Pre-Columbian

ancient The photo above is of a contemporary figurine of a Pre-Columbian idol on display in Quito’s Museo Mindalae. Although I doubt there was much trade between the ancient peoples of Ecuador and the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs of Mexico, there are clearly similarities in their religious iconography.

Before I began my travels to Latin America in 1975, I was puzzled by the images I saw of deities and demons from the more civilized portions of Meso-America. There were many similarities. But once one crossed the Rio Grande and visited where the Anasazi lived, the imagery is altogether different. And when I traveled in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, I saw precious little suggesting an advanced ancient civilization (though, in all honesty, I never visited the Northwest of Argentina, which was part of the Inca empire).

Now look at the depiction of one of the Mayan Priest Kings of Yucatán from the Mérida Museum of Anthropology:

Note the elaborate headdress and the warlike demeanor. Do not expect mercy from either of these rigidly powerful figures. I remember a conversation that took place at a symposium at UCLA decades ago between two archeologists, Michael Coe and Nigel Davies, about whether they would prefer to be in captivity to the Mayans or the Aztecs. Both agreed that, although the Aztecs were an empire and the Mayans were a group of city states, they both feared being prisoners of the Maya.

Why? Take a look at this fresco from the ruins at Bonampak in Chiapas:

Here you see the victorious Maya of Bonampak with their prisoners captured in a war with another city state. The scene is described in the Sixth Edition of Robert J. Sharer’s The Ancient Maya:

The aftermath is presented on the north wall. Here the full-frontal figure holding his jaguar-pelted spear, again probably Chan Muwan, accompanied by his warrior allies and entourage, along with two women at the far right, stands on the summit of a platform to preside over the captives taken in the battle. The chief captive sits at Chan Muwan’s feet, while the rest of the unfortunate prisoners are displayed on the six steps of the platform, where they are tortured and bled from their fingernails, held and guarded by more victorious warriors. These are the captives that will be sacrificed; one sprawled figure may already be dead, and the severed head of another has already been placed on the steps.

What all these Meso-American peoples had in common was highly organized and ritualistic warfare. Reading the history of many of these city states based on commemorative stelae, paintings, and other media, one clearly gets the feeling that life for the common people was anything but fun.

Different

Columbus Discovered a Whole New World

As we approach Columbus Day (October 12), it is useful to note that there few monuments to him in most of the New World. Just as there are few monuments to Hernan Cortés or Francisco Pizarro. It would be sort of like Jews creating monuments to Heinrich Himmler or Adolph Eichmann. Since most Gringos are of European ancestry, we have a hard time seeing the world from the eyes of the Caribs who first saw Columbus on San Salvador on October 12, 1492. Oh, by the way, there are no more Caribs. They all died off from the diseases the conquerors brought with them or the subsequent enslavement by their new masters.

The above image from Quito’s Mindalae Museum has a distinctively non European air about it. Pre-Columbian art, in general, looks odd to Gringos, unless they have developed the fine art of seeing the world through the eyes of other peoples. This is something even our President hasn’t done, inasmuch as he sees Mexican and Central American refugees as rapists. (Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!)

Nowhere is the difference between our culture and theirs more prominent than on the subject of religion. Below, for instance, is an image of the Maya maize god, Hun Hunahpu:

The Maya Maize God

The gods of the Maya pantheon at times appear to partake of the characteristics of lizards, alligators, monkeys, and other creatures—quite different from the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic Deity.

Different as they were from us, the Maya developed a calendar that, even after over a thousand years, is more accurate than our own. They had writing, which, though resembling monsters more than characters in the Greek and Roman alphabets, still enabled them to write their history.

Mayan Glyphs

Even though the cultures of the Old World have proven so dominant, we are only now discovering that the Maya had their own strengths. Although the Aztecs and Inca are no longer active cultures, there are still six million Maya speaking some thirty dialects of the Mayan tongue. The old Mayan glyphs may no longer be in use, but there is still an active Maya culture—actually, a number of them.

 

The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.