John F. Keilch Interview
December 10, 2000

Q: John, could you remind us what the trek from Aztlán is about?

A: Well, the Aztecs lived [in] this lake environment for a thousand years, according to some of the stories. And at some point in time, they left Aztlán, their environment where they had been for some time, and they went on a migration, which took ten generations before it was finally concluded. People have different estimates of when [that migration began], but the one I tend to believe is around the year one thousand sixty-four A.D. our current Western calendar time. And they went south to the central highlands of Mexico, eventually, and founded the city Tenochtitlán, which is now called Mexico City. Once they built it, it was the largest city in the Americans, and now I think again it is the largest city in the Americas. So this was quite a migration. It was an Odyssey that lasted ten generations.

Q: Is it possible that the Salton Sea could have been the original site of Aztlán?

A: The Salton Sea is the beginning of where you would want to try to locate Aztlán. It’s ironic because the site of Aztlán has never been located [in the] five hundred years after the conquistadors came to this continent. There’s been a variety of theories about where Aztlán was located. For many years, historians, Mexican writers, both of Spanish background and of native background, believed that Aztlán was in El Norte, or the American Southwest. The north of Mexico or the Southwest of the United States now. Ironically, in the last century, scholars have sort of wandered off of that. Mexican historians now tend to think that Aztlán was located on the west coast of Mexico, closer to Mexico City. And American historians have sort of thrown up their arms and said Aztlán is just a myth. But actually, I think there is good reason to believe that Aztlán existed, and probably the early historians were right in locating it in the southwest areas. Some of them said it was at the confluence between the Colorado and the Gila. They said it was above the gulf of California.
So, the Salton Sea is the beginning of this great Colorado region that goes from the Rocky Mountains, all the way down to Puerto Vallarta, and west almost to the coast of California. This whole area that’s watered by the Colorado River and its tributaries. It’s a huge region. It’s most of what we consider the West, if we’re coming from the east to west point of view. And the Salton Sea is the beginning of that region. The Salton Sea, now, is the biggest lake in California, but it’s really tiny compared to what it used to be. When it used to be what we call Lake Cahuilla, it was watered by the Colorado River, and it covered the entire Coachella Valley, the Imperial Valley, the Mexicali Valley. So it was a lake about five times as large as the Salton Sea now. It was larger than the Great Salt Lake. It was larger than the San Francisco Bay. It was the largest lake in the West. It was the largest lake west of Chicago, west of the Great Lakes. It was a huge fresh water lake at the end of the Colorado river. It started in the Rockies, wound its way, dug the Grand Canyon and other canyons of the Colorado system. And sometimes the Colorado would empty into the Gulf of California and become part of the gulf and the ocean. Other times it would empty into California, into this great area we now call the Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley. Mexicali, the city now, was underwater for much of the last two thousand years, because it was covered by the lake.
So, the Salton Sea is the lowest part of this region. It’s really part of the Colorado delta. The Colorado delta [isn’t] a classic D-shaped delta, like the Nile, for example, which comes north and forms the classic delta that’s a D-shape, toward the Mediterranean. The Colorado River, as it comes south and west runs into a topography which splits it up. So the delta, really, extends from Palm Springs and the Salton Sea area, all the way down to what is usually called the delta, but is really part of the delta down east and southeast of Mexicali.
The Salton Sea was definitely inhabited during the period that we’re talking about, when the Aztecs left Aztlán. So, it may be related to the Aztec migration, and to all the migrations that took place in the Southwest and in Mexico during that period of time. The Salton Sea, itself, is not likely to be the location of the Aztecs, because the Salton Sea is just the deepest part of a much larger lake which used to exist over the entire Imperial Valley area. Archeologists have now demonstrated that the perimeter of Lake Cahuilla, as it’s called--the large lake that dried up around three hundred years ago, around the year seventeen hundred--the perimeter of that lake was used by the inhabitants of the region for fishing and gaining resources from the lake.
So there were many seasonal camps, which [surrounded] the whole area of the lake. There’s been a lot of archeology in the area, around where the Salton Sea is now, and the Coachella Valley, which is the northern extent of that lake. So the Cahuilla people, who are native to this region, used to live in the environs of Lake Cahuilla. That’s why it’s called Lake Cahuilla now, after the Cahuilla people. Their bird songs tell about the migrations in this area. Part of the year they were at the lake; part of the year they were at the foothills. And so this is definitely part of the whole story of the inhabitation of this region.

Q: I know there are some caves not far from Salton Sea. Could that tie into the notion of Chicomoztoc, the Seven Caves?

A: There are some caves [called] the bat buttes, I think, that are within the lake. But the bat caves of the Salton Sea don’t really fully satisfy what you would want to see as far as the caves of Chicomoztoc. The Superstition Mountain Range, also in the Salton Sea area, has some cave structures in it. But I tend to think that those don’t correspond to the caves the Aztecs referred to when they talked about Chicomoztoc.

Q: Could you explain why you believe the river delta is a good candidate for Aztlán?

A: The Colorado River delta, which is west of Yuma and east of Mexicali, and opens up the Colorado River into the Gulf of California and ultimately into the sea, is a region that is very significant in terms of the prehistory of California and the Southwest. It has not been subject to a lot of archeology or scholarly study. There’s no city like Phoenix which excavated so much ground that people found things in the delta area. The most archeology in North America has taken place in Arizona. It’s sort of a counterpart to the development that’s taken place in Arizona over the past century or so. The area of the delta was an area which would have been the southern edge of this huge Lake Cahuilla. It would have been a resource rich area. Both the resources from the lake, itself, the fish, the other water creatures that lived in the lake, and also the reeds and the plants that were in the lake. But another important aspect of the delta area is that it’s in a position which would have been the trade crossroads for the entire region. There would be trade that took place down the Colorado River. There would be trade that took place from New Mexico and Arizona down the Gila River. The crossroads, the confluence, of the Gila and the Colorado is there at Yuma. This would have been an important trade area for the Southwest, both the upper plateau Southwest, and the lower Southwest in Arizona and New Mexico, to trade with California, which would have been on the other side of Lake Cahuilla, and also to trade with Mexico, down the coast of the Gulf of California. So it would’ve been a resource rich area. It would have been a trade crossroads for a variety of different cultures and inhabitants of the area. And it was also an area which was, you might say, a defensible area. There is the Cocopa Mountains, the Sierras de los Cocopas, which are just next to the delta area, next to the Colorado delta area. And it’s why the delta is split, because this mountain range stops it from just spreading out into California. The inhabitation of this area kind of between Yuma, Mexicali, and the Gulf of California, would have been an area which would have been defensive by people who established settlements here. In the historical period, there [have] been settlements up the delta area by the Cocopa Indians, and by the Cuachano Indians near Yuma. So this area, all along the delta and up the Colorado and when Lake Cahuilla was there, would have been heavily settled during the period that we are talking about.