Night and Darkness in Precolulmbian Mexico and Central America

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

As night rose in Mexico and Central America, another realm emerged to replace the world of daylight and warmth. Temperatures dropped as the sun set, crepuscular animals appeared, selenotropic plants delighted in the moonlight, and humans engaged in a variety of nocturnal activities that differed significantly from those conducted during daylight hours. Darkness is one aspect of the night that is not exclusive to it and lends itself to analysis as well. Using similar theories for studying the day, practice theory, nighttime household archaeology, phenomenology, and adaptationist approaches all set the stage for enlivening the nightscape and darkness. Variables such as age, gender, class, ethnicity, and occupation, among others, are interwoven and constitute integral aspects of reconstructing the night and illuminating darkness since individuals within society experience culture from their own unique viewpoints. The four-field approach presents an advantage for exploring the depths of darkness, whether at night or otherwise, as ethnography, linguistics, and biological anthropology contribute to a well-rounded archaeology of the night. By approaching the study of ancient cultures from a dark perspective, we can learn a great deal more about how ancient humans flourished and coped, for they lived in light as well as darkness.

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  • Documents (12)

  • Blindfolds and the Eternal Return in Late Postclassic Central Mexico (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Cecelia Klein.

    Scholars have invariably interpreted the blindfolds worn by certain figures in Aztec painted manuscripts as a sign of—in their words—"transgression," "sin," and "punishment." This talk challenges the simplicity and inherent Eurocentrism of that reading. It is true that the Aztecs perceived a person’s mistakes to plunge him into darkness and chaos, and that blindfolds, at one level, symbolized that disorder. The cause of a moral error, however, was embodied by certain objects and substances that...

  • Darkness at Noon and a Whole Lot More: The Temazcal at Ceren (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Payson Sheets.

    When people entered the temazcal at Cerén and shut the door, they created utter darkness at any time during the day. Their preparations were elaborate, involving obtaining permission from members of Household 2, who had a service relationship in maintaining the structure. They provided pine firewood and water in ollas for creating steam and as well as for ablutions after partaking. Creation of a fire in the domed firebox heated and smoked up the interior; then a plug was removed from the roof to...

  • Extending the Notion of Night: Volcanic Eruptions in Mesoamerica (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rachel Egan. Christine Dixon.

    The recent research on archaeological evidence for nightly practices has profoundly shaped interpretations of the past. As scholars begin to investigate this unexamined portion of ancient life, it is essential to include associations of night beyond the time of day. Volcanic events strongly influenced life throughout ancient Mesoamerica and provide an alternative avenue of investigation into ancient experiences of a form of night created by ash. Volcanic eruptions, particularly those of...

  • The Heat of the Night: Ritual Purification and Curing in Mesoamerica (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jan Olson.

    While daytime is often reserved for fairly mundane activities, most archaeological questions have focused on this time period. A wide variety of activities though cross the day into the nighttime, or occur only after dark. It is during the night when Mesoamericans recreated much of their mythology in ritualistic acts. This paper explores the use of household temazcales as nightly ritual spaces. These saunas were not only found in large communal spaces, but also in households. For what were the...

  • The Liminal Space between Night and Day In the Mesoamerican Formative Period (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Frank Reilly. Sean McClure.

    Iconographic investigations have revealed how the spread of the symbolism associated with NIGHT and DAY and the liminal space that separates the two were the major focus for the layout of sacred space or ritual precincts throughout the Mesoamerican Formative Period. Night was perceived as the home of much of the spiritual power which the ancient Mesoamericans perceived as inherent within the cosmological structure of the cosmos. In order to control the public and supernatural interface of this...

  • Luminosity in the Ancient Maya World (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Nan Gonlin. Christine C. Dixon.

    It is only through light that darkness is visible. The anthropology of luminosity as put forth by Bille and Sørensen (2007) regards light as something to be manipulated, matter which is used in cultural practices. In what ways did the ancient Maya light up the night and illuminate dark places? Evidence for ancient lighting is contained in artifacts and features, epigraphy, iconography, language, ethnohistory, and history, as well as the ethnographic record. Some of the major topics that we will...

  • Mesoamerican Plants of the Night: A Paleoethnobotanical Perspective (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Venicia Slotten.

    The ancient Mesoamerican landscape has been extensively researched archaeologically, with the field of paleoethnobotany allowing for a better understanding of what plants the ancient people valued agriculturally and in their economic, ritual, medicinal and other daily practices. Typically, archaeologists interpret the archaeological record in terms of how the ancient peoples interacted with the artifacts and navigated through the landscape during the daytime. What about nightly practices? How...

  • Night and the Underworld in the Classic Period Ulúa Valley, Honduras (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jeanne Lopiparo.

    As the sun set and the light dimmed in the Classic Period Ulúa Valley, Honduras, the nighttime sky and a soundscape of nocturnal animals emerged. The transition between day and night was marked not only by the shifting sensory experience of the nightscape but also by the passage of the sun through the underworld, as the realm of death and the ancestors came alive. The night was inhabited and animated by liminal animals and ancestors that moved between the world of the living and the dead. The...

  • Nighttime Food of the Ancient Maya (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only David Reed. W. Scott Zeleznik. Nan Gonlin.

    Societies, present and past, consume particular foods at certain times of the day, and these foods often symbolize quotidian practices. Even in American culture, certain foods are taboo at certain times and in certain contexts, such as desert after breakfast or the increasing concern of healthy eating with respect to bedtime snacking. Food functions as a social vehicle beyond its nutritional value, and mealtimes or food events serve as occasions to reinforce culturally appropriate behaviors....

  • Teotihuacan at Night: Lighting a Prehispanic City (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Randolph Widmer. Rebecca Storey.

    Teotihuacan was a large and populous city at its height with an estimated population of 100,000 people. Since it lies in an arid landscape with neither domesticated animals as a source of dung for fuel nor oils from tree seeds these fuel sources could not have been used for cooking, lighting and to a lesser degree heating. Only wood from trees and shrubs and other plant materials could have been used for fuel. These have been identified in charcoal from archaeological deposits at Teotihuacan,...

  • Tz’utujil Maya Ritual Practitioners, Embodied Objects and the Night (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Linda Brown.

    For contemporary Tz’utujil Maya ritual practitioners living in the highlands of Guatemala, the night is a particularly potent time and one to which they are inherently linked. Individuals often learn of their destiny to become ritual practitioners when they are first contacted by ancestral beings, known collectively as nawales, at night during dreams. Thereafter ancestral nawales and ritual practitioners enter into mutually beneficial social relationships that are mediated through sacred objects...

  • Understandings of Household Architecture at Night in the Middle Chamelecón Drainage, Honduras (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Lauren E. Schwartz.

    Interpretations of Mesoamerican households tend to focus on activities that might rightly be associated with daylight hours and mostly informed by material culture that is moveable and multipurpose. However, intensive examinations of the non-movable or architectural composition of household settings have recently revealed even more about these diverse and socially complex domestic spaces. This examination initiates an analysis of the interaction between humans and their built-environment as it...