps by the ascending Tarascan state.
The Teuchitlán tradition is an outgrowth of the earlier shaft tomb tradition but with a shift away from the smaller centers to larger sites such as Los Guachimontones.
Ehecatl (Spanish: Ehécatl, Nahuatl languages: ehēcatl; Classical Nahuatl: Ecatl is a prehispanic deity associated with the wind, who features in Aztec mythology and the mythologies of other cultures from the central Mexico region of Mesoamerica. He is most usually interpreted as the aspect of the Feathered Serpent deity (Quetzalcoatl in Aztec and other Nahua cultures) as a god of wind and is therefore also known as Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. Ehecatl also figures prominently as one of the creator gods and culture heroes in the mythical creation accounts documented for pre-Columbian central Mexican cultures.
Since the wind blows in all directions, Ehecatl was associated with all the cardinal directions. His temple was built as a cylinder in order to reduce the air resistance and was sometimes portrayed with two protruding masks through which the wind blew.
The many round buildings in Mesoamerica, are generally related Ehécatl. The circle is a perfect geometric figure, has neither beginning nor end, it is infinite, as the gods.
Excavations at other Teuchitlan sites have shown similar constructions, and that a post hole would have been located in the central altar (or sometimes central space if the altar is lacking) during rituals.
Ceramic dioramas of the full guachimontons, unique to the Mesoamerican region, from shaft-tomb and guachimonton site excavations, display pole ceremonies that the Teuchitlan community members performed all across their culture. Often they display where a leader would climb the pole as a devotional act to their god. However feasting, musical instruments, and even burials are also depicted in these dioramas.
The dominant features at Los Guachimontones are circular stepped pyramids in the middle of circular building complexes. The 60-foot (18 m) tall pyramid at Circle 2 has 13 high steps leading to an upper level, which was then topped with another 4 high steps. A post hole was located at the very highest level, most likely for Volador ceremonies. The pyramids may also have supported small temples.
The Guajes place the complex organizational system was very similar to other neighboring cultures with a ritual center and other residential places. Teuchitlán culture (the Guachimontones inhabitants) specialized in the use of the Obsidian in their crafts and sculptures, without excluding other equally important materials like Copper, Gold, Silver, Malachite, the pseudo-cloisonné paintings etc. It also was closely linked to agriculture; their irrigation system surpassed their times
The site consists of structures forming concentric circles, used to worship their gods, mainly to Ehecatl. An aerial view shows the ceremonial buildings and surrounding structures, in a perfect circle, it is believed that the community would sit there to watch, and dance with their elementary gods (wind, water, fire, earth).
In the center of the main circular structure (its floors are an exact 52-year calendar) there is a large hole; possibly where the pole was placed, from which the priests held and rock back and forth, simulating the flight of a bird. Such tradition was an offering to Ehecatl.
The Teuchitlán Culture, as several other Mesoamerican cultures, had its own ball game. The game used a rubber ball that did not have to pass through rings, but it had to be struck with the hip to the opposite end of the court; when the ball was immobilized in one of the courts, the opposing team received points. The interesting thing about this game is the sum and subtraction if a team had the kept at their side, they subtracted points and the opposing team added. Opposed to the general idea, the ballgame was used for political ends (territorial division, inheritance questions, etc.) or religious, where the winner won “gods immortality” in heaven while being beheaded in the court.
Teuchitlán (means “a place dedicated to the divine”) was dedicated gods worship. The [Teuchitlán] civilization always made sacrifices and offerings before any building construction.
Such offerings consisted of large fires or corn burned beneath the platform exterior walls. There have been cases of ceramics dishes found, within or below the walls.
Today, 1500 years after the abandonment of the area by its inhabitants, Guachimontones is being restructured and rediscovered. Many of archaeological areas are in poor conditions caused by the agriculture of the owners of these lands. Today, it is world heritage, which does not indicate that the work is finished, but that is just starting.
The site has little to do with known Mexico archaeological sites, its architecture can only compare with some representations of the central highlands, as Cuicuilco; paradoxically also has amazing similitudes, as the ballgame court – among the largest of Mesoamerica – barely comparable with the magnitude of the Chichen Itza court (late classic Maya site in Yucatán); its irrigation system, compares with the Calakmul hydraulic engineering system, in Campeche, from the postclassical period.
It is a large-scale site, designed and built as a social element. The ambiance is considered “political” by archaeologists, structure complex designed to impose or maintain unity and order within the territory or to make adjustments on a large scale or long-term.
Sunken circular plazas surround each pyramid and a series of smaller mounds surround the plazas. On top of the mounds are platforms that once supported buildings made of wood and clay.
The site has a total of 10 circular complexes, four rectangular plazas, and two ballcourts.
The excavation of the site has been the focus of archaeologists from the Colegio de Michoacán under the direction of US archaeologist Phil Weigand and wife Celia Garcia de Weigand. A large project has been underway at the site since 1998, although some sources put the years at 1996 and 1999.
The circular sets suggest restricted access for the rulers, their families and the priestly caste. The western circular sets are unique, but their geometry widely follows cosmological principles understood and shared by the people of Mesoamerica.
In the architectural Teuchitlán microcosm, rulers observed a cyclic program of ritual festivals and, in general, society lived under the construct of ritualism.
Weigand site definition of the circular mound complex is based on five diagnosed features:
- A central pyramid
- An elevated circular patio surrounding the pyramid
- A circular sidewalk surrounding the patio
- Between eight and twelve rectangular platforms on the sidewalk
- Funerary crypts under some of the platforms
Aside from the site’s ruins, a newly-constructed interpretive center (completed by 2012) is also situated on the grounds. It houses informational boards, artist renditions of life as it may have looked during the city’s peak, and samples of obsidian-based tools and other artifacts utilized by the peoples of the Teuchitlán Tradition. Here, one can arrange for a guided walking tour of the area.
A commemorative plaque on an outside wall of the modern-day structure dedicates the building to Weigand for “his work and research in the area of Jalisco’s archaeological heritage, and for laboring as an educator of future generations of archaeologists”. In fact, the building bears his name, according to the plaque dated January 2012: The “Phil Weigand” Guachimontones Interpretive Center.
The center of the largest venue is a pyramid with multiple layers and four staircases at the cardinal points. The small temple at the top was probably dedicated to a founding ancestor buried underneath. Around the circular floor of a sidewalk supports several platforms, each with a tree branches structure similar to a house; probably dedicated to ancestors or dominant lineages. To the right, a sacred spring provided water to the ritual gardens or similar purposes.
Construction materials for the main buildings was stone, clay and lime. In the center of the largest venue is a multiple layer pyramid and four staircases at the cardinal points.
Known as the “Iguana”, is the second largest and best preserved. Has an impressive 115 m diameter and a perimeter of 360 m, surrounded by 10 platforms, three of them grouped together on a common base. Other smaller pyramids, had on top a pole for the ceremony of the “voladores”, as can be seen in various local craftsmanship items.
Four sampling probes were excavated across the patio in order to study the construction technique and the element history. Probes were made in various sectors of the circle to determine thickness at different points. These probes were directed by Dr. Phil C. Weigand and professor Efraín Cárdenas; laboratory work was under the charge of professor Acelia García Anguiano and Eugenia Fernandez.
There is a ballgame court, between the two larger circles in the site. A third, smaller circle interlaces with the second. The small pyramids had “volador” ceremony poles.
Possibly the Teuchitlán tradition ballgame hierarchy reflects political situations of particular sensitivity, which required solutions to social and economic problems in the court as well as on the battlefield.
The third smaller circle interlaces with the second. The small pyramids used to hold the “volador posts are depicted in various cooked ceramic models. Smaller buildings are on the left and right, towards the foot of the hill. Farming areas are grouped around the distant lake shores, while swamps occupy the rest of the basin.
How to get there
From the Guadalajara airport, it is approx. one hour away by taxi.
It is considerably longer via bus, and unless you know your way around Tequila Valley, it is not recommended as even residents of Guadalajara can end up lost.
Taxis and buses will usually drop you off at the entrance to the town of Teuchitlan.
There are signs pointing you in the direction of the site and interpretation center which is to the northeast of the town. The hike is long and has some very steep inclines if you are walking. If you took a taxi you may be able to convince the driver to take you all the way up to the Interpretation Center.
If you continue up from the Interpretive Center, it is another steep incline hike to the actual archaeological site.
Please bring water and proper sun-blocking clothes, there is not much shade on the walk-up.
A secondary site called Loma Alta is also available to see but requires either a very long hike or a good sturdy truck. If you are interested in seeing it please ask one of the Interpretive Center guides.