Summary and Keywords
Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar.
The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400 bce, collected the viscous liquid. They used it to seal canoes and aqueducts, to paint and decorate clay figurines and knife handles, to pave the floors of their homes, and to glue materials. There is evidence they boiled and cooked the petroleum for better usage, a process that would become known as refining in the 19th century. At the northern end of the rainforest, the region called the Huasteca, the Teenek also gathered the syrupy fluid from its natural springs into the 15th century and used it in ways similar to the Olmec of yesteryear: as sealant for canoes, paint for pottery, perfume, gum for chewing and teeth cleaning, illuminant for torches, and aromatic incense for religious ceremonies. Yet it was the Aztec who gave petroleum the native name that survives to this day, chapopote, the hispanicized version of tzaucpopochtli, meaning fragrant (popochtli) glue (tzauctli). As humans did globally, those who lived with chapopoteras utilized what nature created and transformed it according to their cultural needs and inventions. There is no evidence that anyone living along the coastal range of the Gulf of Mexico in the pre-Columbian era went beyond collecting the oil that percolated from the subsoil naturally. In other words, there is no evidence of extraction of petroleum by indigenous people. Oil extraction, and its environmental consequences, is a 20th-century story, layered over a 15th-century ecological revolution.
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