by O Books
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The oldest pyramid on Earth?
a suburb of Mexico City sits a circular pyramid, partially covered
by a lava field from the Xitle volcano. The pyramid of Cuicuilco
rises to no more than 18 metres in height, though measures 120
metres in diameter. Excavated for the first time by Mexican archaeologist
Manuel Gamio in 1917, the original height is estimated to have
been 27 metres. Gamio discovered four galleries and a central
staircase that went to the summit. The site was been dated to
the 1st century AD, and is believed to have been the oldest pyramid
structure in the New World – predating Teotihuacan, north
of Mexico City. Cuicuilco may also have been the oldest city in
the Valley of Mexico and was roughly contemporary with, and possibly
interacting with, the Olmec civilisation of the Gulf Coast. This
already makes it highly important.
Still, it is not a true pyramid, being rather a truncated conical
mound, with a clay-and-rubble core faced with river boulders and
basalt slabs. But despite not adhering to the “true”
pyramid shape, it nevertheless is as controversial – if
not more so – than several other true pyramids.
According to translations of
ancient Nahuatl, Cuicuilco can be interpreted as the “place
of prayer” or the “place of the rainbow”. Cuicuilco
was as a farming village, built up around the ceremonial centre
that contained the pyramid. Population at the city’s peak
is estimated at an impressive 20,000 people.
Cuicuilco is, as mentioned, recognised as the oldest known civilisation
of central highland Mesoamerica. Its founders were villagers dedicated
to agricultural activities and developed a complex religious practice
with a sophisticated ritual system that included making offerings
of lithic and ceramic artefacts in their funerary practices. The
town possessed the earliest hydraulic system of the region and
a stele at the base of the pyramid shows glyphs that were associated
to the agricultural cycle.
Though recognised as “the
oldest”, a central question was “how old”? National
Geographic discussed Cuicuilco in 1923 (no. 44). In the 1922,
Byron Cummings of the University of Arizona became interested
in the structure when he learned that a geologist named George
E. Hyde had estimated the age of the flow, the Pedregal lava flow,
as being 7000 years old. This resulted in an obvious contradiction:
how could a pyramid be 5000 years younger than the lava covering
Cummings decided to confirm or deny and found 18 feet of sediment
and ashes between the bottom of the Pedregal layer and the pavement
surrounding the temple pyramid. He came up with 8500 years as
the timeframe how long it would require to accumulate. If correct,
it would make Cuilcuilco by far the oldest building in Mexico
– and the oldest pyramid in the world. But immediately,
there was a problem, for the eruption of the volcano had never
been dated to 6050 BC, but considered to be after 450 BC. It is
clearly something was wrong, and the likeliest person to be wrong,
was Cummings. Rather surprisingly, his conclusions were not immediately
attacked or considered unlikely.
worked before the invention of carbon-dating and hence he was
only able to estimate, not date, the age of the sediments. In
fact, rather than 8500 years old, he actually gave a timeframe
of 8500 to 30,000 Before Present (BP).
With the invention of radiocarbon-dating, the sediments were dated
to be only as old as 2200 BP (250 BC). Cummings’ observations
were proven erroneous. At first, distinctive pottery from mounds
associated with the pyramid and found buried beneath the Xitli
lava flows by quarrying operations dated the initial construction
of the “pyramid” to be between 800 to 600 BC, which
was still older than commonly accepted, but at least not extravagantly
outside the “accepted” timeframe.
alternative authors have taken note of the carbon-dating results.
This list includes Graham Hancock and Charles Hapgood, who promoted
the extreme age of this pyramid. Nevertheless, in 1966, even Hapgood
conceded that these lava flows were only about 2000 years old:
“Cummings made an estimate of the time required to accumulate
the eighteen feet of sediment between the underside of the Pedrigal
and the temple pavement. He estimated, first, the age of the Pedrigal
lava flow at 2,000 years, and here came very close to the truth.
Then he measured the thickness of the sediments that have accumulated
on the top of the Pedrigal since it was formed, and used this
as a measuring stick to estimate the time required to accumulate
the sediments below. He came to an estimate of 6,500 years for
the time required to accumulate these eighteen feet of sediments.”
Still, Hapgood could be forgiven for not having taken into account
the first series of carbon-dating results, which were only done
in 1963. However, today, sometimes the age of the pyramid continues
to be described as controversial, despite a second series of carbon-dating
that was accomplished in 1994, and which confirmed the conservative
brought answers. Though the dating of Cuicuilco has been ironed
out, it was but one episode in a long list of anomalies that have
attached themselves to the pyramid. The Spanish physician Hernandez,
sent to Mexico by order of (King) Philip II, visited Cuicuilco
and wrote to his sovereign about having found the bones of large
beasts, along with those of “men” in excess of five
meters tall. Natives expressed a belief that Cuicuilco’s
enigmatic structure had been built by giants. Whereas the bones
of these giants seem to have been lost, the beasts are now believed
to have been the toxodon and the titanothere.
Furthermore, while Cummings was carrying out his excavations in
the early 1920s, the site was apparently visited one night by
an unidentified flying light that hovered over the ruins before
speeding off into the distance.
The archaeological evidence showed
that the city was abandoned around 150 to 200 AD, after the eruption
of Xitle. Pottery and other evidence suggest that refugees from
the volcanic disaster migrated north and became part of the population
pool of Teotihuacan, near the northern shore of Lake Texcoco.
It is here that Mexico’s greatest pyramid adventure, to
rival the Gizeh pyramid complex, would be accomplished in due
But despite such a move north, it seems that no-one forgot about
Cuicuilco. It became a pilgrimage centre for the refugees and
their descendants who came to see the city that the volcano had
destroyed. For them, the site must have confirmed several of their
“beliefs”, for figurines and stelae from Cuicuilco
indicate that the inhabitants worshiped the fire god Huehuetéotl,
which is not surprising since the Xitle volcano was likely active
during Cuicuilco’s occupation, sporadically rumbling and
blowing smoke – and eventually destroying the site.
Huehuetéotl, which means
“the Old God”, is also sometimes called Ueueteotl.
Although known mostly in the valley around Mexico City, images
and iconography depicting Huehuetéotl have been found at
other archaeological sites across Mesoamerica, such as in the
Gulf region, western Mexico, Protoclassic-era sites in the Guatemalan
highlands such as Kaminaljuyú and Late-Postclassic sites
on the northern Yucatán Peninsula.
Huehuetéotl is frequently identified with Xiuhtecuhtli.
However, Huehuetéotl is characteristically depicted as
an aged or even decrepit being, whereas Xiutecuhtli’s appearance
is much more youthful and vigorous, and he has a marked association
with rule and (youthful) warriors. Hence, Huehuetéotl is
often seen as the “old god”. It is therefore clear
that Huehuetéotl typified the ruler of a previous age,
and Xiutecuhtli the “revitalised” power of rule, similar
to the ancient Egyptian tandem of Osiris and Horus.
the end of the cycle of 52 years, the gods were thought to be
able to end their covenant with humanity. Feasts were held in
honour of Xiuhtecuhtli to keep his favours, and human sacrifices
were burned after removing their heart. In the “New Pyramid
Age”, we have linked this cycle – and festival –
with the New Fire ceremony, which new research has linked with
the pyramid complex of Teotihuacan. Central to the New Fire was
of course the Old Fire; across the land, all fires were extinguished,
and new fires lit, underlining that one era had ended and a new
era had begun. At the same time, the king was required to perform
certain rituals that were meant to align the intentions of this
world with that of the pantheon.
Whereas a lot of focus was obviously placed on the “New
Fire”, it seems that there was also a sacred precinct for
the “Old Fire”, linked with the “Old God”,
and that this site may have been Cuicuilco. Mythology and archaeology
thus are aligned.