- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2012

MEXICO CITY — When neighbors in the hills east of Mexico City saw backhoes ripping up pre-Hispanic relics for a highway, they did something unexpected in a country where construction projects often bulldoze through ruins: They launched protests to stop the digging and demanded an accounting of what is there.

Dozens of residents set up a protest camp and filed complaints with state and federal officials, demanding the highway be rerouted, hoping that studies of the site can help solve an age-old riddle about their town.

A story passed down for generations says Amecameca once stood on another site and was abandoned after an eruption of the Popocatepetl volcano that looms over the town.

Local residents suspect the answer lies in the ruins, believed to date from 700 to 1,100 A.D. and located on the outskirts of the present-day settlement.

“This represents a possibility for the people to recover that part of Amecameca’s history,” said activist Rebeca Lopez of the local preservationist group Guardians of the Volcanos.

“We could find out what happened there, if it was evacuated or covered.”

The idea is not far-fetched. Other settlements around Mexico City have been found half-covered in lava from volcanos that ring the valley.

Only about 120 square yards of the estimated 5-acre site have been excavated, revealing stone and clay footings for houses that may have supported upper walls of wood or clay wattle.

But the very ordinariness may mean the site is unusually significant.

“What makes this important is that it is a residential area, not a ceremonial or religious site,” said Felipe Echenique, a historian with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, which is in charge of reviewing the site.

“In Mexico, we really have very little evidence of how the cities really were, or how people lived.”

Ancient towns disappeared

Towering pyramids in Mexico like Chichen Itza or temple complexes like Uxmal are well known, but the vast urban centers that supported those ceremonial sites have largely disappeared.

The housing compounds were apparently constructed by one of the still-unnamed cultures that populated the Valley of Mexico long before the Aztecs appeared in the area in 1325 and founded Tenochtitlan, the precursor to Mexico City.

Ms. Lopez said researchers called in by the INAH to investigate the site of the proposed roadway have found ceramic pots, bones and a stone serpent’s head, suggesting that the god Quetzacoatl, “the Feathered Serpent,” may have been worshipped there centuries before the Aztecs paid him homage.

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