TEPOZTLAN is a green shelf set in a mountain side. Frank Tannenbaum has characterized all Mexico as one great mountain, rising from the sea to a final cone of 18,000 feet, with the best conditions for man in valleys and pockets a little less than half-way up. Once Mexico, when it first became independent, was larger than any country in the world save Russia, China, and Brazil. North of its present boundaries it extended from the Red River in Arkansas to the Pacific and up to the Canadian border. But some gentlemen in Texas, and other ladies and gentlemen in covered wagons, decided that the Rio Grande would make an admirable southern line for the United States. Indians were relatively scarce in that great district and Spaniards even scarcer, so they had it their own way.
The area of Mexico today is still a sizable parcel of land. The total runs to 767,000 square miles. On it one can place comfortably Germany, France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, and, for good measure, Holland and Belgium. It is shaped-save for the thumb of Yucatan and the tail of Lower California-like a cornucopia, and the figure is not without significance. I select at random four quotations from as many authorities, beginning with Cecil Rhodes. Later we shall seek the evidence for their enthusiasm
Mexico is the treasure house of the world.
The horn of plenty is 1,900 miles long, 1,833 miles broad at the rim along the Rio Grande, tapering to 134 miles at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. A wedge-shaped plateau, with plenty of mountains on its surface, starts south of Mexico City and runs north to the border, decreasing in average height and increasing in width as it runs. It accounts for one third the area, and most of the population-in ancient times as well as today. The majority of Mexicans live well inside their country around 6,000 feet above the sea. Born in this air, they become used to it. But let the newly arrived traveller try to run up a flight of steps, as I did the first night in a Mexico City hotel. The results are as painful as they are astonishing. The whole character of the blood stream must change before the oxygen shortage can be equalized.
Along the coast of either sea lies a low plain, some forty to seventy miles broad, before the national spinal column begins to rise. These regions are called the tierra caliente, hot country; and steamy they are, jungle bound, and often deplorably unhealthy. Yucatan is low and hot, but like Florida, with winds from both sides of the peninsula, it is not miasmal. In the tumbled valleys of the plateau, from 3,000 to 6,500 feet, lies the tierra templada, temperate land; and higher on the great mountain's sides, the tierra fria, cold country. Indian villages will be found almost up to the tree line at 10,000 feet or more.
From November to May the cloudless sun is shiningnearly every day over all these three kingdoms. This is the dry season, and a paradise for sun bathers. From May through October the rains come down, often in torrential bursts, but normally only in the afternoon. In Mexico City it is said that one can set one's watch by the afternoon shower. The mornings are usually sunny, and the whole world is bright and green. If you desire to study temperatures, take a thermometer with a wide scale. Lumholtz, on Christmas Day in the Sierra Madre, noted 150° Fahrenheit in the sun at noon, and 23° Fahrenheit at night l
There are four peaks 15,000 feet or more in height. Orizaba rises to 18,225. On a clear day its snowy cone can be seen as one sails in to Vera Cruz, and for many years it was thought the highest mountain in NorthAmerica. Popocatepetl comes next, at 17,794 feet. Onesees it from Puebla, Cuernavaca, and all parts of the valley of Mexico, as well as from Tepoztlan. It is known affectionately as Popo. Sometimes smoke climbs lazily from its crater-and sometimes it belches. There have been ten major eruptions since 1519. The Aztecs held it to be "the abode of departed spirits of wicked rulers, whose fiery agonies in their prison house caused the fearful bellowings and convulsions." One of Cortez' captains climbed it at the time of the first invasion, though the natives declared that no man could climb the Mountain who Smokes and live. It was climbed again in 1521 and sulphur collected for gunpowder. The next ascent was three full centuries later, in 1827, when Mexico had shaken off the hand of Spain. These figures are not without significance. The Spaniards who followed Cortez and his immortal 600 were of a less hardy breed.
Beside the graceful cone of Popo is Ixtaccihuatl, the White Woman. She lies on her back, with head, breast and feet silhouetted against the violet blue sky. To climb her cliffs and glaciers, though they are slightly lower, is a harder task than plodding up the snowy planes of Popo. The Nevado de Toluca touches 15,000 feet. Just up from sea level, I struggled to within 300 feet of the top a spiny little pinnacle-before I gave up from oxygen shortage. Its great crater, with frozen lakes and multicoloured walls, is one of the most striking and awesome spots imaginable.
Mexico is a violent country, more remote and strange than any I have ever visited. Violent are the contrasts, the colour, violent the landscape and storms, and violent the pressure on the membrane of the ear as one ascends or drops 2,000 feet an hour-a normal travelling ratio. Only the people and the long-suffering burros are gentle.
I say people advisedly. Politicians lead a hazardous existence, but they are a race apart, as we shall see. At first glance, the geography all but blots out the people with its raw physical impact. But in due time these sombreroed men, these blue-shawled women, these grave, quiet children advance by resistless pressure into the foreground, more to be wondered at than Popocatepetl itself.
Not only were the Spaniards loath to climb mountains, but they had the woods hewn down. In Aztec days, great forests of larch, oak, cypress and fir covered large areas of the plateau. This meant more water and less heat, dust and barrenness than now obtain. The valley of Mexico City was called Anahuac, "near the water," and two great lakes filled it. The capital of ,the Aztecs was built like Venice. Now there is but one shallow and receding sea.
Over this plateau land, all over Yucatan and Guatemala, at many points in the tierra caliente, we find today not only a wealth of minerals and natural resources, but an incredible wealth of ruins predating the Spanish conquest, some of an antiquity almost Egyptian. In Yucatan alone, more than 100 city sites have been discovered, with perhaps an equal number still hidden in the jungle. In all Mexico, some 4,000 archeological ruins are known, a greater number than in the whole Greek world.
I stood on the top of a mountain in Guerrero, while Mr. William Spratling pointed out to me a remote castellated ridge, on the crest of which he had located seven pyramids, unknown to archeologists. Any traveller exploring the back country has a reasonably good chance of stumbling on a lost city or a buried pyramid. One early gets the habit of watching for un-Baedekered ruins from train, car or saddle, and perhaps one tenth of the likely mounds are authentic. Argument is frequent and heated as to whether the geometric formation on yonder mountain crest was made by God or man.
Down this wedge-shaped plateau, under the cypress and the larch trees, in the shadow of towering volcanoes, once came men, uncounted thousands of years ago. Some say they came across the islands of the Bering Sea from Asia. Some say they came over the Pacific in canoes from Polynesia. Some say they came from Europe via Greenland. Others are confident that they were the product of evolution in the Western Hemisphere, and point to human bones mingled with those of Paleozoic animals which flourished perhaps 500,000 years ago. The former theory has the widest acceptance, but I incline to the more catholic view. Why not admit homo sapiens into the Americas from all of these routes?
If we adopt this theory, we conjecture a very primitive indigenous race living in both North and South America. (Ancient bones have been found in the upper reaches of the Amazon.) Invaders come in Stone Age times from both Asia and Europe (via Greenland) and mingle with them-probably a series of invasions. From time to time sea-going canoes are wrecked, or land, on the western coast of South America, the point of departure being some island in the South Seas. From all these sources, acting over thousands upon thousands of years, was filled the biological pot which Leif Ericsson and, later, Columbus were to find. That many Indians have an Asiatic look about them is not to be gainsaid.
I am inclined to cast my vote, furthermore, with those who, like Dr. Franz Blom, hold that American culture in its more advanced phases was a purely American phenomenon. It took nothing from Egypt, nothing from China, nothing from Angkor. Granting the invasions, they came before Old World civilizations had developed, or from races out of contact with them. Peru, Mexico and the rest hammered out their own destiny from their own environment. Diffusion took place within the Americas, but hardly from the old world, unless we go back to stone hatchets and wooden dugouts. Any bright morning, however, this patriotic theory may be overturned. A stone Asiatic elephant that is obviously and conclusively not a macaw or tapir may be found on a newly excavated temple, thus proving beyond peradventure cultural diffusion from Asia. Until that definitive discovery is made, I shall continue to ascribe Mexico to Mexicans and not to Egyptians, Chinamen or Polynesians.
Men came into the valleys of Mexico, and there for thousands of years they lived, as wild tribes live, a hunting, nomadic, communistic life. They moved "following their watering places, where salt could be found." Then some native Burbank discovered maize. A "civilization," meaning, as the word connotes, a condition of affairs where men live in cities, is impossible without a stable food supply which can be counted on year after year. Thus civilization is based not only on men but on plants, and to a lesser degree on domesticated animals. If we knew, says J. B. S. Haldane, the history of wheat, or of the dog, we should know a great deal more about the origin of civilization than we do now. Generally speaking, three factors are necessary to the rise of city dwelling: (1) a cultivated plant giving high yields of storable food, (2) a plant or animal source of fibres for cloth making, (3) an animal to carry loads and to pull carts and ploughs.
With the discovery or introduction of maize in Mexico, the most essential factor in the economic groundwork of civilization was established. The fibres of the maguey on the plateau and the henequen cactus in Yucatan provided the second requisite. The third was never developed. The Peruvians had llamas, but the Mexicans had only their own sturdy backs. In a mountainous country, an animal to draw the plough is not so essential as on a level plain beside a river, but it may be even more essential to carry burdens over rocky roads. Certainly the Mexicans were seriously hampered by the lack of a beast of burden. Even now, on market day, the motor roads near Mexico City have twice as many loaded pedestrians as pack animals, and twice as many pack animals as vehicles. The man often carries a hundred pounds. The woman, in addition to her inevitable baby, may be toting a very substantial load. It is not uncommon, even in Mexico City, to see an Indian trotting along under an enormous trunk.
Over the wedge-shaped plateau, particularly in the southern tip, cornfields, milpas, began to sprout. The ripe ears were gathered and stored in some such vase-like corncribs as we still see in Tepoztlan. Men no longer needed to give all their time to the search for food. Specialization of tasks became possible; leisure, art, thought became possible. Scholars discuss three major and a number of minor branches of this maize-engendered culture in Mexico. There is a good deal of acrimonious dispute as to which came first, the influence of each on the others, and whether the trinity was really one or really two. In brief, the story of Mexican civilization, like the story of the original population of the Americas, is still in the stage of conflicting theories, and will require many patient years of searching to unravel. Happily a number of able scientists are on the ground, and perhaps in the next decade they will come by agreement, armistice, or war of elimination to an historical chronology with the main interrelations made plain.
The three chief branches now discussed are the cultures of the Mayas, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs. The first may have been the most ancient of the three, and it may not. Maudslay says yes; other scholars say no. Certainly some highly developed people was on the Mexican plateau more than 2,000 years ago. It gave way to invaders from the north, commonly referred to as Toltecs, who took over the culture they found and came in contact with the Mayas, now indisputably to the south in Guatemala. In due time down from the north swept invaders again; and these hill billies, we know, were the Aztecs, the ultimate exponents of maize civilization before the arrival of Cortez.
Certain facts seem reasonably well established; certain dates have even been worked out. On August 6, in the year 613 B.C., the time record of the Mayas was begun. This is their year zero; it is exact and definite, founded, as Spinden has shown, on calculations from lunar and solar eclipses. In order to have started accurate astronomical time on that date, he and Blom believe and we may take their word for it-that the Mayas began studying the stars no later than 2000 B.C. It would take as long as that to work out a calendar. Probably this research went on in Guatemala, but the late Dr. A. P. Maudslay thought that it was on the plateau, and that the Mayas built the great pyramids at Teotihuacan. Manuel Gamio, the archeologist most familiar with the scene, believes that 500 B.C. was the high point of the culture which built these pyramids, but others put it 1,000 years later. These are the two pyramids which loom like hills as one comes up from Vera Cruz. At first it is incredible that such masses are man-made.
About the time that Christ was born, the first Maya empire was founded in Guatemala, and all scholars agree that its great period was between 450 and 600 A.D. The architecture, sculpture and painting of the Central American ruins are the most sophisticated, balanced and beautiful yet found. The dates provide food for a philosophical aside. While America was at its zenith, Europe was floundering in the darkest era of the Dark Ages. Rome had been sacked and Charlemagne was yet to come. Angkor in Indo-China was yet to come. Is it unreasonable to suppose that, during these 150 years, the Mayas were the most civilized people on the planet?
Early in the seventh century the Mayas migrated from Guatemala to Yucatan, to build the cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal and scores of others. The migration was due to war or to maize, perhaps to both. The agricultural methods used then (and now) depleted the soil with considerable rapidity. When the corn area around a given city was exhausted, there was nothing for it but to emigrate and build a new city upon virgin land. Stone was more readily worked than seed and soil. We know, positively that Chichen was twice deserted and twice reoccupied, with the jungle growing lush and wild for some 200 years between occupations.
Around 800 A.D. the Toltecs were on the Mexican plateau, with a capital at Tula provided you believe in the Toltecs at all. Certainly some advanced people, probably from the north, was living in this region. In ío64 Tula was destroyed. In 1191 the Mayas in Yucatan, now going into a second decline, were conquered, according to Spinden, by a great prince from the plateau named Quetzalcoatl. We shall hear more of him-in fact we shall hear of him officiating as Santa Claus at Mexico City's official Christmas party in 1930.
In 1091 the year zero in the Aztec calendar was established, and in 1325 Tenochtitlan, or Mexico City, was founded. The latter is another date on which all scholars agree. It defines the time of the Aztec descent from the north. The story that the city was built where an eagle was sighted with a snake in its grip-the predicted ghostly combination-is not so well authenticated, but it is a romantic legend. From then on to the Spanish conquest, a period of some 200 years, we have a reasonably clear historical record, with the names and dates of the Aztec princes, ending with Montezuma and Cuauhtemoc.
The unravelling of the archeological net will be an absorbing matter, which all Americans should follow with patriotic pride. As I read the evidence already gathered, however, it becomes reasonably apparent that from a large and general point of view there was only one basic culture in Mexico and Central America, in which the Mayas, the Toltecs, the Aztecs, the Tarascans, the Zapotecs and various other nations shared, and took their turn at dominance. Through all these peoples ran a fundamental pattern, with maize, maguey, sun and rain worship at the bottom of it. Today as one goes about Mexico this basic unity-these milpas, this philosophy of life-still persists, despite a thousand colourful differences from village to village, and from state to state.
We might make a rough comparison with the world of the Greeks. The Mayas we might brand as the Athenians, the Aztecs as Macedonians, the Toltecs as Spartans. The point is that they were included in a culture which was greater than any of its parts. Unlike the Greeks, however, the early Americans had no common language. At the time of the conquest there were more than 150 dialects in Mexico. Today fifty-two Indian idioms are still spoken. The Mayas achieved the peak of the whole culture, higher even than that of Peru, in Central America in 600 A.D., 900 years before the Spaniards came. The Aztecs did not appear upon the scene until after 1000 AD; they were the dominant people when Cortez landed. These seem to be the outstanding historical facts.
Besides the little pyramid at Tepoztlan, I have seen the ruins at Uxmal and Chichen Itza in Yucatan, at Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, at Teotihuacan, Tenayuca, Xochicalco, Cuernavaca, all near Mexico City, and at Mitla and Monte Alban in Oaxaca. Teotihuacan is easily the most stupendous, but Chichen Itza most stirs the intellect and the emotions. The builders of Teotihuacan would have stared dumbly, vastly impressed, at the Empire State building in New York. The architects of Chichen Itza would have been moved, one suspects, to questions and a gathering criticism. "What," they might ask, "is the function of this structure? And why is it spaced so that it cannot be seen?" The voluble answers would somehow fail to convince. Their own city lies in silent ruins, with no one to explain it; every year many architects of the present go there to study its proportions and its incomparable decoration.
We take a little Yucatecan train on a narrow-gauge track, with a wood-burning engine sporting a Civil War smokestack like an inverted umbrella. Four hours and 140 kilometers from Merida, the city of windmills, east across the low, thorny, flower-draped jungle, brings us to Dzitas, a charming Maya village of oval huts, whitewashed and palm-roofed, set in immaculately clean compounds. From here a Ford truck bumps us twelve miles deeper into the bush, until suddenly the cream- and orange-streaked pyramid of Chichen looms over the trees.
We enter a great cleared meadow. Immediately in front is the seven-terraced pyramid, with a flight of ninety-one steps running up each of the four sides to the square sculptured temple which crowns the top. The Greeks, you remember, bulged their columns at the centre to obviate the optical illusion of concavity which straight lines give. The Mayas, with the same end in view, made the width of the stairway greater at the top than at the bottom by some two feet, thus giving the eye the illusion of parallel lines from base to temple. Four flights of ninety-one steps, furthermore, total 364, which with the platform at the top give 365, to fit the calendar year. The orientation is to the points of the compass.
To our left is the ball court. The Mayas played a game like basketball in a walled enclosure some 300 feet long. Instead of a horizontal basket, they used a vertical one, to receive the huge rubber ball, struck with the hip. One massive carved stone ring is still in place, the hole nearly two feet across. On the walls at either end are little pavilions, one a judges' stand, the other presumably for the more exalted of the fans. The emperor himself watched the games from a special temple, placed with just the right asymmetry toward the nearer corner, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. A frieze of marching tigers in stone bas-relief surmounts the top. The emperor's seat is between two huge dragons' heads (the plumed serpent again), and in the vaulted back are carved medallions in ruddy brown.
Between pyramid and ball court, an opening through the jungle leads to the Sacred Well. Once it was a paved road, with little temples on either side. A third of a mile brings one to the great round cenote, and the seventy foot drop down perpendicular fern-draped walls to the deep green water. Here a virgin launched herself into the air when a serious drought threatened, a living sacrifice to the god of rain. Here the pious threw in their gold and jewels. In recent years divers in helmets have descended and reclaimed some of the treasure. (But sportsmen are forbidden to dive for pleasure since Richard Halliburton profaned the spot before the watchful lens of his photographer.)
A little off the Sacred Way is the Temple of the Warriors, white and shining in its restoration by the Carnegie scientists, and the Hall of the Thousand Columns. The temple walls are richly carved, and through an opening near the top one may descend into a locked vault filled with paintings in relief and fresco. Mutilated as they are, they give a hint of the glorious colour which once covered all the temples of Chichen. The Thousand Columns reduce to not quite 300 according to my count, but it is supposed that they extended around a vast quadrangle. The varieties of column-round, square, carved, plastered, painted-show where successive generations rebuilt and improved. They give us a key to the abandonments and reoccupations of the site.
On our right-we have returned to the entrance of the broad meadow-is the low white house of the Mexican Government excavation station, and the white oval huts of a modern Maya village. Here nobody speaks English and only one native, Spanish. The Carnegie Foundation has its quarters down a jungle road near the earliest ruins-"old Chichen," as distinguished from the innovations of the year 1000.
Two sides of the main pyramid have been reclaimed, together with the temple at the top. The other two sides, both terraces and steps, are a rocky slide. We start up the ninety-one steps on the west. The going is goatlike but negotiable. Reaching the summit we turn around, and all sense of negotiability vanishes. We have come up at an angle of sixty degrees. The merest stumble in descending would plunge the climber to the plain below. Some visitors go down backwards, some zigzag gingerly to right and to left. Only the Indians walk straight down, even as their forebears, in rich robes and tall feather headdresses, descended in splendid procession. The steps at Uxmal are even dizzier. A chain has been laid along them, and once at the top, I should have hesitated a long time before descending without its aid. Obviously these pyramids were built by mountain people. No indigenous plainsman would rear such soaring angles. Yet here on this flat peninsula of Yucatan are these severely mathematical tests for rock-climbers. Failing all other evidence, one would naturally conclude that their builders had come down from the cliffs and precipices of Mexico or Guatemala.
From the top of the pyramid the grey-green jungle stretches outward like a sea. On the horizon to the west, one tiny notch is identified as probably the pyramid of another buried city. In the foreground, south and east, are other buildings-the domed House of the Astronomers, with its tortuous spiral stairs; the High Priest's House, the Nunnery, the Temple of the Dark Writing as if they were not all temples of dark writing, their checkered glyphs undeciphered. From the House of the High Priest to the Nuns' House runs a stone passageway underground. This is not so indelicate as it sounds, even when you add that the tunnel was lined with skeletons. Probably no nuns lived there. Poets of an indifferent genius have given most of these buildings their names, and I, for one, resent them. They should be named in the Maya tradition, not in the Victorian.
Old Chichen, beyond the sometime henequen hacienda where the Carnegie diggers make their headquarters, is more massive, more ruined, and somewhat more phallic than the later buildings. The whole area of the ruins at Chichen comprehends several square miles. Dozens of jungle-covered mounds conceal temples as yet unexcavated. And these are only the public buildings, for the dwelling houses of common folk have disappeared. Perhaps 100,000 people once called this city home.
I find it difficult to resurrect the colour and splendour of Chichen in its prime. The imagination balks or sinks into a muzzy sentimentality, spurious and stale. What registers most freshly is the picture suggested by the modern Indian excavators, wielding their bush-knives and setting stones in the restoration of the main pyramid. The brown skins, the white aprons, the bare feet, the primitive engineering, the manual precision-in a flash I see other Indians, similarly dressed, similarly deft, working here 1,200 years ago. The pomp and panoply fade before the incredible labour of clearing this writhing jungle, planting corn for untold thousands, and step by step, stone by stone, with lever, roller and chisel, quarrying the embedded limestone, carving whole acres of its surface, rearing these white terraces and towers to a matchless symmetry and grace.
The builders of Chichen come into focus, brown men in apron skirts, directed by master craftsmen with lined, wise faces. The rulers in their rainbow carnivals I cannot see.