“Savages Never Carved These Stones”

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.