Funerary Urn from a Zapotecan Tomb
The cylindrical urn is concealed behind the human figure. The dress of the human figure consists of a cape, apron, and a widespreading headdress. Over the face is worn a mask. Height, 15½ inches.
This little book is intended as a general commentary and explanation of the more important phases of the ancient life and arts of the Indians of Mexico and Central America, and especially of their history. The substance of it is drawn from many sources, for the anthropologist must mould together and harmonize the gross results of several sciences. Archæology, ethnology, somatology, and linguistics all make their special contributions and we are only on the threshold of our subject. In the Mexican and Central American field we find the accumulated writings that result from four hundred years of European contact with the Indians and in addition a mass of native documents and monumental inscriptions expressed in several hieroglyphic systems.
The general method of this book will be to take up in order the recognized “horizons” of pre-Columbian history, beginning with the earliest of which we have knowledge. In relation to each horizon we will examine the records and discuss the principal developments in arts, beliefs, and social structures. The introductory chapter is designed to put before the reader such facts as may be necessary for a ready understanding of the discussions and explanations that will follow.
The Mexican Hall of the American Museum of Natural History furnishes illustrations of most of the facts given herewith. This Hall contains both originals and casts brought together by various expeditions of the Museum and of other scientific institutions. The principal patrons of science whose names should be mentioned in connection with the upbuilding of these collections are: Willard Brown, Austin Corbin, R. P. Doremus, Anson W. Hard, Archer M. Huntington, Morris K. Jesup, James H. Jones, Minor C. Keith, the Duke of Loubat, William Mack, Henry Marquand, Doctor William Pepper, A. D. Straus, I. McI. Strong, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Villard, William C. Whitney. But thanks are also due to innumerable persons who have contributed single specimens and small collections as well as those who have placed information at the disposal of the scientific staff. The principal collectors have been: George Byron Gordon, Aleš Hrdlička, Carl Lumholtz, Francis C. Nicholas, Marshall H. Saville, Eduard Seler, Herbert J. Spinden, and John L. Stephens.
Unfortunately the terms “Mexico and Central America” are not mutually exclusive. Central America is a natural division comprised between the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Isthmus of Panama. Mexico is a political division that includes several states in Central America, namely, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and the territory of Quintana Roo. The ancient high cultures of Mexico hardly extended as far north as the Tropic of Cancer and the region beyond this is of slight interest to us. Positions south of Mexico will often be referred to the areas of the modern political units although these have no immediate relation to pre-Spanish conditions. These political units are: Guatemala, British Honduras, Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
Fig. 1. The Great Snowstorm of 1447 shown in the Pictographic Record of the Aztecs called Codex Telleriano Remensis
Although lying within the tropics, the territory extending from the Isthmus of Panama to Central Mexico exhibits great extremes of climate and topography and hence of plant and animal life. The year is everywhere divided into a wet and a dry season but the relative duration of each depends upon land form and altitude. The coast of the Pacific is considerably drier than that of the Atlantic. Three climatic zones are generally recognized, namely, the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), Tierra Templada (Temperate Land), and Tierra Fria (Cold Land), and in some regions each of these has an arid and a humid strip. The change from luxuriant forests to open thorny deserts is often very sudden. On the high plateau or Tierra Fria the natural warmth of the latitude is largely overcome by the altitude. In the Valley of Mexico snow falls only at rare intervals, yet chilling winds are common in the winter. Much of the plateau from Mexico south into Guatemala is open farming land well suited to the raising of maize and wheat where water is sufficient. The shoulders of the mountains bear forests of pine and oak while the highest peaks are crowned with perpetual snow.
A description of the mountains, rivers, and lakes will help towards an understanding of the problems that are before us. The broad plateau, crossed by irregular ranges of mountains, that occupies the states of New Mexico and Arizona continues far south into Mexico. On the western rim the Sierra Madre lifts a great pine-covered barrier, beyond which the land drops off quickly into the hot fringe of coastal plain bordering the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. The highest mountains of the western Sierra Madre are El Nevado and Colima, the first a snowy peak 14,370 feet high and the second an active volcano 12,278 feet high. On the eastern rim of the central plateau the second Sierra Madre is less continuous but it culminates in the loftiest peak of all Mexico — the wonderful cone of Orizaba. This mountain rises from the tropical jungles well into the region of perpetual snow and attains an elevation of 18,314 feet above the sea. Its name in Aztecan is Citlaltepetl, which means Star Mountain. Two other famous peaks of Mexico are Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, both names being pure Aztecan. The first means Smoking Mountain and the second White Woman. These volcanic crests rise into the snowy zone from the table-land which is itself about 8,000 feet above the sea.
(a) Village Scene in Arid Mexico. Cactus and other thorny shrubs are ever present. The houses of the natives are of adobe with thatched roofs.
(b) In the Humid Lowlands. The view shows part of the plaza at Quirigua with one of the monuments almost concealed in vegetation of a few months’ growth.
Fig. 2. The Smoke reaches the Stars, a Mexican Picture of a Volcanic Eruption in the Codex Telleriano Remensis.
In southern Mexico the plateau area enclosed between the principal sierras narrows perceptibly, because the shore line of the Pacific and the mountain range that parallels it swing more and more towards the east. At the Isthmus of Tehuantepec a low valley separates the highland area of Mexico from that of Central America. This second table-land is not so wide as the one we have just considered and is more deeply dissected by rivers. The mountains of Guatemala rise to a considerable altitude, the highest being Tacaná with 13,976 feet elevation. Active volcanoes are numerous and earthquakes frequent and often disastrous. The Volcan de Agua and the Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Water and Volcano of Fire) look down upon Ciudad Vieja and Antigua Guatemala, the old Spanish capitals which each in turn destroyed. The cordillera still presents its most abrupt front to the Pacific and on the eastern side, in Guatemala and Honduras, there are high forest-bearing ridges between the river systems. The Cockscomb Mountains in British Honduras are a low outlying group. In southern Nicaragua the main chain is broken by a low broad valley that extends from ocean to ocean. In Costa Rica and Panama a single range stretches midway along the narrow strip of land, with peaks that rise above 11,000 feet.
The lowland strip on the Pacific side of our area is a narrow fringe. Like the central plateau it is for the most part arid, but irrigation makes it productive. The lowlands of the Atlantic side are generally wet and heavily forested. The greatest land mass of uniformly low elevation is the Peninsula of Yucatan. In eastern Honduras and Nicaragua there are extensive river valleys of low elevation.
The river systems of Mexico and Central America flow into the two bounding oceans or into lakes which have no outlets. Several closed basins occur on the Mexican table-land. The Rio Nazas and the Rio Nieves flow into salt marshes in the northern state of Coahuila. But the most important interior basin is the Valley of Mexico. In this mountain enclosed valley, whose general level is 7,500 feet above the sea, there are five lakes which in order from north to south are named Tzompanco, Xaltocan, Texcoco, Xochimilco, and Chalco. The last two contain fresh water, since they drain into Lake Texcoco, but the rest are more or less brackish. Lake Texcoco is by far the largest, although its area has been greatly reduced by natural and artificial causes since the coming of the Spaniards.
The largest river of Mexico is the Rio Lerma which takes the name Rio de Santiago during its deep and tortuous passage from Lake Chapala to the Pacific. Farther to the south is the Rio de las Balsas which likewise flows into the western ocean. The name means “River of the Rafts” and is given because of a peculiar floating apparatus made of gourds tied to a wooden framework that is used on this stream. Flowing into the Gulf of Mexico are several large streams, among which may be mentioned the Panuco, Papaloapan, Grijalva, and Usumacinta. The last is by far the greatest in volume of water, and with its maze of tributaries drains a large area of swamp and jungle in which are buried some of the most wonderful ruined cities of the New World.
In the northern part of Yucatan there are no rivers on the surface on account of the porous limestone. Instead there are great natural wells called cenotes where the roofs of subterranean rivers have fallen in. Many of the ancient cities were built near such natural wells.
Passing to the south the most important river of Guatemala is the Motagua, which has cut a fine valley through a region of lofty mountains. In Honduras there are several large rivers, including the Uloa, Patuca, and Segovia. The lake region of Nicaragua is drained by the San Juan River that flows into the Caribbean Sea. Nearly all the streams of Central America that flow into the Pacific are short and steep torrents. An important exception is the Lempa River that forms part of the interior boundary of Salvador.
Concerning lakes, mention has already been made of Chapala and Texcoco, the most important in Mexico. The former is about fifty miles in length. In the state of Michoacan there are a number of beautiful lakes intimately connected with the history and mythology of the Tarascan Indians. The most famous is called Patzcuaro. In southern Yucatan the shallow body of water known as Lake Peten also has a distinct historical interest. Several lakes in Guatemala are well known on account of the rare beauty of their situation. Lake Atitlan is surrounded by lofty mountains, and Lake Izabal, or Golfo Dulce, is famous for the luxuriance of the vegetation that screens its banks. Lakes Nicaragua and Managua are well known on account of their connection with the much-discussed canal projects. The Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua bears an active volcano.
In regard to the geology it is only necessary to point out a few of the more important characters. The highlands which bear so many active and quiescent volcanoes naturally show great masses of eruptive rocks, some due to recent action and others much more ancient. Porous tufa is a common material for sculptures in many parts of Mexico and Central America. In other places there are great beds of softer and finer grained material also of volcanic origin. In these places, such as Copan in western Honduras and Mitla in southern Mexico, building in stone received its greatest development. The soft greenish stone of Copan seems to be a solidified mud flow permeated with volcanic ash rather than a true lava flow of melted rock. Limestones are also common and important in the economic development. In some regions there are beds of a hard, blue limestone going back to the Carboniferous epoch. This stone makes an excellent cement after burning. The Peninsula of Yucatan is a great plain of limestone of much more recent formation. Like our own Florida it was once a coral reef which was lifted above the sea by some natural agency. This limestone gets older and more solid as we approach the base of the peninsula but at best is rather porous and coarse-grained.
Fig. 3. Yucatan Deer caught in a Snare. From the Mayan Codex, Tro-Cortesianus.
The fauna and flora present great variation. In the moist lowlands the monkeys play in the tree tops and the jaguar lies in wait for its prey. Alligators and crocodiles infest the rivers and swamps. Two small species of deer and the ocellated turkey are important items in the meat supply of Yucatan, that includes also the iguana, the peccary, and various large rodents. The tapir and manatee are the largest animals of the lowlands but neither seems to have been of great significance to the natives. Bats are frequently represented in the ancient art and a bat demon appears in several myths.
Fig. 4. The Moan Bird, or Yucatan Owl, personified as a Demi-god. Dresden Codex.
Upon the highlands of Mexico the Toltecan deer is still hunted, together with the wild turkey that is the parent of our domestic birds. The turkey was, in fact, domesticated by the Mexican tribes. It probably occurred southward over the Guatemalan highlands, but is now extinct in this latter region. In the southern part of Central America the place of the turkey as an item of diet is taken by the curassow, a yellow-crested bird with black plumage. The coppery-tailed trogon, the famous quetzal, was sacred in ancient times and is now the emblem of Guatemala. This beautiful bird occurs only in the cloud cap forest zone on the high mountains of southern Mexico and Guatemala. Blue macaws, parrots, paroquets, and humming birds contributed their gay plumage to adorn headdresses and feather-covered cloaks. These and many other birds doubtless flitted about in the aviary of Moctezuma. The black vulture, the king vulture, and the harpy eagle are other conspicuous birds often figured in the ancient art. The coyote, ocelot, and puma are the principal beasts of prey on the highlands.
Among the characteristic trees of the lowlands may be mentioned the palm, which occurs in great variety, the amate and ceiba, both of which attain to large size, as well as mahogany, Spanish cedar (which is not a cedar at all but a close relative of the mahogany), campeche, or logwood, rosewood, sapodilla, and other trees of commerce. Upon the higher mountain slopes are forests of long-leaf pine and of oak. In the desert stretches the cactus is often tree-like and there are many shrubs that in the brief spring become masses of highly-colored blossoms.
Some of the principal crops of Mexico and Central America have been introduced from the Old World, including coffee, sugar cane, and bananas. Other crops such as maize, beans, chili peppers, cocoa, etc., are indigenous. Among the native fruits may be mentioned the aguacate, or alligator pear, the mamey, the anona, or custard apple, the guanabina, jocote, and nance.
The great area with which we are concerned has been in touch with Europe since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Columbus, on his last voyage in 1502, landed on the northern coast of Honduras and rounded the stormy cape called Gracias à Dios. Later he skirted the shore of Costa Rica and Panama and entered the body of water which was named in his honor Bahia del Almirante — Bay of the Admiral. He brought back sensational news of the gold in possession of the natives, which they had told him came from a district called Veragua. After a few years of stormy warfare the Spaniards established themselves firmly in this golden land. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who emerged from the bickering mob as the strongest leader, was the first white man to cross the Isthmus. This he did in 1513, grandiloquently laying claim to the Pacific Ocean and all the shores that it touched in the name of Spain. The crown appointed the greedy and black-hearted Pedrarias Davila governor of Darien and in 1517 he succeeded in having Balboa beheaded on a flimsy charge. Colonization and exploration went forward rapidly. In 1519 the old city of Panama, now in ruins, was founded. The rich region around the Nicaraguan lakes was discovered by Gil Gonzalez Davila and the city of Granada was founded in 1524. The exploration from the southern base came in contact with that from the north in Salvador shortly after this event.
Fig. 5. Spanish Ship in the Aubin Codex.
(a) Site of Pueblo Viejo, the First Capital of Guatemala.
(b) A Spanish Church at the Village of Camotan on the Road to Copan.
Let us now direct our attention to the conquest of Mexico. Perhaps the Portuguese were the first to sight the mainland of Yucatan in 1493. There is little to prove this except one or two charts or maps made in the first decade of the sixteenth century that show the peninsula in its proper location. In 1511 or 1512 a ship from Darien was wrecked and some of the sailors were cast upon the coast of Yucatan. Most of them were killed and sacrificed, but two survived. One of these survivors was Geronimo de Aguilar, who later was rescued by Cortez and became his guide and interpreter.
The first accredited voyage of discovery to Mexico was one under the command of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, which sailed from Cuba in February, 1517. He coasted the northern and eastern shores of Yucatan. When he attempted to obtain water he was worsted in a serious battle with the Maya Indians. His expedition finally returned to Cuba in a sad plight. The next year Juan de Grijalva set out to continue the exploration of the new land with the stone-built cities. He landed at Cozumel Island and took possession. He explored the eastern coast of Yucatan as well as the northern and western ones, discovered the mouth of the large river that bears his name, and proceeded as far as the Island of Sacrifices in the harbor of Vera Cruz.
The next year Hernando Cortez was sent out by Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, to conquer the new land. He landed at Cozumel Island and rescued Geronimo de Aguilar. Then he followed the coast to the mouth of the Grijalva River where he disembarked and fought the important battle of Cintla, the first engagement in the New World in which cavalry was used. After a signal victory Cortez continued his way to Vera Cruz. Here delay and dissension seemed about to break the luck of the invaders.
Although the Mexicans were somewhat inclined to regard the Spaniards as supernatural visitants and to associate their coming with the fabled return of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, still Moctezuma refused to grant an interview to Cortez. The Totonacan city of Cempoalan opened its gates and became allies of the invaders. Finally, at the instigation of their stout-hearted captain, the Spaniards destroyed their ships on the shore in order to steel their resolution through the impossibility of retreat. Then the little band of 450 white men with their retinue of natives marched towards the highlands. The route led past Jalapa and over the mountains to the fortified city of Tlaxcala. This city, after a skirmish, likewise enlisted in the Spanish cause, a course that came easy because Tlaxcala was a traditional enemy of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Mexico City, and had withstood the attacks of the Aztecs for many years. From here Cortez passed to the sacred city of Cholula where, suspecting treachery, he caused many of the inhabitants to be massacred.
Fig. 6. Cortez arrives with Sword and Cross and Moctezuma brings him Gold. Codex Vaticanus 3738.
In the Spanish histories one hears much concerning the omens, the prophecies, and the vain appeals to the gods that became more and more frequent and frantic as the invaders approached the capital. Arriving at Ixtapalapan they entered upon the great causeway leading out to the Venice-like city in the lake. Accepting the inevitable, Moctezuma and his nobles met the Spaniards and conducted them to the Palace of Axayacatl, which was prepared for their habitation. This took place in November, 1519. The fears of Moctezuma were soon fulfilled, for he was taken prisoner and held as a hostage of safety in his own capital.
Fig. 7. Aztecan Canoe. Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
Meanwhile Velasquez, convinced of the unfaithfulness of Cortez, dispatched Narvaez to capture the rebellious agent. But Narvaez was himself captured and his soldiers went to augment the army of the victor.
Alvarado had been left in command of the garrison at Tenochtitlan during the absence of Cortez. The time approached for the great feast of Tezcatlipoca and the Spaniards, fearing the results of this appeal to the principal Aztecan god, resolved to be the first to strike. The multitude assembled in the temple enclosure was massacred and after this deed the soldiers fought their way back to the stronghold in which they were quartered. The Aztecs were thoroughly aroused by this unwarranted cruelty as well as by the cupidity of the Spaniards. Cortez hastened back to take personal charge; but in spite of victories in the storming of the pyramids and in other hand-to-hand contests, the invaders were so weakened that their condition was truly alarming. Moctezuma died in captivity and the last restraint of the natives was removed.
The night of June 30, 1520, is famous as La Noche Triste — The Sad Night — for on this night the Spaniards attempted to steal out of the city that had become untenable. The natives were warned by a woman’s shriek and a desperate encounter took place on the narrow causeway loading to Tlacopan. The bridges were torn down and the Spanish soldiers in armor were hemmed in between the deep canals. At last, however, the firm land was reached. Here, instead of following up the victory, the natives permitted the Spaniards to re-form their ranks. A few days later Cortez was able to restore something of his lost prestige by the decisive victory at Otumba, after which he continued his retreat to the friendly Tlaxcala.
A year was spent in recuperation, in building boats for an attack from the lake, and in putting down the Aztecan outposts. In the meantime the natives were suffering from a dreadful visitation of smallpox, introduced by the Spaniards, and Cuitlahuac, the successor of Moctezuma, had died of this disease after a rule of eighty days. Finally Tenochtitlan was besieged again. The buildings were leveled to the ground as the Spaniards advanced.
(a) View of the Island Town of Flores in Lake Peten where the Last Capital of the Itzas was located.
(b) The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza into which Human Beings were thrown as Sacrifices, along with Objects of Jade and Gold.
The brave defense of Cuauhtemoc availed for naught against cannon and steel armor. On the 13th of August, 1521, the conquest of Tenochtitlan was achieved and the spirit of a warlike people forever broken.
The Valley of Mexico having been taken, numerous expeditions were sent out to subdue the more distant provinces and to establish colonies. Alvarado invaded the south and by 1524 he had captured Utatlan and other native strongholds on the highlands of Guatemala and had invaded Salvador. Cortez himself undertook a wonderful march from Vera Cruz to the Gulf of Honduras to punish an unruly subordinate. His course lay through the swamps and jungles of the Usumacinta Basin, thence across the savannahs of southern Yucatan to Lake Peten, and, finally, over the mountains to Lake Izabal and the Motagua River. Even today much of his route would be called impassable for an army. Puerto Cortez, on the northern coast of Honduras, was founded at the conclusion of this expedition. The exploitation of Yucatan and Tabasco was granted to Francisco Montejo, who began the conquest of this low-lying territory in 1527. The first campaigns were disastrous and heartbreaking. Several short-lived Salamancas were founded, one of them at Chichen Itza. But the odds were too great and by 1535 all the Spaniards had been killed or expelled. The son of Montejo renewed the struggle. In 1540 Campeche was founded and early in 1542 the city of Mérida was established upon the site of an earlier Mayan town.
Progress was also rapid in the north. Nuño de Guzman departed in 1529 on a mission to conquer Michoacan and the great northern province known as New Galicia. His rule was marred by many acts of cruelty. In 1538 Coronado, the successor of Guzman, led his army northward to the land of the Pueblo Indians and then out into the Great Plains. Before the first English settlement was made in North America the power of Spain was firmly established, not only throughout Central America and Mexico, but also in the southwestern part of the United States.
The spiritual conquest was no less remarkable than the territorial. The priests accompanied and even preceded the armies with the doctrine of the cross. The rough and ready characters that enliven the wonderful drama of this period had the vices of greed and cruelty, but nearly all were imbued with a pride of religion, if not with the true flame. The firmness and bigotry on the one hand and the open sympathy on the other with which the Catholic fathers met the practical problems before them resulted in vast achievements. Either by accident or design certain patron saints and efficacious shrines of special interest to the natives were not long in becoming known. The Virgin of Guadeloupe and the Black Christ of Esquipulas brought many converts to the foreign faith. Church building was carried on apace. The various religious orders became rich and powerful and exerted a strong influence upon civil administration.
The later history of this great region can be passed over briefly. Cortez was the first governor general of Mexico but he was soon shorn of his power as dictator at large. The First Audiencia was appointed in 1528 and is noteworthy simply by reason of its misrule. The Second Audiencia, beginning two years later, put through some excellent reform laws. The first Viceroy, the great and good Mendoza, arrived in 1535 and for fifteen years the land prospered under his rule, which was benign without being weak. He was succeeded by Luis de Velasco, who emancipated many of the enslaved Indians. The long line of viceroys continued until 1821, when Spain was forced to relinquish her provinces in America. Among the greatest of the viceroys was Bucareli, the forty-sixth in line, who ruled Mexico from 1771-1779 while the United States of America were just beginning to feel the pulse of life.
During the viceregal period in Mexico the region to the south was ruled by the captain general of Guatemala. The dominion was subdivided into five departments corresponding to the modern republics of Guatemala (which then included the Mexican state of Chiapas), Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Panama was ruled from the South American province of New Granada.
Weakened by Napoleonic wars and rent by internal dissensions, Spain found herself in the first two decades of the nineteenth century unable to maintain her waning power in America. Bolivar and his brother patriots raised the standard of revolt in South America in 1810 and in the same year war for independence broke out in the north. Hidalgo, the parish priest of Dolores, rang the liberty bell of Mexican freedom on the 16th of September, 1810. This beloved patriot was captured the year following, and shot, but the revolution, once begun, was continued under Morelos and other leaders. After 1815 the cause seemed hopeless, but in 1820 there was a new uprising and General Iturbide, who was sent to put it down, turned his army against the government and established himself as emperor. Central America was also included in this Mexican empire. The rule of Iturbide soon became unpopular and in 1823 he abdicated his throne. The Mexican republic that was then instituted continued until the French intervention in 1861. During this time the most noteworthy events were the war with the United States in 1846-47 and the passing of the reform laws under Benito Juarez that freed Mexico from the oppressions of the church.