Friday, November 22, 2013

Cantona - Mexico's Largest Archaeological Site

In November of 2012, on a earlier trip to Mexico City, my friend Alejandro and I went to a place rarely visited by tourists... Cantona.  I had read about it in a guide book, and Alejandro had never heard about it before.  It is located in the Mexican state of Puebla, not far from the border of Veracruz, along the main highway to the Gulf coast.  It is a three hour drive from Mexico City to Cantona.

Although it was "discovered" in the nineteenth century, it is only in recent years that serious archaeological work on the site has been undertaken.  Archaeologists estimate that in terms of area (it is at least five square miles in size) Cantona was the largest pre-Hispanic city of Mexico.  It was a highly urbanized site which may have had a population of 80,000 people at its height between A.D. 600 and 1000.   The city might have been established centuries before by a tribe related to the ancient Olmecs.  It controlled the crucial trade route between the coast and central Mexico.  The major trade product for Cantona was most certainly obsidian, the volcanic glass which was fashioned into weapons, knives and other tools.  Obsidian mines were located not far from the city.

Cantona was probably a trading partner and rival of Teotihuacan, the great city located north of present day Mexico City.  (Teotihuacan's huge pyramids and ruins are today a major tourist attraction for visitors to the capital.)  As Teotihuacan fell into decline, Cantona may have taken its place as the most important city of the region.  After A.D. 1000 it too fell into decline and was eventually abandoned.  No one knows for sure the reason for its abandonment, but one possible cause was climate change which left the area more arid.

Although it lacks the artistic beauty of the great Mayan cities, or the monumental grandeur of the pyramids of Teotihuacan, we both found it to be one of the most impressive archaeological sites that we have seen.  The size of the place is astounding.  Even though only 10% of the city has been excavated and is open to visitors, it took us four hours to see it all.  The trail continued on and on to more plazas and pyramids and ball courts.  (The pre-Hispanic civilizations all played a type of ceremonial ball game.  Cantona has at least 24 ball courts, more than any other site in Mexico.)  What visitors see today is largely the civic and religious center of the city (downtown Cantona, you might say).  It is an acropolis defensively located atop a hill overlooking the valley. 

Because of its isolated location, distant from major tourist areas, Cantona receives very few visitors.  This adds to its appeal.  Unlike some archaeological sites, such as Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, which draw hordes of tourists, there were perhaps a few dozen visitors when we were there.  We felt as if we had the place to ourselves.  The scenery was also quite spectacular.  The rugged semi-desert area is studded with cacti and yucca.  In the distance the snow-capped Pico de Orizaba is visible. 

A trip to Cantona is definitely worth the long drive!


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