May 022013
 

Part 7: Incidents of Travel: Conclusion

 

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Stelae at Copan
by Frederick Catherwood
 

When John Lloyd Stephens first travelled to Central America and walked among the ruins left by the Maya, he early on realized that the buildings, statues, and carvings were not done by a “savage or primitive race”.  He recognized that the original inhabitants of the Americas were a civilized and sophisticated people.  At his first encounter with the Stelae in Copan, he observed, “The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.” [refer to Part 4 of this series]

In 1842, when he returned to Yucatan to further explore the ruins, he reconfirmed his previous conviction, “I am happy thus early in these pages to have an opportunity of recurring to the opinion expressed in my former volumes, in regard to the builders of the ancient American cities.
“The conclusion to which I came was that ‘there are not sufficient grounds for belief in the great antiquity that has been ascribed to these ruins’; ‘that we are not warranted in going back to any ancient nation of the Old World for the builders of these cities; that they are not the works of people who have passed away and whose history is lost, but that there are strong reasons to believe them the creation of the same races who inhabited the country at the time of the Spanish conquest, or of some not very distant progenitors.”
In the final pages of his last book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Stephens addressed the arguments

Storming of Teocalis
by Emanuel Leutze

against his opinions on the origins of the Mayan cities.  He was still unaware that the Mayans were the builders, but was convinced that the cities were built by the people that the Spaniards found on their conquest.  Before Stephens, this idea had been rejected for mostly three main arguments.  First, there were no lasting traditions carried on by the locals.  Stephens argued, “… may this be accounted for by the unparalleled circumstances which attended the conquest and subjugation of Spanish America?”  He went on to cite the proclamation by the Pope “entreating and requiring the inhabitants to acknowledge and obey the church as the superior and guide of the universe. … But if you do not comply … I will carry on war against you with the utmost violence.”

The second prevailing argument “that a people possessing the power, art, and skill to erect such cities never could have fallen so low as the miserable Indians who now linger about their ruins” was disputed by Stephens for the same reason.  He argued, “… their present condition is the natural and inevitable consequence of the same ruthless policy which laid the axe at the root of all ancient recollections and cut off forever all traditionary knowledge.”
Finally, the lack of historical accounts or reference to the cities by the conquering Spaniards was refuted by Stephens, “On the contrary, we have the glowing accounts of Cortez and his companions, of soldiers, priests, and civilians, all concurring in representations of existing cities, then in the actual use and occupation of the Indians, with building and temples, in style and character like those presented in these pages.”
He summarized, “These arguments then – the want of tradition, the degeneracy of the people, and the alleged absence of historical accounts – are not sufficient to be entered upon at the conclusion of these pages; but all the light that history sheds upon them is dim and faint, and may be summed up in few words.”

Travels of John Lloyd Stephens

Over time, Stephens’ beliefs proved to be substantially accurate and his popular books contributed to a groundswell of interest in the lost cities of the Maya.

 

— Courtney Miller

Link to Part 1

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