Zapoteca, Chichimeca or Tlaxcalteca?

Oct 05 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

So over at Lab Spaces we were asked the question: what would you be doing if you were not doing science?

This is tricky, because you can answer this in a couple of different ways. One is, if I were to quit science now, what would I do? The second is, if I had taken an alternative path what would it have been? The first is somewhat scary to answer, because honestly, I have no fucking idea. I'm sure I'd come up with something, but I'm not sure what. The second is far more fun to answer - and that's the one I'll answer here.

To me, the obvious answer would be to become… an archaeologist! Although my wife kindly pointed out that archaeology IS a science; but it's different enough from what I do, so it still counts. Growing up in Mexico City I was always fascinated by the fact that buried literally beneath my feet was a whole ancient civilization. That you could basically dig a deep enough hole and you would find evidence of this, just there, in the ground. Some subway stations even have pyramids inside them. I was obsessed with the National Anthropology Museum, one of the largest in the world, which houses artifacts from every important archaeological dig in Mexico, laying out all the different pre-columbian cultures in chronological order from the Olmecs all the way to the Aztecs. I made my mother take me there over and over again until I had the ginormous museum memorized - I knew the difference between the Toltects and the Chichimecas, the Mayans and the Zapotecs. I could tell their different artistic styles apart and had my favorite pieces. I was an archaeology geek. My favorite piece was the "Luchador Olmeca":

Luchador Olmeca - the kicking-est piece at the museum!

It was made by one of the oldest civilizations in Mexico and I liked it because it was so different from the others - it looked so modern as opposed to the highly stylized pieces around it. It also helped that it was on its own little alcove with a spotlight on it. But then again the jade Mayan mask was in its own little tunnel, and I still like the Olmec warrior more. I also dragged my mom to see every archaeological site within driving distance from Mexico City - the giant pyramids in Teotihuacán, the human-like pillars in Tula, and the pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, which has a church built on top of it, and you can visit both the pyramid and the church. The pyramid also has these long tunnels carved into it so you can see the inside.

When I was a kid, at some point some utility workers discovered the ruins of the main Aztec temple, the templo mayor, in the center of Mexico City, just off the Zócalo. Tenochtitlán was the capital of the Aztec empire, and the present day Mexico City is built right on top. So it was quite amazing that they found these ruins after so many years, probably because the buildings in the center of the city are old colonial buildings and are historic on their own, so they don't usually knock down buildings in the ceter of the city to see what's underneath. In any case it was incredibly cool to visit the archaeological dig right in the city and finally be able to visit the site once it was mostly completed. One of the highlights was a giant stone, which they called the stone of the moon, with an engraving of Coyoxautli, who was dismembered by her brother, the god Huitzilopochtli (the baby warrior), after she tried to kill their mother. I somehow convinced my third grade teacher to have the class put on a play about Coyoxautli - it was a hit, at least with the class, not sure about the parents. This came on the heels of having a class field trip to see the Templo Mayor and having the docent describe to us how the Aztecs would sacrifice prisoners atop of the temple and throw down the bodies down these stairs (which we were standing next to) and then proceed to make pozole from their dismembered bodies for the priests to eat. That kind of stuff will make anyone want to become an archaeologist.

Human sacrifice at the ol' temple.

Another cool thing about the Templo Mayor is that you get to see what would have been inside the pyramid. Many pre-columbian cultures had a belief that the world would renew every 52 years. So they would bury all the old pyramids and temples and build new ones on top of the old ones. So if you dig inside a pyramid you will like see the foundations of all the previous cycles that preceded it. Again, a hidden civilization underneath the present one.

So there you have it - that's what I was sure I was going to study until pretty much high-school, when biology somehow became more interesting. I figured, biology is just as cool and I still get to dig holes in the ground and explore cool places, little did I know I'd end up in a field where no fieldwork is required. I really like what I currently do, and am as enthusiastic about my current work as I was into archaeology, but I have to admit that I am jealous of colleagues who get to do field work. It would be a nice break from the lab and office. For the last few summers I've spent a few weeks at a time teaching part of a course at the Marine Biological Lab at Woods Hole. And just walking through town I'm always longingly looking at the research vessels from the Oceanographic Institute getting outfitted for different trips, being loaded up with all sorts of scuba gear and little submarines and all sorts of sensors and radars mounted on top, and I think, wow... I want to do that!

This post was cross-posted at Lab Spaces.


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