CHAPTER III
MAIZE CIVILIZATION


ON the slender economic foundation of maize and the cactus plant, the early Mexicans and their neighbours reared the extraordinary superstructure of their engineering, their astronomy, their religions and their architecture. No other race that I can call to mind allowed so wide a disparity between the simple bread with which they fed their bodies and the arts by which they nourished their souls. Perhaps there is some inherent inverse ratio in human psychology. Even today, Mexican Indians have only a rudimentary development of the so-called instinct of acquisition, and a very sophisticated development of artistic appreciation as reflected in their craftsmanship. "Que bonito," "how beautiful," is the sunset, the cathedral tower, the pot of flowers, the lacquer gourd. It is a word on everybody's tongue. In ancient times, according to Mary Austin, when a man discovered a deposit of gold or topaz he invited the neighbours to come and help themselves. The same stream flows clear in the "damned wantlessness" of the Indian, the despair of high-pressure salesmanship.

The maize culture on which this civilization grew included not only the tribes of Mexico, Guatemala and Yucatan, but the Cocles in Panama, the Manabis and Chitchas of Ecuador and Colombia, the pre-Incas and Incas of Peru. The span of time comprehended was close to 5,000 years. All these peoples had certain common traits. They were primarily agricultural, growing, besides maize, beans, squashes, melons, nuts, cacao and many fruits. Although they were smaller men than ourselves, all were remarkable for their work in stone. In Peru are found the largest cut stones ever hewn by human beings, up to 200 tons in size.

All were great engineers, building roads, bridges, aqueducts, irrigation works, as well as huge pyramids, temples and forts. Many of the latter were as sturdy and well designed as European fortresses at the time of the conquest. All used bows, blowguns, darts, swords and the throwing stick. All were good astronomers and mathematicians. All employed gold, silver and copper and worked them exquisitely. From South America come gold beads fabricated so finely that only a microscope can discover the design. (Perhaps the ancients used microscopes of crystal.) All were skilled woodworkers. In Chichen one sees great lintels of zapote wood, beautifully carved, and solid after i,ooo years of rain and ruin.

All wove textiles of fibre or wool or hair, some of them so fine that no modern machine loom can duplicate them. All were good herbalists, learned in primitive medicine. I asked the guide at Chichen if there were snakes about.

"Plenty," he replied, "many of them poisonous."
"What do you do when you are bitten?"
"The Carnegie people have serum. But the Indians have their own antidote which they make from an herb in the forest."
"And they never die?"
"No, they never die. The art has come down to them through the centuries."

All these civilizations domesticated fowls-turkeys, ducks, geese and pheasants. All show marked similarity in their household utensils. All were sun worshippers, and all show the influence of the plumed serpent. All maintained an elaborate priesthood, and many practised the rite of human sacrifice, though in widely varying degree. Finally, none valued precious metals as we do. Silver, gold and platinum were esteemed mainly for their ductility and ornamental qualities. The greed of the Spaniards was incomprehensible to the people of these civilizations.

Let us look a little more specifically at the achievements of the Mexican branch. A classified list is perhaps in order.

ENGINEERING

Mexico City was supplied by a double aqueduct of stone, the massive structure running to Chapultepec. Another aqueduct at Texcoco, a sister city, connected three reservoirs on two levels and was several miles long. Extensive irrigation works were found at Cholula (where a Spanish church now rests on top of an Aztec pyramid), and of this city Cortez reported that "not a palm's breadth was left uncultivated." Irrigation works were extensive throughout the plateau. Three magnificent stone causeways, linked by bridges and drawbridges, led to Mexico City over its encircling lakes. Each was broad enough for twelve of Cortez' horses to march abreast. Mining was an advanced art among the Aztecs and they were capable of driving tunnels through mountain rock. The durability of the cement made by the Mayas has never been equalled.

The city fathers of Tlaxcala-an independent nation northeast of Popocatepetl-decided to add to the town's defences by closing a gap in the surrounding mountains. They proceeded to build a wall of uncemented stone twenty feet thick, nine feet high and six miles long. A certain calendar stone weighing fifty tons was dragged from quarry to destination, a distance of twenty miles, over hills and across swamps. It broke through a bridge, was rescued, and continued on its way. With no tractors, donkey engines, oxen or horses, this is no inconsiderable feat of transport. Rollers and ropes were the only mechanisms involved. For purposes of flood control, a dam ten miles long, perforated with sluice gates, was built by Montezuma I.

From Chichen a paved road starts at the Astronomers' House and runs to the sea, too miles and more. In fact Yucatan was netted with roads, of "larger and better construction than the famous Roman roads of Europe." The Aztec hegemony maintained an elaborate system of rapid communication. Relays of messengers ran at top speed from posthouse to posthouse. The colour of their dress indicated to the public the kind of news they carried. When Cortez landed they had the news in Mexico City--250 miles away-within a few hours.

I have said that this far-flung maize culture was peculiarly distinguished by its stonework. Cut stones in vast numbers and often of huge size are found from the Rio Grande to Chile. Some of them are of the very hardest and least malleable varieties of rock. Yet on millions of them are inscribed deep and often exquisite carvings. How were the stones cut and the bas-reliefs made? Copper is too soft to use as a tool; gold and silver are too soft. No iron implements have been found. It has been concluded accordingly that the work was done with stone tools, many samples of which remain. But Dr. Verrill tells us a puzzling story in this connection. Like any other sensible man, he wondered how it was possible to cut the blocks, in the quantities found, with stone implements only. He decided to test the matter. In his excavation work in Panama, he drew a simple scroll design upon a piece of fairly soft stone found in the ruins and put four competent Indian masons to work with the old stone tools. At the end of a week they had broken all the implements and hardly scratched the surface l How to circumvent the implications of this laboratory test I do not know. Verrill believes that steel tools must have been employed-tools now rusted beyond discovery and identification. Metallurgists bear him out. If not steel, what was it that cut these stones ? Volcanic glass and abrasives ? This is one of the mysteries of maize culture. There are many more.

ARCHITECTURE

If a civilization is measured by its architecture, as some philosophers hold, that of Mexico ranks very high. I happened to come upon a distinguished New York architect as he looked for the first time at the frieze of serpents' heads on one of the temples of Teotihuacan. He was practically incoherent. "It's the finest thing I have ever seen anywhere; great God, it's the finest thing in the world." . . . This was higher praise than I could give it, but I am not an architect with an eye to technical subtleties. The pyramid of the sun, which stands close by, is approximately 750 feet square and 216 feet high, and forms part of the sacred city which in the great days of Teotihuacan was four miles long, two miles broad, and practically one solid block of architectural monuments. The court of the citadel is 16o,ooo square meters in area, and oriented to the compass. As I looked at its lines of masonry, clean and straight as on a drawing board, I could not believe, and I do not yet believe, that they could have been achieved without instruments of precision.

In the city of Mexico were 60,000 houses; in Cholula, 40,000. The great temple of Mexico had 6oo altars in one enclosure; and a courtyard pavement so polished that the horses of Cortez could hardly stand thereon. The mile-long walls were covered with sculptured, braided serpents. Upon the court was built a pyramid 300 feet square and 300 feet high, by the conquistadors' measurements, rising in six terraces with 340 steps-thrice as lofty as the pyramid at Chichen Itza. Upon its summit rose two towers, each fifty-six feet high, and between them a great statue of the war god. Here sacred fires tended by virgins were kept perpetually burning.

The houses of the city were made of red tezontle (a soft lava rock), quadrangular in shape, with a central court and a porticoed walk. Mexico had nothing to learn from Spain in this sound design for sunny countries. The finest of the old colonial palaces in Mexico City are made of the same red stone. Poorer people lived in smaller houses of stone and unbaked brick. The palace of the administration included an armory, a granary, aviaries and a zoo. The palace at Texcoco measured 978 by 1,234 yards, counting the walled court. It contained 300 royal apartments, built of porphyry, alabaster and stucco, and finished inside with rare woods.

Maya architecture in Yucatan and Guatemala was not so grandiose as Aztec, nor so monolithic in effect as Teotihuacan, but it was more delicate and beautiful. It ran to elaborate sculpture in stucco, and included careful town-planning with an artificial acropolis as the foundation of the main temples and palaces. A kind of arch and vault-narrow, with capstone-were employed. The material was limestone rather than lava rock, plastered with

Elsewhere I have held with some show of reason that modern science, and its offspring the machine age, would never have come to birth without the cipher, that symbol of nothingness which the Moors brought to Europe about 1000 A.D., and which they got from the Hindus. If you will try to divide 3,678 by 219 in Roman numerals you will immediately see the point. The Hindus originated this invaluable mathematical abstraction, without which no skyscraper could be built, not earlier than 6oo A.D. But the Mayas had discovered it centuries before and applied it not to a decimal system, nine numbers and a zero, but to a vigesimal system, nineteen numbers and a zero. Their base line was twenty rather than ten, and so included toes as well as fingers. A cardinal step towards the development of higher mathematics, quantitative science, and-who knows ?-a mechanical age, had thus been taken. Of physics and geometry the Mayas had a sound working knowledge, and they were marvelous draftsmen.

The Aztecs borrowed the Maya principles but never achieved such mathematical elegance. Their solar calendar, however, was more accurate than that of the Spaniards. They were found in full knowledge of the year of Venus, eclipses, solstices, equinoxes, and such phenomena. Their interpretation, however, did not equal their observation. They worked from a fifty-two-year cycle, initiated with great ceremony when the Pleiades came riding over a certain hill near Popocatepetl. To paraphrase Prescott,

The nation waited in suspense, growing more depressed as the days grew shorter, and on the arrival of the five unlucky days [intercalation to equalize the calendar, at the end of the fiftysecond year] abandoned themselves to despair, breaking their household idols and furniture, tearing up their clothes, letting all their fires go out. On the evening of the last day a procession of priests, assuming the dress and ornaments of their god, moved from the capital towards the mountain. On reaching its summit, the procession paused-till midnight; when, as the constellation of the Pleiades approached the zenith, the new fire was kindled by the friction of sticks placed in the breast of a sacrificial victim. The flame was communicated to his funeral pyre, and as the light streamed towards heaven, shouts of joy and triumph burst forth from the countless multitudes who covered the hills, the terraces of the temples, and the house tops. Couriers, with torches lighted at the blazing beacon, rapidly bore them over every part of the country, giving assurance that a new cycle had commenced its march and that the gods had decided not to bring the world to an end. The following thirteen days were given up to one magnificent fiesta, dancing, games, pageants and the refurnishing of movables lately destroyed.

The last celebration before the conquest was early in Montezuma's reign, in 1507. In the present year (1931) the Pleiades climb that hill again, and though no such marvellous and dramatic pageant will greet their eyes, I should not be surprised if in one or two remote outposts the drums would sound. Anything can happen in Mexico. Incidentally, this wiping out of all personal property every fifty-two years and starting fresh strikes me as a most invigorating idea. Such an epoch, terminating, say, in 1879, with black walnut, red plush, ball tassels, china shepherdesses, crayon portraits in gilt frames, bustles, pot hats and whatnots on the propitiating pyre, would have provided a spectacle almost as rewarding as the midnight ceremony itself.

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE

Aztec was a highly inflec?ed language, with more deferentials, Frederick Starr says, than Japanese. There was no alphabet, but the hieroglyphic stage of recording had been reached. It can be read today by a few experts. The Aztec man of letters, like the Egyptian, was both author and artist, painting his story on skins, cotton, silkgum and paper made from the fibres of maguey. The book was then folded like a screen between tablets. The profession of historian was subdivided between the chronicler of events, and the chronologist. Messrs. Fay and Barnes will be glad to hear that the falsifying of history was a capital offence. At Texcoco was a great library which held the old Toltec (or pre-Aztec) records, including, according to Prescott, an account of the migration from Asia (which is as it may be). Certainly it included manuscripts of priceless historical and human importance. The good bishop, Zumarraga, the first to be installed after the conquest, heaped them all upon a great pyre and destroyed them, to the glory of God. Only twenty-three Aztec manuscripts, or codices, survive, comprehending history, mythology, court records, prayers and poems.

The Maya language was more complex than the Aztec, and had advanced nearer to an alphabet. A few phonetic symbols for syllables had been achieved. This made it easier for Mayas to write, but harder for us to decipher. We can read Aztec, but not, as yet, Maya, except their dates. One major difficulty is that only three Maya books are left. Father Landa, not to be outdone by his bishop, secured immortality by burning the Maya library in Yucatan. He admitted that it contained great quantities of heathen matter on medicine, astronomy, chronology, geology, and the history not only of the Mayas but of other nations. The burning of the library at Alexandria was a minor calamity compared to the devout labours of Landa and Zumarraga. Duplicate material was available in other parts of the Greek world for much which the flames consumed at the mouth of the Nile. In Mexico the slate was wiped clean; the careful records are gone forever. The world will always be the poorer for the work of those two days.

HEALTH AND HYGIENE

The Aztecs had perfected an admirable system of medicine, based on their knowledge of herbs. They utilized hundreds of plants, including digitalis for heart disease, quinine, cascara. From anatomical studies of sacrificed victims, they worked out a reasonably complete nomenclature for the human skeleton, muscular and nervous systems. The Mayas were skilled in treating diseases of the eye. The Tarahumares trepanned skulls in such a way that the patient lived on at least three years. Aztec hospitals and asylums for veteran soldiers were the admiration of the Spaniards. They employed the sensible, if harsh, procedure of exposing those with probably incurable diseases, well supplied with food, to recover or die. They appear to have been a very clean people, particularly in respect to their streets and public buildings. The conquerors noted I,ooo street cleaners in Mexico City.

HANDICRAFTS

Organized into guilds, their craftsmanship reached extraordinary levels. Spanish silversmiths and metal workers acknowledged that they had met their masters. Exquisite jewellery, pottery to rival that of the archaic Greek (it is still being made in one or two remote villages), textiles of cotton, fur and feathers, expert dyeing (from the Aztecs we get cochineal), gorgeous lacquer work, straw matting and weaving, stone and wood carving were among the major crafts. The Aztecs were particularly skilled in mosaic. One shield, still preserved, contains 15,000 pieces of inlaid turquoise, designed to represent human figures. They also carved crystal exquisitely. Friable obsidian, that most refractory of stones, they carved and worked into ornaments, mirrors, swords and daggers.

The Mayas worked less in metals than the Aztecs, as ores were scarcer in their country, but the pieces which have come to light are wholly admirable. They used copper bells as currency, while the Aztecs-in large transactions, at least-used quills of gold dust. (No records, strangely enough, of monetary systems or of weights and measures have been found.) Manual skill was held in great esteem by both nations; every child was taught to be expert at a trade. It is improbable that this went under the name of "vocational education," with slabsided brick buildings, and carpenters' benches row on row. No. It came as naturally as learning to walk and speak. Certainly this is the way Mexican craftsmen are educated today, and it was probably even more an indigenous part of the growing-up process then. Education was lived, not imposed from without. But priests lectured the children of the upper classes on morality and good manners.

SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS

Monogamy was the rule save for a few exalted dignitaries who had several wives. The position of women was far superior to that of Spain-then and now. It amounted virtually to equality, even up to the office of priest. Divorces were granted by a special court. Among the Aztecs, land was socially owned but remained in the custody of a given family, from father to son, as long as it was cultivated. If the family died out, or failed to cultivate, it reverted to the clan for redistribution. Certain national lands were set aside and worked, the crop taken in lieu of taxes and tithes by government, Church, or army as the case might be. There were a few large estates belonging to nobles and worked with bound serfs-but very few. This incipient system of the hacienda the Spaniards were to develop to huge dimensions in due time. Moving boundary marks on land was, like forging history, a capital offence.

Slavery was practised, but in a mild form. A man could not be born a slave; he became one chiefly by being taken prisoner of war. Slaves could own property, including sub-slaves. The merchant class, Mr. Filene and Mr. Wanamaker will be delighted to know, was held in high esteem. They served as explorer-ambassadors, on the time-honoured assumption that the flag follows trade. They traveled with a large bodyguard and great equipment. Once, in a diplomatic impasse, a company of merchants stood a four years' siege, before the army and the flag effected their rescue. The Chamber of Commerce of the day was called the "council of finance," and then, as now, was frequently consulted by the administration. Gregory Mason goes so far as to call certain Maya cities manufacturing towns, the products of whose potteries, rope and textile factories were carried far and wide.

At this point our cumulative story of largely admirable achievement goes into reverse, and we must record a horrid and degrading practice. The rite of human sacrifice was infrequently practised prior to about 1300 A.D. The Mayas were not given to it in their great days, nor the pre-Aztecs so far as we know. A virgin was occasionally sacrificed in the Sacred Well at Chichen Itza, but only when a great drought or other national calamity threatened. The habit seems to have come into favour with the appearance of the Aztecs on the plateau, and after a century or two of sacrificing a few victims on very great occasions, began to grow, shortly before the Spanish landed, to incredible proportions. It became a reigning fad, as insidious as the radio, and almost as destructive of life as the automobile. No god could be consulted on the weather, the chances of victory, the prince's health; hardly a religious ceremony could take place, without butchering a poor innocent-sometimes a whole brigade of them-in the most revolting fashion. There was little if any torturing, death was immediate, but it was horrible. Every year the Aztec and Tlaxcalan armies joined in a gigantic freshman-sophomore rush, the sole purpose of which was to drag off sacrificial victims. Aztec armies purposely refrained from killing their enemies in battle, preferring to take them prisoners and lead them to the sacrificial altar. There they were laid as on an operating table, their breasts cut open by knives of obsidian, and the heart torn out; while the priests, mad with a variety of conditioned sadism, shouted their omens and portents, plastering themselves with blood. Sometimes the execution was followed by a ritual cannibalism. According to the early Spanish chronicles the annual tribute amounted to 20,000 victims. This figure, however, must be regarded with the utmost suspicion, as the early chroniclers were mostly churchmen, and the Church had reason for wide dissemination of atrocity stories. It sought to stamp out the Aztec religion and substitute Christianity. The greater the case against the heathen cult, the more freedom it had to use any means to the desired end, and the weaker the criticism thereof. This was the period, too, of the Inquisition, when offsetting butcheries were particularly welcome. If we cut the figure in half, to 10,000 victims a year, I suspect that we have a generous allowance. Like other fads, it might have passed, if for no other reason than lack of victims, but it was at its zenith when the Spaniards came.

Frazer in The Golden Bough says that the Aztecs' system of sacrifices, which he calls "the most monstrous on record," was magical rather than religious; that is, it was a crude substitute for science and designed entirely to bring about practical results. They thought that the sun, giver of life and energy, needed to have his own renewed with an infusion of human blood. The maize, too, needed victims to strengthen its growth, so they "sacrificed human beings at all the various stages in the growth of the maize, the age of the victims corresponding to the age of the corn." Every September priests chose a pretty slave-girl of twelve or thirteen to represent the maize goddess Chicomecohuatl, and after doing her reverence with ceremonial offerings, sacrificed her and sprinkled her blood on the goddess's idol and on the harvest offerings, clearly as insurance, for next year's crop. "No more striking illustration could be given," comments Frazer upon the whole system, "of the disastrous consequences that may flow; in practice from a purely speculative error."

Finally let us consider the organization of government. About the Mayas we know little, save that a list of kings or princes has been established. For the Aztecs the record is comparatively voluminous. As we turn to it, we encounter a profound misunderstanding which has twisted the thought of every schoolchild, indeed of nearly every one who has read or heard of "Montezuma's Empire." As a matter of fact, Montezuma was not an emperor and he had no empire. The confusion arises because the Spaniards, steeped in the terms and forms of European feudal monarchy, could neither understand nor properly explain the Aztec system. Montezuma was obviously the head of the state, he lived in splendour, he must be at least a king; while if he were called emperor it would make the conquest all the more magnificent. It was about as sensible as if a Cortez, four centuries later, invaded Washington, and finding a plump gentleman in control, promptly called him the "Great Emperor Hoover."

The Aztecs were a nation numbering several millions, who lived in and about the region where Mexico City stands. In the course of the 200 years following the founding of their capital in 1325, they had conquered a territory vastly greater than the home state Over this territory they held hegemony, enforcing a fairly onerous tribute in kind, and continual wars and reprisals to secure slaves and captives for sacrifice. Bandelier calls it a loose confederacy of democratic Indian nations-which may err on the other side, but is certainly far nearer the truth than to designate the arrangement as empire.

The Aztec nation,, as' well as presumably a number of its allies, was founded on a unit called the calpulli, in Spanish, barrio or clan-district. (There are seven such barrios still clearly marked in Tepoztlan.) To the barrio belonged the lands referred to earlier, lent to citizens, never owned. It proves again, this feudal-communistic cell, what anthropologists have so often proved before, that man is primarily a social animal. Conceptions of private property in land and natural resources, of the duty of acquisitiveness, are reasonably alien to homosapiens. Group security, incorporating individual security, is the basic desideratum.

The barrio had a special emblem, and normally contributed to the army one fighting unit of from 200 to 400 men. It had its own protecting god-which in Spanish days was readily convertible into a santo--its own place of worship, and its own council house. It was essentially a democratic unit governed by folk-moot, the body of the whole. (I am following Waterman and Bandelier.) A war leader was elected to instruct the young men in arms, and captain the company in battle. He was called achcacauhtin, or elder brother. An executive civil officer was also elected by the clan. He supervised the land boundaries and distribution, was storekeeper of maize, and presumably acted as judge in property disputes. Thirdly a tlatoani or "speaker" was elected, who was the clan deputy or congressman in the higher councils of the nation.

Five clans composed a phratry, primarily a military organization, with an elected colonel or general at the head; and four phratries constituted the tribe or nation. Obviously the Aztec nation must have been composed of a number of such tribes, for with a unit of only 400 fighting men to a clan, the total population of the tribe of twenty clans could not have run much above 50,000, and there were 60,000 houses, sheltering at least 300,000 persons, in Mexico City alone. The Aztec nation, whatever its size, was ruled not by a despot, but by a national council, composed of the clan speakers. This was the most important body in the Aztec system. It met once every Mexican month of twenty days, and in crises it might meet daily. Together with the elders of the nation, women and men, the council elected the war chief, the titular head of the nation. This group elected Montezuma, and when he became a hostage within the Spanish lines, deposed him, and elected Cuitlahuac in his place. His office was not hereditary, but the war chief had to be chosen from among the members of one noble family. He had no power to declare war; this was vested with the council of speakers. (In passing through this armed camp, it is interesting to note that previous to the rebuilding of Chichen Itza, about 900 A.D., and including the great period in Guatemala, we can find no hint of war or military manoeuvres in Maya art or architecture. As pacifists, apparently, they reached the zenith of Amerindian culture.)

A step below the head of the nation stood an officer almost equally important, and though he was a man, he bore the extraordinary name of the Snake Woman. He was second in command of the armies and also the gatherer and keeper of tribute-a sort of military treasurer. Why snakes should be so intimately associated with revenue officers is a mystery which we shall leave to the Indians. He seems to have had no religious functions whatever. The president or war chief, the Snake Woman, and the phratry generals were the only persons in the nation permitted to tie the hair with red leather.

Three hundred years before Thomas Jefferson l No wonder the Spaniards failed to make head or tail of this unheard-of arrangement. (One hundred years after him, their colonial descendants still flounder in the alien fetters of republican constitutions.) But to an Anglo-Saxon it is perfectly clear that the Aztec civilization was an experiment in democracy, and a reasonably successful one, the only major exceptions being the principle of communistic landholding, at the bottom, and the election of president from among the members of one family, at the top. The latter might be termed "prince" but hardly emperor. It is only fair to say, however, that under Montezuma the Aztecs were drifting towards empire. Like the elected consuls of Rome, some Julius Caesar would probably have seized the imperial purple, and relegated the council to an obliging body of yes men, and that shortly. Whether the rank and file would have tolerated it is another matter. The Aztecs were a sturdy and independent folk. Montezuma had certainly arrogated to himself more power, more pomp and more obsequious attention than his predecessors had dreamed of. He even fancied himself a god. But he was at bottom a weak and vacillating fellow, and quite possibly would have been deposed when his arrogance became unendurable, with or without the help of Cortez.

The curtain rings up for the greatest of all American tragedies. A civilization which in the fifteenth century Means holds, conservatively I think, to be "hardly inferior to Europe in the middle of the thirteenth century," is to be erased from the map of history. In astronomy it was far in advance of Europe; in architectural ornament it was as great as the world ever has seen or will see; in its conception of the rights of the individual it stood manifestly above the feudal conceptions of the old world, so far indeed that the Spaniards could not understand its political philosophy; in its minor arts of weaving, metal working, jewellery, pottery, it challenged the best which the Eastern Hemisphere had to offer; its knowledge of plants and medicinal herbs was profound; it honoured women, it loved flowers, and the writers of untrue books of history it put to death.

The curtain rings up, for over the sea to the east there comes a fleet of tiny sails. . . .


BACK | FORWARD