The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. David Carballo has recently suggested that the urban plan of the city seems to indicate and agglomeration of different communities with the purpose of defence. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.
Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive research on the site, leaving a comprehensive survey of the structures and discoveries he came across. The plot occupies around 12.5 square kilometres and has been divided in three different sections: the southern area-which corresponds with the Acropolis- is the preferred location for archaeologists and other scholars as it is the best preserved. The whole city is structured in different patios and stone workshops and seems to lack the characteristic stucco decorations of other Mesoamerican sites. Cantona was also a fully fortified complex, built with no mortar (no evidence found in the archaeological data), giving it this imposing look of stone on stone; an impressive site to look at, rivalled only by the likes of Teotihuacan. There are clear signs of active religious and ritualistic celebrations, amongst which human sacrifices are not lacking. However, it has been pointed out by Angel Garcia Cook that, despite the site sharing similarities with other Mesoamerican locations, the cultural differences suggest a lack of connection and influence from the Toltek/Aztect/Mayan culture that is apparent in sites such as Teotihuacan and Cholula. Moreover, some unusual finds have been unearthed in Cantona. Currently, there are 27 ballgame courts that have cropped up in different areas of the city. The most visited aspect of this settlement is the Plaza de la Fertilidad, which receives it name from the phallic statues that are depicted all around this main square.
One of the latest items of debate about Cantona is the reason for its abandonment – or presumed abandonment. It has been argued that the sudden leave of inhabitants in this area was caused by a severe drought, however that theory is contested. The site is located in a volcanic basin; a good resource for obsidian which was highly demanded for tool making and trading purposes. The area flourished with the help of the materials available, and seems to have reached a peak of 90000 inhabitants before the mass exodus. Archaeologists are certain the evacuation of this area would have occurred between 900 AD and 1500 AD. Certainly the climatological circumstances of the area would have not contributed to a balance environment optimal for human live. It seems that the monsoon season was quite pronounced and was followed by severe droughts, resulting in numerous bad crops and issues with water supplies. It has been suggested this processed was particularly acute for about 650 years, perhaps fitting with the time frame previously suggested for the abandonment of the city. On a contrary note, however, it seems this period of harsh climate changes coincides with population increases in the area. So this has pushed researchers in Mesoamerican history to look elsewhere for the causes of the inhabitants moving out of the site. It has been considered that because this was a firmly fortified city, political unrest and general weather difficulties all over the place may have driven people to move in despite the hardship. Nevertheless, this did not stop the situation from deteriorating, leading to the eventual and full desertion of Cantona by its population.
In any case the facts about Cantona, as many of the other sites and cultures we have explored from Meso and Southamerica, are still quite scarce. I hope the future years will tell us some more about what actually happened in this place, and more interestingly, where did the people of Cantona go…?