Ancient History & Civilisation


In 1863, just twenty years after the appearance of Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico, a visitor at the Royal Library in Madrid rummaging in the state archives found a manuscript sere with age that had evidently never been read by anyone. It bore the date 1566. Entitled Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, it was illustrated with a number of strange, incomprehensible sketches. The author was one Diego de Landa.

Anyone else would probably have put this manuscript back unopened, as a great number of people had apparently done already. But the man who was now looking at it had been the almoner of the French embassy in Mexico for ten years, and was the priest of the Indian village of Rabinal in the district of Salama in Guatemala since 1855. Much of his time had been devoted to the study of Indian languages and the relics of the ancient cultures. That this priest, missionary to the Indians, and scholar had also published a series of stories and historical novels under the pseudonym Étienne Charles de Ravensberg is worthy of mention in order to indicate the range of his interests.

When Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–74) kept the yellowed little book by Diego de Landa and studied it attentively, a most important discovery in the field of Central American studies was about to be made.

William Prescott had been nine years older than Stephens. Brasseur de Bourbourg was nine years younger. Though he made his significant find as late as 1863, the work of these three men belongs together. Stephens had unearthed the monuments of the Mayas; Prescott had put together and for the first time described a continuous phase, even if it was the final phase, of Aztec history. And Brasseur de Bourbourg provided the first key, albeit a small one and one that was far from fitting all the locks, to the understanding of a whole series of hitherto incomprehensible ornaments and hieroglyphs. But before we can proceed to explain the importance of this discovery, it is necessary to make clear the difficulties facing the archæologists in the solution of the American problem, which differed radically from any of the problems set by the Old World.

When the Chinese began to form their empire in the third millennium before Christ—after their equivalent of the Biblical Flood—they did it along their two great rivers, the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze Kiang. In India the earliest settlements were formed along the banks of the Indus and the Ganges rivers. After the Sumerians had invaded Mesopotamia, a Babylonian-Assyrian culture arose from their early settlements between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The culture of the Egyptians flourished not only along the Nile but with the Nile. What these rivers meant to these peoples, the narrow Aegean Sea meant to the ancient Greeks. In short, the great cultures of the past were riparian cultures; scholars are accustomed to consider the presence of such a river as the presupposition for the rise of a culture. Yet the American cultures were not river-based. This is also true of the Inca culture on the high plateau of Peru, between which and the ancient Central American cultures there is no direct connection.

Another premise for the rise of a culture was always thought to be the inclination and capacity of a people for agriculture and animal husbandry. The Mayas did practice agriculture—though with a difference, as we shall see. But as for animal husbandry, theirs is the only known culture to have had no domestic animals, no beasts of burden, no carts or wagons of any kind!

This is not the only peculiarity in the case of the Mayas. Most of the peoples who created cultures in the Old World are dead, vanished without a trace, and their languages died with them. We have to relearn their “dead” languages most laboriously, by the long, weary processes of decipherment. But the Mayas are still living, more than a million strong, nor have they changed physically, and only slightly in their way of life, in their clothing. The contemporary explorer turning to his Indian servant is likely to see the same face he has just finished copying from an ancient Maya relief carving. When Life and the Illustrated London News in 1947 published photographs of a new excavation, they showed a Maya man and a girl in profile against two ancient relief carvings of faces, and it looked as though they had been the models for the carvings! And if the stone heads could have given utterance, they would have spoken in the same language in which the modern Maya servant asks the explorer for his pay.

All this might seem to be extremely helpful to the scholars—but it is not much use at all. For even though the Maya culture—again, in contrast with all the Old World cultures—perished not 2,000 or 3,000, but only 450 years ago, we have fewer starting points for a thorough study of it than in any other case.

Our knowledge of Babylon and Egypt, of the ancient peoples of Asia, Asia Minor, Greece, has come to us continuously over the centuries and from the beginning. Much has indeed been lost, but a great deal of the written or oral tradition has been preserved. While they died a long time ago, even in dying they passed on what they had created to posterity, and they took a long time dying. But the Central American cultures were, as we have said, “beheaded.” Hard upon the Spanish soldiers, high on their horses and swords in hand, followed the priests upon whose pyres the records and pictures that might have told us so much were incinerated. Don Juan de Zumárraga, first bishop of Mexico, destroyed every scrap of writing he could find in a gigantic auto-de-fé; the other bishops and priests followed his example; the soldiers, with no less zeal, demolished everything that was left. When Lord Kings-borough in 1848 completed his collection of what remained of the ancient Aztec records, not a single piece of Spanish provenance had been found. And of Mayan documents from pre-conquistador times exactly three manuscripts are left to us.

One is in Dresden, one in Paris, and two that belong together are deposited in two different places in Spain: the “Codex Dresdensis” (the oldest), the “Codex Persianus,” and the codices “Troano” and “Cortesianus.”

Another obstacle to knowledge in this case is the extraordinary hardship of first hand exploration. While archæologists in Italy and Greece find themselves traveling in civilized countries, and the explorer in Egypt is at least working in the most healthful climate within those latitudes, the man setting out on a search for new traces of the Mayas and Aztecs in the last century was removing himself to an infernal climate, far from all civilized comforts and facilities. To this day, as the 1960’s are drawing to a close, there is no land route for tourists to one of the most important sites, Tikál in Guatemala, where teams from the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of William Coe have been excavating and studying more than 300 gigantic edifices for over a decade. Nowadays, however, they can fly there in an hour from Guatemala City and stay in the comfortable Jungle Lodge, an “American plan” hostelry.

Exploration in Central America was accordingly beset with three difficulties: first, the unique problems posed by the peculiar character of these cultures; second, the paucity of data as a basis for the necessary comparisons and conclusions; and third, the physical resistance of the terrain to rapid penetration and excavation.

It is not too surprising, therefore, that the Mayas and Aztecs, soon after being so gloriously rediscovered by Stephens and Prescott, again dropped from public awareness; nor that what knowledge there was remained the preserve of only a very few scholars throughout four decades. While there had been numerous minor accretions to this knowledge, no really significant discovery occurred between 1840 and 1880. Even Brasseur de Bourbourg’s find in Madrid stirred the interest of none but a few specialists.

Diego de Landa’s book, disregarded for 300 years though quite accessible, held the Open Sesame to at least a part of the meaning of the few Mayan documents and monuments extant. But there were too few documents, stones, carvings, or sculptures to which to apply this key and test its worth.

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