Augustus Le Plongeon and Alice Dixon made a striking discovery in southeastern Mexico in 1875. They were searching the ruins of the Mayan civilization. In the city of Chichen Itzá an effigy of a semi-reclining man appeared. Thus began the mystery of the chac mool sculptures.
Le Plongeon baptized it with the name “chac mool”, which in Mayan means “red tiger”. After that they appeared in many other Mayan sites. But also all of Mesoamerica, from Mexico to Costa Rica. Who does this sculpture represent, what function did it have, what was its origin?
“There is speculation about many things, but we don’t have scientific data,” says José Luis Punzo Díaz, an archaeologist who leads a team investigating the most recent discovery of a sculpture of this type. “The discovery of this chac mool is the tip of the iceberg that will allow us to really understand these pieces.”
The sculptures found date from the year 600 BC to beyond 1500 AD. They appear in relevant points of the pre-Hispanic palaces and towns. But the chac mool was never represented in historical documents of the Toltec, Mexica, Mayan or other cultures. It is not known if it belongs to cultures from central Mexico, the Mayan region or northern Mesoamerica. Nor if they were born in the classical, epiclassical or early postclassic period.
“The way the meaning of chac mool is modified depending on its geographical, chronological and cultural location.” One of the oldest pieces (between 600 and 900 AD) appeared in northern Mesoamerica. In the culture of the Toltecs, in Tula, there are a large number of sculptures of this type. This town was key in influencing other dominant cultures, such as the Mexica and the Mayans.
“These sculptures in Tula are extremely important. They are found in contexts such as palace doors or squares. Not only in the pyramids, which is something that is often thought of,” says Punzo Díaz.
One of the consensuses is that the chac mool is an intermediate character. A messenger “between the world of men and that of the gods.” “It is a piece that was intended to place offerings,” explains the archaeologist. The figure always has an obvious ara or flat surface (some with a container shape). But the mystery of the chac mool sculptures remains valid. Let’s hope that one day we will have enough clues to reveal it.