Prehispanic Cholula

by Carmen Caelen

 

Prehispanic Cholula is one of the most impressive Mesoamerican settlements.  Mesoamerica, refers to a cultural development that lasted around 2,000 years (from approximately 600 BCE to 1521 AD).  The territory comprised in this culture area includes the center and south of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.  The history of Mesoamerica is divided into three main chronological periods: the Preclassic (1500 BCE – 300 AD), the Classic (300 – 950 AD), and the Postclassic (950 – 1521 AD).  In some areas, including the center of Mexico, an additional period is added; it is called the Epiclassic (700 – 900 AD) and it corresponds to the moment immediately following the collapse of Teotihuacan.  Cholula, located in central Mesoamerica, is one of the few Prehispanic sites that has an occupation that goes from the Preclassic Period all the way to the Postclassic.

In Prehispanic times, Cholula was known by several names.  The most common one was Tlachihualtepetl which means “hand-made hill”, making a direct reference to the Great Pyramid.  It is believed that it was the Tolteca-Chichimeca who first used the name Cholula, although in the Nahuatl language the city was called Tollan Chollolan Tlachihualtepetl.  In the codex Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, the pyramid is shown as a hill with a large toad on top.  Another one of its names, Chalchiutepec or “jade hill”, derives from a legend that narrated that a jade stone fell from the sky and landed in the shape of a toad.  The Nahuatl term for jade is chalchihuitl and it was one of the most valuable stones, associated to corn, water, and fertility.  A third name was Cholollan-Tamazol-Xamiltepec in which Tamazol means toad and Xamiltepec means hill made out of adobe.

The etymology of Cholula can also be interpreted in several ways.  Cholollan means “the place where water springs up”.  The verb choloa means “to flee or run” and Cholo-yan means “place where you run”.  This is consistent with an image in the codex Lienzo de Tlaxcala that shows Cholula represented by three men running, a road, and a pyramid.

Very little is known about the first inhabitants of Cholula during the Preclassic Period.  During the Classic it grew into a large ceremonial center that was contemporary with the great Teotihuacan.  Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a strong connection between the two cities; however, the nature of this relationship remains unclear.  Some consider Cholula to have been a secondary center, others believe the two to have been sister cities, and still others suggest that Cholula was the greater city that influenced Teotihuacan, although, given the evidence the latter seems unlikely.  What we do know for sure is that the connection between the two sites can be clearly seen in architecture and pottery.

It is important to note that after the collapse of Teotihuacan, Cholula maintained its status as a great religious and political center, continuing its influence well into the Postclassic Period.  After the downfall of the great metropolis Cholula flourished due to its role as a commercial center and sacred sanctuary.  It has been suggested that after the fall of Teotihuacan a considerable amount of the metropolis’ population migrated to Cholula, giving the sacred city a multiethnic composition.  In the 8th century a new group emerged in the region, the enigmatic Olmeca-Xicalanca, who established their capital at Cacaxtla but conquered and took over Cholula.  During the Postclassic a new wave of migrations brought the Tolteca-Chichimeca into the region.  They fought against the Olmeca-Xicalanca and took Cholula from them.

Cholula seems to have evolved into a large regional center during the Classic Period; however, its true moment of growth began with the arrival of the Olmeca-Xicalanca between 750 and 950 AD.  The power vacuum left by the collapse of Teotihuacan allowed many new regional centers to emerge as the political and economic structures reorganized throughout Mesoamerica.  The Sacred City “thrived along with its (…) contemporaries Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, and El Tajín until a new ceremonial center was constructed under the direction of Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples who moved into the region from Tula around A.D. 1100. Cholula then became, in the words of one Spanish chronicler, a New World Mecca, the largest pilgrimage center in highland Mesoamerica and the nucleus of a Nahua commercial exchange network that extended from the Basin of México to El Salvador.”[1]

During the Postclassic, Cholula once again presents close ties to another great Mesoamerican city: Tula.  The exact relationship is, once again, not fully known, but there are some who claim that the former became the heiress to the Toltec capital.  This is supported by the fact that after the fall of Tula, at least a faction of Toltecas arrived at Cholula and conquered it.  This is recorded in the codex Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca.

In the centuries leading up to the Spanish conquest, Cholula became the main economic and political center in central Mesoamerica.  “Its authority was derived from the cult of Quetzalcoatl, in whose name two priests entitled the nobility of all Toltec kingdoms by conferring them with the title Tecuhtli or “Lineage Head.””[2]  The other part of Cholula’s importance came from the fact that it controlled the trade routes that crossed through the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley.

According to the archaeological data, during the Preclassic Period Cholula occupied around 2 km2.  This territory expanded to 4 km2 during the Classic and up to 8 km2 in the Postclassic.  It is estimated that the population was between 30,000 and 50,000 people, though some sources say it might have reached 100,000 based on the ethnohistorical information.   The layout of Postclassic Cholula, as seen in the Codex of Cholula, was set up around a central market called Tianquizco.

 

Read more about Cholula here: https://obsidiantours.com/history-of-cholula/

 

Visit Cholula in the company of a local archaeologist and learn all about this amazing place:

https://obsidiantours.com/product/walking-tour-cholula/

https://obsidiantours.com/product/prehispanic-cholula-tour-food-and-pyramids/

 

[1] Famsi (n.d.), retrieved from: http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/sites/cholula.html

[2] Idem.