I walked into the “Archeology of Mexico” class not knowing what to expect. Maybe a trip to an open site already probed? Maybe learning the basics of brushing away dirt from tiny bits of pottery or bone? Maybe learning how to “see” a pyramid as a big hill? I was excited.
This was my second summer at Monterrey Tech, as we American students called Instituto Technologico de Monterrey. It was a new year-round university located in the first large Mexican city south of Laredo, Texas. Hammers and drills interrupted our otherwise daily peaceful surroundings. Concrete buildings for dorms and classrooms rose like fertilized bean sprouts. Summer courses opened up for non-citizen students, many who came with their professors from American universities. Today it is a leading university for technological studies with satellite classes throughout Mexico.
Tired of grammar courses, I selected a literature course and one in archaeology to make an exciting six weeks in 1952. Since most instructors taught their classes in Spanish, relief flowed in quiet ahhs when this professor spoke English.
Our class began in June and consisted of fifteen persons of various ages. I was nineteen years old,and the oldest, fifty, I learned later. None of us knew the other. At first glance we saw your teacher as a construction worker with his brown face and rough hands. His voice was authoritative for a short, stocky man. He introduced us with saying, “I serve presently as the active chief archaeologist for the country of Mexico”. He said MEH-hee-ko.
“I have led discovery teams searching and uncovering pyramids of earlier civilizations
for twenty years.” That statement impressed the class.
We met daily from 11:00 P.M. to 1:00 P.M. Student discussions in the cafeteria after class showed our enthusiasm for our subject. During classes our professor didn’t tell us how to prepare a site once discovered, or to grid an area to find chards of pottery. He enthralled us with tales of discovery of the still-existing unexplored wilds of Mexico He emphasized none of the native Indians found deep in the forests knew anyone lived outside their area. He revealed how his workers made friends and learned necessary words and signs to help one another. Many of his discoveries are still displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Mexico City.
He related how the curious Indians approached the traveling group. Bird whistles, broken limbs clearing the way, colorful bits of material wrapped around limbss, feathers dribbled among leaves. We listened daily to these wonders, all the time imagining our traipsing behind the professor, our hearts beating loudly enough to reverberate as drumbeats. Few of us took notes, as this course was not teaching but entertaining.
One story I vividly remember he related concerned his mother-in-law who traveled as a companion to his wife on numerous excursions. The woman, after an arduous trip into the deep forests complained how her back ached with arthritis. The curandero, or shamen of the tribe, saw her drawn face. Through hand signals and the bit of native language our prof had picked up, the curandero insisted he could cure her. The professor was enthusiastic, but not his mother-in-law.
“I’m not drinking stuff he’s made out of animals or whatever, no way!” Her son-in-law persisted.
You’ll disappoint him and who knows what will happen to us. The ingredients are from plants,only. No animals.” The curandero brought a dark, thick liquid in a gourd and grunted as he handed it to her. She gagged when she smelled the contents. Her son-in-law instructed her to leave a small amount in the bottom of the gourd. He wanted to take back a portion to find out the herbs the curandero had used. “ The university scientists can figure out what the liquid contains,” he added. With more effort than she’d use drinking Milk of Magnesia, the Mexican woman swallowed the liquid and lay down.
The next day she felt better, and six months later as the crew were ready to leave the area, his mother-in-law was free of back pain. “And, since then,” he boasted, “she’s never had a problem with her back.”
Monday morning of the third week the prof surprised us students after everyone was seated. He said one of the students unknown to us at that time, had approached him after class the previous Friday afternoon. “I don’t believe a word you’ve said about undiscovered people in Mexico. I need more proof than a bunch of stories,” he smirked that Friday. The Prof then proceeded to
repeat what had happened from the time class finished last weekend to class time that moment.
The Prof, not to be outdone with this Korean veteran who had seen more misery than most, thought a moment, then said, “Ok, Son, throw together a backpack with a change of clothes, some items to exchange with the natives, like small combs, ribbons, small trinkets, and meet me in front of the school at 4:00. There’ll be a lot of walking.” The time was 2:30.
The Vet unintimidated by this middle-aged man, said he could walk any distance without trouble. To which Prof replied, “Well, you’ll have to walk hurriedly at least 100 miles, so we can be back here by Monday morning. If you can’t, I don’t want to take you. Decide quickly, as I have to call my wife and mother-in-law to get ready for the trip.”
The young man asked the ages of the women in the party. “My wife’s forty and her mother is past sixty.
“If your mother-in-law is going, I sure can beat her walking,” the young man boasted. Prof smiled, remembering his mother-in-law had walked many a hundred miles on previous trips but
said nothing.While the Vet packed a backpack, the Prof gathered three men who always accompanied him, picked up his wife and mother-in-law and met the student at the appointed time. 3
They began the trip in two 1945 army jeeps from Monterrey and headed south. After a hundred miles of turns and twists on the highway and secondary roads, they came to the end of the road. “Get out, we walk from here,” announced the prof. This was the beginning of the long hike into the thick jungle. The Prof instructed the student to listen and not talk during the trek. The trip into the dense foliage began to wear on the veteran. After fifty or so miles inland the Prof began to point to signs of natives’ presence. He whispered to Joe (whose name we learned later) to notice the trees. Indians hide behind them and follow the group. “ I’ll point out signs on trees and sounds you’re to listen to as we delve deeper into the forest. Take no interest, no speaking, and act unafraid.”
Often the group stopped to let Joe rest. He noted the women were in better shape to hike the long distances. Hours later they arrived at a clearing. On the ground was a display of strange food.
Even when Joe hesitated to eat unfamiliar food, the party sat down and ate without worry of poisoning. Then they arose and proceeded deeper into the wilds. The Prof whispered to Joe, “The food represents their acceptance because they recognize most of us from previous trips.”
By nightfall they arrived at the natives’ community. They prepared their beds at one side of the clearing and began to chat quietly. The Indians kept to themselves until daylight. The next day the small group mingled with the entire tribe and began trading. The return trip began Sunday early morning. The prof and the vet had to be in class.When the jeep dropped off Joe, he turned to the professor and said, “Sir, I’ll never doubt what you say in class. I’ve learned my lesson.”
As the prof related the weekend adventure to the entire class, Joe behind me squirmed and beamed. We hadn’t noticed him in earlier
class discussions. Joe displayed his treasures and explained his side of the story. He became an enthusiastic student from then on. He proved to any doubter in class we had a real archaeologist for a professor.