- 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
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.