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Mexicolore contributor Lee Littler

The Mesoamerican Connection: Central American diffusion into the North American Southwest

We are grateful to Lee Edward Littler for writing for us this intriguing piece on the evidently abundant - yet rarely commented on - cultural connections between Mesoamerica and the US Southwest. Lee has had a lifelong passion for and interest in the indigenous peoples of the American West, is currently a Public Educator at Elden Pueblo Public Educational Project outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, and is a former Park Ranger from Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Lee currently seeks support for a comprehensive survey of the concerns of both federally recognized and unrecognized tribes in the U.S.A., amounting to some 767 groups total.

Pic 1: Map of ancient trade routes in the American South West
Pic 1: Map of ancient trade routes in the American South West (Click on image to enlarge)

”Diffusionism (anthropological definition): How ideas and objects are passed and spread from one culture to another; it leads to borrowing from one culture and modifying what is borrowed to [be compatible] with another culture, e.g., pottery styles; borrowing and modifying in diffusionism begins to explain cultural differences.”
Anthr 3, PCC Spring 2000
”What one group takes over from another is always adapted and reinterpreted according to the system of values of the group doing the receiving. Everything they receive from others they transform so as to give the innovations functions and meanings suited to their own purposes and cultural traditions.”
”Ancient Greece; From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times” by Thomas R. Martin.

Pic 2: SW trade routes (pre-Hispanic)
Pic 2: SW trade routes (pre-Hispanic) (Click on image to enlarge)

The theory of cultural diffusion may also explain cultural similarities. It explains the commonalities between the pre-contact, complex civilizations of North America and their Central American counterparts.
Arguably, the vast region that has become known as the Great American Southwest may also be considered an extension of a pan- ‘Greater Meso-America’, albeit more likely through somewhat indirect trade/exchange routes rather than more direct colonization; the similar aesthetics are especially compelling. These are generally quite alike, while specifically different. Trade networks (pix 1 & 2) apparently extended throughout the Southwest, connecting this approximately 36,000 square-mile expanse to various remote, but adjacent, areas, notably including Meso-America.

Pic 3: Parrot, Badger, Sun, Corn & Lizard Clan symbols, Tutuveni
Pic 3: Parrot, Badger, Sun, Corn & Lizard Clan symbols, Tutuveni (Click on image to enlarge)

Exotic items clearly imported from Central America have been repeatedly uncovered in the archaeological records within the traditional territory of the northerners collectively known aptly as the ‘Pueblo’, or town peoples. Such items include, but are not necessarily limited to, copper bells and macaw-parrots (the Hopi people of U.S. northern Arizona do indeed have a parrot clan - pic 3); utensils such as corn-grinding mano-metates; architectural features such as platform mounds, ball-courts (pic 4) and residences; and particularly their cultivated plants that originated in Mexico, especially the ‘Three Sisters’, maize-corn, beans and squashes. This influence is also seen in pottery styles and artistic iconography, the latter exemplified by the mysterious and ubiquitous T-shape symbol (as found in Pueblo doorways and tablita headdress, plus Meso-American funerary masks).

Pic 4: Ballcourt at Wupatki
Pic 4: Ballcourt at Wupatki (Click on image to enlarge)

The more abstract concept of a Great Horned Serpent, similarly known in Meso-America, permeates Puebloan art and cosmology, and spread beyond onto the distant Great Plains and the Mississippi Valley river drainages of the ‘Mound-builders’ (the latter of whom did build pyramids of their own . . .). This gigantic snake does indeed seem markedly similar to Quetzalcoatl of the Aztec/Culhua-Mexica and that of the Mayas’ Kulkulcan. Remarkably, there seem to be some linguistic cognates, too, similar words with identical meanings but in different languages: the Hopi have named this serpent Polokon and the Zuni of western New Mexico call the snake Kolowisi; this is very much like the aforementioned Mayan term. Zuni is actually said to be an ‘isolate’, related to no other known language. But, some have theorized that it may very well be related to Mayan, both of which may belong to the Punutian languages(?) The Hopi language itself is definitely related to the Mexican Nahuatl, both deriving from the great, widespread Shoshonean, or Uto-Aztecan linguistic group. Furthermore, the Hopi word for ‘eagle’ is kwahu and ‘house’ or ‘shelter’ is ki, much like the Mexica words cuauhtl and calli, respectively.

Pic 5: Masaw kachina, Heard Museum
Pic 5: Masaw kachina, Heard Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

As for other parallels, it is intriguing that the Hopis’ Masau’u (Masaaw) is their deity of fire, the temporal earthly plane and - that quintessential Meso-American theme - death, indicating a probable, distinct southern influence. He is also known as the ‘Skeleton Man’, further evoking Mexican regional imagery. Of course, rain-divinities have been understandably important to these farmers in both places. Another example is the Dineh (‘Navajo)’ of the same region who have traditions in common with both Pueblo peoples and so with Meso-Americans, indirectly at least. Apparently this has occurred through the same diffusion process, and although they are instead Athabaskan speakers like their Apache brethren, about a third of all Dineh clans are actually Pueblo in origin (and the former even have a Mexican clan).

Pic 6: Desert Watchtower: Pukonghoya, one of the War Twins; painting by Fred Kabotie
Pic 6: Desert Watchtower: Pukonghoya, one of the War Twins; painting by Fred Kabotie (Click on image to enlarge)

Reflecting this is the fact that all of these peoples have narratives of the mythical Hero Twins (in Meso-America, this is especially notable with the Maya). While versions of these stories vary, the overall concept is identical. People do indeed transform and reinterpret the cultural traditions that they adapt, but the origins can still be traced to their source without much reasonable doubt; so it would seem with the diffusive interaction between groups like the Meso-Americans and their influence on Pueblo villagers like the Hopi and, thus the Dineh.

Pic 7: The Rio Grande at Albuquerque
Pic 7: The Rio Grande at Albuquerque (Click on image to enlarge)

Disregarding the latter-day, contentious political-international border separating the United States of America from the nation of Mexico, there are not really many physical, geographical obstacles significantly impeding cultural diffusion. Admittedly, there are the immense Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and the river system of the Rio Grande separating the two (pic 7). But, items and concepts have flowed through more inhospitable deserts than these: The Silk Road through the Gobi and the camel caravans of the Sahara. Additionally, the Big River can be somewhat easily crossed in many places, thus the derogatory epithet ‘Wetback’ applied to those illegally wading across the shallows from the south. (Relatively recently, this permeability aggravates many North American citizens and creates job security for their Border Patrol...)

Pic 8: Teotihuacan turquoise
Pic 8: Teotihuacan turquoise (Click on image to enlarge)

Items certainly have spread northward. Some have even theorized that traders themselves, known as pochteca in Mexica Nahuatl, may have too; but without any transposition other than their own two feet, this seems somewhat questionable. However, whether from the Maya country, then along the Gulf, to the North of Mexico, or from the centrally located Valley of Mexico and through the deserts to Pueblo lands, there has existed a relatively unimpeded and porous ‘diffusion corridor’. While it is true that turquoise (pic 8), for example, was exported from north-to-south, most of the influence went via opposite routes, for debatable reasons.

Pic 9: Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
Pic 9: Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde (Click on image to enlarge)

Some southern concepts either never even arrived northward at all, or diluted until they were unknown to the northernmost Four-Corners area (where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet); the Puebloans did not possess any known jade, construct great pyramids and huge temple-complexes, nor use any written language, per se, like that of the Maya. Yet, astronomical observatories like those of the Maya may have been the intended purpose of the Four-Corners Pueblo towers, and several of these Southwestern pueblos - like Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace and Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito - were quite large, reminiscent of Central American communities such as Teotihuacan, ad infintium.

Pic 10: Montezuma Castle T-shaped Entrance
Pic 10: Montezuma Castle T-shaped Entrance (Click on image to enlarge)

Tellingly, nineteenth-century American settlers did have the distinct impression that the Mexica themselves had actually built the ruins that they had found throughout the Southwest. So much so, that they labeled these sites with misleading names like ‘Montezuma Castle’ and ‘Aztec Ruins’ (located in Arizona and New Mexico, respectively, and probably indicating ancestry with their architects and peoples like the Zuni and Hopi...). The newcomers also inaccurately advertised pilfered Puebloan artifacts for sale as ‘Aztec relics’. These misnomers may not only have been a misconception, but also a way of rationalizing the conquest of Pueblo lands by attributing these buildings to some other, distant (if related) civilization. But regardless, the timeline is equally erroneous, because most of these sites were vacated by around the turn of the fourteenth-century and the Mexica capitol of Tenochtitlan was not founded until at least twenty-five years later.

Pic 11: Hovenweep ruins
Pic 11: Hovenweep ruins (Click on image to enlarge)

Chronicles from both of these neighboring regions do indeed refer to epic migrations, though, seemingly such as that which occurred in the Southwest around 1300 CE. They also have made comparable references to their emergence from underworlds and searching for a Promised Land (known as Tuuwanasavi, the ‘Center Point’, in Hopi). The Zuni’s verbal histories mention, ”stone houses that may yet be seen...” just as the Aztec-Chichimeca state that, ”The remains of what [was] made and left behind... can still be seen, among them the structures of stone and earth...” While these are obvious references to the ruins in their two respective cultural areas, the verbiage still seems too similar to be entirely coincidental. As for the Hopi, they have used the term, “The footprints of our ancestors” to describe the ‘ruins’, an apt term for archaeological sites in both North and Central America.

Pic 12: Map of Prehistoric SW Culture Areas
Pic 12: Map of Prehistoric SW Culture Areas (Click on image to enlarge)

The influence of Meso-America still endures in the Great American Southwest. This is a continuous source of ambivalence to a contingency of Southwestern Americans. They habitually consume the aforementioned Mexican foods and unknowingly use many Anglicized Nahuatl loan-words daily: Tomato; avocado and guacamole; chocolate; coyote; possibly even ‘shack’ and ‘salamander’. But, ironically and despite such major contributions, these very same residents of El Norte often prefer that the people themselves remain ‘South of the Border’.
Yet, the cultural diffusion from there never really has...

(Sources available upon request)

Picture sources:-
• All pictures, except those below, provided by, courtesy of and thanks to Peter J. Pilles, Jr., Forest Archaeologist, Forest Service, Coconino National Forest Supervisor’s Office
• Pic 9: National Park Service Photo/Sandy Groves
• Pic 10: National Park Service Photo.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 13th 2018

emoticon An ode to The Three Sisters (Aztec limerick no. 6)
The trio of maize, beans and squash
- staple diet for poor as for posh,
Complete in nutrition
By expert admission -
Is the ultimate Mesoamerican nosh!

Learn more about The Three Sisters (
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