Ancient Peoples in Mexico Used Prickly Pear Cactus to Build Pyramids

Ancient Peoples in Mexico Used Prickly Pear Cactus to Build Pyramids


Seldom a day passes that we don't learn something new about ancient civilizations and how they managed the amazing feats we still marvel over today. Such is the case when a few months ago it was reported that early peoples in Mexico were using locally sourced materials to form a glue solution to help in the construction of pyramids.

The stone formations in Cañada de La Virgen, a region in the central highlands of Mexico, about 30 miles outside of San Miguel de Allende, could easily be mistaken for natural elements of the landscape at first glance. But upon closer inspection, it's obvious that humans had a hand in the massive structures.

Dating back some 1,500 years, there are three pyramids there that still stand today. The largest and most well-known is called The House of the Thirteen Heavens, built in about 540 CE by the people who lived there at that time. The other two excavated pyramids, The House of the Wind and The House of the Longest Night, are smaller and less well-preserved but no less impressive considering the timeline of their construction.

The House of the Thirteen Heavens was a temple dedicated to keeping time, and the irony is not lost on the fact that the structure has certainly withstood the test of time. But how did they make that happen with the limited tools and resources available to them back then? The answer is by turning to Mother Nature.

Yes, they needed skilled masons to cut stones and precision engineering to jigsaw rocks into place like so many puzzle pieces, but what held certain aspects of the design together? The answer is a glue-like substance made from one of the area's most readily available natural resources: prickly pear cactus.

Archaeologist Rossana Quiroz, director of the Museum of PreHispanic Astronomy in San Miguel de Allende, who has been working on the excavation of the site with Gabriela Zepeda from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, explained that to affix decorative limestone pieces and help set the rock base, they harvested leaves or "paddles" from prickly pear cactus to use as a natural adhesive.

"When you chop cactus leaves and let it rest in the water, by next day it becomes sticky," Quiroz noted. "If you mix it with a mortar, you get a stronger glue-like substance," she added. In fact, the method is still being used today by some of the indigenous peoples who remain in the area, and it has even been adopted in eco-construction in Mexico. "We are recovering the knowledge of the ancient people," Quiroz explained.

When all else fails, go for what you know.

Rebecca West

Rebecca is a writer and editor for both print and digital with a love for travel, history, archaeology, trivia, and architecture. Much of her writing has focused on human and animal health and welfare. A life-long pet owner, she has taken part in fostering dogs for military members during deployment and given many rescued and surrendered dogs the forever home they always wanted. Her two favorite canine quotes are, "Be the kind of person your dog thinks you are," and "My dog rescued me."

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