In the year 1839 early one morning a small party was riding through the valley of Camotan, along the border between Honduras and Guatemala. Two white men trotted on ahead; the rest were Indians. Their mission was peaceful, though all carried arms. But neither their weapons nor their protestations of innocence prevented them later that day from being taken in custody into the alcaldía, or “city hall,” of a little jungle town along the way. There they were locked up, under the guard of brawling, drunken soldiers who, the night through, shot off rifles from time to time to ease their high spirits.
Such was the unfriendly reception that initiated the great archæological adventure of John Lloyd Stephens, who rediscovered the ancient Mayas.
Stephens was born in Shrewsbury, in the state of New Jersey, on November 28, 1805. He practiced law for eight years, while his private passion was antiquities, the relics of all ancient peoples. At first, for the simple reason that he was quite unaware that antiquities lay piled in heaps in Central America, Stephens concerned himself exclusively with the archæological remains of the Near East. He first traveled through Egypt, Arabia, and the Holy Land and the next year visited Greece and Turkey. Not until he was thirty-three and had already published two travel books was his attention drawn toward Central America by a report that fell into his hands by chance.
This report was a deposition concerning military levies among the natives supervised, in 1836, by a certain Colonel Garlindo. In his report Garlindo mentioned seeing the remains of some strange and obviously extremely ancient buildings located in the wilds of Yucatán and Central America.
Stephens was tremendously excited by the dry military report. Seeking further information, he came across the work of Juarro, the historian of Guatemala, who in turn cited a certain Fuentes. This Fuentes claimed that in his day—that is, about the year 1700—an old and well-preserved architectural complex was to be found in the region about Copán, in Honduras. This complex he called the “Circus.”
On the basis of this sparse information Stephens made up his mind to search for this “Circus.” It is hard to believe that he went no deeper into the subject, when there was so much source material from the conquistador period available. But it should be emphasized once again that the discoveries of the Spanish conquerors, so far as their being pertinent to ancient cultures went, had all but disappeared from the public consciousness. Stephens, of course, had no way of knowing that another American with historical interests was in process of collecting all available documents on one, at least, of the old Indian peoples of Middle America. Prescott was in the middle of his great task even as Stephens was preparing for his trip to Guatemala, Honduras, and Yucatán. Without leaving his desk, Prescott could have supplied him with a great deal of valuable information, perhaps even have told him what he might expect to find. But Stephens was blissfully ignorant of this.
Looking around for a good man to accompany him on the expedition, Stephens found him in his friend Frederick Catherwood, a draftsman. Once again we come across the same sort of fruitful partnership as that between Vivant Denon and the Egyptian commission of Napoleonic days, and that between Eugène Flandin and Botta in Mesopotamia.
As Stephens and Catherwood were busy making preparations for the trip, an opportunity arose to pass on most of the financial burden of the undertaking to the government of the United States. Upon the sudden death of the Central American chargé d’affaires, Stephens succeeded in having himself appointed to the post, making good use of connections, cemented during his legal career, with Martin Van Buren, then President of the United States. Thus he was able to embark on his expedition armed not only with many private and official letters of recommendation, but also with the imposing title of Encargado de los negocios de los Estados Unidos del Norte.
But none of his papers seemed to be of much use to him when his party was imprisoned by drunken, ill-disciplined Guatemalan freebooters. Stephens’s experience in Central America in 1839 compares with Layard’s six years later on the banks of the Tigris in Mesopotamia. Both plunged into countries seething with rebellion.
During this period there were three great political parties in Central America: the party of Morazán, former President of the Republic of El Salvador; the party of Ferrera, leader of the mulattoes of Honduras; and the party of Carrera, leader of the Guatemalan Indians. This Indian, Carrera, and his followers, known contemptuously as “cachurecos” (“counterfeit coins”), had taken up arms. A battle had already been fought between the forces of Morazán and those of Ferrera, near San Salvador. General Morazán had been severely wounded, but had won the engagement, and the population was now expecting him to march into Guatemala. John Stephens’s little caravan set out along this prospective line of march, right into the thick of things.
The countryside had been devastated. Generals of operatic aspect alternated with bandit chiefs in directing the movements of the troops, most of whom were irregulars. Both regulars and irregulars did more pillaging than fighting. The soldiers were mostly Indians and Negroes, among them a scattering of European soldiers of fortune and deserters from Napoleon’s Italian army. The villages had been stripped bare, the people were starving. When Stephens would ask where he could buy food, the answer invariably was: “No hay!”—“Nothing doing here!” The land had nothing but water to offer.
It so happened that Stephens’s party sought shelter for the night in the “city hall” of one of the little towns along the route. The alcalde, fingering the silver-headed cane that he carried as a badge of office, received them with suspicion. That evening, leading a gang of some twenty-five men, he crashed into the room where Stephens and his party were stretched out for the night. The man in charge of the gang—they proved to be soldiers—was an officer and a Carrera partisan. In his description of the episode, Stephens calls him “the gentleman with the patent leather hat.” There was a scuffle, and Stephens’s servant, Augustín, received a wound on the head from a machete. Holding his head, Augustín began to shout: “Fire on them, kill them, señor!” Meanwhile, in the flickering light of a burning pine knot, Stephens was doing his best to display his credentials. He also produced the private seal of General Cascara, Cascara being an officer deserter from the Napoleonic armies who played something of a role in the country. Stephens had gone to a lot of trouble to secure this bigwig’s recommendation. Catherwood, for his part, delivered an impassioned disquisition to the alcalde on international law and the niceties of diplomatic usage. Catherwood’s harangue, like Stephens’s credentials, made not the slightest impression. The situation suggested a scene from Fra Diavolo; on the other hand, with three muskets pointed at Stephens, at any moment the comedy might have taken a nasty turn.
Hopes rose when a second officer suddenly appeared. He was apparently of higher rank, for he wore an even more carefully polished patent-leather hat than the first. Again passports were examined. The officer forbade any further show of violence and made the alcalde responsible for keeping the expedition in safe custody on pain of losing his head. Stephens hastily wrote a letter to General Cascara and, to increase its impressiveness, used an American half-dollar to mark the sealing wax. “The eagle spread his wings, and the stars glittered in the torchlight,” he says. “All gathered round to examine it.”
Stephens’s little group got no sleep that night. The soldiers had camped at the door, where they brawled, yelled, and drank large quantities of aguardiente. Finally the alcalde reappeared, bringing in his whole drunken troupe with him. In his hand he held Stephens’s letter to Cascara—which of course had never been delivered. Stephens reacted vigorously. And behold, the new tone of command worked where passports and Catherwood’s oratory had not. The alcalde entrusted the letter to an Indian and drove him on his way. He also took away the soldiers with him when he left. Stephens prepared for a long wait, but the situation was after all favorably resolved.
The next morning when the sun was high the alcalde, now sober, came to pay his official, and expiatory, respects. At dawn the soldiers, having received new orders, had suddenly disappeared en masse.
Copán lies in Honduras, on the river of the same name, which empties into the Motagua, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Cortés had marched through this region when he went into Honduras, more than a thousand miles over mountains and through primeval forest, to punish a traitor.
When Stephens and Catherwood, with their Indian guides and bearers, shortly after leaving the village of their incarceration, plunged into a forested country that closed in about them like a green sea, they began to realize why so few travelers or explorers had ever ventured this way before. “The foliage,” Cortés had written three hundred years before, “threw so thick a shade that the soldiers could not see where they were going.” The mules sank up to their bellies in the swamps, and thorny plants tore Stephens’s flesh when he dismounted to help the pack animals. The stifling heat made the white men faint, the swarms of mosquitoes rising out of the sloughs carried the ever present threat of fever. “This climate,” the Spanish travelers Jorge Juan and Ulloa said a hundred years before of this tropical lowland, “this climate drains a man’s strength, and kills women during their first child-bearing. The oxen lose flesh, cows their milk, and the fowl cease to lay eggs.” Nature had remained exactly the same since the times of Cortés and his compatriots. It was perhaps fortunate that military disturbances precluded diplomatic activity, for had they not had a free hand to indulge their passion for discovery, they might well have given up and turned back.
Yet Stephens was the type of man who is drawn by the magic of strange places, even in adversity. The forest was not only physically enervating; it had a disastrous effect on the senses of sight, hearing, and feeling. Everything was strange. An odor of decay floated up from the low places. Mahogany, logwood, and campeachy trees hemmed in the trail. The thirty-eight-foot fronds of the corozo palm formed great overhead screens. For those with eyes for such things, many species of orchids grew along the way. The fruit of epiphytic bromeliaceæ (plants of the pineapple family) grew squatly on the branches of primeval trees like flower-pots. In the evening the forest suddenly became intensely vocal. Howling monkeys began their screeching, parrots made croaking sounds, nameless piercing cries rent the air, and desultory, hollow groanings, such as a stricken animal makes.
Stephens and Catherwood fought their way through. Scratched and bleeding, covered with mud, eyes inflamed, they battled forward. The forest seemed to have been uninhabited since the day of creation. Could it be true, after all, that large stone buildings were hidden in its depths?
Stephens was a candid man. Later he admitted that the farther he got into the green kingdom, the less faith he had in his mission. “I ought perhaps to say,” he writes, “that both Mr. C. and I were somewhat skeptical, and when we arrived at Copán, it was with the hope, rather than the expectation, of finding wonders.”
But the miracle did come about.
Finding old masonry built by some long-vanished people somewhere in a strange forest is interesting enough and evokes all sorts of questions, but it is hardly right, one might say, to call it a miracle. But we must picture Stephens within the context of his experience, as a man who knew half the Middle East, who had already visited almost all the archæological sites in this ancient region across the sea. This man of little hope and no great expectation was soon to be greeted by a sight that at first struck him speechless and later, when he had realized its archæological consequences, made him almost believe in the miraculous.
They had pushed on to the Río Copán, where they had spent some time in a little jungle village in order to establish friendly relations with the Christianized Indians and mestizos of the district. Moving still deeper into the jungle, they suddenly came on a wall, built out of stone blocks, closely fitted, and “in a good state of preservation.” A flight of steps led up to a terrace, so overgrown that its area could not be judged.
This find was exciting, yet their jubilation was tempered by the fear that they might have found nothing but the ruins of some old Spanish fort. Meanwhile, with Stephens and Catherwood looking on, the Indian guide was using his machete to cut away a tangle of lianas from a tall object. Presently he tore the viny mass aside, as if it were a stage curtain, and he the deus ex machina in the drama of discovery. Expectantly he pointed to a tall, dark object, as proudly as if he were showing them his own work.
Stephens and Catherwood themselves now took machetes and set about getting a clearer view. They found themselves before a stele, a high and richly carved slab of stone. In artistry of execution there was nothing in Europe or Asia to compete with it. Such sculpture had never been even remotely suspected on the American continent.
The ornamentation on the stone likeness was magnificent beyond description. The stele—to give its modernly accepted dimensions—was 12.8 feet high, 2.85 feet wide, and 2.88 feet thick, a tall cubic column covered every inch with sculptured figures and ornamentation. High and gray it stood out against the deep, dense green of the forest; in its grooves were vestiges of the darkly glowing colors that at one time had been painted on it.
A male figure was carved in powerful relief on the front face. The visage of this figure was “solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror.” The sides of the stele was covered with hieroglyphs, the obverse face was decorated with carvings “unlike anything we had ever seen before” (see Plate XXV).
Stephens was fascinated; but he was a genuine archæologist, not easily tempted into hasty conclusions. His moderate comment was: “The sight of this unexpected monument … gave us assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving … that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.”
As he and Catherwood worked their way deeper into the tangle and came upon a second, third, fourth, and finally a fourteenth stele, each more finished in execution than the last, Stephens’s enthusiasm mounted, his judgments became less restrained. In his book telling about this experience he reminds the reader that he has seen the monuments of the land of the Nile, and points out that works of art like the Egyptian cannot be produced except by a highly developed culture. Yet some of the carved stone artifacts in the jungle of Copán, he adds, are executed “with more elegant designs, and some in workmanship equal to the finest monuments of the Egyptians.”
For the times this was presumption indeed. The letter carrying the first news of his find evoked disbelief and laughter among his friends. Could he prove all these claims?
He himself wondered where to make a start when he began to have some idea of the extent of the ruins and of the impenetrability of the plant life in which they were buried. He remarks how for a while the undertaking looked hopeless. The ruins were scattered through the dense forest. As for carrying out interesting specimens, there was a river near by that emptied into the Atlantic, but unfortunately its course was broken by rapids. The only possibility was to transport one of the idols in pieces, he says, and to make castings of the others. “The casts of the Parthenon are regarded as precious memorials in the British Museum,” he reminds his readers, tacitly assuming that his finds were equal to works which up to that day had been considered the very highest expression of creative activity.
He finally abandoned the idea of making plaster copies in favor of drawings. He urged Catherwood to get on with his drawing. But Catherwood, who had published wonderful drawings of the Egyptian monuments, was not enthusiastic. In his perfectionist way he felt out the grimacing stone faces and ran his fingers over the incomprehensible hieroglyphs and the weathered ornamentation. He repeatedly tested the light. He shook his head over the deep shadows in the heroically sculptured relief.
Accompanied by the village tailor, a mestizo named Bruno, Stephens went deeper and deeper into the jungle. He found new carved figures, new walls, stairways, and terraces. One of the monuments had been “displaced from its pedestal by enormous roots; another locked in the close embrace of branches of trees, and almost lifted out of the earth; another hurled to the ground, and bound down by huge vines and creepers; and one standing, with its altar before it, in a grove of trees which grew around it, seemingly to shade and shroud it as a sacred thing; in the solemn stillness of the woods, it seemed a divinity mourning over a fallen people.”
When Stephens returned to the camp, he announced to Catherwood that he had fifty subjects to be copied. But Catherwood, the experienced draftsman, demurred. It was impossible to draw properly, he pointed out, under such poor conditions. There would have to be more light. The shadows fused together, obliterating the contours.
They knocked off work until the following morning. The village would have to supply them with a labor force. They had noticed one mestizo who seemed to be more up and coming than most of the natives. Perhaps he could advise them on getting the kind of help they needed. But when this brown man, being summoned, came strutting into the camp, he made the stunning announcement that he, Don José María, owned the land along the Río Copán where the monuments were located.
Stephens burst into laughter. The idea that the jungle ruins could “belong” to anybody struck him as absurd. When Don José María, upon further questioning, admitted that, true enough, he had only heard about the idols, never seen them, Stephens abruptly ordered him out of the camp without giving him time to finish his story.
That night, however, thinking things over in his hut, Stephens was not quite so sure of himself. Who, actually, did own the ruins? Half-asleep, he decided categorically that “they belonged of right to us, and, though we did not know how soon we might be kickedout ourselves, I resolved that ours they should be; and with visions of glory and indistinct fancies of receiving the thanks of the corporation flitting before my eyes, I drew my blanket around me, and fell asleep.”
All day the sharp, neat blows of the machetes rang through the jungle. The Indians deeply ringed the boles of a dozen trees at a time, so that when one was pushed over, it would drag the rest down with it, together with the matted tangle of vines.
Stephens watched the Indians as they worked, again and again searched their faces for signs of the creative power that alone could account for such masterpieces in stone. This power Stephens sensed as utterly alien to his own nature; an urge shot through with grotesquerie and cruelty, yet expressing itself in masterly forms. The power of execution was immediately evident as the figures took shape out of the jungle green, but grew slowly on the onlooker as he stood back at a distance, seeing the figures in their wholeness. But the faces of the Indian workers seemed completely apathetic and empty to Stephens.
While Catherwood was setting up his drawing board to take advantage of the newly won light gained by cutting out clearings, Stephens again went into the jungle, and found walls on the river-bank. His first estimate of their height had to be revised upward, and he also found that they enclosed a much greater area than he had first thought. Yet they were so heavily overgrown with a kind of thorny furze that the mound looked as if someone had laid a thick green blanket over it. Monkeys howled and screamed as Stephens and his mestizos forced their way through the tangle. “It was the first time we had seen [at close hand] these mockeries of humanity, and, with the strange monuments around us, they seemed like wandering spirits of the departed race guarding the ruins of their former habitations.”
Stephens presently found that he had come upon a pyramid-like structure. He fought his way up a broad flight of stairs. The heaving action of shoots and suckers had forced the risers apart. The steps led up from the darkness of the thorny thicket into a lighter level up among the treetops, he discovered, and still higher up over the ceiba crowns to a terrace ninety-six feet above the ground. Stephens felt dizzy. What kind of people had been at work here? How long since they had died out? How many hundreds of years ago had they built this pyramid? When, and with what kind of tools, under whose mandate, and in whose honor, had they created these innumerable carved figures? One thing was clear: nothing less than the creative energies of a numerous and powerful people could account for them. And when it occurred to him that many other similar dead cities might be hidden in the jungles of Honduras, Guatemala, and Yucatán, he was dismayed by the magnitude of the archæological problem. A thousand questions crowded his thoughts, not one of which he was able to answer. He looked out over the treetops, the faintly lustrous gray of the monuments showing through gaps in the green.
“The city was desolate,” he writes. “… It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction; her lost people to be traced only by some fancied resemblance in the construction of the vessel, and, perhaps, never to be known at all.”
When he returned to inspect Catherwood’s first labors, a strange sight met his eyes. The artist was standing in front of the first stele they had discovered. Sheets of drawing paper were strewn about him on the ground. He was up to his shoetops in soft muck, covered with mud from head to foot, wearing gloves and netting over his head to protect himself from the swarms of insects, and working with the grim determination of a man resolved on conquering an unexpected difficulty, come what might. For, as it proved, Catherwood for once seemed to have bitten off more than he could chew. And yet he was one of the last great draftsmen of a tradition that, after being carried up to the turn of the last century by a handful of English etchers, died out in formalistic experimentation.
The forms he had to reproduce were utterly different from anything he had ever experienced before. They lay so completely outside any European plastic concept that for a time his crayon simply would not function. He had a great deal of trouble figuring out the essential proportions. He tried the camera lucida, the widely used drawing aid of the period, but he found it of little use to him. Was that curved thing so much ornamentation or a human limb? Was that an eye, a sun, or an abstract symbol? Was that an animal’s head? If it was, what sort of beast was it supposed to be? What kind of imagination had engendered such terrifying heads? The stone had been transformed into fearsomely splendid forms without counterpart anywhere in the world. “The ‘idol,’ ” says Stephens, “seemed to defy his art; two monkeys on a tree on one side appeared to be laughing at him.”
Catherwood hammered away at the problem from early to late, and the day finally came when he had completed a drawing that he deemed up to his exacting standard. It was to be a sensation.
At this point there was a remarkable development. With the object of recruiting a larger working force, Stephens had been trying all along to make closer contact with the villagers. Like so many explorers in similar situations, he enlisted the sympathies of the natives by dispensing simple medicaments and much good counsel. For a time all went well; then suddenly a serious difference loomed. Don José María again announced himself, and this time insisted on his proprietary rights. Protracted interviews with the mestizo revealed that the field of ruins was really quite valueless to him, that he would never take any active interest in it, that the “idols,” so far as he was concerned, could remain forever lost. Nothing but a feeling that Stephens had failed to give him the respect due an owner of property accounted for his importunities.
Stephens, who was fully aware that he had to tread very softly in a politically chaotic land, felt that he must keep on good terms with the local inhabitants at any cost. He now made a dramatic decision. Laying his cards on the table, he said: “What will you take for the ruins?”
“I think he was not more surprised,” he writes, “than if I had asked to buy his poor old wife, our rheumatic patient, to practice medicine upon. He seemed to doubt which of us was out of his senses. The property was so utterly worthless that my wanting to buy it seemed very suspicious.”
To prove the sincerity of his offer, Stephens went to all the trouble of presenting Don José with his credentials, which declared him to be a man of unexceptionable character, a traveling scientist, and a commercial attaché in the service of the great and powerful United States. A village linguist by the name of Miguel haltingly read off the papers. The brave Don José shifted from one foot to the other and finally said that he wanted to do some thinking and would be back later.
The whole comedy was repeated. Miguel read all the papers a second time. When nothing came of this, Stephens, seeing that the purchase of the old city of Copán was the only way to ensure permanent peace, concluded that more spectacular methods of persuasion were needed for the jungle mentality. A diplomatic scene now unfolded that might have been taken from a grotesque.
Stephens dragged out his trunk and got out his attaché’s uniform. He had long since given up his diplomatic mission in Central America as a bad job, but at least the uniform would not be entirely lost to the moths and mold. With the astonished mestizo, José,looking on, Stephens ceremoniously put on his dress coat. Of course he was also wearing a rain-sodden Panama hat, a checked shirt, and white pantaloons stiff with yellow muck up to the knees. And of course the rain was still dripping from the trees—it had been pouring earlier in the day—and the ground all about was deeply puddled. Streaks of sunlight played on the large brass buttons of the coat, however, showing up the eagles on them. The gold braid gleamed with that air of authority which is not without effect even in more sophisticated parts of the world.
Could Don José María resist a spectacle so convincing? He could not. He gave in. And John Lloyd Stephens, looking, as he said of himself, “like the negro king who received a company of British officers on the coast of Africa in a cocked hat and military coat, without any inexpressibles,” bought the ancient city of Copán.
“The reader is perhaps curious,” says Stephens, “to know how old cities sell in Central America. Like other articles of trade, they are regulated by the quantity in market, and the demand; but, not being staple articles, like cotton and indigo, they were held at fancy prices, and at that time were dull of sale. I paid fifty dollars for Copán. There was never any difficulty about price. I offered that sum, for which Don José María thought me only a fool; if I had offered more, he would probably have considered me something worse” (see Plate XXVI).
Obviously such an important and wonderful event, even though nobody in the village quite understood what it was all about, had to be fittingly celebrated. Stephens gave an official levee, and the whole village showed up in gala procession, including a large contingent of old ladies. Cigars were passed around, a cigarro for the ladies, a puro for the men. Catherwood’s drawings were admired, and finally the ruins and monuments themselves were inspected, whereupon Stephens was amazed to discover that not one of the villagers had ever seen the sculptures before. Not one of them had ever been moved to break trail into the feverishly steaming jungle about the site, not even the sons of Don Gregorio, the mightiest man of the village, and they, his sons, the most intrepid woodsmen. And yet the pure-blooded Indians among the villagers belonged to the same tribe and spoke exactly the same language as the long-dead sculptors in stone and the master builders of pyramids, stairways, and terraces.
When Stephens’s book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, appeared in New York in 1842, and, shortly thereafter, Catherwood’s drawings, a storm of interest arose. There were heated public discussions of the finds. Historians saw their tightly mortised world falling to pieces. Laymen invented all manner of bold theories.
Leaving Copán, Stephens and Catherwood had gone on into Guatemala, later into Chiapas and Yucatán, in the course of which journey they encountered many vicissitudes. All along the trail they came across Mayan relics. Their description of these finds raised a cloud of questions. There was a great rush to examine the Spanish sources. The earliest mention of this remarkable Mayan people was found in accounts relating to the deeds of Hernández de Córdoba, Francisco de Montejo, and other early discoverers and conquistadors in Yucatán. Suddenly a book that had come out in Paris four years before Stephens’s came into the limelight. This book dealt with the same material as that treated by Stephens, but hitherto had attracted no readers at all.
At first sight this seems strange indeed, for Stephens’s work was a sensation from the start and soon ran through several editions, also being translated into several foreign languages. In sum, while everybody was talking about Stephens’s work, a similar report by F. de Waldeck: Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province d’Yucatan (A Romantic Archæological Journey in Yucatán) aroused little notice and today has virtually disappeared from memory. The fact is, Stephens’s account was not only more detailed, but also written in a style so sparkling that the book can still be read with real pleasure. Also, Waldeck had no man of Catherwood’s ability in his party. Even photographs pale beside a Catherwood drawing, and to this day his drawings have a documentary value for archæologists.
But the main reason why Waldeck aroused such little response is something else again. At the time his book came out, France was excited about another ancient culture. There were men still living who had taken part in Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition. France—indeed, all Europe, and even America—looked toward Egypt. To break the spell, traditional ideas had to be given shock after shock.
This shift of interest revolved primarily around the following question: where did these Indians come from? Did they belong to the same stock that in Stephens’s day was still scattered as nomadic tribes all over the North American continent? If the Mayan and North American Indians were members of the same parent stock, how did it happen that the Mayas had developed such an advanced culture? Was it even possible that a unique society could have arisen on the American continent, in complete isolation from the great cultural flow of the Old World?
Now came the first bold interpretations. The possibility of an indigenous culture was out of the question, some maintained. In the remote past the Mayas must have migrated to Central America from the ancient Far East. By what route? Why, over a land bridge that had existed in the far north at the time of the Deluge. And others, stunned by the idea of having the inhabitants of an equatorial region migrate down from the Arctic Circle, claimed that the Mayas were survivors from the legendary island of Atlantis. As none of these explanations really fitted the bill, there was, of course, still another all-or-nothing school of thought, which believed that the Mayas were one of the lost tribes of Israel.
And did not some of the sculptures publicized by Catherwood’s drawings bear a striking resemblance to statues of the Hindu gods? Yes, others said, but look at the pyramids; they definitely point to a connection with Egypt. Now some investigators disclosed the fact that in Spanish accounts there was mention of strong Christian elements in the Mayan mythology. The cross symbol had been found among the Mayas. The Spaniards, too, had noticed that the Mayan people seemed to have some idea of the Flood. Their god Kukulcan had seemingly played a messianic role. All this evidence pointed to the Holy Land of the Middle East.
While this argument was in full swing—and, in modified version, it is still going on—a book came out written by a man who spent his life closeted in studies and libraries, and never had the least firsthand experience of remote places. Indeed, this man was almost blind. Whatever paths he cut through the jungle perforce had to be imaginary ones, with nothing but the keen knife-edge of his intellect as tool. And whereas Stephens had located the old Mayan kingdom in Honduras, Guatemala, and Yucatán, this retiring scholar rediscovered the Aztec kingdom of Moctezuma. Now the confusion was really compounded.
William Hickling Prescott came from one of the oldest Puritan families in New England. He was born on May 4, 1796 in Salem, Massachusetts, and from 1811 to 1814 studied law at Harvard. A few years later, having meanwhile shown great legal promise, Prescott was bent over a special writing frame made for the blind and near-blind, the so-called noctograph, invented by a certain Wedgewood. The noctograph resembled a scholar’s slate, with the difference that the ruled lines were replaced by horizontal brass ferrules to guide the writer’s hand. To obviate the difficulty of using a quill and ink a piece of carbon paper was slipped under the ferrules, with white paper beneath, to catch the impression made by a stylus.
Prescott was almost blind, having lost his left eye in an accident while he was a student at Harvard in 1813. Intensive study weakened the remaining eye so seriously that he went to Europe for two years to be treated, unsuccessfully, by a series of ophthalmologists.
A legal career being virtually impossible, Prescott, with an incredible display of self-discipline, turned his energies to writing histories. With the help of the noctograph he wrote The Conquest of Mexico, a breathtaking description of the conquests of Cortés and something more besides. In this book the smallest details left by Spanish contemporaries of the great conquistador were woven with superhuman industry into a panorama of the Aztec kingdom before and after its conquest. When the work appeared, in 1843, the newly discovered Mayan culture had a rival in the hardly less mysterious Aztec civilization.
What had come to light through Prescott’s efforts? Very plainly there was a connection between the Aztecs and the Mayas. Their religions, for example, obviously showed large areas of correspondence. Their buildings, temples, and palaces seemed to have been produced by the same sort of mentality. But how about the Mayan and Aztec languages? Even superficial examination revealed that the roots of the Aztec language differed from the Mayan. And whereas the Aztecs manifestly had been “beheaded” by Cortés at the peak of their cultural efflorescence, the Mayas had reached their cultural and political climax centuries before and were a people in the last throes when the Spaniards landed on their shores.
That school of thought which felt no qualms about identifying the prehistoric inhabitants of Central America with the lost tribes of Israel would no doubt have explained away these contradictions had not Prescott permitted himself the liberty of some marginal notes that posed a dozen new riddles in the Middle American scene.
At one point, for example, Prescott breaks the flow of his narrative of Cortés’s noche triste to describe a field of ruins along the route of the Spanish flight. Out of these ruins rose the pyramids of Teotihuacán, most prominently the pyramids of the sun and the moon, structures large enough to stand comparison with the great tombs of the Pharaohs. The Pyramid of the Sun is more than 190 feet high, and covers an area more than 640 feet on each side of its perimeter (see Plate XXIV).
This gigantic temple site located in the heart of the Aztec kingdom is hardly one day’s march out of Mexico City, and today only an hour’s ride by railroad. Prescott, however, refused to be misled by the pyramids’ proximity to the Aztec capital. Basing his argument on Indian tradition, he theorized that the pyramids must have already been in existence when the Aztecs invaded the region and conquered it. He believed that another and very much older culture had antedated both the Mayan and the Aztec cultures in Central America.
“What thoughts must crowd on the mind of the traveller,” he writes, “… as he treads over the ashes of the generations who reared these colossal fabrics, which take us … into the very depths of time! But who were their builders? Was it the shadowy Olmecs, whose history, like that of the ancient Titans, is lost in the mists of fable? or, as commonly reported, the peaceful and industrious Toltecs, of whom all that we can glean rests on traditions hardly more secure? What has become of the races who built them? Did they remain on the soil, and mingle and become incorporated with the fierce Aztecs who succeeded them? Or did they pass on to the South, and find a wider field for the expansion of their civilization, as shown by the higher character of the architectural remains in the distant regions of Central America and Yucatan?”
Speculation of this sort poured in from all sides. Prescott is quoted in this connection merely for the sake of simplicity. In any event, the waters became so badly muddied that no one could see. When Prescott says, however, that “it is all a mystery,—over which Time has thrown an impenetrable veil,” a veil “that no mortal hand may raise,” he is taking altogether too dim a view. Mortal hands are still digging away to this very day and have already illuminated what only a century ago was a seemingly hopeless puzzle. There is every reason to believe that archæology will eventually solve many more problems that up to now have proved insoluble.