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Culture History

Submitted by mccaffer on Thu, 03/06/2008 - 10:15am

By Geoffrey McCafferty (2008)


The earliest positive evidence for settlement dates to the Early Formative period, and scattered discoveries have been made from subsequent periods. Even earlier site utilization is possible, however, based on remains of a mammoth that were found during deep trenching related to a public works project in 1989.

Perhaps because of the varied ecological zones provided by the wetlands, the earliest evidence for occupation has been found on the campus of the Universidad de las Americas (UDLA). Early Formative pottery was discovered during salvage excavations in advance of new construction on campus. In the early 1970s, Mountjoy encountered water-logged deposits dating to the late Middle Formative period near the ancient lakeshore. A mound group dating to the Late Formative period was located on an ancient island just north of the UDLA campus.

Extensive midden deposits have been found in San Andrés Cholula from the early Middle Formative period. Ceramics are similar in style to those of Chalcatzingo and the Valley of Mexico, with the predominant decorated type having a thick kaolin slip with both incised and excised decoration, sometimes combined with red paint. One of the middens was associated with a cobble filled platform measuring about 1 m in height.

The earliest construction evidence at the Cholula ceremonial center dates to the Late Formative period, where preclassic pottery was found inside the Edificio Rojo to the northeast of the Great Pyramid. Initial stages of the Great Pyramid itself probably date to the Terminal Formative period, and show stylistic affinities to early Teotihuacan.

In summary, Cholula was occupied continuously throughout the Formative period. Due to the buildup of later occupation it is impossible at present to accurately estimate the size and population of the site during these periods. By plotting the areas where Preclassic materials have been encountered, however, the site was concentrated in San Andres Cholula near the wetland area. The total size of the community may have reached a maximum extent of 2 square kilometers.



Classic period Cholula is best known for the construction of the Great Pyramid. Confusion over the construction history of the pyramid, however, has contributed to the overarching problems of site interpretation. Close parallels between the material culture and architectural styles of Cholula with those from Teotihuacan have traditionally resulted in inferences of similar culture histories, particularly in terms of a final "collapse." It is important to bring Cholula out of the shadow of Teotihuacan, and to interpret its history in a new light.

Numerous building phases at the Great Pyramid occurred during the Classic period, including at least one complete rebuilding episode. Stage 2 expanded to the pyramid to 180 m on a side, with a maximum height of 30 m. The facades consisted of nine tiers of steps, in a unique architectural style that was distinctly non-Teotihuacan.

The material culture of Cholula, however, shows certain similarities to Teotihuacan, along with clear distinctions. The characteristic pottery is a burnished, gray/brown ware with little decoration. Thin orange pottery from southern Puebla, but closely associated with Teotihuacan culture, is relatively rare. Some figurines are also closely related to standardized Teotihuacan styles, while others display more individuality. Viurtually absent at Cholula are such Teotihuacan diagnostics as candelarios, composite braseros, or floreros.

Almost no information was available on Classic period domestic life. During the summer of 1993, a collaborative project involving the Puebla Regional Center and Brown University excavated an Early Classic house and associated tomb at the Transito site. The artifact assemblage resembled in many ways that of the Early Tlamimilolpa phase at Teotihuacan, but the elaborate stone lined tomb beneath the house floor was distinctly different from Teotihuacan burial practices.

Evidence for a Classic-period collapse at Cholula, as has often been claimed, is non-existent. The ceremonial center continued to be used into the Early Postclassic period, with an active building program including elaborately decorated carved and painted facades. Ethnic change may have occurred, however, as suggested by an influx of Gulf Coast motifs, and the burial at the pyramid of an individual with Maya-style cranial deformation and inlaid teeth. This debate is further discussed in the Spanish essay, "Nuevas (y Viejas) Ideas."



Cholula probably reached its maximum size and population during the Postclassic period. Ethnic changes during this period, however, divide the historical sequence into two phases, designated the Tlachihualtepetl and Cholollan phases, respectively.

The Tlachihualtepetl phase is named after the designation for the Great Pyramid as recorded in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca. It was the ceremonial center for the Olmeca-Xicallanca group with ethnic ties to the Gulf Coast. Numerous attributes from the final building phases of the pyramid demonstrate Gulf influences, including volute patterns at the Patio of the Altars, an extensive mosaic patio, the use of miniature pyramid-altars, and the painted style of the Bebedores mural.

It is also during this phase that the origins of the Mixteca-Puebla stylistic tradition appear, with the earliest examples again relating to Gulf Coast influences. Polychrome pottery was already common by A.D. 900, and many of the earliest motifs resemble Gulf Coast and Maya styles. Building facades at the Great Pyramid include mat and greca motifs that were later incorporated into the Mixtec-codex style, but that had previously appeared in Maya architecture.

One household compound from this period (UA-1) has been excavated.  Household members were intensively involved in spinning and hunting waterfowl, perhaps to recover feathers for textile production.

At about A.D. 1200, ethnic Tolteca-Chichimeca conquered Cholula, causing the destruction of the Patio of the Altars and the movement of the ceremonial center to the present zocalo of Cholula. The architectural facade of the Great Pyramid may have been stripped to construct the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, which is probably beneath the modern town. During this time, identified as the Chollolan phase, Cholula became an ethnically divided city, as is still represented by the internal division between San Andres Cholula and San Pedro Cholula.

Polychrome pottery from the Chollolan phase used distinctive design configurations, but was likely a development out of the earlier styles. The high quality "laca" pottery dates to this period, and includes codex-style glyphic elements relating to the Borgia-group of codices.

Although Late Postclassic pottery is widely distributed on the surface, no architectural remains have been extensively investigated. One mass burial from San Andres Cholula was excavated that was possibly related to a temple platform, and the lower stairs of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl were possibly encountered in the zocalo of San Pedro Cholula, but these associations remain questionable.

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