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“Savages Never Carved These Stones”

July 2024
18min read

Magnificent Central American ruins, overgrown by the thickening jungle, testify to a sophisticated culture already ancient when Columbus sailed

On the afternoon of November 17, 1839, John Lloyd Stephens, a red-bearded New York lawyer, and Frederick Catherwood, an English artist, hacked their way through a jungle in Honduras and emerged at the edge of a broad river. Facing them across the wide ribbon of water was an ancient and massive stone wall, looming up a hundred feet out of the bush. As they crossed the river and explored the surroundings, they discovered stone altars, mysterious hieroglyphics, and giant idols richly carved; it was clear that they had come upon the ruins of an ancient city. Its only guardians were a chain of chattering monkeys moving through the treetops overhead; all else was eerie, humid silence. In wonder, Stephens wrote:

“America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones. When we asked the Indians who made them, their dull answer was ‘ Quién sabe? ’ (Who knows?) There were no associations connected with this place, none of those stirring recollections which hallow Rome, Athens, and ‘The world’s great mistress on the Egyptian plain.’ But architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors and statesmen, beauty, ambition and glory had lived and passed away, and none knew that such things had been, or could tell of their past existence.… The city was desolate. … 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 …”

Copán, for that had been the city’s name, had lain deserted for 1,000 years, its ruins undisturbed even by Cortes and his small band of Spanish adventurers who in 1521 had vanquished the Aztec empire and, shortly afterward, most of Central America. Today, thanks to Stephens and Catherwood and those who came after them, we know a great deal more about these sophisticated Central and South American cultures than the Spaniards ever learned. The patient spades of modern archaeologists have uncovered a remarkable panorama of cultures going back some four thousand years.

As in all the other great culture-producing centers of the world—the Valley of the Euphrates, the Mediterranean littoral, the Valley of the Yangtze—culture succeeded culture in Mexico and in Peru, spreading out into neighboring areas, including much of the United States. This pattern, which fascinated Gibbon, Spengler, Toynbee, and the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, is an ancient one in the New World also. Many tribes settled here and grew into nourishing nations, only to decay in their turn—many different cultures succeeding one another, destroying one another, and giving birth to still others in a chain of history very much longer than was until recently suspected. The Aztec and lnca empires that Cortes and Pizarro conquered went back only some two or three hundred years, for, as history measures time, the peoples who established these legendary warrior cultures had themselves been invading conquerors only a short while before.

Actually, pre-Columbian history has a double fascination: the story of the different peoples and cultures and what happened to them, and the story of modern man’s unraveling of this unrecorded past. In one sense, we were never oblivious to the glories of the great Indian cultures. Albrecht Dürer, who saw the presents sent by Montezuma to Charles V in 1520, wrote in his diary:

Then I saw the things which were brought to the King out of the new Land of Gold: an entire golden sun a full fathom wide, and likewise an entire silver moon equally as large, likewise two chambers lull of armour of the people there, likewise all kinds of wondrous things of their armour and weapons; most rare clothing, bedding and all sorts of marvelous objects for human use which are much more beautiful to behold than things spoken of in fairy tales.

These things were all so precious that they were valued at 100,000 guilders. In all the days of my life I have seen nothing which so filled my heart with joy as these things. For I saw among them wondrous artful treasures, and I marveled over the subtle genius of those men in strange countries. Yes, I cannot tell enough of the things which I saw there before me.


Similarly, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the soldiers who followed Cortes, wrote ecstatic and enthusiastic descriptions of Indian art and culture in his memoirs, Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España . Somehow, however, interest in the ancient American civilizations waned after the first thrill of discovery had passed, and the entire field lay shrouded in neglect. The Spaniards had destroyed many works of art or melted them down for the gold, and the few records that survived from the lands conquered for Spain lay unpublished in Madrid archives or in New World monasteries.

Yet it was the Spaniards who—indirectly at least—contributed to the revival of interest in the treasures uncovered by the conquistadors. About 1785, soon after the Maya ruins at Palenque in southern Mexico had been discovered, Spanish commissions visited the site. Although their reports were promptly consigned to the royal archives, a copy of one of them was eventually published in London in 1822, and aroused enough interest to lead to an exhibition entitled “Ancient Mexico” two years later in the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly.

Among those who saw the exhibition was a certain Lord Kingsborough, who a few years later brought out the first of nine huge volumes called Antiquities of Mexico in which he sought to prove the theory that the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. The effort failed: he died in debtors’ prison—jailed for failing to meet the printing bills.


Another man who read the Spanish report published in London was young John Lloyd Stephens, and in 1839 he and Catherwood decided to investigate for themselves. Stephens’ accounts of their travels, illustrated by Catherwood, were published in New York in two books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán in 1841, and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán in 1843. Both became very popular in the United States.

The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the birth of scientific archaeology all over the world, stimulated especially by the basic discovery of Schliemann, who in excavating the successive cities of Troy had helped document the “layer” theory of archaeology: the deeper you dig, the earlier are the remains you are likely to find, for cultures developed again and again in the same place, one building on top of the ruins of another.

On several expeditions through Mexico and Central America in the 1880’s, the English archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay took the first accurate casts and photographs of Mayan monuments. Most important, he also made the first scientifically accurate drawings of the glyphs which appear on so many buildings and monumental stelae, or columns. With the help of these drawings he and later archaeologists were able to decipher the elaborate calendrical inscriptions and numerical notations contained in these glyphs. Maudslay’s reports, Biologia Centrali-Americana , published in London from 1889 to 1902, are still consulted today as one of the basic sources for pre-Columbian studies.

In 1892 Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology sent the first of a series of great expeditions to the Maya ruins. Perhaps the most dramatic discovery, however, was made by a U.S. diplomat and amateur archaeologist, Edward H. Thompson, who found and dredged the “Well of Sacrifice” in the temple-city of Chichén Itzá. Here, for many centuries, Mayan women had been thrown into the sacred well as offerings to a demanding god. Less gruesome, but more interesting archaeologically, was the fact that many treasured objects were thrown in with them. By slowly dredging and fishing along the well’s deep, muddy bottom, Thompson brought to the surface some of the most exciting treasures of ancient America: jade and gold, some of it traded from as far away as Panama, as well as figurines, masks, bells, and other objects that showed the great artistic heights and surprising level of sophistication which the pre-Columbian artisans had reached.

But along with scientists, many wonderful crackpots were attracted by the field of archaeology. One, a Frenchman named Le Plongeon, believed the Maya had come from Atlantis or the lost continent of Mu and even that they had developed a telegraphic system with electrical wires. Others theorized that the fabled fortress-city of Machu Picchu high in the Peruvian Andes was built by Phoenicians who sailed up the Amazon from Brazil.

One of the main reasons why so many kept speculating that the great Indian monuments were built by people from the Mediterranean is the great contrast between the contemporary Indian peon and the superb achievements of his ancestors. Early visitors to Central America believed that these same people simply could not have accomplished such feats by themselves. In fact, the contrast between the primitive present and the glorious past is as great as that between the wretched hovels of the Egyptian fellahin and the temples of Karnak created by their ancestors many thousands of years ago.

Another popular misconception about the origin of the Maya is that they came from Asia. It is indeed probable that the first men came to America from Asia during one of the Ice Ages, when a land bridge existed between Siberia and Alaska across the Bering Strait. But this must have taken place well before 10,000 B.C. —and no evidence of massive immigrations of a later period has been found anywhere on the long stretch of continent between the highland of Mexico and the Bering Strait. That there were transpacific contacts in historic times has been the subject of much scientific study, especially by archaeologists and anthropologists such as Robert von Heine-Geldern, Gordon Ekholm, the late Miguel Covarrubias for Middle America; and Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame for Peru. But all evidence seems to point to the conclusion that all such contacts took place via ocean voyages. That expeditions of this kind were possible is surely evidenced by the long sailing trips undertaken by the Pacific Islanders and by the incontrovertible evidence of long-distance trade in pre-Columbian times. For example, gold objects from Panama were found in ceremonial offerings as far north as Yucatán, while a Mixtec vase made around 1000 A.D. in the highlands of Mexico was painted with a pattern copied directly from a Peruvian textile design.

But if the Maya came neither from the Mediterranean nor from Asia, the mystery remained: Where did they come from? A major scientific breakthrough in our knowledge of the ancient history of this culture came only after the last war, with the discovery of carbon-14 dating. Research on atomic energy led indirectly to this new technique, based on the fact that all organic material contains a certain amount of radioactive carbon 14, which after the death of the organism diminishes at a constant rate. Thus, scientists could now take remnants of textiles, bones, wood, and food found in ancient tombs and determine with only a relatively small margin of error the date of the burial. Archaeologists using this method were able to establish that the early village cultures of Mexico date back to somewhere between 2000 and 1500 B.C. , rather than to the period just before the birth of Christ, as they had previously thought.

This has opened entirely new horizons to historians, who are now able to discern a much more accurate picture of the rise and fall of cultures on this continent. Twice in the history of America there occurs a mysterious breaking away of cultures and a rise of others. The first break occurred about 200 B.C. , with the disappearance of the relatively uncomplicated cultures of what we call the Archaic period and the beginning of the great theocratic Classic cultures. The second occurred at the end of the Classic period, probably during the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., when again there is a general collapse before the rise of new cultures. This third period we call Historic, as its cultures were still in existence when Cortes landed in Veracruz. Their history is documented in elaborate pictographic codices of which a handful still survive (see page 56) and in legends and histories carefully noted by the early Spanish missionaries, such as the famous Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. With the help of Indians who still remembered what had been taught them in their youth, he carefully compiled all available information on Indian history and religion and published them in his Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España .

The earliest traces of man which archaeologists have found in the New World are those of primitive hunters who roamed North America in the millenniums before 10,000 B.C. But afterward there is a missing link, for the next earliest archaeological sites thus far found in Middle America date from about 2000 to 1500 B.C. , and show the presence of fully developed village cultures. Much of their pottery was subtle and delicate, and some of the votive female figurines that they buried in their tombs have a sophistication only rarely approached by later cultures. Their art proves that they were far from being rude barbarians, yet they appear on the archaeological scene in full bloom as well-developed cultures without apparent ancestry or transitional stages of growth and development. It is not yet clear what developmental stages they experienced, or whether they migrated from other areas still archaeologically unexplored.

Perhaps the key to this enigma lies with the people we call the Olmecs, the Rubber People of Tabasco at the southern tip of the Gulf of Mexico. Their art is very distinctive: it portrays rounded, chubby people who to our eye appear incredibly Oriental—like a haunting memory of the Far East. Their powerful carved figurines sometimes have the faces of crying babies, sometimes a more mysterious mixture of human and feline traits. Not much is known about the Olmecs, but we find traces of their great culture all over Mexico, most notably in the monumental remnants uncovered at La Venta on the Gulf Coast. Here, overgrown by a dense tropical jungle, archaeologists have found colossal basalt heads nine feet high and weighing fifteen tons, which must have been transported over considerable distances before being finally set in place.

The best authority on this extraordinary culture was the late painter-archaeologist Miguel Covarrubias, who spent the last years of his life pursuing the elusive evidence of Olmec culture scattered all over Mexico. His theory, somewhat tentatively advanced, is that the culture of the Olmecs was the great mother culture of Middle America, that its beginnings date back to 1500 B.C. or before, and that its effective dominance endured for over a millennium. There is as yet no full proof of this theory—but it does at least try to account for all the known historical, anthropological, and archaeological evidence and to explain the presence of Olmec and Olmec-influenced art all over Mexico and Guatemala, as far south as Honduras and Costa Rica, and possibly even in the Indian styles of the United States and especially in those of British Columbia.


Covarrubias believed that the Olmecs introduced many of the most important concepts that continued in all the Indian cultures until the Spanish Conquest: the immensely high value of jade—and the art of working this extraordinarily hard material, with only the simplest of tools, as easily as if it were soap; the painting of objects with red cinnabar before burial; the monumental stelae and written calendrical notations in the form of glyphs; and, most important of all, the cult of the jaguar deity. In his manifestation of rain-god he became a chief figure in the pantheon which was shared in large part by all the Indian cultures—for to a people whose entire economy was based on corn and who lived in a tropical latitude with sharply defined dry and wet seasons, the rain-god was all-important. In their worship of him, early peoples—Covarrubias believes it was probably the Olmecs—developed a 52-year calendar, based on the solar year and the cycle of the planet Venus, which enabled their priests to predict with accuracy the coming of each rainy season. Checked for centuries by the Maya in the observatories found in all the great Indian temple complexes, this calendar was more accurate than the Gregorian calendar still used by the West when Columbus sailed.


Olmec objects have been found not only in specifically Olmec sites but also in excavations of other cultures, especially those of the typical Archaic or Pre-Classic site at Tlatilco near Mexico City. The evidence is that the Olmec and Archaic village cultures existed side by side at the same time, the former perhaps being that of a superior, aristocratic invader. About 200 B.C. , the simple individualistic pottery and clay figurines of the early Archaic farmers cease to be made all over Mexico, with the exception of the periphery in Western Mexico (the so-called Tarascan area on the Pacific Coast). All over Mexico there now rose complex theocratic cultures with a similar approach to art and religion and a totally new social system. In the same places where the simple Archaic cultures flourished now arose great religious temple-cities—Teotihuacán, Cholula, Monte Albán, El Tajín, and in the Maya area, cities like Palenque, Bonampak, Copán, and many others. Covarrubias believed that these great Classic cultures grew out of the crossbreeding between the dominating, aristocratic, and highly developed Olmec culture and the simpler cultures of the villages.

In any case, the Archaic villages soon changed from small, simple, autonomous societies into theocratic states dominated by an elaborate religious ceremonialism in great temple-cities where the life of priestly kings and innumerable slaves was dedicated to the services of great religions. The art of the Classic period reflects the new order—the architecture is grandiose and elegant, full of ritual symbolism, aristocratic and refined, with little of the individual artist’s personal expression and little representation of everyday life. Only on Mexico’s west coast, in the present-day states of Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco, did this theocratic system fail to dominate. There the highly individualistic sculptural tradition of the village cultures continued to flourish and to produce realistic, often humorous reproductions of scenes from daily life.


With the dawn of the Classic cultures, many things begin to show the growth of a new tradition. Aristocratic personages are now depicted with long, slender bodies, great, slanting eyes, and fine aquiline noses sometimes emphasized—among the Maya—by artificial additions at the bridge. The Archaic figures’ stark simplicity of dress gives way to luxurious ornaments and intricate headdresses of plaques and feathers. Art is increasingly dedicated to the exaltation of priest-kings and to the worship of the rain-gods and the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. In the great ceremonial cities temples and altars rise on top of stone pyramids; and ball courts, astronomical observatories, and terraces range in carefully planned balance around grand plazas and avenues. Gradually, as the Classic period continues, its art becomes more and more elaborate and busy until, after some six or seven centuries, it reaches a sterile decadence.

During the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. , the Classic cultures come to an end. The temple-cities are destroyed or abandoned and the fertile valleys are invaded by new settlers—wild, nomadic tribes from the north who have finally pierced the weakened defensive barriers. Many explanations for this fantastic collapse have been advanced. Probably it was a combination of many factors: repeated crop failures due to the gradual destruction of the land’s forest cover; the increase of dry periods—with the resulting droughts and famines—that must have shaken the faith of the common people in the ability of their priests to control the rain-gods; internal political stresses, and perhaps civil wars. Finally, weakened by all these strains, the old, tired cultures were no longer able to resist the constant onslaught of the nomadic northern barbarians.

Now begins the Historic period, so-called because its events were noted by the Indians in written records, a few of which survived the Spanish destructions. The native chroniclers of the period, Covarrubias wrote, “divided history into great epochs, or cycles, called ‘Suns’ … The first four ‘Suns’ were mythical and referred to the creation of the world and of humanity, which were four times destroyed and re-created in the catastrophes that resulted from epic wars among the gods themselves. At the end of the Fourth Sun the heavens fell and the world was left in darkness; the gods met and decided to sacrifice themselves to make a new Sun and Moon. Thus began the age of men, the last or ‘Fifth Sun,’ the starting point for their documentary history.”

The Indian chroniclers were convinced that the ancient cities such as Teotihuacán were built not by men but by gods or giants—and their belief was strengthened by the findings of gigantic bones of extinct fossil animals. Mexican written history actually begins with the arrival in the Valley of Mexico of the great barbarian conqueror, Mixcoatl, around 900 A.D. After his hordes became civilized and absorbed the native population, they called themselves Toltecs after their capital of Tula, or Tollan. In time, the name Toltec came to stand not for barbarian invader but for civilized man (in fact, the Aztec word for builder was “Toltec”). It was also under the Toltecs that metallurgy was first introduced into Middle America. The Toltecs flourished until their chief city was destroyed in 1168 A.D. in a ferocious civil war accompanied by famines and epidemics and followed by the invasion of new wild hordes, the Chichimecs.

The influence of the Toltecs spread over much of Mexico including the Yucatán Peninsula. Here, building upon the earlier site of the Mayas, they raised up their great temple-city of Chichén Itzá.

The Toltecs gave birth to the great Indian hero called Quetzalcoatl, who became the peace-loving priestly ruler of Tula in a Golden Age of prosperity—until a legendary conflict broke out between him and his antithesis, the evil warrior and sorcerer Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl was banished. Setting sail from the Gulf Coast on a raft, he vowed to return and avenge himself, and when by coincidence Cortes, who like the legendary hero had blue eyes and a beard, arrived in Veracruz on the anniversary of Quetzalcoatl’s birth, it is small wonder that Montezuma’s messengers described the Spaniard and his followers as Quetzalcoatl returned, riding on fierce, perhaps supernatural animals such as had never before been seen (horses!). And it is not remarkable that Cortes struck such terror into the hearts of Montezuma and his already portent-burdened court.

To the south of the Toltecs, the Mixtecs flourished—another great culture which is responsible for some of the most beautiful, elaborate pottery and mosaic work yet excavated, for the fine gold filigree work that so delighted Albrecht Dürer, for superb gems of jade, crystal, and turquoise, and for some of the most elaborate codices. Mixtec manuscripts have given us detailed knowledge of their political history, a genealogical sequence uninterrupted from 824 A.D. until the Spanish Conquest.

There was comparatively little cultural development in the region of what is now the United States: none of the great Indian cultures ever penetrated north of the Mexican highlands. The so-called Mound Builder culture of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys produced superbly mottled abstract forms that we know as birdstones and banner stones and which probably were used as weights for throwing sticks; Indians in the copper-bearing regions around the Great Lakes made fine copper adzes and objects at a very early date, while the Mexican Indians did not learn this skill until close to 1000 A.D. But essentially, North America was a very sparsely populated region inhabited by Indians of a comparatively simple level of development. In some areas, such as Arizona, archaeologists have found cultural enclaves dating back to early Archaic times. For example, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. and even later, Indians in Arizona continued to make pots of a type associated with the earliest clay vessels: pots built up out of coiled clay rings and decorated with a basket pattern.

But it is also from these primitive hunting grounds of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States that successive waves of barbarians probably coursed down to the fertile valleys and prosperous cities of Central America. Their assaults—like those of the barbarians who threatened Rome—were beaten back, except when the great cultures were weakened. Then the barbarians prevailed, conquered, amalgamated with the local population, and in turn produced another culture.


The empire-building Aztecs must have come to the Mexican highlands in a way somewhat like this. They do not appear on the scene until very late, and at first only as a small, wandering tribe which was finally forced to settle on an inhospitable island in the midst of a swampy lake. Here their second chieftain, Tenoch, founded in 1325 the city named after him—Tenochtitlán, on the site of present-day Mexico City. In less than a century the strategic island became a powerful city-state, expanding its domination first over the entire Valley of Mexico and eventually to the shores of the Gulf Coast and the Pacific, and south as far as Guatemala. Their city became a metropolis which awed the Spaniards with its splendors, its fine roads, the long causeways between island and mainland, the well-aligned streets, and the networks of canals filled with loaded canoes. Aztec nobles were haughty and refined—the Spaniards were much impressed by their extreme cleanliness and the fact that they held flowers to their noses whenever they had to approach a Spaniard. Yet they faithfully served an increasingly bloody religion, and sacrificed literally tens of thousands of captives on their altars. The brutality and oppression of the Aztec empire made it possible and even relatively easy for Cortes to win allies among the subject Indian nations, without whose help his conquest would not have been possible. These Indians fought in increasing numbers against the hated Aztecs, and it was only with their help that Cortes was able to lay siege to and capture Tenochtitlán in 1521.

Once the military conquest was completed, it was a relatively simple matter for the Spaniards to keep the Indians in permanent subjugation. The culture, the art, the knowledge and tradition of the Indian civilizations had always been held by an elite caste of priests and warriors. The Spaniards were aware of this, and successfully destroyed the culture by eliminating its leaders. The fervor of the missionary friars and the terrors of the Inquisition helped to stamp out or at least drive underground the old religion, and with this and the death of its warriors the old culture came to an end. Soon little remained but enslaved peasants—and glories of the past buried in the earth.

In looking back at the achievements of the Indian cultures, it is astounding to realize how much they accomplished with how little. Unlike the peoples of Europe and Asia, these peoples never had animals they could domesticate and herd—no horses, no cattle, not even any goats. The Indians never developed a nomadic herdsman culture. Their civilization was built on their unique development of Indian corn.


One example of the limitations which Nature’s stinginess seems to have put on the Indians is their failure to exploit the wheel. We know that they had discovered it, for wheeled toys have been found in tombs dating back as early as 400 A.D. Even at the time of the Spanish Conquest, however, there was not a single wagon or cart: everything was carried (albeit over good roads) on human backs, probably because without draft animals carts made little sense. So the momentous invention of the wheel remained unapplied for a thousand years!

Notwithstanding these great handicaps—no major domestic animals, no herds, no draft animals, no wheel, and no useful metals—the monuments of the ancient Indians rival those of Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia in size, in splendor, and in the awe they still evoke in us when we see them. For example, at Monte Alban in southern Mexico the Zapotec Indians leveled the top of a mountain rising in the midst of a wide valley, and on this man-made plateau built a group of temples, pyramids, astronomical observatories, and ceremonial ball courts which in their grandeur easily rival the Roman Forum.

One of the most extraordinary things about the art of these ancient cultures is their surprisingly “modern” feeling. Often their artists’ conception of forms, and the way they experienced the world around them, are similar to those of many twentieth-century artists. Other objects speak to us with such spontaneity and immediacy that we feel we have had a personal contact with their creators.

This has helped to cause a tremendous upsurge of interest in pre-Columbian art during the past few years. In part this has been stimulated by our growing concern with history, especially the history of this continent. Even more important has been the way in which modern art has taught our eyes to respond with pleasure and excitement to the art of these ancient cultures. Until a few years ago the only places one could find examples of pre-Columbian art were on the dusty shelves of museums of natural history and ethnography. But now, quite suddenly, one major art museum after another has begun to display the artifacts of the ancient American cultures—as works of art.

After 400 years of looking at them as little but scientific curiosities, western man has suddenly rediscovered the sense of awe and wonder in these ancient arts, produced by a chain of cultures on this continent whose glories approach the triumphs of ancient Egypt.

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