Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya, and the Meeting of East and West in Ancient Mesoamerica

April 24, 1999 @ 10:15 am – 11:15 am
Trustees Auditorium
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

A Slide Lecture

by Dr. Karl Taube

Reviewed by Tom Perardi

On January 16, 378 AD, Smoking Frog arrived at the Mundo Perdido area of Tikal. Eight days earlier he had come through the El Peru area, about 75 kilometers west. His travels were carefully recorded and dated at these early classic Mayan sites. In fact he had come from “The West”– Teotihuacan — apparently to take over governance from the Mayan ruler Jaguar Paw, whose concurrent demise seems more than coincidence. Later, Curl Snout, another Teotihuacan, fathered Stormy Sky, a subsequent Mayan ruler.

In 426 AD, Sun-Faced Green Quetzal Macaw, also from Teotihuacan, became the ruler of Copan.

Karl Taube used these specific examples, with a wealth of pictorial evidence, translation of glyphs, and architectural detail to demonstrate the important relationships between the cultures of the West (Teotihuacan) and the Mayan cultures of the East. To the Westerners, the Mayan were portrayed as the source of jade, cacao, and quetzal feathers. The quetzal lived wild in the areas from Guatemala to Costa Rica, and its long green tail feathers were the most precious material in Mesoamerica.

To the Mayans, the Westerners were the strong military force, market, and central political power. Some Mayan buildings, including Mundo Perdido in Tikal, have architecture similar to the Ciudadela in Teotihuacan. In Copan, where Taube has been working for five years, stone works oriented toward the West show Mayan kings in Teo dress.

In the West, Teotihuacan had a section, Tetitla, where excavations show an important Mayan presence, including elite visitors. The Merchants Barrio area also had a lot of Mayan pottery, with some great pieces. And copies of Mayan pottery, such as three-footed cylinder jars with lids, were made on site. Most have a serpent in profile design, facing left. The plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, was the image of rulership. In other locations, the serpent is portrayed as the source of water to nourish growth and development. The Western serpent “rains” governance onto various named Mayan areas.

These cultural, economic, and political interactions occurred over a very long period of time, from the early classic period (250-600 AD) through the post classic (800-1500). Yet despite the recurring evidence of Western contact, trade, usurpation, and influence, the Mayan culture survived in relatively pure forms.

Taube’s findings add significantly to our growing appreciation of travel, trade, and cultural interchange among the early peoples of the Americas.