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Exhibited at Kunstspielhaus

A brief introduction:


The Tetlillis (Nahuatl: tetl-stone, tlilli-black smoke, IPA: [tεː t͡ɬ iliː]) were a Mesoamerican civilization that developed at the end of the post-classic period 1500 - 1900 CE, on the volcanic island Roca Partida (English: Split Rock), part of the Revillagigedo archipelago named after the count of Revilla-Gigedo, east of what is now the state of Colima in Mexico. Noted for the unprecedented height of its peoples, one-twelfth of the height of the average human being, this civilization is believed to be descendant of the Tecos population that got displaced during the salt wars of 1480 on the western coast of Mexico. Some historians have even argued that the direct descendants of the great Hueytlatoani Colimotl were among the first settlers on the Island.


Tetlilli culture was mostly unknown since no evidence of human habitation was reported on Roca Partida since its first sighting in 1542, by Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos. The islands’ inhospitable conditions, as well as its extremely reduced size of 0.014 km2, discouraged any research on the site. It was until the early 1970s, that Mexican archaeologist Dr. Maria Lapetros, during a state visit with the then governor of the state of Colima Pablo Silva García, made the groundbreaking discovery of a ritualistic site known now as Teotenitztic (teotl-sacred, tenitztic-sharpening, IPA: [tεoːtεːnitstik]).

Map Los Tetlillis

The Teotenitztic site consists of a fifteen-centimeter-high triangular stone with etched scripts at the bottom and graphite spikes encrusted on its flat side, arranged in accordance to the navigation stars visible on that area of the pacific ocean. In front of this lays a smaller rectangular stone with a hole across the horizontal middle and a sharp obsidian blade incrusted at the top edge of the hole, these stones are known as the Tetlenitztic stones (tetl-stone, tenitztic-sharpening, IPA: [tεː t͡ɬ tεːnitstik]). Tetli language derived from the Nahuatl language (IPA: [ˈnaːwatɬ] ), is part of of the Uto-Aztecan language family, and thanks to the help of mesoamerican linguistic researchers, archeologists have been able to decipher part of the logosyllabic scrips etched at the base of the stones, and this way understand the development of the tetlilli state, their traditions, political structure, religion and veneration of the number two.


This last fact, repeatedly mentioned on the Zacamoa codex, later discovered by Dr. Lapetros's team, was quintessential to all aspects of Tetlilli life. On a mathematical level, their comprehension of a unit or one was understood as half, and two as a full unit, making all measurements, edifications, and city planning according to this principle. The Tetlilli state was ruled by a governmental body, consisting of a two-part entity, each formed by 4 representatives of the main municipal localities of the Island, who decided in consensus on all matters of state. Their calendar was divided into two seasons, Tonalmitl-Sunbeam & Tlilli-Blacksmoke, making it clear when to harvest and hunt. This same concept was the main inspiration of the Neihiotiloyan (place to breathe) ritual, devised to select the strongest swimmers on the island. This competition consisted of a free dive of almost, and sometimes more than, eighty meters of deepness in search of the Tamachiuhqui stone, the winner of the Neihiotiloyan was not to be the first person to emerge to the surface with the stone, but the second one, making it extremely dangerous, and a test of lung capacity and stamina. Among the most outstanding divers was Ecapitzactli, who was said to be undefeated during her lifetime, and able to hold her breath for the equivalent of an hour and a half.


Despite lacking fresh water and supporting no land animals, the Tetlillis developed a complex collect and supply system of rainwater, aided by the filtrating properties of volcanic stone, a sophisticated development of underwater farming and seasonal crop harvesting, as well as fishing and bird hunting techniques, which made possible the settlement of their civilization on Roca Partida.


Among one of the items that completely perplexed researchers on Tetlilli culture, was the tonalmitl pencil (tonalmitl-sunray, IPA: [toːˈnaɬmiːt͡ɬ ]), which according to the narration of the Zacamoa codex, this pencil was carried to their shores by their sacred bird the Kuala, marking the end of their time on this earth when the final Tenitztic turn was made. Dr. Otto Kirchmann, a specialist on German voyages in the 1800 hundreds, declared after a carbon test that the pencil a Kaspar Faber pencil produced in Nuremberg at the beginning of the 19th century, known to be used by explorers like Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1811 made a trip to the Revillagigedo archipelago, making it possible that the Tonalmitl pencil, was in fact his.


With a group of anthropologists, biologists, and researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Dr. Lapetros's research continues to amaze anthropologists, biologists, historians, and professionals across all scientific realms.


Tenitztic stones


Roca Partida, Teotenitztic, Tenitztic,
Sacred Stones of The New Cycle

Black granodiorite, graphite, obsidian.

W: 13 cm, H: 19 cm

W: 6 cm, H: 9.5 cm

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1815 AD

Instituto de Antropologia e Historia

Escuela de Historia Mesoamericana
Ciudad de Mexico
Inv. no. 10.663

Teotenitztic might be the most important sacred site of the Tetlillis, as it hosted the ritual of Tenitztic, also referred to as “The New Cycle''. In the Teotenitztic rite, the Tonalmitl pencil would be placed atop the rectangular Tenitztic stone. A group of Tetlillis would perform the ceremony by rotating the pencil on its horizontal axis, the ritual ending as the pencil completed one 180-degree turn.


The site features two granodiorite stones, a type of igneous rock similar to granite:


In the background, a fifteen centimeter tall triangular stone, inscribed at the bottom with the Tenitztic rite. Some researchers consider it an equivalent of the Rosetta Stone for Tetlilli culture.


In the foreground lies a three-centimeter-high rectangular stone, with a hole across its horizontal middle. The hole’s opening is encrusted with a sharp obsidian blade. Sharp graphite spikes stick out of its sides, in accordance with the navigation stars visible on their particular area of the Pacific Ocean.

It is said that Kuala, the sacred bird of the Tetlilli, carried the Tonalmitl to the shores of Roca Partida. The pencil was the first non-Tetlilli-made object to have been introduced to the island, and is believed to have been retrieved from a passing ship or perhaps even a wreckage.


The Tonalmitl pencil became a treasured possession of the Telilli, as it was part of the recurring Tenitztic (sharpening)  ritual. Every Tenitztic turn of the pencil served as a communal reminder of the imminent end to the Tetlillis’ peaceful time on earth, away from the foreign forces which drove the civilization to Roca Partida in the first place. The final tenitztic turn is a pivotal moment in the narrative that unfolds throughout the Zacamoa Codex.


Dr. Otto Kirchmann, a researcher specialized in historical anthropology in the 1800s, performed a carbon test on the pencil, which revealed the pencil’s wooden casing to be pure red oak; its lead has an almost exact graphite-clay composition ratio to that of the Kaspar Faber pencils produced in Nuremberg, Germany, at the beginning of the 19th century. These were known to be used by explorers like Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1811 ventured into the Revillagigedo archipelago.


Tonalmitl pencil

Roca Partida, Tonalmitl Pencil of Kuala, The Sacred Bird

Oak, graphite, clay.

W: 0.7 cm, H: 4 cm

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1811 AD

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum
Ident.Nr. IV Ca 1831


Roca Partida, Teotenitztic, Ceremonial clothes, Pipiltin tilmàtli

Oak, grahpite

W: 9 cm, H: 16 cm

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1820 AD


Berlin, Germany
Inv. no. 10.002

Ritual garments exclusively worn during the Tenitztic ritual.


These ceremonial clothes were manufactured from the residue of the Tonalmitl pencil, and were considered to be a heavy burden on the wearer, due to the connotation of the ritual in itself. The pencil and the garments were seen among the Tetlillis as a constant reminder of the unstoppable exterior influence, whose ambitions of control drove them to Roca Partida in the first place. According to the Zacamoa codex, the ‘turners’ of the Tenitzic ritual would be naked the first ceremony they partook in. Each time the ritual was held, they would have the opportunity to collect the pencil residue and cover a body part of their choosing.  


Kunstspielhaus is home of one of the only two surviving ceremonial garments in the world. Individual pieces of clothing have been found on different expeditions, but as of yet, there are only two complete sets in existence. The other set is held at the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna, next to Moctezuma's headdress.

The diving stones of Neihiotiloyan underwent meticulous research which investigated their mineralogical and petrophysical characterization. They are volcanic stones, and are presumed to have been thrown into the sea by the Tetlilli in a ritual marking the beginning of the Tonalmitl season. A thick layer of dried Albino Laminaria envelops each stone, ending in a tight upper conjunction, that held a single Kuala feathers. Researchers from the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas from UNAM (IIA-UNAM) believe that this design served as a type of time measurement for divers; once completely rehydrated, the seaweed would expand and release the Kuala feathers at the top. Divers would then capture the feather-less stone and patiently wait until their rival emerged.


Diving Stones of Neihiotiloyan


Roca Partida, Diving Stones of Neihiotiloyan

Albino Laminaria, basalt.

Various measurements

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1500 AD


Berlin, Germany
Inv. no. 10.516


The Zacamoa Codex

Codex Zacamoa

Albino Laminaria, graphite, carmine natural red 4, C.I. 75470.

W: 12 cm, H: 6 cm

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1850 AD

Vereinigung mesoamerikanischer Kulturen

Leipzig, Germany
Ident.Nr. IV Ca  1402

A rare pictorial manuscript found in 1979 by a group of German researchers. The expedition, a joint venture sponsored by the German and Mexican governments, was led by Dr. Otto Kirchman in commemoration of the 210th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth. The Zacamoa codex is made out of Albino Laminaria, a species of seaweed found on the pacific shores of Mexico, graphite and carmine, also called cochineal (for the insect from which it is extracted), a natural bright-red pigment. The document reveals fundamental aspects of Tetlilli life and culture and was translated by Prof. Mauricio Martinez, head of the Mesoamerican Linguistics research group at the Escuela de Historia Mesoamericana, EHM.




El texto castellano del códice Zacamoa: traducción, paráfrasis e interpolación. 

Prof. Mauricio Martinez, 

México 1980: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

305 p. / € 19.90

This percussion instrument is made of a carved femoral bone of the Kuala bird, with a fish skin drumhead. The Tetlilli applied a layer of Kuala bird blood to hold the fish skin in place. The intricate carving in the bodies of the Atotomoctli features possible measurement marks and various esoteric symbols.


For the Tetlilli, the sound of the Atotomoctli recreated the sound of the ocean waves crashing on the stones ashore Roca Partida. These instruments played a central role in the ritual of Neihiotiloyan; when divers perished from submersion, the drums would play for two consecutive nights. The roaring rumble of the drums would prevent the spirit of the deceased to return to the island, and ascend to heaven instead.


Drum of Neihiotiloyan


Roca Partida, Atotomoctli, Drum of Neihiotiloyan, the Divine Ritual

Kuala bone, Kuala blood, fish skin, S. mexicana leaf.

W: 8 cm, H: 2 cm

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1500 AD

Instituto de Investigaciones musicales Antropológicas

Jalisco, Mexico
Inv. no. 10.509


Āzozoquitic shell


Roca Partida, Teotenitztic, Āzozoquitic, Conical Shell of Teotenitztic

Patella vulgata.

W: 5 cm, H: 4 cm

Mexico, Tetlilli, around 1500 AD

Instituto de Antropologia e Historia

Escuela de Historia Mesoamericana Ciudad de Mexico
Inv. no. 10.388

The Āzozoquitic shell was the vessel in which the residual graphite obtained during the rite would be collected, and mixed with bird fat. This concoction was applied onto the bodies of the ‘turners’ who performed the ceremony. It was not washed off their skin until the next season, where the Tonalmitl pencil would take another turn. 


Los Tetlillis

Editor: Alejandra Caro

Text and copywriting: Juan Salazar, Maness
Text supervisor: Todd Wehrkamp
Photography: Gabriella Achadinha
Design: Alejandra Caro, Holly Hein

Diector Kunstspielhaus: Holly Hein
Head of production: Benjamin Creek

The artist would like to personally thank: 
Studio Beta, Sebastián Fernández, Georgina Balzaretti, Fernando Mora, Miguel Mora, the Sykes family, and Alita, always.

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