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On Sand and the Making of Castles

By Randy Jackson

To build a snow fort or sand castle? That is the (real) question. At this time of year, some northerners enjoying Huatulco might be wondering if their snow-fort building skills are transferable to constructing a sand castle. The short answer is no. But the desire to create an objet d’art out of something you try not to track in the house shows the right attitude. To build a moderately impressive sand castle involves five simple steps following the acronym LWBSF, and remembered by the phrase: Leave Winter Before Soul Freezes. Just two pieces of equipment are needed: A good sized bucket for hauling water, and something to sculpt with.

LOCATION: Choose a location. First choose a beach, one of the bays of Huatulco based on the type of sand. The more powdery the sand, the better it will compact for a lasting structure. Grainy beaches like Cacaluta are not good for sand castles. Once on the beach, choose the location of the castle itself. A place where the sand is moist below the surface is best. The farther from the water, the longer the water-hauling trips. And, of course, you want a spot above the high tide line.

Sand: As an avid hiker in the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes stand on some majestic rocky peak and grapple with the time scale it would take for the rock beneath my boots to become sand on a beach. It will, eventually. Sand is ground or eroded rock. Ocean waves do some of the work bashing against rocky shores, but streams bring most beach sand from rocky areas to rivers, then to oceans, where currents and tides deposit the granules back on land to make a sandy beach. Once a granule is chipped off a rock somewhere on a continent, it takes about one million years to move that granule each 100 miles along waterways. Think of the eons of time we could save if we all brought a jar of sand down on the plane.

WET DOWN THE AREA: Often a good location for a sand castle is closer to a beach restaurant where beverages can be supplied to the castle builder, but this usually means the sand is dry. Mark out a six-foot square with your foot. Then haul buckets of water up to this spot to soak the sand at least to the depth of one foot.

Sand: Not all sand is the same – there are some differences in the sand even among the bays of Huatulco. Around the world, sand comes in six different colours: white, grey, black, pink, green (yes, green – the most famous is a green beach in Hawaii), and the most common, golden or brown. Consistency of the grains also varies widely. Desert sand differs from beach sand. Beach sand and sand mined from river areas is in great demand, whereas desert sand has few uses. The issue with desert sand is that the grains of sand journey to the desert overland, blown by the wind. This makes the desert sand grains smooth and rounded, and rounded grains don’t bind well even in concrete. It’s the angular grains delivered through rivers and oceans that allow for bonding between grains and allows for compaction. Dubai, for example, has imported millions of tons of sand from Australia to build their new islands for condo towers. Their own nearby desert sand is of no use.

BUILD A VOLCANO: When the sand in your spot is sufficiently soaked, build a base in the shape of a volcano. Dig the sand up around the sides of a base about three feet across and keep piling it on, up to a height of about three feet. Keep flattening the top as you go. Once the sand volcano is high enough, scoop a crater out of the flattened top.

Sand: Sand is the second most-consumed natural resource on the planet, right after water. Cement is by far the biggest use for sand. But there are other substantial uses as well. Asphalt, glass and computer chips use significant quantities of sand. Civilization as we know it could not exist without the buildings, roads, and computer chips that are made from sand. Although in geological time, sand is a renewable resource, on a human timescale sand is a limited resource.

Demand for sand is outstripping supply. Most Southeast Asian countries have banned or restricted the export of sand. Sand mining has completely obliterated at least two dozen islands in Indonesia since 2005. The main culprit – Singapore, the world’s largest sand importer. Singapore wants to make more land, and sand is the best material for that. The Times of India has reported that the Illegal sand trade amounts to $2.3 billion per year. There have been hundreds of killings between “Sand Mafias” in India. Even beaches themselves are a source of demand for sand. The US Geological Survey estimated that two thirds of Southern California beaches may be gone by 2100 – only 80 years down the road. Moreover, virtually all of California’s water flows into the ocean are dammed and used upstream. This means the natural erosion of beaches is outstripping the natural sources of supply.

Remember in the movie, The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) says to Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), “I just have one word for you – plastics”? He could have said “Sand.”

SOAK THE VOLCANO: Haul more water and pour it slowly into the crater on top of your sand volcano. Physics experiments have shown the optimum strength in sand structures has the ratio of eight parts sand to one part of water. Keep patting the sides of the volcano. Haul sufficient water until the flattened top of the volcano seems solid when you push down on it. Once this is done, flatten the top out further so it no longer looks as much like a volcano. You will now have the base of your sand castle, and it should last for more than a day.

Sand: Given sufficient geological time, with the gradual erosion of continental mountains into sand, will the earth one day be a planet of sand, as in the book/movie Dune? No: Very slooooooowly, rock makes sand, and sand eventually makes new rock. Sand settles in certain places where winds and currents leaves it. More gets added, and more and more, and the weight of the sand compacts and pushes the sand deeper and deeper into the earth. Pressure, temperature, and chemical reactions eventually transform sand into sedimentary rock. Yada yada … , and eventually tectonic plates push that sand-made-rock up to form new mountain ranges.

FREEHAND SCULPTURE: Here is where you need a wood sculpting tool. A wooden ruler is ideal, although one of the wooden book markers that vendors pedddle on the beach works OK, too. Begin by squaring out the sides of your flattened sand volcano. Next, scoop sand into your bucket, about 1/3rd full. Add to that enough water to easily cover the sand and let the sand settle into the bottom, below the surface of the water. After a minute or so, scoop out a handful of wet sand from the bucket and work it between your hands until enough water is pressed out to make a mucky ball. Place the ball on the top of your sand base, near the edge, making small piles about eight inches high. Each pile you make will become your castle turrets.

Once your blobs have been arranged all around the edge, use your sculpting tool to carve the sides into circular turrets. Notches can be carefully carved out of the turret tops. Use your sculpting tool to make a brick looking crosshatch in the turrets and the base of the castle. Use the soaked sand to add other features like walls between the turrets and a drawbridge.

Knowing a bit about sand makes the construction of a sand castle a kind of celebration. Celebrating that in the face of geological forces and time scales beyond our comprehension, we are here on a beach, making something from a substance the earth itself uses like playdough. True, our structure lasts a day, mountain ranges somewhat longer. Yet, both are temporary, on different time scales. But then again, who tries to contemplate all that when the air is warm, the waves are washing ashore, and you’ve built an outdoor structure without having to wear your snowsuit!

National Identity and the Mexican Revolution

By Randy Jackson

One hundred years separated Mexico’s War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution. The War of Independence (1810 – 1821) may have severed Spanish European rule from New Spain, but it left this new country of Mexico to sort through the competing power structures left behind. These were the Catholic Church; the privileged economic structure of the encomiendas (estates owned by the descendants of the conquistadores); and the indigenous and mixed-race underclass majority that had been cemented in poverty since the time of the conquest. These grappling power structures, along with foreign invasions, beset Mexico with a century of wars, coup d’etats, uprisings, and assassinations.

These blood-soaked events of the 19th century led to the 20th-century Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), which hammered out a constitution and a process of governance in 1917. But only a sense of national identity could hold these new structures in place. For this we turn to the mightier pen, to the artists, the poets and philosophers. Around the time of the Mexican Revolution, there was a diverse group of artists, professors and students called Ateneo de la Juventud Mexicana (Mexican academic youth group). This group stood for (among other reforms) the value of a Mexican identity against the “Ideals” of President Porfirio Díaz, who saw Europe and America as ideals for a future Mexico.

José Vasconcelos Calderón, a philosopher and writer (later politician) was a member of this group. One influence on Vasconcelos was the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó. Rodó argued against what he called “Nordomanía,” the influence of Yankee materialism and the cultural megaphone of the United States. Rodó saw this influence as a threat that would drown out the regional identities of Latin America. For a century, Latin American philosophers were aware of the decline of the Catholic Spanish empire and the ascendency of the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant paradigm. Finding a foothold of identity amid this cultural erosion was something that Vasconcelos tried to establish for Mexico.

Beyond the support for unique Mexican and Latin American identities, Vasconcelos was philosophically opposed to Social Darwinism, which proposed the superiority of certain races. This concept was gaining ground in parts of the western world around the time of the Mexican Revolution. In 1925, in response to these ideas and influences, Vasconcelos wrote “La raza cósmica” (“The Cosmic Race”) an essay that became highly influential in Mexican political and sociocultural policies.

In “La raza cósmica,” Vasconcelos looks back to the ancient civilizations of the Americas and the mixing of people following the Spanish conquest, to produce el mestizaje (the mixed race). Vasconcelos writes, “Spanish colonization created mixed races [whereas] the English kept on mixing only with the whites and annihilated the natives.” Vasconcelos proposed that el mestizaje would be a “fifth race” that would hold the best aspects of their various forefathers, and in time would become the universal humanity. This was a message of hope for the people of Mexico at a time when national identity was beginning to be articulated.

Vasconcelos and his work are not without controversy. Modern scholars point out his own period’s racism, which Vasconcelos himself held and displayed in his work. Yet his influence lives on. Under President Álvaro Obregón (1920-24), Vasconcelos was made the head of the Secretariat of Public Education. Along with an expanded budget for education under the Obregón administration, Vasconcelos expanded the public education system, initiating a large number of texts for use in schools.

Vasconcelos’ work on modern Mexican identity influenced many artists and philosophers. His work is said to have direct influence on Octavio Paz’s most famous work, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). Under his secretariat, Vasconcelos commissioned artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, to paint the insides of Mexico’s most important public buildings. This gave rise to the Mexican muralist movement.

The Mexican Revolution was an unfortunate protracted civil war with tremendous loss of life. It does, however, mark a turning point in Mexican history and the birth of a unique national identity. Individuals like Vasconcelos contributed to defining the fascinating and tumultuous history of Mexico and initiating the formation of a Mexican national identity.

Mexico City Olympics – 1968

By Randy Jackson

There are two iconic, yet paradoxical, images from the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. One is of the torch runner, Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo, running up the stairs of the Olympic Stadium, amid the crowd and photographers, to light the Olympic Cauldron. Enriqueta was the first woman in Olympic history to light the Olympic Cauldron. It is an image of modernity, of hope, and of progress for Mexico and for the world. In the other iconic photo, two African American athletes stand on the medal podium, each holding up a black-gloved fist, shoeless but wearing black socks, with their heads bowed. This image of defiance and protest is emblematic of events in that tumultuous year, 1968.

Mexico won the bid to host the 1968 Olympics over three competing countries: the United States, France, and Argentina. For decades after the Second World War, Mexico had enjoyed what historians now call “The Mexican Miracle.” This was a golden age of capitalism in Mexico. It was a period of strong economic growth, with increases in industrial production, worker wages, and growth in the middle class. It was also a sustained period of internal stability under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). In the 1960s the PRI saw the next step in the economic progress for Mexico was to increase its international profile for investment and tourism. Hosting the Olympics in 1968 was seen as an important way to do this.

The PRI and its president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964 – 70), had grown confident in its own power and the social stability it afforded Mexico. The anti-establishment protests rife in the world leading up to 1968 had not been seen in Mexico. However, that social stability was the result of iron-fisted control over almost all aspects of society, including the state-owned media. It wasn’t that discontent didn’t exist, rather it was repressed.

By 1968, particularly in Mexico City, there was a large and growing middle class who were unhappy with the substantial expenditures on Olympic facilities. This discontent piled onto the resentment directed towards President Ordaz after his heavy handed repression of a doctor’s strike. As the Olympics approached, some student protests began over school-specific issues. These protests were miniscule compared to the student uprisings in France, Germany, and the United States at the time. But President Ordaz repressed the protests with a heavy hand, not wanting any unrest that might disrupt the Olympics.

This resulted in larger and more frequent student protests. As the opening date of the Olympics approached, a student protest was organized to take place on October 2, ten days before the Olympics were to begin. The location was the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Mexico City neighbourhood of Tlatelolco (a former Aztec city state). By 5:00 PM that day a crowd of about 10,000 people had gathered in the square to listen to speeches by student leaders. Around 6:00 PM military helicopters dropped flares over the crowd. There followed some initial shots fired from uncertain origins. This gunfire resulted in some army and police officers firing into the crowd.

Eye witnesses later reported piles of bodies in the square, of hundreds injured, and thousands of people detained. However, the official account, carried by the state-controlled media, said only four people were killed. This event came to be known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. There were no further student protests after that, and the Games of the XIX Olympiad opened as planned on October 12, 1968.

A full account of the October 2nd massacre at Tlatelolco only began to emerge after 2000, when the PRI party was defeated by the PAN (National Action Party), under the presidency of Vicente Fox. President Fox ordered the declassification of military documents related to the October 1968 events. What emerged was the information that personnel from a special military branch had opened fire from nearby apartments on both the police and the crowd. They did this to provoke a response from the army. The crowd panicked and fled while the army responded with force. Killings, beatings, and arrests continued through the night. Power and phone lines were cut to the neighbourhood; 3,000 people were detained and all the student leaders were arrested.

But in October 1968, all that was unknown to most of the world and to the vast majority of people in Mexico. Ten days after the Tlatelolco massacre, Enriqueta Basilio, dressed in white athletic gear, ran up the steep white steps of the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. Smoke trailed the torch in her raised right arm as Enriqueta sprinted the stairs on that calm clear autumn day. Enriqueta, a national champion in athletics, lit the Olympic cauldron, hundreds of white doves were released, the stadium crowd cheered, and the games began.

The 1968 Olympics had more Mexican athletes entered (275) and Mexico won more total medals (9) than in any previous or subsequent Olympics Games. Mexico won three gold medals (two in men’s boxing, one in men’s swimming): three silver medals (men’s speed walking, women’s fencing, and women’s diving); and three bronze medals (two in men’s boxing, one in women’s freestyle swimming).

At these Olympics, a number of world records were set. American Richard Fosbury introduced a new method for the high jump, a backwards flop that won him the world record and a gold medal. His technique, now known as the Fosbury Flop, has been used by all high jumpers since. In the men’s 100-meter dash, American James Hines was the first person in history to break the 10-second barrier. Another world record was set in the men’s 200-meter race by American Tommie Smith, at 19.83 seconds. But it wasn’t that world record, or his gold medal, that made Tommie Smith instantly famous, it was what happened at the awards ceremony on the morning of October 16, 1968.

In a dramatic race, Tommie Smith held a commanding lead early on. That lead narrowed as they approached the finish. John Carlos, Smith’s American team-mate, had moved clearly into second place. Then suddenly, from the athletes further back, the Australian Peter Norman surged forward with phenomenal speed and passed John Carlos 4/100 of a second faster at the finish line. Tommie Smith had earned gold, Peter Norman silver, and John Carlos Bronze.

These three athletes approached the podium displaying numerous symbols. Smith and Carlos were shoeless to bring attention to black poverty in the US; Carlos had his shirt undone as a symbol supporting the working class; and all three athletes wore badges for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (a US organization to protest racial segregation in sports). But none of these symbols had the visual impact of Smith and Carlos who, during the US national anthem, bowed their heads and raised a black gloved fist in the air.

To their credit, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refused the demand by the American IOC president to strip Smith and Carlos of their medals. But they were kicked off the American Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village. They returned home to condemnation by the American press and even death threats. Peter Norman returned to derision and ridicule in Australia for supporting his fellow champions. He was denied all future Olympic entry, despite qualifying.

This iconic image became bigger than any of the athletes on the podium could ever have imagined. Beyond their own life-long consequences from this action, the image came to represent, for the whole world, that tumultuous year – 1968.

As for the torch bearer Enriqueta Basilio, she later became a deputy in the Mexican Congress and a permanent member of the Mexican Olympic Committee. In October 2020, a year after her death, Enriqueta became the first Olympic athlete ever to have a celestial body named after her – Queta is a moon of the Trojan asteroid. Perhaps, of these two Iconic images, it will be Enriqueta’s that stands in the long run to represent the image of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Mexico’s Green Energy -Potential, Promise, Problems

By Randy Jackson

POTENTIAL

Few countries on earth have such an abundance of green energy potential as Mexico. The geography and geology of Mexico provides three substantial sources of green energy: solar, wind and geothermal.

Solar: Potential energy from solar projects seems obvious, with much of the country bathed in sunlight for a good portion of the year. Also, the lower the latitude, i.e., the lower the distance from the Equator, the higher the energy concentration of the sun. The northwest area of Mexico has the highest average number of days of sunlight in the country. The sunniest spot on earth is just north of Mexico, in Yuma, Arizona, and the surrounding areas stretching well into Mexico have a very high average number of days of sunshine. Days of sunshine, concentrated by lower latitudes, end up in a measurement called “insolation.” Insolation is a measurement of kilowatt hour per square meter, essentially a measurement of sunpower at a given location. All this leads to the calculation (using existing solar panel efficiency) that just 25 square kilometers of solar panels, were they located in the Sonoran Desert or the state of Chihuahua, would be sufficient to provide 100% of Mexico’s electricity demand.

Wind: Many of us who are familiar with Huatulco and the surrounding area know of the substantial wind energy facilities in the narrower part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Eurus Wind Farm in Juchitán de Zaragoza is the largest wind farm in Latin America. In Mexico overall, the states of Oaxaca, Yucatán and Tamaulipas all have locations with average wind speeds greater than 28 km/hour – 15 Km/hour is the minimum average speed normally required for a wind farm. Average wind speed is one determining factor for wind farms; the other is air density. Sea level locations, as at the Eurus Wind Farm, have higher air density when compared to higher elevations. This means the air has more mass, essentially giving the wind more power to turn a wind turbine. REVE, the Spanish wind energy magazine, reports that Mexico has wind energy potential of about 70,000 MWH (megawatt hours), about the total current electrical generating capacity in all of Mexico.

Geothermal: Mexico has 48 active volcanoes, a testament to the high degree of tectonic activity below the earth’s surface in Mexico (has anyone not experienced an earthquake in Huatulco?). Geothermal resources are most often found along tectonic plates where the earth’s magma is closer to the surface. This superheats rock that can be easily drilled into from the surface; water is then injected and the resulting steam drives turbines to create electricity. The world’s second largest geothermal power station is located in the state of Baja California, near the city of Mexicali. This location, known as Cerro Prieto, sits atop of a unique geological fault usually only found under the oceans. The Mexican ministry of energy envisions 1,670 MWH of electricity from geothermal plants by 2030.

PROMISE

Before hosting the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexican President Felipe Calderón set out goals for Mexico to reach one-third of its energy from renewables by 2024. Some reforms and laws were initiated in Calderón’s term of office to move towards these renewable energy goals. In Mexico, energy is state owned and controlled.

Energy resource ownership, particularly oil but also electricity generation, is a sensitive national concern for Mexico. However, in 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto was able to pass a reform that allowed private companies to participate in the energy sector, with the control, transmission and distribution of energy remaining exclusively within the control of the state. This initiative, followed up with specific regulations, allowed private investments in renewable energy projects to recover their investments over time, by selling electricity to the state owned CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) under negotiated contracts.

These reforms and Mexico’s abundant green energy potential allowed many Mexican and international companies to step forward to propose and develop green energy projects. To facilitate these projects under state control, Mexico held three auctions to purchase renewable electricity under long term contracts; 41 projects were selected under the auction process. Solar energy projects accounted for 4,867 MW, wind energy 2,122 MW and geothermal 25 MW. In 2017 private investment in renewable energy in Mexico was $6.2 billion USD. Mexico seemed to be off to a good start towards its green energy goals.

PROBLEMS

In 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO) was elected. Shortly after taking office, AMLO cancelled any future auctions to purchase green electricity by CFE. Then, in early 2020, under the guise of COVID-19 measures, Mexico changed the rules of how wind and solar projects could access the electrical grid. The new policy imposes a new requirement on developers of wind and solar projects to obtain a generation permit. These permits are subject to further regulations that prioritize CFE electrical generation from oil and gas electricity plants. These changes have raised international concerns regarding regulations that effectively cancel existing legal contracts. The European Union sent a letter to Mexico’s Energy Minister, Rocío Nahle García, saying the new rules would negatively impact 44 renewable energy projects and jeopardize $6.4 billion (USD) in renewable energy projects from EU companies. Bloomberg News reported March 16 of this year that the Canadian government expressed concern to the Mexican Economy Secretary, Tatiana Clouthier Carrillo, about stranding a potential $4.1 billion (USD) in renewable projects by Canadian companies. These concerns have also been expressed by the US and other countries using diplomatic channels.

The arguments made by the current Mexican administration in defending their change to regulation regarding private investments in the electrical energy grid are numerous. AMLO has suggested that corruption was involved in awarding some of the contracts to purchase electricity. He has also argued that the sporadic nature of renewable energy destabilizes the electricity grid. He also said there is just too much bureaucracy overseeing the energy sector in Mexico, and more central control is needed.

Some of these regulatory changes are currently being challenged in Mexican courts, so the final outcome is yet to be determined. However, the substantial green energy potential of Mexico is out there, available, awaiting the right political conditions for it to be harvested.

Chocolate – Drink of the Gods

By Randy Jackson

I once won a dessert contest with chocolate-covered cheesecake pierogies. This was a recipe of my own invention that combined influences from Poland (pierogies), Greece (cheesecake), and Mexico (chocolate). It’s the chocolate, I think, that put me over the top. That rich, dark brown, sweet substance, universally beloved, has been around for about four thousand years, but only in its current pierogi-coating form for about 150 years. For most of its history, chocolate was a beverage, served cold, and that is how it was first introduced to Europeans when it was carried back from Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, wrote of a visit to Moctezuma:

From time to time they served him, in cups of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.

The reverence the Aztec held for their cacao (chocolate) drink wasn’t unique to their civilization. Like so much of the Aztec culture, it was something they absorbed from earlier, predecessor civilizations. It was the Maya who elevated the drink into their mythological structure. Some surviving Mayan hieroglyphics report of an annual gathering to give thanks to Ek Chuah, the god of cacao.

This history shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cacao is a natural source of caffeine, and if it were not for our science-sterilized view of the cosmos, we too would have a caffeine god. If Moctezuma were alive today, he’d have a Starbucks card. He’d likely order a latte. I say this because of the length Aztecs would go to create foam in the cacao drink they called xocoatl. An early drawing shows an Aztec woman pouring the cacao drink from above shoulder height into a receptacle. This causes the substance to foam. The foam holds the richest flavor when the bubbles burst in the mouth.

Of course, the xocoatl that Moctezuma and the Aztec elites were served wasn’t the same quality of cacao drink available to soldiers and regular folk. Xocoatl for the elites was made of pure cacao and flavored with highly valued ground and roasted plants and spices. Depending on the flavoring additives, the different xocoatl mixtures had different colors as well.

For the common Aztecs, xocoatl was more diluted and mixed with ground maize (corn). This is similar to a drink called chilate, found today in Oaxaca and elsewhere, including throughout Latin America (recipes vary). Even this lower quality xocoatl was still highly revered by the Aztecs, and was only served on special occasions such as births, feasts, weddings and funerals (which sometimes involved mixing human blood into the drink). Perhaps adding to the esteem in which Aztecs held xocoatl was the knowledge that they were drinking money. Cacao seeds (which required fermentation, roasting, and crushing to make chocolate) were widely used as currency.

It was the earlier Mayan civilization which first began using cacao seeds as currency. In many ways cacao seeds were an ideal currency – light, portable, with the underlying value that it made something of value – chocolate. The use of this currency was a significant contributor to the flourishing of Mayan civilization. Having a currency created a new social class – a merchant class. The use of cacao currency facilitated trade and allowed a wider distribution of wealth beyond the rulers and elites.

The Aztecs also used cacao seeds as currency. The conquering Spanish quickly adopted the cacao seed as currency as well. They used it to set market prices, and in 1555 established an exchange rate between cacao seeds and the Spanish currency, the real. The cacao bean continued to be used as currency as late as 1850, although by then only for small change.

At the same time the cacao bean served as currency, it was also a consumable commodity in both Mesoamerica and Europe. The Jesuits introduced the drink to the Spanish court where it became popular, despite its being an acquired taste. For a time, the drink was seasoned with chilies and spices as the Aztecs had prepared it. This recipe persisted in Spain for about 100 years, but in time, by adding sugar, dropping the spices, and serving it hot, chocolate became a highly popular drink throughout Europe, spreading from the elite classes to the masses.

Chocolate houses flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were largely places where the wealthier classes could socialize, to “let their hair down,” you could say, and participate in activities like gambling. Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac continued from the Aztecs, and that association only added to its popularity. As time went on, the reputation of chocolate houses declined, and they were perceived as places of debauchery.

The industrial revolution brought important changes to chocolate. A cacao press, invented in the Netherlands, separated out the cacao butter, leaving a dry powder, which is cocoa as we know it today. Then cacao butter, first considered a byproduct in this process, was mixed with the coco powder and the beloved chocolate bar was born.

On November 8, 2019, 500 years from the date Cortés met Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán, the descendants of Cortés and Moctezuma met at the exact spot in what is now Mexico City (stories and photos are easily found online; one shows Ascanio Pignatelli, a descendant of Cortés, taking a selfie with a descendant of Moctezuma). Despite reading every article I could find on this meeting, alas, I could not discover whether they shared a cup of chocolate. I hope they did as a fitting tribute to this beverage with such a long and fascinating history – the drink of the gods.

Contrasting Transitions:Guerrero and Aguilar Among the Maya

By Randy Jackson

The path of human history is a story of successive transitions. Few transitions are peaceful enough to allow the individuals affected to adjust without a personal cost. The greatest historical transitions are the collapse of civilizations. Pre-Conquest, and over the course of 3,000 years, Mexico has had seven major civilizations: The Olmec, the unknown culture or cultures that built Teotihuacán, Zapotec, Mixtec, the Maya, the Toltec, and the Aztec. The last of these civilizations, the Aztec, ended with the Spanish Conquest.

When wandering the ruins of some of these ancient civilizations, I believe one question intrigues us all: What was it like to be a person living in those ancient times? Anthropologists and archaeologists can articulate many aspects of the daily lives of people in these civilizations surprisingly well. These aspects are things people did, how they lived, even what they might have believed. But, except for the leaders of these civilizations, very little is known about any individual, especially individuals who had witnessed the transition of one civilization to another.

Two exceptions to this are Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. These two Spanish men survived a shipwreck and were washed up on the shores of the Yucatan in 1511, eight years before the arrival of Cortés. There were between twelve and fifteen men in all who washed ashore that day. Some were killed (their leaders likely sacrificed); the remaining men were all enslaved. All but two died or were killed in the following years.

The only two men to survive, Aguilar and Guerrero, escaped their initial enslavement and ended up among a rival Mayan group. Among this second group the Spaniards were treated somewhat better. By working hard, over some years they were able to integrate with the Mayan people and learned to speak their language.

The different ways these two men integrated into the Mayan society seems to have been a function of the type of person each man was. Aguilar was educated in the Catholic Church and was a Franciscan friar. As a man of faith, he kept his Christian faith and persevered in his time among the Maya. He hung onto some hope that he might, one day, return to Spanish society and even Spain. Less is known about Guerero’s upbringing, except that he was likely a fisherman before joining a Spanish crew heading to the new world. Guerrero distinguished himself in battle fighting for his Mayan compatriots. He became a warrior chief, he married a woman named Zazil Ha, the daughter of the cacique (chieftain) and had a family.

When Cortés approached the Mexican coast, he first stopped on the island of Cozumel for some ship repairs. While there, the Spaniards were approached by a canoe of Mayans. To the Spaniards bewilderment and surprise one of the Mayans asked in Spanish, “Gentleman, are you Christians?” This person was Gerónimo de Aguilar, indistinguishable to the Spaniards from his Mayan companions.

Aguilar had adapted and survived his Mayan captivity. With Aguilar’s ability to speak Mayan he was of great service to Cortés and when teamed up with Malinche (an amazing former noblewoman with command of several Mexican languages – see The Eye, March 2021), Aguilar had a front row seat to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The societal collapse Aguilar watched was from the perspective of a Spaniard and conqueror.

Gonzalo Guerrero’s perspective was fundamentally different. Before leaving for Cozumel to meet up with Spanish, Aguilar went to Guerrero to tell him about the Spanish ship and to see if Guerrero would join him in meeting with the Spanish. Guerrero refused, telling Aguilar he would never be accepted back into Spanish society. He was tattooed and had nose rings and ear plugs in the Mayan style. And besides, Guerrero added, “And look at how handsome these boys of mine are.”

Cortés and his conquistadors passed through the Yucatán and went on to defeat the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. The Mayan peoples proved much more difficult for the Spaniards to overcome. It took them decades, and the lives of hundreds of Spanish soldiers, to subdue the Yucatán. The successful Mayan resistance is likely the result of having Gonzalo Guerrero to advise them.

The first Spanish attempt to subdue the Mayan Yucatán was in 1527, six years after the fall of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán. Francisco de Montejo led a group of Spanish soldiers on this mission; his first effort was to try to get Guerrero on his side. From a ship in the Bahia de Chetumal, Montejo was successful in getting a letter to Guerrero promising to “honor and benefit” him if he became one of Montejo’s “principal men.” Guerrero responded, writing on the back of the letter in charcoal. He once again refused to join his former countrymen.

Montejo’s attempt to conquer the Yucatán was unsuccessful. The Mayans used guerilla tactics, as well as craftily supplying the Spaniards with misinformation. These tactics were considered to have originated with Guerrero. The heat, mosquitos and the Yucatán jungle did the rest. There were further excursions and some battles with the Mayans, but by 1535 the only Spaniard living in the Yucatan was Gonzalo Guerrero. By this time Guerrero had been among the Maya for twenty five years. Earlier, in 1531, Guerrero’s former compatriot, Gerónimo de Aguilar, had died near Mexico City on his encomiendia (an estate allowed to exact tribute from the native population after the Conquest).

Then in 1536, the Spanish attacked and overwhelmed a Mayan cacique named Çiçumba at a fortress in Ticamaya, Honduras. After the battle, among the dead, Spanish soldiers found a bearded man in native dress killed by a shot from an arquebus, an early long gun. The Spanish commander, Alvarado, reported that the man was Gonzalo Guerrero. Stories say he arrived from Chetumal with 50 canoes of warriors to support Çiçumba.

The dictionary definition of “transition” is “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.” It’s hard to imagine a greater transition than a civilization collapsed by conquest. Millions of people living in what is now Mexico at the time suffered unknown hardships and death. So many individual stories that will always remain unknown to us. As for Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, we know the main structure of their lives, the decisions they made, some of the things they faced in life, even how they died. Their stories are grand and the transitions they faced are recorded for all times.

Malinche and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

By Randy Jackson

Up until 500 years ago, the civilizations of Mesoamerica and Europe had been unknown to each other, completely unconnected since the beginnings of human history. But on November 8, 1519, representatives of these two vastly different civilizations met face to face for the first time. They met on a causeway of the splendorous city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City).

There now exist many imagined illustrations of this historical event. Any such illustration is without merit unless it shows one of the most important people at that moment. The one person who could enable the representatives of these two civilizations to communicate. That person was a woman known as Malinche. She was the one person on earth who could speak both the language of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, and the European language of the upstart conqueror Cortés.

Moctezuma and members of his court would have referred to this woman as Malintzin, as ‘tzin’ in Nahuatl denotes honour to the person. Malintzin / Malinche (Doña María to the Spanish) was more than a mere translator. She was from a family of high social standing. She was educated, she was trained in negotiation, and she had a tremendous ability to speak and learn new languages. And in a stroke of bizarre good luck for the Conquistadors, Malinche was a slave to the Mayan peoples when Cortés landed in what is now Mexico.

As Cortés approached the Caribbean coast of Mexico, he presumed he was arriving at a large island like Cuba. He was expecting the peoples of this land to be similar to those of Cuba and Dominica. He could not have imagined a land with a flourishing civilization, with roads and cities, with markets and armies, with engineers and tax collectors. Cortés, without any information about this society and its structures, might not have succeeded in his base desires for gold, conquest, and adventure. Cortés did not know it upon arrival, but he needed someone versed in the workings of this civilization, someone who understood the different peoples, languages, and societal structures, someone who could negotiate with the different peoples of this land. Malinche was uniquely qualified for this.

Upon their arrival in the Yucatan in 1519, after some initial skirmishes with the Mayans, the Spanish were given twenty women slaves to appease them and to secure an alliance. Among the women slaves, they immediately recognized that Malinche was special. Cortés was told of Malinche’s royal heritage. Bernal Díaz, a conquistador with Cortés, noted in his book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, that Malinche’s noble heritage was very evident in her appearance and demeanor.

When Cortés arrived in the Yucatán, there were two Spaniards who survived a 1511 shipwreck, one was Gerónimo de Aguilar. He was presented to Cortés by the Mayans. By this time Aguilar had learned to speak the Mayan language. Cortés quickly realized that with Aguilar speaking Mayan, and Malinche’s ability to speak Mayan and other Mexican languages, he could communicate with, and learn about, the different peoples of Mexico, and use that knowledge to his advantage.

Besides Díaz’s book, there are few historical documents that provide the scant history of the person we know as Malinche. She was likely born in the year 1500. Evidence of Malinche’s privileged class rests in part with her ability to speak the royal court language of Tecpillatolli (“lordly speech”) which is significantly different from the common tongue. It was the language spoken by Moctezuma. Before the Spanish conquest, children of elite families of Mexico were educated starting at the age of seven. Girls and boys were taught Tecpillatolli, along with such subjects as geometry and religion. They were also taught negotiation and public speaking, as these skills were central to the functioning of their society. Malinche’s negotiations for Cortés have often been cited as significant in helping him obtain allies to oppose the Aztecs.

Around the age of twelve, Malinche’s father died and her mother remarried. Bernal Díaz wrote that Malinche was sold into slavery to favor the male child of her mother’s new marriage. Díaz reports that Malinche was taken away at night to avoid social censure of her parents. For seven years, until the time of Cortés’s arrival, Malinche was traded or exchanged as a slave. Women were often given as gifts or traded to secure alliances between groups, and Malinche would have been seen as a prize gift. She was 19 years old when she was given to Cortés. By the time Cortés met Moctezuma, 10 months later, Malinche could speak Spanish.

The significance of Malinche’s role in the conquest of Mexico seems indisputable. Various codices (contemporary illustrated manuscripts) depict Malinche being as significant a figure as either Cortés or Moctezuma. In fact, Moctezuma referred to Cortés as Malintzin. The life-story, talents, and courage of this intriguing woman suggests a person with real strength of character. All of Malinche’s strengths worked to Cortés’s advantage. The military advantages of Spanish guns, steel and horses would not have been sufficient to defeat the Aztecs without the help of tens of thousands of warriors from alliances – alliances negotiated by Malinche.

After the conquest and after having a son by Malinche, Cortés “gave” her to one of his officers: Juan de Jaramillo. Jaramillo married Malinche and together they had a daughter. Then in 1528 at the age of 28, Malanche died of a European disease along with tens of millions of her countrymen. There are no records of the words of Malinche, only a few second-hand accounts of her role in the Spanish Conquest.

Through the succeeding centuries the mythic Malinche has been interpreted in various ways. To the Spanish she was portrayed as the Mother of New Spain. To Mexicans, starting around the time of the struggle for independence from Spain, Malinche was seen as a traitor. In fact, the word malinchista, still used today, is an insult, meaning a traitor and a fornicator with foreigners.

Before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples of Mesoamerica did not see themselves as one people commonly opposed to this new European group. They were Tlaxcalans, or Aztecs or Mayans, or one of many very different groups that had distinctly different languages and were often in conflict with each other. In this context how should Malinche be remembered? As a traitor – to whom? She was a woman who was traded (no doubt raped and abused) by different groups until February 1519, when one of these groups gave Malinche to this new group – the Spaniards.

All interpretations of Malinche seem self-serving. To those who sought independence from Spain she represented a traitor. To the Catholic Church, Malinche was a temptress like Eve in the Garden of Eden – Diego Rivera portrayed her in an Aztec market, crowned with callas (an erotic symbol) and lifting her skirts, in one of the murals in the National Palace in Mexico City. To the Spanish Malinche represented the romantic notion that she was the mother of New Spain, or romantic partner of Cortés. In fact, Cortés had 4 children (that we know of) with different women of Mexico – two of which were with Moctozuma’s daughters.

None of these interpretations seem to hold any respect for this central person in such a fascinating chapter in the course of human history. Malinche was a woman of her times. Someone who used her unique talents, education and experience. She overcame unimaginable obstacles when discarded by her noble family and traded as a slave. She acted with agency in creating her own mark on the history of the world. Now, 500 years later, the life and experiences of this remarkable woman stands as one of the most enthralling characters in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

Marriage in the Time of COVID – A Statistical Review

By Randy Jackson

If we are lucky, we only have to endure various COVID-19 effects on society for one to two years. Any effect that the pandemic might have on the incidence of marriage likely won’t even register as a bump on the long, long road in the history of marriage; however, whatever COVID effects there might be, could also exacerbate some negative trends in the institution of marriage in 2020-21. Sampling from a flood of research, articles, and speculation on the institution of marriage, I pulled together four interesting statistics to see what might happen to pandemic marriages.

The first record of a marriage ceremony is from Mesopotamia in 2350 BC. Anthropologists suggest that marriages between one man and one woman started around the time when humans first formed agricultural societies, about eleven or twelve thousand years ago. With the advent of personal property, men needed to know which children were their biological heirs. Back then, and for a long, long time thereafter, the title of Tina Turner’s 1984 hit song “What’s love got to do with it?” pretty much summed things up. Marriages were arrangements made between family groups for economic and political reasons. They bound one man to one woman (not equally) for the production of children, the division of labour, and the inheritance of property.

How Do We Meet and Marry?

Even today half of all marriages in the world are arranged. India comes to mind in this regard, as 90% of that country’s marriages are arranged. Young people in India, even in the wealthiest and most educated levels of society, still largely prefer to enter into a marriage where a spouse is chosen for them (in modern educated families each marriage candidate holds a veto). There are a number of studies that show arranged marriages are no less successful than those called “love marriages.” Just before COVID struck, 35% of couples met online, the most frequent method for meeting a partner. COVID could only increase this trend.

When Do We Marry?

Another trend going into the pandemic is that people are getting married later. In Greek and Roman times up to the middle ages, marriage was common for girls starting at age 12, for boys it was age 14. By the 15th century records show the common marriage age was closer to 17. By colonial times in Europe and North America, women were commonly getting married by 20 and men by 26. By 2017, the age of marriage in Canada, Mexico and the USA was 27 for women and 30 for men. Marriage age in Europe is generally higher – Sweden had the highest marriage age among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, well into the mid-30’s. Turkey had the lowest marriage age in the OECD, with women marrying before the age of 25 and men before 28.

How Often Do We Call It Quits?

News stories abound on the extra stress on marriages because of COVID lockdowns and restrictions. One of many such articles is a BBC story from December 2020, “Why the pandemic is causing spikes in break-ups and divorces.” Although the story uses anecdotal or “soft” data, not statistics (it’s too early for that), one source was a major British law firm. The firm reported an increase in divorce inquiries of 122% over the previous year. There have been increases in divorce inquiries in the U.S., China, and Sweden – and no doubt other countries as well. There’s a busy year ahead for divorce lawyers.

One thing that is not news going into the pandemic is that divorce rates around the world have been climbing for decades. The highest divorce rates in the world are in Europe, often greater than 60%, followed by Canada and the USA, nearing 50%. Latin and South America are lower, as is much of Asia. Vietnam has the lowest in the OECD (7%).

This chart shows the percentage of divorces among couples who have been married only once. Divorce rates per capita – perhaps a better statistical measure – are increasing around the world and have been for years leading up to these COVID times. (The divorce rate in the U.S. has actually been decreasing, from a high of 50% in the 1980s, but it varies by age group – “gray” divorce rates are going up.) Divorce rates for 2021 and beyond should be interesting, with couples bursting out of lockdown and heading to their divorce lawyers on the one hand, but fewer marriages in 2020 to hit the rocks further downstream.

How Many of Us Do NOT Marry?

One final statistic that pulls together all the trends mentioned above is the percentage of single-person households.

Following the same country pattern as divorce rates, European countries (especially Nordic countries) have the highest number of single person households, followed by Canada and the USA, then Latin America and Asia. Pakistan has the lowest number of single person households in the OECD.

This statistic is where all aspects of the decline in traditional marriage come to rest. Fewer people are choosing to marry, those marrying are doing so later in life, and more couples are separating and divorcing. All this leads to a higher number of single person households. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If there is a crisis here, it’s that we need more houses. That first recorded marriage back in 2350 BC, between two kids who would be in grade 7 in our times – just doesn’t work. Things have changed, and marriage too will change and adapt.

Increasing equality between the sexes, personal and economic freedoms, birth control, and just plain knowledge of the world all mean that marriage has some catching up to do. In times of COVID and beyond, women and men will find some form of relationship that works for them and for them to have and raise children. Love – Para Siempre. Feliz Día del Amor y la Amistad.

Grasshoppers and Ants: Diligence in the Year of the Ox

By Randy Jackson

After that major bummer of a year – 2020 – we now have the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Ox for 2021. Not wanting to cast aspersions on the Zodiac animal of last year (the Rat), I think it’s time we moved on. But not so fast: Just what are we supposed to be getting into in this Year of the Ox? The ox is supposed to represent the characteristic of diligence. That makes sense, I guess, from what I imagine of an ox-like character. But is diligence a good thing?

The origin of the word “diligence” was the Latin word diligere, which meant to “value highly” and “take delight in.” Over centuries the English meaning of the word morphed into “careful” and “hardworking.” The word diligence was held in high enough regard in western Europe that it become one of the heavenly virtues of Christianity, along with chastity, temperance, patience, humility, kindness and charity. The seven heavenly virtues were clarified as a balance to the seven deadly sins set out by Pope Gregory I in CE 590 – diligence counterbalanced the sin of “sloth.”

Diligence seems to be the one Christian virtue that isn’t passive. To be diligent implies overtly doing something rather than embodying any (or all) the other virtues in one’s actions. Diligence as a virtue cannot stand by itself as a “good thing” without the other virtues. Otherwise, being diligent while committing a crime would be virtuous. The ambivalence of diligence as a Christian virtue has provided fodder for stories and even paintings over the centuries.

There are a surprising number of fables and fairy tales that deal with diligence. “The Three Little Pigs” is an obvious one. As we know, the third little pig worked diligently on his house of bricks while the other two little pigs spent more time playing, singing, and dancing. We all know how that turns out. The third little pig saves the day, as his house is too strong for the wolf to blow down. The moral of the story: hard work (diligence) wins the day.

“The Ant and the Grasshopper” is another fable dealing with diligence. However, this fable has inspired different interpretations on how diligence can be viewed. Originally, the hard-working ant who saved up for the winter was seen as cruel and miserly when he refused the more whimsical grasshopper’s (usually depicted as a musician) request for food in the winter. The diligent ant was seen as lacking in Christian charity.

In the Victorian era, French artist Gustave Doré produced a painting titled “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The painting depicts a young woman musician with head bowed at the door of a house.

Two children from the house are looking up with sympathy at the young woman. There is a lack of pity shown by the lady of the house as portrayed by her knitting. This is a reference to the French tricoteuses – women who knitted and jeered as the guillotine lopped off the heads of the French aristocrats during the French Revolution.

“The Ant and the Grasshopper” poses two important philosophical questions: should hard work be valued over the enjoyment of life? And, what responsibility do the “haves” bear for the “have nots”? In the United States, Walt Disney’s original cartoon portrayal of ‘The Ant and Grasshopper” (1934) was a political statement against the New Deal as proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the cartoon the impertinent grasshopper sang the song “Oh the World Owes Me a Living,” expressing a sentiment that many Americans held at the time – they saw the New Deal as giving something to people who did nothing to deserve it.

In literature and film, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” fable has inspired a large number of stories exploring differences between the life of someone who is diligent and hardworking, and someone who mostly seeks the enjoyments of life. In Somerset Maugham’s story “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” there are two brothers, one diligent and hard-working, the other carefree yet likeable. In this story, the carefree brother lucks out in the end (much to the chagrin of the diligent brother) by marrying a rich widow (who then dies and leaves him a fortune). For those familiar with Maugham’s most famous work, On Human Bondage (thought to be largely autobiographical), the main character, Philip Carey, is grasshopper-like, living a bohemian lifestyle against the wishes of his strict and diligent guardian uncle.

John Updike’s short story “Brother Grasshopper,” which specifically references the original fable, contrasts the characters of two brothers-in-law. One is diligent, hard-working and socially awkward. The other is charming, carefree and extravagant, but struggles with money. In the end the diligent man comes to realize the carefree man had enriched his otherwise restricted life of diligence.

Another, and different, angle on the concept of diligence, ironically, is the Japanese concept of inemuri – referring to sleeping on the job. This cultural phenomenon is more nuanced than just having a nap at work. A better translation would be “sleeping while being present.” It refers to diligent hard-working employees that are so busy and working such long hours they need a little inemuri to keep going: inemuri is thus seen as an indicator of diligence. In the west we might refer to this as a “power nap,” but without any notion that diligence is involved.

As for diligence as a characteristic of the Year of the Ox, there is no ambivalence, it’s only a good thing. The Zodiac predictions are for a year of advancement and success in 2021. After 2020, we can all use some of that. Happy New Year.

Garbology

By Randy Jackson

My father-in-law was one of those people who liked garbage dumps for the treasures they held. There is a family photo of him in a suit, checking things out at a dump while on his way to his daughter’s wedding. Garbage dumps have changed somewhat over the years, but I’m sure there is still a lot of good stuff that ends up in a landfill.

There are mountains of stuff going to landfills every day. Mexico, according to Wikipedia, sends 95% of its waste to landfills. For Canada, it’s 72% and the US 54%. Too much, way too much, as we all know – but is there anything good about piles of garbage besides the odd treasure? Well, there is Garbology and Archeology, or what we can learn about ourselves and our society from studying garbage.

A. J. Weberman has been credited with the invention of the term “Garbology.” Weberman billed himself as the world’s leading Dylanologist (also his invented term). In his intense study of Bob Dylan and his music, Weberman collected and studied Dylan’s garbage and labeled the study Garbology. He claimed Dylan’s garbage revealed real insights into Dylan as a human being, an artist, and a family man. Weberman goes so far as to claim his work led to Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. However, knowing that Bob Dylan once beat up Weberman on the streets of New York, I’m not sure that Dylan sees Weberman as being that influential.

Weberman, an odd eccentric even to this day, was onto something; You can learn a lot about someone from their garbage. The term Garbology has since been taken up by a Harvard-trained anthropologist, William Rathje (1945-2012). Rathje’s work led to Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (Harper Collins 2001), co-authored with Cullen Murphy. The book is based on Rathje’s ongoing Garbage Project with the University of Arizona.

Rathje saw the Garbage Project as a combined study of archeology and sociology. A 1992 New York Times review of the book was aptly titled “We are what we throw away.” The review essentially expresses what Weberman said about going through Bob Dylan’s trash. One example cited in Rathje’s book was that of alcohol consumption. Rathje found that people drank 40% – 60% more alcohol than they reported they consumed. Among numerous other findings, Rathje found that people from poorer neighbourhoods more often choose smaller portions of name brand merchandise rather than larger quantities of the less expensive no-name or generic brands.

Rathje’s garbage project has also done some myth-busting about what is actually in landfills – substantially more recyclable paper than fast food containers, for example. His study also found that landfills are dry and oxygen-starved places that tend to mummify rather than biodegrade material. One way Rathje’s team dated material in landfills was simply to read the perfectly preserved newspapers buried at the level they were studying. To this day, the Garbage Project studies landfills across the US (in Toronto and Mexico City as well) going back to trash levels from the 1950’s. Even trash layers from past decades show that organic material is only partially biodegraded.

Archeologists and anthropologists go farther back in time in their study of trash sites. In these disciplines, trash sites are called “middens” (the word comes from the ancient Danish for “dung heap”). Midden later became the scientific word used for a kitchen mound or shell heap. Middens are the cornerstones of how archeologists and anthropologists piece together their knowledge of ancient peoples.

As an example, at Yucu Dzaa, a late postclassic (ca. 12th to early 16th centuries) Mixtec capital on the coast of Oaxaca, excavations of middens revealed numerous aspects of cultural life including levels of prosperity between households – indicating socio economic classes. Materials from other parts of Mexico indicate distant trading. Non self-sufficiency in food preparation indicates existence of local markets for goods.

Worldwide, ancient trash heaps have been central in our understanding of our history. The East Chisenbury midden, for example, provided information on the transition between the Bronze and Iron ages in England. Ancient middens in Japan have demonstrated evidence of extensive trade networks. In Egypt, at a place called Oxyrhynchus, a substantial midden contained large quantities of papyrus texts. This site held so much important information that scholars have commented that this midden would have been comparable to finding the ancient library of Alexandria. Among the many texts excavated at Oxyrhynchus was the gospel of St Thomas, discovered in 1945.

One thing they don’t tell you at the dealership when you buy a pickup truck, is that you will be hauling something to the dump (just as surely as you will be moving someone’s couch with it). As a truck owner, I’ve learned that modern landfills are dramatic places to visit. There are swirling flocks of crying gulls or, as in Huatulco, charging troupes of zopilotes (vultures). Monster machines roam at high speeds with huge iron wheels crushing everything in their wake. There is a tapestry of colors from all manner of things discarded. And there’s that acrid smell. It’s that smell and the rush of the crushing machines, I think, that seems to evoke haste among us trash deliverers. I’ve always felt in a rush to empty out the back of the truck as quickly as possible, jump in the cab, and speed off – thus leaving behind some of the evidence of our lives for garbologists or archeologists to study one day – no time to look for treasures, as my father-in-law would have done.