Artifacts recovered from Cueva Pilote that are related to bloodletting include a gourd, over 200 agave spines, and three fiber pads. The pads, or pincushions, are made of thick fleshy agave leaves and have agave spines inserted into them. Ethnographic accounts, paintings, and sculpture show the use of these artifacts for self-mutilation and bloodletting - the spines to draw blood, the pincushions to hold the used and unused spines, and the gourd to catch the blood offering. Protein residue analysis revealed traces of human blood on the agave spines from Cueva Pilote, indicating that they were used for these kinds of rituals.
Bloodletting was an integral part of the Mesoamerican politico-religious system, and the instrument of choice was often the spine of the maguey, a kind of agave. Auto-sacrifice was a right and obligation of kings and priests that was extended to others, such as initiates, penitents, and participants in specific rites where bloodletting may have been substituted for human or animal sacrifice. Pictorial accounts illustrate how spines and pincushions would have been used in such rituals.
In a fresco at the ancient center of Teotihuacan that researchers have dubbed “Blood Offering with Maguey Spines,” the central figure is framed by a border of pincushions holding disproportionately large maguey spines upright. An illustration in the contact period Durán codex shows a priest piercing his shin with a maguey spine while another priest burns incense. In the upper righthand corner of the illustration there is a pincushion holding two additional spines. An Aztec stone carving unearthed in Mexico City depicts two deities puncturing their ears with bone awls, while spines inserted into maguey leaves lie at their feet.
Archeological materials and ethnographic accounts confirm that the people of the Laguna District, south of the Encantadas, also practiced scarification and bloodletting. Scarifiers made of agave leaves, spines, and rodent mandibles appear with some frequency in the Coahuila archeological record. At Cueva Candelaria, a mortuary cave in the Laguna district, a series of wooden tubes with shell or stone bases and agave spine inserts accompanied burials. Their positions in some of the burials suggests that they were ear plugs designed to hold the agave spines used in scarification or bloodletting.
Three accounts describe a fascinating ritual performed in 1607 in the vicinity of Mapimí, Coahuila to avert the potential dire affects of a comet. Elders punctured themselves with spines, then gathered the blood in a gourd, dipped the fresh-cut hair of a young woman in the blood, and flailed it in the air in the cardinal directions while "crying out horrifically." Another account describes a ceremony in which Coahuiltecans of both sexes danced around a fire, consumed peyote, and "drew large quantities of blood by scratching themselves with the beak of a fish."
Shell beads and unmodified land snails recovered from Cueva Pilote are also ceremonial artifacts. Fifty-six round, flat, perforated freshwater mussel shell beads were found scattered across the cave. At Cueva Candelaria, similar beads were found tied into clusters and looped into bead flowers, or flores, to create rattles. Three common Atlantic Marginella shell beads were also recovered from Cueva Pilote. They may have once been part of elaborate flores made of dozens of shells, or perhaps simply strung on a single cord. In addition to shell beads, 43 land snail shells were recovered from the cave. Most are shells from large adults and belong to a species that does not inhabit dry caves, indicating that they were purposefully brought to the site. Spirals are commonly found in the rock art of Coahuila, and the snails’ accentuated spiral morphology may have imbued them with ritual significance.
Cueva Pilote’s lithic assemblage consists of a Langtry dart point, a Jora dart point, a Langtry variant, three partial dart points of the Langtry or Jora variety, 14 other bifaces, four unifaces, three utilized flakes, two secondary flakes, 21 tertiary flakes, seven chips, three core fragments, eight pieces of burned shatter, three ocher-stained rocks, and a smoothed pebble. It is unclear whether any or all of these are ceremonial artifacts.
In an unpublished analysis of the lithic assemblage, researchers Lee Bement and Solveig Turpin argued that nine of the bifaces (including two dart points) represent a cache of Middle Archaic artifacts. Although the deposits had been disturbed, these artifacts appeared to have been placed in a rough circle. The cache illustrates the bifacial reduction sequence through which Langtry and Jora dart points were created. Basically, dart points are created by gradually thinning and shaping pieces of flint. Bement conceives of the reduction process as following successive stages from early to late stage preforms, to partially shaped dart point, to finished dart point. The Cueva Pilote cache consists of one early stage preform, five middle stage preforms, one late stage preform, one finished Langtry dart point, and one finished Jora dart point.
The dart points show that the cache dates to the Middle Archaic period, between about 2700 to 1500 B.C., well over 2000 years earlier than the site’s radiocarbon dates. Though the cache could represent a Middle Archaic occupation of Cueva Pilote, the ceremonial nature of the rest of its artifact assemblage makes this scenario unlikely. The cache was probably found elsewhere and deposited in the cave as a votive offering late in prehistory. Recently, a quite similar cache of Middle Archaic dart points and preforms was discovered at the Lizard Hill site in southern Brewster County by archeologists from the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University.
Cueva Pilote’s faunal assemblage is dominated by the remains of an adult and juvenile black bear. The remains consist mainly of long bones and ribs, but also include skull fragments, a sacrum fragment, a vertebra, a scapula, a phalanx, and a single front claw. Because of the difficulty bears would have had in entering the cave and the absence of many of the large bones, the teeth, and the other claws, it is likely that the remains were brought to the cave for ceremonial purposes. Most of the bones were found in the relic hunters' backdirt pile at the mouth of the cave, but two long bones of the adult bear were found intentionally jammed under protruding ledges or rocks on either side of the mouth of the cave.
Despite its remoteness in the rugged Sierra Encantada, Cueva Pilote was not isolated from developments taking place all around it. In addition to engaging in rituals very similar to those practiced along the Rio Grande, the American Southwest, and Mesoamerica, the people who visited the site possessed many artifacts of non-local origin. Their marine shell beads came from the Gulf of Mexico, some 400 to 500 kilometers (250 to 300 miles) to the east. Their mussel shell beads came from either the Rio Grande, 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north, or the Río Sabinas, 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the south. In addition, their gourd is a domesticated variety that was not grown in the vicinity of the site and may have been imported from the Rio Grande Valley, the Laguna District, or the Huasteca area to the east. All of this implies that they had contacts with other groups that extended well beyond the Encantadas.
Credits and Sources
This exhibit was contributed by Solveig Turpin. TBH Assistant Editor Carly Whelan created the exhibit based on the below sources and contributed additional writing. Heather Smith did the web development. Turpin also took the photographs.
Turpin holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin where she worked as an archeologist until retirement in 1998. Her research has focused on rock art and hunter-gatherer adaptations to the arid lands of the Lower Pecos region and northern Coahuila and Chihuahua.
Avelerya, Luis, M. Maldonado-Kordell, and Pablo Martinez del Rio
Eling, Herbert H., Jr. and Solveig A. Turpin
Turpin, Solveig A. and Herbert H. Eling, Jr.