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UNESCO Recognizes Prehistoric Caves in Oaxaca

By Paige, Nicaragua, May 2011

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There is a reason why Mexico is home to more than 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ranking sixth in the world for such an accumulation of honors. In addition to preserving some of the planet’s most fascinating natural heritage sites, Mexico is one of the great cradles of human civilization, marked by such monuments as Chichen Itza, Palenque, and many more.

The vast and magnificent Oaxaca Central Valley, or Toluca Valley - actually three valleys forming a fertile oasis beneath a serene and stark desert landscape - was already home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Monte Albán and Ciudad Oaxaca, the ancient Zapotec capital and its more modern (a youthful five centuries old) twin, today the state capital, still reign over a culturally rich region renowned for its colorful dances, delicious cuisine, and traditional artesanías, most famously carved alebrijes.

In August of last year, UNESCO recognized another of Oaxaca’s historical treasures as part of humanity’s collective heritage, the Prehistoric Caves of Yagül and Mitla, located due east of Ciudad de Oaxaca in the heart of the state’s oldest handicrafts region. However, the caves themselves, though certainly scenic and emblazoned with ancient petroglyphs, don’t really tempt the average traveler.

Instead, “these shelters provide archaeological and rock-art evidence for the progress of nomadic hunter-gathers to incipient farmers,” UNESCO explains. “Ten thousand-year-old Cucurbitaceae [squash] seeds in one cave, Guilá Naquitz, are considered to be the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the continent, while corn cob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize.”

Visitors to the region can certainly stop by the ancient caverns that protected these remains for millennia. Most may prefer to visit two nearby abandoned cities associated with the caves, perhaps built by the direct descendants of those first farmers. The Yagül Archaeological Site is a bit off the beaten path, but worth taking the time to see if you might enjoy cliff-top views over a classic Zapotec planned city (occupied from 750 BC – 950 AD) boasting the second largest ball court in North America, after Chitchen Itza.

The Yagül site was actually administrated by the much more famous and impressive city of Mitla, sometimes translated as “Place of the Dead.” From its humble beginnings as an agricultural village around 1000 BC, Mitla rose to become imperial capital on par with Monte Albán, ruling the region from about 900 AD until the Spanish Conquest. Its walls, once entirely painted a deep blood red, are covered with geometric carvings called “grecos,” unlike any others found in Mexico. Most regional tours from Oaxaca City include a quick visit to the archaeological park, which has a couple of decent hotels and restaurants nearby

There’s much more to see in this branch of Oaxaca’s Central Valley, if you’re up for a day or two of exploration. Be sure to visit the centuries-old weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle, where the famous red cochineal dye originated and Hierve el Agua, a calcified “waterfall” with one of the most scenic swimming holes in all of Mexico.

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