- Historic Sites
“Savages Never Carved These Stones”
Magnificent Central American ruins, overgrown by the thickening jungle, testify to a sophisticated culture already ancient when Columbus sailed
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
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.