Cueva del El Rey Kong-Oy

Que es el arte mexicano?

Que relevancia tienen los restos arqueólogicos?

These are the questions that archeologist Marcus Winter [1] of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Oaxaca asked at the beginning of his presentation of findings in the Cueva del Rey Kong-Oy in the Mixe (or Ayuuk) ethnic region of Oaxaca, Mexico:

What is Mexican art? When we think of art in Oaxaca we think of Francisco Toledo, Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales, he says.

And,  what is the relationship between archeological finds and Mexican art, he asks?

In this presentation, Winter took us to the Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of Mixe speakers, showing at the same time how invasions and migrations must have separated a once contiguous group into isolates.

Oaxaca Mixe
Figure 1. Mixe Map []
Winter recounts how cavers Jason and Tamara Ballensky (co-authors of the article this presentation is based on) explored a horizontal cave, and half a kilometer in, they came upon 65 human and 15 animal figures, some life-size, in the clay-dirt of the cave floor (see Figure 2).

Oaxaca Mixe Map Cueva Rey Condoy Ballensky
Figure 2 Cueva Rey Condoy []
The largest and first, a male and female couple, are naked with exposed genitals (Figure 3)—the Rey Kong-Oy?

Oaxaca Mixe Cueva rey+condoy figures Ballensky Marcus+Winter
Figure 3. Jason Ballensky []
 Winter and his team took up the archeological research in this amazing find  [2].

Dating these figures is difficult, with only one potsherd from the Monte Alban II period (100 years BCE – 200 CE), and that near the entrance of the cave, Winter explains.

But similar work in other caves may shed some light. John Pohl and Javier Urcid describe millenarian movements that sound like cargo cults in the post classic period (starting after 1000CE, and obviously, later) in which sacred leaders stored goodies from trucks to radios in caves, a transformation of earlier texts that tell of mountains as depositories of food [3].

There are other versions, in Zapotec, Mixe and other groups, of the legend of this king, giving him attributes related to the pan Mesoamerican icon, the feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl in central Mexican Nahuatl, Kukulan in Maya) [See for example–ps://].

The figures in the cave, male and female, may represent more recent or more ancient culture heroes, seeking to expand territorial claims over other groups, or taking refuge from Spanish and Mexican expansion and conquest. Or not.

What is the cultural context of the area where this cave is? The Mixe or Ayuuk are a language and culture group of over 120,000 speakers in the 2000 Censos [].

The language is part of Mixe-Zoque family, which may be the language of the Olmecs, as Pardo and Acevedo document, who built the first monumental structures in Mesoamerica—La Venta and others [4].

The Mixe/Ayuuk continue to maintain, if not increase, the number of speakers and, due to poor communication throughout the mountainous region, have kept outsiders at bay at least as much as other groups, if not more. They have a cultural and linguistic integrity rare in Mexico today.

They are proud of never having been conquered by the Spanish. Certainly oral histories and linguistic evidence indicates that their boundaries have changed over the years.

The Mixe/Ayuuk region lies to the northeast of the central valleys of Oaxaca—flat, good agricultural land that became more and more valuable as agriculture became more important–and the focus of more struggle as empires grew. Regardless of when the figures were created, the borders between the Ayuuk peoples and other groups—Zapotec speakers mainly, has moved back and forth over the centuries.

Maybe they hid their ‘king’ in a cave for safety with the expansion or migration of Zapotec speakers, into the neighboring mountains with the fall of Monte Alban starting in about 700CE. Or maybe, the mountainous area is what Aguirre Beltran [5] called a region of refuge from the Spanish conquest and colonial expansion.

Or both.

Regardless of whether these amazing figures represent a culture hero, Cong-Oy, part of the Mesoamerican iconic origin myth, a post-empire millenarian movement, or a post-conquest refuge, the figures are amazing and beautiful. Which brings us back to Marcus Winter’s initial point: What role do they play in Mexican art? As he suggests, they are, they must be, and they will continue to be part of the richness of Mexican cultural production.


Thanks to Linda Landig for editing help!
[1] Conferencia Magistral “Las esculturas prehispánicas de la Cueva del Rey Cong-Oy, Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca.” Marcus Winter (INAH). Imaginería y Poder Político en Oaxaca y más allá. Ciclo Anual de Conferencias de Arte Indígena en Oaxaca y Áreas Vecinas. Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Oaxaca, Oaxaca. (3 Feb 2015).
[2] Marcus Winter, Tamara Ballensky, Jason Ballensky and Javier Perez Guerrero. 2013. “La Cueva del Rey Kong-Oy” pp. 293-320. In, Marcus Winter and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago, eds. (2013). Panorama Arqueológico: Dos Oaxacas. Oaxaca: INAH.
[3] Pohl, John M. D. and Javier Urcid. 2013. Cuevas Sagradas y Sagas de Migración: Peregrinajes, Alianzas y Redes de Intercambio en el Suroeste de Mesoamérica durante la Época Postclásica. In, Marcus Winter and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago, eds. (2013). Panorama Arqueológico: Dos Oaxacas. Oaxaca: INAH [].
[4] Pardo Brugmann, María Teresa and María Luisa Acevedo. 2013. La Dinámica Sociolingüística en Oaxaca: Los Procesos de Mantenimiento o Desplazamiento de las Lenguas Indígenas del Estado. Tomo I. Mexico: Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Superiores en Antropología Social, 148.
[5] Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzálo. 1968. Regions of Refuge. Human Organization 33:1-74.

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