Obscure Pre-Columbians Sunday: The Wacky Huastecs

When I was eight or nine, I was really into Horrible Histories. I loved the dark humour, the cartoons, the random recipes I never tried out, and, most of all, the tons and tons of information that I could store in my hungry little geek-child’s brain. There was only one thing that bugged me: there weren’t enough books in the series. My mother had given me an illustrated encyclopedia as a gift, and flipping through its pages revealed that there had been many more civilisations in ancient times beyond the Awful Egyptians, the Angry Aztecs, the Groovy Greeks, the Cut Throat Celts, the Incredible Inkas, the Vicious Vikings and the Rotten Romans. Why hadn’t Terry Deary and Martin Brown written books on the Reckless Recuay, the (in)Tolerable Toltecs, or the Zany Zapotecs?

Well, with this post, I will start something that would have made child-Enrico happy: a series called “Obscure Pre-Columbians Sunday”, dedicated to all those ancient American cultures that were not the Inka, the Aztec, or the Maya (whose lack of a dedicated Horrible Histories book is puzzling, considering how well-known and fascinating they are–all they got was a few chapters in the Aztec book). I won’t write a post like this every Sunday, as there is a lot of other stuff I want to write about, but I’m planning to make Obscure Pre-Columbian posts frequent enough that they merit their own series name.

The first Obscure Pre-Columbians I’ll talk about will be the Wacky Huastecs.

Where and When

In red, La Huasteca, the region of modern Mexico that was once inhabited by the Huastecs (source: wikipedia).

In red, La Huasteca, the region of modern Mexico that was once inhabited by the Huastecs (illustration credit: Wikipedia).

The Huastecs inhabited that region on Mexico’s Gulf Coast that is still known today as La Huasteca. They first reached it in the so-called Preclassic Era (1800 BC-200 AD), having probably originated in the forested lowlands to the South (judging from linguistic evidence). The bit when the Huastecs did all the stuff that they are best known for (mostly the sculptures and art in general, although apparently they built cities and pyramids too–not that anyone talks about them) is between the tenth and sixteenth centuries AD. Around the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Huastecs were incorporated into the Aztec empire, but were mostly allowed to keep doing their own thing after that, since the Aztecs tended to allow for considerable autonomy on the part of their subject states, as long as they paid regular tribute–which, in the case of the Huastecs, consisted mostly of nice cotton capes. To give this brief narrative an artificial sense of closure, the Huastecs were finally conquered by the Spanish about the same time as the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, around 1530 (Diehl 2000). Ekholm (1946) has done important work dividing Huastec chronology into stages based on ceramic remains.

Reputation: The Drunken Nudists of the Aztec Empire?

Earlier on, when I was doing some research for this post, I decided to check out Wikipedia, to make sure that a short, comprehensive summary of Huastec culture didn’t already exist online–and, luckily, the Wikipedia entry is mostly dedicated to intricacies of linguistics. But the reason why I’m saying all this is that I came across this great line in the Wikipedia article, which I just have to share: “The Huastecs were unusual as one of the few cultures that attained a civilization and built cities, yet usually wore no clothing”.

Huastec impersonator running around during some important ritual, clutching at his fake penis. That might be an alcoholic beverage in his other hand. You can see the original here.

My drawing of a Huastec impersonator running around during some important Aztec ritual, clutching at his fake penis. That might be an alcoholic beverage in his other hand. You can see the original here.

Indeed, Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish friar who recorded the customs and histories of the Mesoamerican people in the sixteenth century, tells us that the Aztecs viewed the Huastecs as degenerates because their men never wore loincloths, preferring to keep their penis exposed (Diehl 2000). There were even Aztecs rituals which involved Huastec impersonators running around with large fake penises. Of course, these could well be xenophobic stereotypes the Aztecs came up with to justify the Huastecs’ subordination, but it does seem that, at the time of conquest, the Spanish made a point of imposing a no-flashing rule on the Huastecs.

Another reason why the Aztecs disliked the Huastecs is because they were thought to be overly fond of an alcoholic beverage named pulque, which is very tasty, and made out of the fermented sap of the agave plant. As Diehl (2000) points out, it is likely that the drinking of pulque was an important part of Huastec ritual or even religious practice, but this didn’t stop the Aztecs from making the Huastecs into the proverbial drunkards. And when I say “proverbial”, I actually mean they had a proverb about it: “He is the image of a Huasteca. He drank not only the four wine jars, he finished the fifth” (Sahagun Book 10: 194, quoted in Diehl 2000: 185). What I love about this proverb is that you can kind of tell that there used to be a proper punchline in it, to the point that you can even imagine a group of Aztecs laughing at the end, but it’s so wonderfully flat now, presumably due to translation issues.

Huastec statue. Stone, Tampico region (México)...

Huastec statue. Stone, Tampico region (México), 14th–15th century (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Such was the Aztecs’ contempt for the Huastecs that, though theoretically a warrior would achieve higher and higher rank the more enemy soldiers he captured, one’s rank was not advanced by the capture of Huastec soldiers (excluding a rookie’s first four captures; Wolf 1999). I should note, though, that Diehl (2000) writes that the Aztecs did respect Huastec archers for their valour.

Physical appearance

Sahagun tells us that Huastec men liked to dye their hair and part it, letting it hang just below the earlobe. They would also file and stain their teeth, and pierce their nasal septa and insert feathers, golden plugs, or palm leaves in them. Moreover, though they may not have liked loincloths, they enjoyed wearing leather arm- and leg-bands, greenstone bracelets, and, on their backs, either feathered capes or circular devices of feathers and palm leaves (Diehl 2000). It is not clear whether these descriptions refer to members of the elite, or whether all Huastec men dressed like this.

As for women’s appearance, we know that they wore skirts and braided their hair with multicolour strips of cloth wound with feathers (Diehl 2000). From some of the art, it also seems likely that both men and women bore intricate tattoo designs and scarification marks.

You wouldn't want to mess with her: fierce-looking female ballplayer (Whittington 2001: 186).

You wouldn’t want to mess with her: fierce-looking female ballplayer (Whittington 2001: 186).

Some sculptures also suggest that Huastec elites used to wear large hats with a broad, fan-like thing behind them, like in the above photo. Then again, these sculptures may represent deities (MacGregor 2012).

Finally, certain ceramic figurines, like the ones to the right, provide us with an idea of what ballplayers looked like: mostly naked, except for a loincloth and a “yoke” (a belt designed to protect hips from being hurt from the ball, which was meant to be bounced off them, since use of hands or feet was not allowed). Sometimes the ballplayers also wore elbow-pads. A few figurines even wear tall, elaborate headdresses, which must have been cumbersome to run around with, unless they were only meant to be worn in fancy ceremonies.

The Mesoamerican ballgame had important connotations of sacredness (Whittington 2001). Interestingly, the Huastecs seem to be the only culture to have left any evidence of women being allowed to play, in the form of ballplayer figurines with prominent breasts (to the right). Could the fact that they were allowed to participate in such an important game mean that women had high social standing in Huastec society? Perhaps, although it is also possible that the women depicted were noble, so that they were allowed to play because of their blood, not their sex.

Art and Religion, or, Pastry-cutters and Fertility Cults

The Huastecs left behind a lot of art, but because no one, as far as I can tell, has actually done a comprehensive study, I only managed to get a very fragmentary idea of it–and, as a consequence, only a very fragmentary idea of what the art might tell us about Huastec belief and cosmology.

Life-size sculpture depicting an elite individual or god one side, and an ancestor/death god/death itself on the other (Miller 2001: 169).

Life-size sculpture depicting an elite individual or god on one side, and an ancestor/death god on the other (Miller 2012: 169).

Sculptures are easily the most impressive thing the Huastecs made. Most of these are life-size, and depict individuals standing upright. Despite being three-dimensional, many of them have a strange, slab-like quality–or, as MacGregor (2012: 379) points out about a “Mother Goddess” sculpture displayed at the British Museum, they look like they’ve been “shaped by a giant pastry-cutter” (he even goes so far as to say that the statue looks like a “huge gingerbread woman”). Many sculptures are also notable for having a smaller figure at their back, such as a baby in a backpack, or, as in the photo to the left, a tiny skeleton (symbolising death weighing on our backs like a heavy burden? or pairing up an elite individual with an important ancestor? I don’t know). These double sculptures are known as “apotheosis sculptures”, perhaps because mere mortals were paired up with gods (baby gods too? Again, I don’t know).

In terms of content, the main themes seem to be women (fertility goddesses?), phalluses, and elderly men (occasionally interpreted as a thunder god named Mam–I have found no information on the latter, beyond the casual mention of his name in certain museum websites). Based on this, the British Museum website suggests that the Huastecs were principally preoccupied with fertility.

What's this about?

What’s this about? You can see the original here. The drawing is mine, and not to scale.

However, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Huastec religion is all solved and tidy, that we need not investigate further now that the themes of fertility and renewal have been established.

For one thing, there’s still a lot of weirdness in the Huastec artistic corpus (including the pot to the right, shaped like a monkey-like thing with pierced ears and a long floppy trunk ending with a tassel) which does not make an obvious fit with fertility and renewal.

Also, fertility and renewal are very important themes in Aztec religion, and it’s possible we’re just projecting what we know about the Aztecs onto their lesser-known subjects. Indeed, MacGregor (2011) interprets one of the above-mentioned sculptures of women as a “Mother Goddess” figure, mainly because the Aztecs identified the figure depicted with their own goddess of fertility, Tlazolteotl. It was one of the Aztecs’ main non-military strategies, in building their empire, to claim that local gods were but local aspects of their own gods. I wonder if the fit was always straightforward, or if important aspects of local belief were often lost in translation.

In short, someone needs to write a Big Book on Huastec art–run around the world recording every single bit of Huastec art displayed or kept in museums of private collections. Only then will we have a decent handle on what the Huastec really thought about the world and their place within it.

Also, what about the cities and pyramids the Huastecs are supposed to have built? I know there’s one very well-preserved pyramid at Castillo de Teayo–could that be all that’s left? Clearly, more work needs to be done here as well–from what I can tell, the only major excavations performed on Huastec sites were done in the Forties by Ekholm (1946), who was mostly interested in the pots and figurines and other small objects, not so much in cities, settlement patterns, or architecture.

Correction: I have just found out that a book has been written, called The Huastec and Totonac World, edited by Maria Teresa Franco and Gonzales Salas, and published in 1993. However, it seems to be out of print, and there are no copies in any of the Cambridge libraries. Also, no proper summaries are available online.


Diehl, R. 2000. The Precolumbian cultures of the Gulf Coast. In Adams, R. and M. MacLeod (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, vo. II: Mesoamerica, part 1 pp. 156-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ekholm, G. 1946. Excavations at Tampico and Panuco in the Huasteca, Mexico. Anthropological Papers 38: 1941-1944. New York: American Museum of Natural History.

MacGregor, N. 2012. A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin.

Miller, M.E. 2012. The Art of Mesoamerica. London: Thames & Hudson.

Whittington, E.M. 2001. The Sport of Life and Death. London: Thames & Hudson.

Wolf, E. 1999. Envisioning Power. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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