Ancient History & Civilisation

31/AZTECS, MAYAS, AND TOLTECS: WHENCE DID THEY COME?

“Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who flourished in the beginning of the sixteenth century,” wrote Prescott, “was a native of Tezcuco, and descended in a direct line from the sovereigns of that kingdom.… He filled the office of interpreter to the viceroy, to which he was recommended by his acquaintance with the ancient hieroglyphics, and his knowledge of the Mexican and Spanish languages.… He has often lent a too willing ear to traditions and reports which would startle the more skeptical criticism of the present time. Yet there is an appearance of good faith and simplicity in his writings, which may convince the reader, that, when he errs, it is from no worse cause than national partiality. And surely such partiality is excusable in the descendant of a proud line, shorn of its ancient splendors, which it was soothing to his own feelings to revive again,—though with something more than their legitimate lustre,—on the canvas of history.… His earlier annals—though no one of his manuscripts has been printed—have been diligently studied by the Spanish writers in Mexico … and his reputation, like Sahagun’s, has doubtless suffered by the process.”

Others have expressed a much less tolerant opinion of this prince among scholars. The “century of source criticism” considered him to be nothing more nor less than a romantic teller of tales, a kind of Indian bard. They gave no credence at all to his colorful account of his people’s past. And it is very true that some of Ixtlilxochitl’s statements are hard to swallow—indeed, virtually unbelievable. The two most important German students of Mexican archæology, Eduard Seler and Walter Lehmann, were the first to give the Tezcucan chronicler belated credit for having told far more truth than anyone had ever suspected.

Repeatedly in our history of archæology we have encountered situations where some new collection of data has threatened to knock the accepted and hard-won historical picture into a cocked hat. We have seen, too, how often this danger, for a time, has been met either by ignoring the new facts or by carefully skirting them. For there is a self-protective, conservative tendency at work in science as well as everywhere else.

The know-nothing spirit has had its day in Mexican archæology. For example, certain Mexican ruins are half-buried in lava, which suggests that they are very old. These prehistoric artifacts, which were found in the shadow of much younger monuments, could not be fitted into the cultural picture developed through the study of the later Mexican and the Mayan societies. Whenever during the nineteenth century the archæologists ran into one of these antique structures—no one made it his business to seek them out—they turned their eyes the other way. Prescott’s interesting remarks on Teotihuacán, the city of ruins past which Cortés marched on his flight from Mexico City after the noche triste, could not be entirely ignored, one might think. Nevertheless they were, and almost all archæologists can be charged with this obvious oversight until the turn of the last century.

Cautious intimations and many question marks—that was about all the commentary on these very old ruins amounted to. Then, in rapid succession, the ruins were laid bare. An excavation program that could have been undertaken long before was abruptly condensed in three decades. The most surprising feature of this persistent neglect is the fact that no expeditions had to be outfitted to get at these particular pyramids. There was no need here for risking fevers, encounters with jungle animals, fighting one’s way through swamp and forest with the machete, and the like. All the archæologist had to do, believe it or not, was board a train and ride to the sites. He could even see them on a Sunday afternoon walk. For several of these largest and most impressive monuments of Middle American culture lay within an hour’s ride by train from the center of Mexico City—indeed, actually on the municipal boundary lines.

Ixtlilxochitl was a baptized native prince, a well-educated man, thoroughly versed in the religious practices of the Mexican Indians. When the wars of the period of conquest were over, he began to sketch out the history of his people. He kept his ear pressed close to the lips of tradition. His history (which later generations refused to trust) went back to gray primeval times when the city of Tula (Tollan in the present Mexican state of Hidalgo) was founded by the Toltec people. Ixtlilxochitl told great tales about these Toltecs. They had known how to write, he maintained, and how to reckon, make calendars, build palaces and temples. The rulers of Tula also had a great reputation for wisdom. Their laws were just, their religion was mild and free from the cruelties of later epochs. Their empire, according to Ixtlilxochitl, lasted five hundred years. Then came famine, civil war, and dynastic quarrels. Another people, the Chichimecs, got control of the land. The Toltec survivors migrated first to Tabasco, later to Yucatán.

It is notable that the first man—he was a Frenchman—to validate Ixtlilxochitl’s chronicles by an actual find did not even then succeed in establishing the Indian historian’s credibility among archæologists as a whole. In the first place, no reputable archæologist believed in the existence of the city of Tula, which figured so prominently in the Indian Prince’s writings. Ixtlilxochitl wrote factually enough about his Tula, but no matter, he was blandly ignored. Some commentators suggested that Tula and the mythical Thule were somehow connected. Even the very physical existence of a little town called Tula to the north of Mexico City made no impression, for nowhere in the vicinity of Tula were to be seen any of the ruins mentioned in the legends recorded in the works of Ixtlilxochitl. Even when the Frenchman Désiré Charnay in the course of a treasure hunt in the 1880’s found vestiges of a pyramid at Tula de Allende, the archæologists paid no attention to his report.

Not until World War II, at a time when almost all the rest of the world was busy making ruins of contemporary artifacts, did Mexican archæologists begin to excavate the ancient Toltec sites.

And behold!

In 1940 the whole archæological world had to bow before Prince Ixtlilxochitl! Had not similar submissions been exacted for Homer by Schliemann, and for the Bible by Layard? The amazed archæologists found ancient Tula, first city of the Toltecs! Previously they had found the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. They discovered well-preserved reliefs and fine sculptures under three feet of rubbish and earth.

Thus in rapid succession artifacts of the Toltec “culture beneath the cultures” was brought into the light of day. Actually the inhabitants of Mexico City had lived for several hundred years in the very midst of these pyramids without knowing about them. They had walked by them on the way to work in the fields. They had lain at their feet when they took time out for a drink of pulque, that man-murdering agave schnapps which the Toltecs themselves used to ferment. One might say that all the people of Mexico City and environs had to do was follow their noses and bump into a pyramid.

The exploration of the Toltec pyramids proceeded with the typically swift pace of an archæological investigation once fairly launched. Within three decades excavations of the most sensational import were carried out. In 1925 the archæologists digging out the Pyramid of the Serpent at the northwest boundary of Mexico City found that they were working not on one pyramid, but on eight of them—an onion in stone, so to speak, one shell nested within another. Calendrical data revealed that probably every fifty-two years another shell had been added to the pyramid. A little arithmetic shows that this structure alone had been worked on for over four hundred years. Except for the cathedral building of the West, there is no single architectural project anywhere that continued so long. In the middle of Mexico City archæologists dug for the remains of the great teocalli, the one destroyed by Cortés, and actually found the foundation walls. The excavators then betook themselves out of the city, to the present-day San Juan Teotihuacán, some thirty-one miles away. Here was located the largest of all the pyramid fields, the most splendid relic of the ancient Toltec culture, the city “where god was offered prayers.” (Such is the meaning of the name Teotihuacán. Note the peculiarity that the Mexican word teo is the same as the Old Greek word for “god.” It is only proper to add, however, that no inferences of any kind may be drawn from this phonetic coincidence.) The already exposed section of this field of ruins now covers 7.6 square miles—and but a fraction of the whole field has been opened up. This is the city that the Toltecs, before their flight southward, seemingly covered with a layer of earth a yard deep—a supererogatory measure hardly less astonishing than the structures themselves. The larger of the pyramids—they are stepped pyramids with the characteristic stairways—is 128 feet in height.

Eventually the archæologists struck out into the provinces. Eduard Seler was the first to describe the fortress pyramid of Xochicalco, fifty miles south of the Mexican capital. Diggings were carried out at Cholula, where Cortés committed one of his worst acts of betrayal. Working inside the largest pyramid—which once covered a larger area than the Pyramid of Cheops—the excavators disclosed labyrinthine passages five eighths of a mile long. The search then moved farther south. In 1931 Alfonso Caso, a Mexican, on government commission, dug into Monte Albán at Oaxaca—and what every excavator almost certainly secretly hopes for came to pass. Alfonso Caso found a treasure—the treasure of Monte Albán.

“Is there any other spot on earth,” asks Egon Erwin Kisch, a noted journalist of our time, “so completely shrouded in darkness and so mute in the face of all our questions? Which feeling is paramount in us, enchantment or bewilderment?” And then he inquires into the reasons for this conflict of feeling. “Is it the spatial complex, the outlines of which suggest a prospect of infinity? Or is it the pyramids, which look like stately stairways leading on and up into the inner reaches of heaven? Or is it the temple court which—thanks to our powers of imagination—is filled with many thousands of Indians in impetuous prayer? Or is it the observatory, with peepholes let into the masonry walls which provide a line of sight along the azimuth of the meridian? Or is it the spectacle of a stadium such as Europe has never built from ancient Roman days to the twentieth century, one hundred and twenty steeply rising tiers of stone seats?

“Or is it the system,” he goes on, “of arranging hundreds of tombs so that no grave disturbs its neighbor, with consequent avoidance of a cemetery effect? Could it be the gay mosaics, the frescoes with their figures, scenes, symbols, and hieroglyphs? Or the vessels of clay, sacrificial bowls of noble sweep, urns of geometric rectilinearity, four-footed, and within each of the feet a little bell that tinkles for help if an intruder threatens to make off with it?

“Or is it the ornamentation?…

“Who would have ever imagined ‘savages’ could polish rock-crystal with such precision technique, or assemble necklaces in twenty rows made of 854 chiseled and mathematically equal constituent parts of gold and precious stones? A brooch shows a knight of death that Lucas Cranach himself could not have made more apocalyptic. Garters that are like the ones worn by the Knights of the Garter. Ear-rings seemingly woven from tears and thorns. Headdresses—tiaras worthy of a pope of popes. Plaited rings to set off the fingernails. Bracelets and arm-bands with fat embossments, cloak-pins, and clasps made of jade, turquoise, pearls, amber, coral, obsidian, jaguar-teeth, bones, and mussel shells. A gold mask over the cheeks and nose of which is sculptured a trophy made of human skin. Fans fashioned from the feathers of the quetzal bird—what Byzantine empress, what Hindu maharani, what American multimillionairess ever in her whole life owned such a lovely trinket as many of these Indians keep beside them even in the grave?”

“Questions, nothing but questions on Monte Albán,” is the Kisch chapter heading for this piece on Mexico. But is it only Monte Albán that invites interrogation?

We must admit that up to the present we know less than nothing about the master builders of pre-Aztec times. Less than nothing also implies, in this case, that we are burdened with a great deal of false information. Mexico and Yucatán are jungle-lands; and when the archæologist begins to interpret the Toltecs, he loses himself in these jungles. How much is actually known?

This much has been confirmed: the Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec cultures are all closely related. All three societies built pyramids, with steps leading up to the gods of sun or moon. All these pyramids, we know today, were located according to astronomical lines of sight and erected under calendrical dictate. Oliver G. Rickertson, Jr., an American, was the first to prove this, in 1928, using evidence found on a Mayan pyramid in Uaxactún. Today we have further proof of this practice in later times from Chichén-Itzá, and for more ancient times from Monte Albán. All these peoples lived under the Damoclean sword of their great calendrical cycles, as for example when they believed that the world came to an end every fifty-two years. The power of the priesthood depended on the universal acceptance of such ideas. The priests alone were able to avert the threat of disaster. The means that they used to do this became with the passage of time more drastic—that is, more cruel—and finally degenerated into frightful human offerings and the feast of Xipec Totec, the god of earth and spring, in whose honor the priests flayed human beings, drawing the bloody skin off the quivering victim while he was still alive.

The sky god Quetzalcoatl as a feathered serpent, from a relief at Xochicalco. Drawing by Miguel Covarrubias from his “Mexico South” (copyright 1946 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.).

The close relationship of Aztecs, Mayas, and Toltecs appears again in their gods, which in this respect are comparable to the Greek and Roman pantheons. One of the principal Aztec-Toltec gods was the great and wise Quetzalcoatl, who was called Kukumatz in Guatemala, and Kukulcan in Yucatán. His image, the plumed serpent, is found on both the oldest and the most recent Indian edifices. Even the mode of life was—and still is—much the same among all the Middle American Indians. And although their languages are numerous, they all belong—if we take into account only the civilized tribes—to one or the other of two large linguistic groups.

Once these basic kinships have been established (recently an almost incalculable amount of detail has been collected on the subject) the question of external relationships arises, of the wavelike contacts among these peoples as they flowed against and over one another—in short, the question of their history. Here, so far as the very oldest phase goes, we are groping in the dark. In spite of outstanding research, which has yielded a highly accurate correlation of the Mayan calendar with our own, we still lack fixed points of reference. The jungle we are clearing away from the pyramids and palaces of prehistoric America gives up abundant architectural remains, but as yet no panoramic vision of the past. We find dates, but no history. We can spin theories, but the supporting facts are inadequate.

Some investigators, basing their opinion on a variety of signs, believe that the great pyramid in Mexico City was built by the Toltecs in the fourth century of our era.

Now, several of these pyramids located at different sites from Tula to Monte Albán have been discussed, yet one of the most important has yet to be mentioned. This is the Pyramid of Cuicuilco, which stands on a mound 22.4 feet high, situated at the southern limits of Mexico City. The Pyramid of Cuicuilco rises up out of a weird landscape of darkly stony aspect. At one time the volcanoes Ajusco and Xitli (perhaps only the latter) erupted. The god within the pyramid was apparently remiss in diverting the glowing flood of lava that flowed about the pyramid, for half the structure was drowned in bubbling muck. The archæologists investigating this phenomenon called on colleagues from another faculty, the geologists, for help. How old is the lava, they inquired. The geologists, not realizing that their answer was knocking a world picture awry, answered: “Eight thousand years.” We have learned since then that this answer was wrong, because the geologists’ methods of dating are inadequate for relatively brief time spans.

We now assume, though without absolute proof, that the early American Indians were descendants of Mongolian tribesmen who came either by boat or by way of a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and so down the coast to the lower latitudes of the continent. Where the Toltecs in particular came from, assuming the existence of a migratory parent group, and why the Toltecs should have been the only people from Alaska to Panama capable of inventing the ingenious devices that mark their culture, we do not know.

Indeed, we do not even know exactly whether it really was the Toltecs who set the cultural stage in Middle America. What prehistoric role, we might ask, was played by the Zapotecs, or the Olmecs, vestiges of which societies can be found all over Mexico? If we name the Toltecs as the precursors of the Mayan and Aztec cultures, we are using the word Toltec as a collective label for all the creators of Middle American culture. The term Toltec may mean nothing but “master builder.”

We may be justified, in order to clarify the interaction of the three great Indian empires, in taking the liberty of quoting an analogy between Middle American and Old World cultures mentioned in one of the works on Mexico by the German archæologist Theodor-Wilhelm Danzel: “Occasionally in order to characterize the Aztec, as distinguished from the Mayan, culture,” he says, “analogies with the Old World have been adduced, in which the Aztecs have been compared to the Romans, and the Mayas to the Greeks. These parallels, on the whole, are apt. The Mayas were indeed a people who (like the Greeks) split up into many communities, who quarreled among themselves, and who formed temporary alliances only when it became necessary to resist a common enemy. But even though the Mayas did not distinguish themselves as a political power, they have to their credit remarkable achievements in sculpture, architecture, astronomy, and mathematics.

“The Aztecs, on the other hand,” he goes on to say, “were a warlike folk, who built their empire on the ruins of another people (the Toltecs) unable to resist the power of their onslaught. The Toltecs, if we carry our analogy still further, would parallel the Etruscans.”

We might draw still another analogy. In respect of historical function the Toltecs are similar to the inventive Sumerians. The Mayas, in this analogy, then become the Babylonians, who as the usufructuaries of the Sumerians’ superior inventions built a cultural empire of their own. And the Aztecs, in this context, then bring to mind the bellicose Assyrians, who used their superior mentality for pure power ends. Carrying out the parallel still further, Mexico City, “beheaded” at the height of its fame by the Spaniards, compares with proud Nineveh, capital of the Assyrians, which suffered a like fate at the hands of the Medes.

Both analogies, however, fail to hit the mark in one respect. They give no clue to why the Toltecs, long after their own empire had collapsed, should suddenly decamp and penetrate the New Empire of the Mayas, where they left their stamp on the city of Chichén-Itzá. There is no parallel for this in ancient history. But did such a thing actually happen? Everything in fact could have been quite different. There is a Mexican legend that suggests a different historical sequence, a legend in which even the coming of the Spaniards is prefigured in mythical language.

The legend tells how the Indian deity Quetzalcoatl came from the “Land of the Rising Sun.” He wore a long white robe and had a beard; he taught the people crafts and customs and laid down wise laws. He created an empire in which the ears of corn were as long as men are tall, and caused bolls of colored cotton to grow on cotton plants. But for some reason or other he had to leave his empire. He took his laws, his writings, his songs, and went away down the same road he had come. In Cholula he tarried, and there once more gave the people the benefits of his wisdom. Then he betook himself to the seashore, where he began to weep, and ended by immolating himself in fire, whereupon his heart became the morning star. Others say that he went aboard his ship and journeyed back to the land whence he came, across the sea. But all the legends of Quetzalcoatl unanimously agree that he promised to come again.

The Aztecs attack Tehuantepec (Durán). Drawing by Miguel Covarrubias from his “Mexico South” (copyright 1946 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.).

One of the greatest Mayan and Aztec gods, Quetzalcoatl, known in Guatemala under the name of Kukumatz, and in Yucatán as Kukulcan. All these names mean “Feathered Serpent.” The drawing is after a relief found in Chichén-Itzá, and illustrates the Toltec influence on Mayan art of the New Empire.

So often throughout our story have we seen the kernel of a legend historically validated that we must not make the mistake of dismissing this story as mere poetic invention, however fictitious it may appear at first sight. May we not think of the white robe as connoting a white skin? Especially in view of the fact that Quetzalcoatl is supposed to have worn a beard, whereas beards are extremely rare among Indians.

It has been suggested that Quetzalcoatl was actually a missionary from some distant, unknown country. The theory that he may have been an early Catholic missionary of the sixth century may safely be dismissed. Nor need we spend much time on the supposition that he was the Apostle Thomas himself. Those who seek to use the legend of Quetzalcoatl as a possible support for the notion that Mayan culture was founded by Atlanteans—a theory that once appealed to the young Thompson—can hardly expect to prevail. The Atlantis theory enjoys absolutely no scientific probability.

There is simply a great deal we do not yet know.

We know only this: the Spaniards, who appeared to the Aztecs as “the white gods from the east” when they first arrived in Mexico, because the Aztecs remembered the bearded white god and his promise to return—these representatives of European civilization surely did not behave like descendants of Quetzalcoatl, who had preached morality and justice.

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