Cultural affiliation

The Huasteca

This name usually refers to a vast region in the northeast of Mexico. It has been treated as a single unit despite being a multi-ethnic region inhabited not just by speakers of Teneek, which is the Huastec language, but it is also shared with groups of Nahua, Otomi, Tepehua and Pame. In general terms it could be said that it occupies the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico from the central north part of Veracruz, with the river Cazones being the most commonly cited southern boundary (although there are researchers who push it to Tecolutla or limit it to Tuxpan), up to the mouth of the river Soto la Marina in the state of Tamaulipas. It is bounded to the east by the Gulf of Mexico, while in the west there is the natural barrier formed by the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental up to the level of 6,500 feet. In the south it is very hard to draw an exact line dividing the Huastec from the Totonacapan in the area between the basins of the rivers Tuxpan and Cazones, since the territory was very probably occupied by both groups. Thus the region covers the coastal plains of the states of Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi and the north of Veracruz as well as small parts of Hidalgo, Queretaro and Puebla.

A general feature of this vast region is the exuberant forest vegetation and the warm climate nearly the whole year round. The Mexica who conquered a good part of the region called the Huasteca the “place of sustenance,” a clear reference to the good farming conditions, the good hunting prospects and the availability of birds with precious feathers. The area is much changed today. The forests have been cut down for many years for their wood and for pasture land for livestock. Land has been leveled for planting tobacco and recently for citric fruit. Oil drilling has also led to changes to the countryside with the installation of drilling and extraction platforms for hydrocarbons, as well as the building of roads and pipelines. These days there are only small areas left over with the original vegetation.

Human presence in the region goes back to at least 1700 BC, with continuous occupation until the time of the conquest. Normally when we think of Huastec culture, it evokes an image of the Postclassic period with Teenek speakers. This language is related to Maya, and a number of contradictory theories have been drawn from this. Maybe the most accepted interpretation is that Mayan languages were spoken all over the Gulf of Mexico coast. The arrival of groups in the center of Veracruz created a cradle, isolating the Huastec region from the rest of the Maya. These groups are easily identifiable in the archeological records by the presence of typical characteristics, above all the so-called black on cream, which featured on cream colored phytomorphic and anthropomorphic pots, mainly with sloped handles, decorated prolifically with natural motifs and symbols in black paint. The social organization of these groups did not go beyond chiefdoms with restricted areas of influence. There is very scarce ethno-historical information on this region. It is known that the principal evangelist of the sixteenth century, Fray Andrés de Olmos, wrote a chronicle, but it has been lost. Only fragments of information remain. One of the few accounts of social organization comes from a letter written by Fray Nicolás de Witte, in 1554, in which he asserts that the Huastecs, unlike other Indians, did not have a principal chief, but rather “... each village was on its own...,” and could ally itself with whoever it wished. It would appear that this situation had changed in some regions as a result of processes of population growth and increased social complexity, which were interrupted by the Spanish conquest, above all in the south of the region, where the main language was Nahuatl. When the Mexica began their conquest of this region they focused on the provinces of Tzicoac and Toxpan in which there were important urban centers (Mesa de Cacahuatengo was the main town of Tzicoac while Tabuco was the main town of Toxpan).

Despite their lack of social complexity, the Huastecs built important ceremonial centers with complex architecture that adhered to Mesoamerican designs. Likewise they also left an important body of stone sculpture with some notable examples like the famous figure of an adolescent found in the vicinity of the site of Tamuin, the sculpture known as Apotheosis, and the imposing monument 32 of Tamtoc. These are large scale sculptures with high quality carving and complex symbolism.

As we have seen this is an extensive region spread over various Mexican states, with a history dating back to 1700 BC, and continuing up to the conquest. Within the region there were marked regional differences and several languages are currently spoken.


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