Blood and Time at the End of the World
Chicken Itza, northern Yucatan, Mexico
Behind me, towering almost 100 feet into the air, was a perfect
ziggurat, the Temple of Kukulkan. Its four stairways had 91 steps
each. Taken together with the top platform, which counted as a
further step, the total was 365. This gave the number of complete
days in a solar year.
In addition, the geometric design and
orientation of the ancient structure had been calibrated with
Swiss-watch precision to achieve an objective as dramatic as it was
esoteric: on the spring and autumn equinoxes, regular as clockwork,
triangular patterns of light and shadow combined to create the
illusion of a giant serpent undulating on the northern staircase. On
each occasion the illusion lasted for 3 hours and 22 minutes
I walked away from the Temple of Kukulkan in an easterly direction.
Ahead of me, starkly refuting the oft-repeated fallacy that the
peoples of Central America had never succeeded in developing the
column as an architectural feature, stood a forest of white stone
columns which must at one time have supported a massive roof. The
sun was beating down harshly through the translucent blue of a
cloudless sky and the cool, deep shadows this area offered were
alluring. I passed by and made my way to the foot of the steep steps
that led up to the adjacent Temple of the Warriors.
At the top of these steps, becoming fully visible only after I had
begun to ascend them, was a giant figure. This was the idol of
It half-lay, half-sat in an oddly stiff and expectant
posture, bent knees protruding upwards, thick calves drawn back to
touch its thighs, ankles tucked in against its buttocks, elbows
planted on the ground, hands folded across its belly encircling an
empty plate, and its back set at an awkward angle as though it were
just about to lever itself upright.
Had it done so, I calculated, it
would have stood about eight feet tall. Even reclining, coiled and
tightly sprung, it seemed to overflow with a fierce and pitiless
energy. Its square features were thin-lipped and implacable, as hard
and indifferent as the stone from which they were carved, and its
eyes gazed westwards, traditionally the direction of darkness, death
and the colour black.2
1 Mexico, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorne, Australia, 1992,
2 Ronald Wright, Time Among the Maya, Futura Publications,
London, 1991, pp. 343.
Rather lugubriously, I continued to climb the steps of the
the Warriors. Weighing on my mind was the unforgettable fact that
the ritual of human sacrifice had been routinely practiced here in
pre-Colombian times. The empty plate that Chacmool held across his
stomach had once served as a receptacle for freshly extracted
‘If the victim’s heart was to be taken out,’ reported one
Spanish observer in the sixteenth century, they conducted him with great display ... and placed him on the
sacrificial stone. Four of them took hold of his arms and legs,
spreading them out. Then the executioner came, with a flint knife in
his hand, and with great skill made an incision between the ribs on
the left side, below the nipple; then he plunged in his hand and
like a ravenous tiger tore out the living heart, which he laid on
the plate 3
Friar Diego de Landa, Yucatan before and after the Conquest (trans,
with notes by William Gates), Producción Editorial Dante, Merida,
Mexico, 1990, p. 71.
What kind of culture could have nourished and celebrated such
demonic behaviour? Here, in Chichen Itza, amid ruins dating back
more than 1200 years, a hybrid society had formed out of
intermingled Maya and Toltec elements. This society was by no means
exceptional in its addiction to cruel and barbaric ceremonies. On
the contrary, all the great indigenous civilizations known to have
flourished in Mexico had indulged in the ritualized slaughter of
Villahermosa, Tabasco Province
I stood looking at the Altar of Infant Sacrifice. It was the
creation of the Olmecs, the so-called ‘mother-culture’ of Central America, and it
was more than 3000 years old. A block of solid granite about four
feet thick, its sides bore reliefs of four men wearing curious
head-dresses. Each man carried a healthy, chubby, struggling infant,
whose desperate fear was clearly visible. The back of the altar was
undecorated; at the front another figure was portrayed, holding in
his arms, as though it were an offering, the slumped body of a dead
The Olmecs are the earliest recognized high civilization of Ancient
Mexico, and human sacrifice was well established with them. Two and
a half thousand years later, at the time of the Spanish conquest,
the Aztecs were the last (but by no means the least) of the peoples
of this region to continue an extremely old and deeply ingrained
They did so with fanatical zeal.
It is recorded, for example, that
Ahuitzotl, the eighth and most
powerful emperor of the Aztec royal dynasty, ‘celebrated the
dedication of the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochitlan by
marshalling four lines of prisoners past teams of priests who worked
four days to dispatch them. On this occasion as many as 80,000 were
slain during a single ceremonial rite.’4
The Aztecs liked to dress up in the flayed skins of sacrificial
victims. Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish missionary, attended one
such ceremony soon after the conquest:
The celebrants flayed and dismembered the captives; they then
lubricated their own naked bodies with grease and slipped into the
skin ... Trailing blood and grease, the gruesomely clad men ran
through the city, thus terrifying those they followed ... The
second-day’s rite also included a cannibal feast for each warrior’s
Another mass sacrifice was witnessed by the Spanish chronicler
de Duran. In this instance the victims were so numerous that when
the streams of blood running down the temple steps ‘reached bottom
and cooled they formed fat clots, enough to terrify anyone’.6 All in
all, it has been estimated that the number of sacrificial victims in
the Aztec empire as a whole had risen to around 250,000 a year by
the beginning of the sixteenth century.7
What was this manic destruction of human life for? According to the
Aztecs themselves, it was done to delay the coming of the end of the
Joyce Milton, Robert A. Orsi and Norman Harrison, The Feathered
Serpent and the Cross: The Pre-Colombian God-Kings and the Papal
States, Cassell, London, 1980, p. 64.
Reported in Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendour, Time-Life Books,
Alexandria, Virginia, 1992, p. 105.
6 Ibid., p. 103.
7 The Feathered
Serpent and the Cross, p. 55.
Mary Miller and Karl Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico
and the Maya, Thames & Hudson, London, 1993, pp. 96.
Children of the Fifth Sun
Like the many different peoples and cultures that had preceded them
in Mexico, the Aztecs believed that the universe operated in great
cycles. The priests stated as a matter of simple fact that there had
been four such cycles, or ‘Suns’, since the creation of the human
race. At the time of the conquest, it was the Fifth Sun that
prevailed. And it is within that same Fifth Sun, or epoch, that
humankind still lives today.
This account is taken from a rare
collection of Aztec documents known as the Vaticano-Latin Codex:
First Sun, Matlactli Atl: duration 4008 years. Those who lived then
ate water maize called atzitzintli. In this age lived the giants ...
The First Sun was destroyed by water in the sign Matlactli Atl (Ten
Water). It was called Apachiohualiztli (flood, deluge), the art of
sorcery of the permanent rain. Men were turned into fish. Some say
that only one couple escaped, protected by an old tree living near
the water. Others say that there were seven couples who hid in a
cave until the flood was over and the waters had gone down. They
repopulated the earth and were worshipped as gods in their nations
Second Sun, Ehecoatl: duration 4010 years. Those who lived then ate
wild fruit known as acotzintli. This Sun was destroyed by Ehecoatl
(Wind Serpent) and men were turned into monkeys ... One man and one
woman, standing on a rock, were saved from destruction ...
Third Sun, Tleyquiyahuillo: duration 4081 years. Men, the
descendants of the couple who were saved from the Second Sun, ate a
fruit called tzincoacoc. This Third Sun was destroyed by fire ...
Fourth Sun, Tzontlilic: duration 5026 years ... Men died of
starvation after a deluge of blood and fire ...9
From the Vaticano-Latin Codex 3738, cited in Adela Fernandez,
Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, Panorama Editorial, Mexico City, 1992,
Another ‘cultural document’ of the Aztecs that has survived the
ravages of the conquest is the ‘Sun Stone’ of Axayacatl, the sixth
emperor of the royal dynasty. This huge monolith was hewn out of
solid basalt in AD 1479. It weighs 24.5 tons and consists of a
series of concentrically inscribed circles, each bearing intricate
As in the codex, these statements focus
attention on the belief that the world has already passed through
four epochs, or Suns. The first and most remote of these is
represented by Ocelotonatiuh, the jaguar god:
‘During that Sun lived
the giants that had been created by the gods but were finally
attacked and devoured by jaguars.’
The Second Sun is represented by
the serpent head of Ehecoatl, the god of the air:
period the human race was destroyed by high winds and hurricanes and
men were converted into monkeys.’
The symbol of the Third Sun is a
head of rain and celestial fire:
‘In this epoch everything was
destroyed by a rain of fire from the sky and the forming of lava.
All the houses were burnt. Men
were converted into birds to survive the catastrophe.’
Sun is represented by the head of the water-goddess Chalchiuhtlicue:
‘Destruction came in the form of torrential rains and floods. The
mountains disappeared and men were transformed into fish.’10
The symbol of the Fifth Sun, our current epoch, is the
face of Tonatiuh, the sun god himself. His tongue, fittingly depicted as an
obsidian knife, juts out hungrily, signalling his need for the
nourishment of human blood and hearts. His features are wrinkled to
indicate his advanced age and he appears within the symbol Ollin
which signifies Movement.11
Why is the Fifth Sun known as ‘The Sun of Movement’? Because,
elders say: in it there will be a movement of the earth and from
this we shall all perish.’12
And when will this catastrophe strike? Soon, according to the Aztec
priests. They believed that the Fifth Sun was already very old and
approaching the end of its cycle (hence the wrinkles on the face of
Tonatiuh). Ancient meso-American traditions dated the birth of this
epoch to a remote period corresponding to the fourth millennium BC
of the Christian calendar.13 The method of calculating its end,
however, had been forgotten by the time of Aztecs.14
In the absence
of this essential information, human sacrifices were apparently
carried out in the hope that the impending catastrophe might be
postponed. Indeed, the Aztecs came to regard themselves as a chosen
people; they were convinced that they had been charged with a divine
mission to wage war and offer the blood of their captives to feed Tonatiuh, thereby preserving the life of the Fifth Sun.15
Stuart Fiedel, an authority on the prehistory of the Americas,
summed up the whole issue in these words:
‘The Aztecs believed that
to prevent the destruction of the universe, which had already
occurred four times in the past, the gods must be supplied with a
steady diet of human hearts and blood.’16
This same belief, with
remarkably few variations, was shared by all the great civilizations
of Central America. Unlike the Aztecs, however, some of the earlier
peoples had calculated exactly when a great movement of the earth
could be expected to bring the Fifth Sun to an end.
Eric S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion, University of Oklahoma
Press, 1990, p.
332. See also Aztec Calendar: History and Symbolism, Garcia y
Valades Editores, MexicoCity, 1992.
12 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 24.
13 Peter Tompkins, Mysteries
of the Mexican Pyramids, Thames & Hudson, London, 1987,
John Bierhorst, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, William
Morrow & Co., New York, 1990, p. 134.
15 World Mythology, (ed. Roy
Willis, BCA, London, 1993, p. 243.
16 Stuart J. Fiedel, The
Prehistory of the Americas, (second edition), Cambridge University
Press, 1992, pp. 312-13.
No documents, only dark and menacing sculptures, have come down to
us from the Olmec era. But the Mayas, justifiably regarded as the
greatest ancient civilization to have arisen in the New World, left
behind a wealth of calendrical records. Expressed in terms of the
modern dating system, these enigmatic inscriptions convey a rather
curious message: the Fifth Sun, it seems, is going to come to an end
23 December, AD 2012.17
In the rational intellectual climate of the late twentieth century
it is unfashionable to take doomsday prophecies seriously. The
general consensus is that they are the products of superstitious
minds and can safely be ignored. As I travelled around Mexico,
however, I was from time to time bothered by a nagging intuition
that the voices of the ancient sages might deserve a hearing after
I mean, suppose by some crazy off chance they weren’t the
superstitious savages we’d always believed them to be. Suppose they
knew something we didn’t? Most pertinent of all, suppose that their
projected date for the end of the Fifth Sun turned out to be
correct? Suppose, in other words, that some truly awful geological
catastrophe is already unfolding, deep in the bowels of the earth,
as the wise men of the Maya predicted?
In Peru and Bolivia I had become aware of the obsessive concern with
the calculation of time shown by the Incas and their predecessors.
Now, in Mexico, I discovered that the Maya, who believed that they
had worked out the date of the end of the world, had been possessed
by the same compulsion. Indeed, for these people, just about
everything boiled down to numbers, the passage of the years and the
manifestations of events.
The belief was that if the numbers which
lay beneath the manifestations could be properly understood, it
would be possible to predict successfully the timing of the events
themselves.18 I felt disinclined to ignore the obvious implications
of the recurrent destructions of humanity depicted so vividly in the
Central American traditions. Coming complete with giants and floods,
these traditions were eerily similar to those of the far-off Andean
Meanwhile, however, I was keen to pursue another, related line of
inquiry. This concerned the bearded white-skinned deity named
Quetzalcoatl, who was believed to have sailed to Mexico from across
the seas in remote antiquity. Quetzalcoatl was credited with the
invention of the advanced mathematical and calendrical formulae that
the Maya were later to use to calculate the date of doomsday.19
Professor Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, Thames & Hudson,
London, 1992, pp. 275-6. Herbert Joseph Spinden’s correlation gives
a slightly earlier date of 24 December, AD 2011. See Mysteries of
the Mexican Pyramids, p. 286.
18 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids,
World Mythology, p. 240. See also Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1991,
9:855, and Lewis Spence, The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico, Rider,
London, 1922, pp. 49-50.
also bore a striking
resemblance to Viracocha, the pale god of the Andes, who came to
Tiahuanaco ‘in the time of darkness’ bearing the gifts of light and
Chapter 14 -
People of the Serpent
After spending so long immersed in the traditions of Viracocha, the
bearded god of the distant Andes, I was intrigued to discover that
Quetzalcoatl, the principal deity of the ancient Mexican pantheon,
was described in terms that were extremely familiar.
For example, one pre-Colombian myth collected in Mexico by the
sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler Juan de Torquemada asserted
that Quetzalcoatl was ‘a fair and ruddy complexioned man with a long
beard’. Another spoke of him as, ‘era Hombre blanco; a large man,
broad browed, with huge eyes, long hair, and a great, rounded
beard—la barba grande y redonda.’1
Another still described him as
a mysterious person ... a white man with strong formation of body,
broad forehead, large eyes, and a flowing beard. He was dressed in a
long, white robe reaching to his feet. He condemned sacrifices,
except of fruits and flowers, and was known as the god of peace ...
When addressed on the subject of war he is reported to have stopped
up his ears with his fingers.2
According to a particularly striking Central American tradition,
this ‘wise instructor ...’ came from across the sea in a boat that
moved by itself without paddles. He was a tall, bearded white man
who taught people to use fire for cooking. He also built houses and
showed couples that they could live together as husband and wife;
and since people often quarreled in those days, he taught them to
live in peace.3
Juan de Torquemada, Monarchichia indiana, volume I, cited in Fair
Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 37-8.
2 North America of Antiquity, p.
268, cited in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, p. 165.
Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 161.
Viracocha’s Mexican twin
The reader will recall that
Viracocha, in his journeys through the
Andes, went by several different aliases. Quetzalcoatl did this too.
In some parts of Central America (notably among the Quiche Maya) he
was called Gucumatz. Elsewhere, at Chichen Itza for example, he was
known as Kukulkan. When both these words were translated into
English, they turned out to mean exactly the same thing: Plumed (or
Feathered) Serpent. This, also, was the meaning of Quetzalcoatl.4
See Nigel Davis, The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, Penguin Books,
London, 1990, p. 152; The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the
Maya, pp. 141-2.
There were other deities, among the Maya in particular, whose
identities seemed to merge closely with those of Quetzalcoatl. One
was Votan, a great civilizer, who was also described as
pale-skinned, bearded and wearing a long robe. Scholars could offer
no translation for his name but his principal symbol, like that of
Quetzalcoatl, was a serpent.5 Another closely related figure was
Itzamana, the Mayan god of healing, who was a robed and bearded
individual; his symbol, too, was the rattlesnake.6
What emerged from all this, as the leading authorities agreed, was
that the Mexican legends collected and passed on by Spanish
chroniclers at the time of the conquest were often the confused and
conflated products of extremely long oral traditions. Behind them
all, however, it seemed that there must lie some solid historical
In the judgment of Sylvanus Griswold Morley, the doyen of
The great god Kukulkan, or Feathered Serpent, was the Mayan
counterpart of the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican god of light,
learning and culture. In the Maya pantheon he was regarded as having
been the great organizer, the founder of cities, the former of laws
and the teacher of the calendar. Indeed his attributes and life
history are so human that it is not improbable that he may have been
an actual historical character, some great lawgiver and organizer,
the memory of whose benefactions lingered long after death, and
whose personality was eventually deified.7
All the legends stated unambiguously that
Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan/Gucumatz/Votan/Itzamana had arrived in Central
America from somewhere very far away (across the ‘Eastern Sea’) and
that amid great sadness he had eventually sailed off again in the
direction whence he had come.8 The legends added that he had
promised solemnly that he would return one day9—a clear echo of
Viracocha it would be almost perverse to ascribe to coincidence.
addition, it will be recalled that Viracocha’s departure across the
waves of the Pacific Ocean had been portrayed in the Andean
traditions as a miraculous event. Quetzalcoatl’s departure from
Mexico also had a strange feel about it: he was said to have sailed
away ‘on a raft of serpents’.10
5 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 98-9.
6 Ibid, p. 100.
Sylvanus Griswold Morley, An Introduction to the Study of Maya
Hieroglyphs (introduction by Eric S. Thompson), Dover Publications
Inc., New York, 1975, pp. 16-17.
8 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of
Mythology, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1989, pp. 437, 439.
9 Ibid., p. 437.
10 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, p. 62.
All in all, I felt Morley was right in looking for a factual
historical background behind the Mayan and Mexican myths. What the
traditions seemed to indicate was that the bearded pale-skinned
foreigner called Quetzalcoatl (or Kukulkan or whatever) had been not
just one person but probably several people who had come from the
same place and had belonged to the same distinctively non-Indian
ethnic type (bearded, white-skinned, etc.).
This wasn’t only
suggested by the existence of a
‘family’ of obviously related11 but slightly different gods sharing
the symbol of the snake. Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan/Itzamana was quite
explicitly portrayed in many of the Mexican and Mayan accounts as
having been accompanied by ‘attendants’ or ‘assistants’.
Certain myths set out in the Ancient Mayan religious texts known as
Books of Chilam Balam, for instance, reported that,
inhabitants of Yucatan were the “People of the Serpent”. They came
from the east in boats across the water with their leader Itzamana,
“Serpent of the East”, a healer who could cure by laying on hands,
and who revived the dead.’12
‘Kukulkan,’ stated another tradition, ‘came with nineteen
companions, two of whom were gods offish, two others gods of
agriculture, and a god of thunder ... They stayed ten years in
Yucatan. Kukulkan made wise laws and then set sail and disappeared
in the direction of the rising sun ...’13
According to the Spanish chronicler Las Casas:
‘The natives affirmed
that in ancient times there came to Mexico twenty men, the chief of
whom was called Kukulkan ... They wore flowing robes and sandals on
their feet, they had long beards and their heads were bare ...
Kukulkan instructed the people in the arts of peace, and caused
various important edifices to be built ...’14
Meanwhile Juan de Torquemada recorded this very specific
pre-conquest tradition concerning the imposing strangers who had
entered Mexico with Quetzalcoatl:
They were men of good carriage, well-dressed, in long robes of black
linen, open in front, and without capes, cut low at the neck, with
short sleeves that did not come to the elbow ... These followers of
Quetzalcoatl were men of great knowledge and cunning artists in all
kinds of fine work.15
Like some long-lost twin of Viracocha, the white and bearded Andean
deity, Quetzalcoatl was depicted as having brought to Mexico all the
skills and sciences necessary to create a civilized life, thus
ushering in a golden age.16 He was believed, for example, to have
introduced the knowledge of writing to Central America, to have
invented the calendar, and to have been a master builder who taught
the people the secrets of masonry and architecture.
Not only obviously related but specifically related. Votan, for
example, was often referred to as the grandson of Quetzalcoatl.
Itzamana and Kukulkan were sometimes confused by the Indians who
transmitted their legends to Spanish chroniclers shortly after the
conquest. See Fair Gods and Stone Faces, p. 100.
12 Mysteries of the
Mexican Pyramids, p. 347.
13 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of
Mythology, p. 439.
James Bailey, The God-Kings and the Titans, Hodder and Stoughton,
London, 1972, p.
15 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 37-8.
According to the sixteenth century chronicler Bernardino de Sahagun:
‘Quetzalcoatl was a great civilizing agent who entered Mexico at the
head of a band of strangers. He imported the arts into the country
and especially fostered agriculture. In his time maize was so large
in the head that a man might not carry more than one stalk at a time
and cotton grew in all colours without having to be dyed. He built
spacious and elegant houses, and inculcated a type of religion which
He was the father of mathematics,
metallurgy, and astronomy and was said to have ‘measured the earth’.
He also founded productive agriculture, and was reported to have
discovered and introduced corn—literally the staff of life in these
ancient lands. A great doctor and master of medicines, he was the
patron of healers and diviners ‘and disclosed to the people the
mysteries of the properties of plants’. In addition, he was revered
as a lawgiver, as a protector of craftsmen, and as a patron of all
As might be expected of such a refined and cultured individual he
forbade the grisly practice of human sacrifice during the period of
his ascendancy in Mexico. After his departure the blood-spattered
rituals were reintroduced with a vengeance. Nevertheless, even the
Aztecs, the most vehement sacrificers ever to have existed in the
long history of Central America, remembered ‘the time of
Quetzalcoatl’ with a kind of nostalgia.
‘He was a teacher,’ recalled
one legend, ‘who taught that no living thing was to be harmed and
that sacrifices were to be made not of human beings but of birds and
17 The God-Kings and the Titans, p. 57.
Why did Quetzalcoatl go away?
What went wrong?
Mexican legends provided answers to these questions. They said that
the enlightened and benevolent rule of the Plumed Serpent had been
brought to an end by Tezcatilpoca, a malevolent god whose name meant
‘Smoking Mirror’ and whose cult demanded human sacrifice. It seemed
that a near-cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness
had taken place in Ancient Mexico, and that the forces of darkness
had triumphed ...
The supposed stage for these events, now known as Tula, was not
believed to be particularly old—not much more than 1000 years
anyway— but the legends surrounding it linked it to an infinitely
more distant epoch. In those times, outside history, it had been
known as Tollan. All the traditions agreed that it had been at Tollan that Tezcatilpoca had vanquished Quetzalcoatl and forced him
to quit Mexico.
Tula - Hidalgo Province
I was sitting on the flat square summit of the unimaginatively named
Pyramid B. The late-afternoon sun was beating down out of a clear
blue sky, and I was facing south, looking around.
At the base of the pyramid, to the north and east, were murals
depicting jaguars and eagles feasting on human hearts. Immediately
behind me were ranged four pillars and four fearsome granite idols
each nine feet tall. Ahead and, to my left lay the partially
unexcavated Pyramid C, a cactus-covered mound about 40 feet high,
and farther away were more mounds not yet investigated by
To my right was a ball court. In that long, I-shaped
arena, terrible gladitorial games had been staged in ancient times.
Teams, or sometimes just two individuals pitted against each other,
would compete for possession of a rubber ball; the losers were
The idols on the platform behind me had a solemn and intimidating
aura. I stood up to look at them more closely. Their sculptor had
given them hard, implacable faces, hooked noses and hollow eyes and
they seemed without sympathy or emotion. What interested me most,
however, was not so much their ferocious appearance as the objects
that they clutched in their hands.
Archaeologists admitted that they
didn’t really know what these objects were but had tentatively
identified them anyway. This identification had stuck and it was now
received wisdom that spearthrowers called atl-atls were held in the
right hands of the idols and ‘spears or arrows and incense bags’ in
the left hands.18 It didn’t seem to matter that the objects did not
in any way resemble atl-atls, spears, arrows, or incense bags.
Santha Faiia’s photographs will help the reader to form his or her
own impression of these peculiar objects. As I studied the objects
themselves I had the distinct sense that they were meant to
represent devices which had originally been made out of metal. The
right-hand device, which seemed to emerge from a sheath or
hand-guard, was lozenge-shaped with a curved lower edge. The
left-hand device could have been an instrument or weapon of some
I remembered legends which related that the gods of ancient Mexico
had armed themselves with xiuhcoatl, ‘fire serpents’.19 These
apparently emitted burning rays capable of piercing and dismembering
human bodies.20 Was it ‘fire serpents’ that the Tula idols were
holding? What, for that matter, were fire serpents?
Whatever they were, both devices looked like pieces of technology.
And both in certain ways resembled the equally mysterious objects in
the hands of the idols in the Kalasasaya at Tiahuanaco.
Santha and I had come to Tula/Tollan because it had been closely
associated both with Quetzalcoatl and with his arch-enemy Tezcatilpoca, the Smoking Mirror.21 Ever-young, omnipotent,
omnipresent and omniscient, Tezcatilpoca was associated in the
legends with night, darkness and the sacred jaguar.22
‘invisible and implacable, appearing to men sometimes as a flying
shadow, sometimes as a dreadful monster’.23 Often depicted as a
glaring skull, he was said to have been the owner of a mysterious
object, the Smoking Mirror after which he was named, which he made
use of to observe from afar the activities of men and gods. Scholars
quite reasonably suppose that it must have been a primitive obsidian scrying stone:
‘Obsidian had an especial sanctity for the Mexicans,
as it provided the sacrificial knives employed by the priests ...
Bernal Diaz [Spanish chronicler] states that they called this stone
“Tezcat”. From it mirrors were also manufactured as divinatory media
to be used by wizards.’24
18 Mexico, pp. 194-5.
19 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and
the Maya, pp. 185, 188-9.
21 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, p. 437.
22 The Feathered
Serpent and the Cross, pp. 52-3.
23 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of
Mythology, p. 436.
24 The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico, p. 51.
Representing the forces of darkness and rapacious evil, Tezcatilpoca
was said in the legends to have been locked in a conflict with
Quetzalcoatl that had continued over an immense span of years.25 At
certain times one seemed to be gaining the upper hand, at certain
times the other. Finally the cosmic struggle came to an end when
good was vanquished by evil and Quetzalcoatl driven out from
Tollan.26 Thereafter, under the influence of Tezcatilpoca’s
nightmarish cult, human sacrifice was reintroduced throughout
As we have seen, Quetzalcoatl was believed to have fled to the coast
and to have been carried away on a raft of serpents. One legend
‘He burned his houses, built of silver and shells, buried his
treasure, and set sail on the Eastern Sea preceded by his attendants
who had been changed into bright birds.’27
This poignant moment of departure was supposedly staged at a place
called Coatzecoalcos, meaning ‘Serpent Sanctuary’.28 There, before
taking his leave, Quetzalcoatl promised his followers he would
return one day to overthrow the cult of Tezcatilpoca and to
inaugurate an era when the gods would again ‘accept sacrifices of
flowers’ and cease their clamour for human blood.29
25 World Mythology, p. 237.
26 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of
Mythology, p. 437.
28 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 139-40.
29 The Feathered Serpent
and the Cross, pp. 35, 66.
Chapter 15 -
We drove south-east from Tula, by-passing Mexico City on an anarchic
series of fast freeways that dragged us through the creeping edge of
the capital’s eye-watering, lung-searing pollution. Our route then
took us up over pine-covered mountains, past the snowy peak of
Popocatepetl and thence along tree-lined lanes amid fields and
In the late afternoon we arrived at Cholula, a sleepy town with
11,000 inhabitants and a spacious main square. After turning east
through the narrow streets, we crossed a railway line and pulled to
a halt in the shadow of tlahchiualtepetl, the ‘man-made mountain’ we
had come here to see.
Once sacred to the peaceful cult of Quetzalcoatl, but now surmounted
by an ornate Catholic church, this immense edifice was ranked among
the most extensive and ambitious engineering projects ever
undertaken anywhere in the ancient world. Indeed, with a base area
of 45 acres and a height of 210 feet, it was three times more
massive than the Great Pyramid of Egypt.1
Though its contours were
now blurred by age and its sides overgrown with grass, it was still
possible to recognize that it had once been an imposing ziggurat
which had risen up towards the heavens in four clean-angled ‘steps’.
Measuring almost half a kilometer along each side at its base, it
had also succeeded in preserving a dignified but violated beauty.
The past, though often dry and dusty, is rarely dumb. Sometimes it
can speak with passion. It seemed to me that it did so here, bearing
witness to the physical and psychological degradation visited upon
the native peoples of Mexico when the Spanish conquistador Hernan
Cortez almost casually ‘beheaded a culture as a passer-by might
sweep off the head of a sunflower’.2
In Cholula, a great centre of
pilgrimage with a population of around 100,000 at the time of the
conquest, this decapitation of ancient traditions and ways of life
required that something particularly humiliating be done to the
man-made mountain of Quetzalcoatl. The solution was to smash and
desecrate the temple which had once stood on the summit of the
ziggurat and replace it with a church.
1 Figures from Fair Gods and Stone Faces, p. 56.
2 Ibid., p. 12.
Cortez and his men were few, the Cholulans were many. When they
marched into town, however, the Spaniards had one major advantage:
bearded and pale-skinned, dressed in shining armour, they looked
like the fulfillment of a prophecy—had it not always been promised
Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, would return ‘from across the
Eastern Sea’ with his band of followers?3
Because of this expectation, the naive and trusting Cholulans
permitted the conquistadores to climb the steps of the ziggurat and
enter the great courtyard of the temple. There troupes of gaily
bedecked dancing girls greeted them, singing and playing on
instruments, while stewards moved back and forth with heaped
platters of bread and delicate cooked meats.
One of the Spanish chroniclers, an eyewitness to the events that
followed, reported that adoring townsfolk of all ranks ‘unarmed,
with eager and happy faces, crowded in to hear what the white men
would say’. Realizing from this incredible reception that their
intentions were not suspected, the Spaniards closed and guarded all
the entrances, drew their weapons of steel and murdered their
Six thousand died in this horrible massacre5 which matched,
in its savagery, the most bloodstained rituals of the Aztecs:
of Cholula were caught unawares. With neither arrows nor shields did
they meet the Spaniards. Just so they were slain without warning.
They were killed by pure treachery.’6
3 Ibid., pp. 3-4.
4 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 6.
5 Mexico, p. 224.
Contemporary account cited in Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p.
It was ironic, I thought, that the conquistadores in both Peru and
Mexico should have benefited in the same way from local legends that
prophesied the return of a pale, bearded god. If that god was indeed
a deified human, as seemed likely, he must have been a person of
high civilization and exemplary character—or more probably two
different people from the same background, one working in Mexico and
providing the model for Quetzalcoatl, the other in Peru being the
model for Viracocha.
The superficial resemblance that the Spanish
bore to those earlier fair-skinned foreigners opened many doors that
would otherwise certainly have been closed. Unlike their wise and
benevolent predecessors, however, Pizarro in the Andes and Cortez in
Central America were ravening wolves. They ate up the lands and the
peoples and the cultures they had seized upon. They destroyed almost
Tears for the past
Their eyes scaled with ignorance,
bigotry and greed, the Spanish
erased a precious heritage of mankind when they arrived in Mexico.
In so doing they deprived the future of any detailed knowledge
concerning the brilliant and remarkable civilizations which once
flourished in Central America.
What, for example, was the true history of the glowing ‘idol
in a sacred sanctuary in the Mixtec capital Achiotlan? We know of
this curious object through the writings of a sixteenth-century
eyewitness, Father Burgoa:
The material was of marvellous value, for it was an emerald of the
size of a thick pepper-pod [capsicum], upon which a small bird was
engraved with the greatest skill, and, with the same skill, a small
serpent coiled ready to strike. The stone was so transparent that it
shone from its interior with the brightness of a candle flame. It
was a very old jewel, and there is no tradition extant concerning
the origin of its veneration and worship.7
What might we learn if we could examine this ‘very old’ jewel today?
And how old was it really? We shall never find out because Fr.
Benito, the first missionary of Achiotlan, seized the stone from the
‘He had it ground up, although a Spaniard offered three
thousand ducats for it, stirred the powder in water, poured it upon
the earth and trod upon it ...’8
Equally typical of the profligate squandering of the intellectual
riches concealed in the Mexican past was the shared fate of two
gifts given to Cortez by the Aztec emperor Montezuma. These were
circular calendars, as big as cartwheels, one of solid silver, and
the other of solid gold. Both were elaborately engraved with
beautiful hieroglyphs which may have contained material of great
interest. Cortez had them melted down for ingots on the spot.9
More systematically, all over Central America, vast repositories of
knowledge accumulated since ancient times were painstakingly
gathered, heaped up and burned by zealous friars. In July 1562, for
example, in the main square of Mani (just south of modern Merida in
Yucatan Province) Fr. Diego de Landa burned thousands of Maya
codices, story paintings and hieroglyphs inscribed on rolled-up deer
skins. He also destroyed countless ‘idols’ and ‘altars’, all of
which he described as ‘works of the devil, designed by the evil one
to delude the Indians and to prevent them from accepting
Elsewhere he elaborated on the same theme:
We found great numbers of books [written in the characters of the
Indians] but as they contained nothing but superstitions and
falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which the natives took
most grievously, and which gave them great pain.11
Not only the ‘natives’ should have felt this pain but anyone and
everyone—then and now—who would like to know the truth about the
7 The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico, pp. 228-9.
9 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 7.
Many other ‘men of God’, some even more ruthlessly efficient than
Yucatan before and after the Conquest, p. 9. See also Mysteries of
the Mexican Pyramids, p. 20.
11 Yucatan before and after the
Conquest, p. 104.
Diego de Landa, participated in Spain’s satanic mission to wipe
clear the memory banks of Central America. Notable among these was
Juan de Zumarraga, Bishop of Mexico, who boasted of having destroyed
20,000 idols and 500 Indian temples. In November 1530 he burned a
Christianized Aztec aristocrat at the stake for having allegedly
reverted to worship of the ‘rain-god’ and later, in the market-place
at Texcoco, built a vast bonfire of astronomical documents,
paintings, manuscripts and hieroglyphic texts which the
conquistadores had forcibly extracted from the Aztecs during the
previous eleven years.12
As this irreplaceable storehouse of
knowledge and history went up in flames, a chance to shake off at
least some of the collective amnesia that clouds our understanding
was lost to mankind for ever.
What remains to us of the written records of the ancient peoples of
Central America? The answer, thanks to the Spanish, is less than
twenty original codices and scrolls.13
We know from hearsay that many of the documents which the friars
reduced to ashes contained ‘records of ages past’.14
What did those lost records say? What secrets did they hold?
Gigantic men of deformed stature
Even while the orgy of book-burning was still going on, some
Spaniards began to realize that ‘a truly great civilization had once
existed in Mexico prior to the Aztecs’.15 Oddly enough, one of the
first to act on this realization was Diego de Landa. He appears to
have undergone ‘Damascus-road experience’ after staging his
auto-da-fé at Mani. In later years, determined to save what he could
of the ancient wisdom he had once played such a large part in
destroying, he became an assiduous gatherer of the traditions and
oral histories of the native peoples of the Yucatan.16
Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar, was a chronicler to whom
we owe much. A great linguist, he is reported to have ‘sought out
the most learned and often the oldest natives, and asked each to
paint in his Aztec picture writing as much as he could clearly
remember of Aztec history, religion and legend’.17
In this way Sahagun was able to accumulate detailed information on the
anthropology, mythology and social history of ancient Mexico, which
he later set down in a learned twelve-volume work. This was
suppressed by the Spanish authorities. Fortunately one copy has
survived, though it is incomplete.
12 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 21.
13 Fair Gods and Stone
Faces, p. 34.
15 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 23.
16 Yucatan before and
after the Conquest.
17 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 24.
Diego de Duran, a conscientious and courageous collector of
indigenous traditions, was yet another Franciscan who fought to
recover the lost knowledge of the past. He visited Cholula in AD
1585, a time of rapid and catastrophic change. There he interviewed
a venerated elder of the town, said to have been more than one
hundred years old, who told him this story about the making of the
In the beginning, before the light of the sun had been created, this
place, Cholula, was in obscurity and darkness; all was a plain,
without hill or elevation, encircled in every part by water, without
tree or created thing. Immediately after the light and the sun arose
in the east there appeared gigantic men of deformed stature who
possessed the land. Enamoured of the light and beauty of the sun
they determined to build a tower so high that its summit should
reach the sky. Having collected materials for the purpose they found
a very adhesive clay and bitumen with which they speedily commenced
to build the tower ...
And having reared it to the greatest possible
altitude, so that it reached the sky, the Lord of the Heavens,
enraged, said to the inhabitants of the sky,
‘Have you observed how
they of the earth have built a high and haughty tower to mount
hither, being enamoured of the light of the sun and his beauty? Come
and confound them, because it is not right that they of the earth,
living in the flesh, should mingle with us.’
inhabitants of the sky sallied forth like flashes of lightning; they
destroyed the edifice and divided and scattered its builders to all
parts of the earth.18
Diego de Duran, ‘Historia antiqua de la Nueve Espana’, (1585), in
Ignatius Donelly, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, p. 200.
It was this story, almost but not quite the biblical account of
Tower of Babel (which was itself a reworking of a far older
Mesopotamian tradition), that had brought me to Cholula.
The Central American and Middle Eastern tales were obviously closely
related. Indeed, the similarities were unmissable, but there were
also differences far too significant to be ignored. Of course, the
similarities could be due to unrecorded pre-Colombian contacts
between the cultures of the Middle East and the New World, but there
was one way to explain the similarities and the differences in a
Suppose that the two versions of the legend had
evolved separately for several thousands of years, but prior to that
both had descended from the same remotely ancient ancestor?
Here’s what the Book of Genesis says about the ‘tower that reached
Throughout the earth men spoke the same language, with the same
vocabulary. Now as they moved eastwards they found a plain in the
land of Shinar, where they settled. There they said to one another,
‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.’ For stone they
Used bricks and for mortar they used bitumen. ‘Come,’ they said,
‘let us build ourselves a town and a tower with its top reaching
heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be
scattered about the
Yahewh [the Hebrew God]
came down to see the town and the tower
that the sons of man had built.
‘So they are all a single people
with a single language!’ said Yahweh. ‘This is but the start of
their undertakings! There will be nothing too hard for them to do.
Come, let us go down and confuse their language on the spot so that
they can no longer understand one another.’
Yahweh scattered them thence over the whole face of the earth, and
they stopped building the tower. It was named Babel, therefore,
because there Yahweh confused the language of the whole earth. It
was from there that Yahweh scattered them over the whole face of the
The verse which most interested me suggested very clearly that the
ancient builders of the Tower of Babel had set out to create a
lasting monument to themselves so that their name would not be
forgotten— even if their civilization and language were. Was it
possible that the same considerations could have applied at Cholula?
Only a handful of monuments in Mexico were thought by archaeologists
to be more than 2000 years old. Cholula was definitely one of them.
Indeed no one could say for sure in what distant age its ramparts
had first begun to be heaped up. For thousands of years before
development and extension of the site began in earnest around 300
BC, it looked as though some other, older structure might have been
positioned at the spot over which the great ziggurat of Quetzalcoatl
There was a precedent for this which further strengthened the
intriguing possibility that the remnants of a truly ancient
civilization might still be lying around in Central America waiting
to be recognized. For example, just south of the university campus
of Mexico City, off the main road connecting the capital to
Cuernavaca, stands a circular step pyramid of great complexity (with
four galleries and a central staircase).
It was partially excavated
in the 1920s from beneath a mantle of lava. Geologists were called
to the site to help date the lava, and carried out a detailed
examination. To everyone’s surprise, they concluded that the
volcanic eruption which had completely buried three sides of this
pyramid (and had then gone on to cover about sixty square miles of
the surrounding territory) must have taken place at least
thousand years ago.20
19 Genesis 11:1-9.
Reported in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, p. 199. See also The
God-Kings and the Titans, p. 54, and Mysteries of the Mexican
Pyramids, p. 207.
This geological evidence seems to have been ignored by historians
and archaeologists, who do not believe that any civilization capable
of building a pyramid could have existed in Mexico at such an early
date. It is worth noting, however, that Byron Cummings, the American
archaeologist who originally excavated the site for the National
Geographical Society, was convinced by clearly demarcated
layers above and below the pyramid (laid down both before and after
the volcanic eruption) that it was ‘the oldest temple yet uncovered
on the American continent’.
He went further than the geologists and
stated categorically that this temple ‘fell into ruins some 8500
Byron S. Cummings, ‘Cuicuilco and the Archaic Culture of Mexico’,
University of Arizona Bulletin, volume IV:8, 15 November 1933.
Pyramids upon pyramids
Going inside the Cholula pyramid really did feel like entering a
man-made mountain. The tunnels (and there were more than six miles
of them) were not old: they had been left behind by the teams of
archaeologists who had burrowed here diligently from 1931 until
funds ran out in 1966. Somehow, these narrow, low-ceilinged
corridors had borrowed an atmosphere of antiquity from the vast
structure all around them. Moist and cool, they offered an inviting
and secretive darkness.
Following a ribbon of torchlight we walked deeper inside the
pyramid. The archaeological excavations had revealed that it was not
the product of one dynasty (as was thought to have been the case
with the pyramids at Giza in Egypt), but that it had been built up
over a very long period of time—two thousand years or so, at a
conservative estimate. In other words it was a collective project,
created by an inter-generational labour force drawn from the many
different cultures, Olmec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec,
Cholulan and Aztec, that had passed through Cholula since the dawn
of civilization in Mexico.22
Mexico, p. 223. See also Kurt Mendelssohn, The Riddle of the
Pyramids, Thames & Hudson, London, 1986, p. 190.
Though it was not known who had been the first builders here, as far
as it had been possible to establish the earliest major edifice on
the site consisted of a tall conical pyramid, shaped like an
upturned bucket, flattened at the summit where a temple had stood.
Much later a second, similar structure was imposed on top of this
primordial mound, i.e. a second inverted bucket of clay, and
compacted stone was placed directly over the first, raising the
temple platform to more than 200 feet above the surrounding plain.
Thereafter, during the next fifteen hundred years or so, an
estimated four or five other cultures contributed to the final
appearance of the monument. This they did by extending its base in
several stages, but never again by increasing its maximum height. In
this way, almost as though a master plan were being implemented, the
man-made mountain of Cholula gradually attained its characteristic,
four-tier ziggurat shape.
Today, its sides at the base are each
almost 1500 feet long—about twice the length of the sides of the
Great Pyramid at Giza— and its total volume has been estimated at a
staggering three million
cubic metres.23 This makes it, as one authority succinctly states,
largest building ever erected on earth.’24
23 The Riddle of the Pyramids, p. 190.
Walking through the network of corridors and passageways, inhaling
the cool, loamy air, I was uncomfortably conscious of the great
weight and mass of the pyramid pressing down upon me. It was the
largest building in the world and it had been placed here in honour
of a Central American deity of whom almost nothing was known.
We had the conquistadores and
the Catholic Church to thank for
leaving us so deeply in the dark about the true story of
Quetzalcoatl and his followers. The smashing and desecration of his
ancient temple at Cholula, the destruction of idols, altars and
calendars, and the great bonfires made out of codices, paintings and
hieroglyphic scrolls, had succeeded almost completely in silencing
the voices of the past.
But the legends did offer us one graphic and
powerful piece of imagery: a memory of the ‘gigantic men of deformed
stature’ who were said to have been the original builders.
Chapter 16 -
From Cholula we drove east, past the prosperous cities of Puebla,
Orizaba and Cordoba, towards Veracruz and the Gulf of Mexico. We
crossed the mist-enshrouded peaks of the Sierra Madre Oriental,
where the air was thin and cold, and then descended towards sea
level on to tropical plains overgrown with lush plantations of palms
and bananas. We were heading into the heartlands of Mexico’s oldest
and most mysterious civilization: that of the so-called Olmecs,
whose name meant ‘rubber people’.
Dating back to the second millennium BC, the Olmecs had ceased to
exist fifteen hundred years before the rise of the Aztec empire. The
Aztecs, however, had preserved haunting traditions concerning them
and were even responsible for naming them after the rubber-producing
area of Mexico’s gulf coast where they were believed to have lived.1
This area lies between modern Veracruz in the west and Ciudad del
Carmen in the east. In it the Aztecs found a number of ancient
ritual objects produced by the Olmecs and for reasons unknown they
collected these objects and placed them in positions of importance
in their own temples.2
1 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p. 126.
Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendour, p. 50.
Looking at my map, I could see the blue line of the Coatzecoalcos
River running into the Gulf of Mexico more or less at the midpoint
of the legendary Olmec homeland. The oil industry proliferates here
now, where rubber trees once flourished, transforming a tropical
paradise into something resembling the lowest circle of Dante’s
Inferno. Since the oil boom of 1973 the town of Coatzecoalcos, once
easy-going but not very prosperous, had mushroomed into a transport
and refining centre with air-conditioned hotels and a population of
half a million.
It lay close to the black heart of an industrial
wasteland in which virtually everything of archaeological interest
that had escaped the depredations of the Spanish at the time of the
conquest had been destroyed by the voracious expansion of the oil
business. It was therefore no longer possible, on the basis of hard
evidence, to confirm or deny the intriguing suggestion that the
legends seemed to make: that something of great importance must once
have occurred here.
The Olmec sites of Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo and La Venta along the
Gulf of Mexico,
with other Central American archaeological sites.
I remembered that Coatzecoalcos meant ‘Serpent Sanctuary
’. It was
here, in remote antiquity, that Quetzalcoatl and his companions were
said to have landed when they first reached Mexico, arriving from
across the sea in vessels ‘with sides that shone like the scales of
serpents’ skins’.3 And it was from here too that Quetzalcoatl was
believed to have sailed (on his raft of serpents) when he left
Central America. Serpent Sanctuary, moreover, was beginning to look
like the name for the Olmec homeland, which had included not only
Coatzecoalcos but several other sites in areas less blighted by
3 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 139-40.
First at Tres Zapotes, west of Coatzecoalcos, and then at San
Lorenzo and La Venta, south and east of it, numerous pieces of
characteristically Olmec sculpture had been unearthed. All were
monoliths carved out of basalt and similarly durable materials. Some
took the form of gigantic heads weighing up to thirty tons. Others
were massive stelae engraved with encounter scenes apparently
involving two distinct races of mankind, neither of them
Whoever had produced these outstanding works of art had obviously
belonged to a refined, well organized, prosperous and
technologically advanced civilization. The problem was that
absolutely nothing remained, except the works of art, from which
anything could be deduced about the character and origins of that
civilization. All that seemed clear was that ‘the Olmecs’ (the
archaeologists were happy to accept the Aztec designation) had
materialized in Central America around 1500 BC with their
sophisticated culture fully evolved.
We passed the night at the fishing port of Alvarado and continued
our journey east the next day. The road we were following wound in
and out of fertile hills and valleys, giving us occasional views of
the Gulf of Mexico before turning inland. We passed green meadows
filled with flame trees, and little villages nestled in grassy
hollows. Here and there we saw private gardens where hulking pigs
grubbed amongst piles of domestic refuse. Then we crested the brow
of a hill and looked out across a giant vista of fields and forests
bound only by the morning haze and the faint outlines of distant
Some miles farther on we dropped into a hollow; at its bottom lay
the old colonial town of Santiago Tuxtla. The place was a riot of
colour: garish shop-fronts, red-tile roofs, yellow straw hats,
coconut palms, banana trees, kids in bright clothes. Several of the
shops and cafés were playing music from loudspeakers. In the Zocalo,
the main square, the air was thick with humidity and the fluttering
wings and songs of bright-eyed tropical birds.
A leafy little park
occupied the centre of this square, and in the centre of the park,
like some magic talisman, stood an enormous grey boulder, almost ten
feet tall, carved in the shape of a helmeted African head.
Full-lipped and strong-nosed, its eyes serenely closed and its lower
jaw resting squarely on the ground, this head had a sombre and
Here, then, was the first mystery of the Olmecs: a monumental piece
of sculpture, more than 2000 years old, which portrayed a subject
with unmistakable negroid features. There were, of course, no
African blacks in the New World 2000 years ago, nor did any arrive
until the slave trade began, well after the conquest. There is,
however, firm palaeoanthropological evidence that one of the many
different migrations into the Americas during the last Ice Age did
consist of peoples of negroid stock. This migration occurred around
4 Ibid., p. 125.
Known as the ‘Cobata’ head after the estate on which it was found,
the huge monolith in the Zocalo was the largest of sixteen similar
Olmec sculptures so far excavated in Mexico. It was thought to have
been carved not long before the time of Christ and weighed more than
From Santiago Tuxtla we drove twenty-five kilometers south-west
through wild and lush countryside to Tres Zapotes, a substantial
late Olmec centre believed to have flourished between 500 BC and AD
100. Now reduced to a series of mounds scattered across maize
fields, the site had been extensively excavated in 1939-40 by the
American archaeologist Matthew
Historical dogmatists of that period, I remembered, had held
tenaciously to the view that the civilization of the Mayas was the
oldest in Central America. One could be precise about this, they
argued, because the Mayan dot-and-bar calendrical system (which had
recently been decoded) made possible accurate dating of huge numbers
of ceremonial inscriptions.
The earliest date ever found on a Mayan
site corresponded to AD 228 of the Christian calendar.5 It therefore
came as quite a jolt to the academic status quo when Stirling
unearthed a stela at Tres Zapotes which bore an earlier date.
Written in the familiar bar-and-dot calendrical code used by the
Maya, it corresponded to 3 September 32 BC.6
5 Mexico, p. 637. See also The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 24.
What was shocking about this was that Tres Zapotes was not a Maya
site—not in any way at all. It was entirely, exclusively,
unambiguously Olmec. This suggested that the Olmecs, not the Maya,
must have been the inventors of the calendar, and that the Olmecs,
not the Maya, ought to be recognized as ‘the mother culture’ of
Central America. Despite determined opposition from gangs of furious
Mayanists the truth which Stirling’s spade had unearthed at Tres
Zapotes gradually came out.
The Olmecs were much, much older than
the Maya. They’d been a smart, civilized, technologically advanced
people and they did, indeed, appear to have invented the bar-and-dot
system of calendrical notation, with the enigmatic starting date of
13 August 3114 BC, which predicted the end of the world in AD 2012.
Lying close to the calendar stela at Tres Zapotes, Stirling also
unearthed a giant head. I sat in front of that head now. Dated to
around 100 BC,7 it was approximately six feet high, 18 feet in
circumference and weighed over 10 tons. Like its counterpart in
Santiago Tuxtla, it was unmistakably the head of an African man
wearing a close-fitting helmet with long chin-straps.
The lobes of
the ears were pierced by plugs; the pronounced negroid features were
furrowed by deep frown lines on either side of the nose, and the
entire face was concentrated forwards above thick, down-curving
lips. The eyes were open and watchful, almond-shaped and cold.
Beneath the curious helmet, the heavy brows appeared beetling and
Stirling was amazed by this discovery and reported,
The head was a head only, carved from a single massive block of
basalt, and it
rested on a prepared foundation of unworked slabs of stone ...
Cleared of the
surrounding earth it presented an awe-inspiring spectacle. Despite
its great size
the workmanship is delicate and sure, the proportions perfect.
Unique in character
among aboriginal American sculptures, it is remarkable for its
The features are bold and amazingly negroid in character ...8
7 Mexico, p. 638.
8 Matthew W. Stirling, ‘Discovering the New
World’s Oldest Dated Work of Man’, National
Geographic Magazine, volume 76, August 1939, pp. 183-218 passim
Soon afterwards the American archaeologist made a second unsettling
discovery at Tres Zapotes: children’s toys in the form of little
wheeled dogs.9 These cute
artifacts conflicted head-on with
prevailing archaeological opinion, which held that the wheel had
remained undiscovered in Central America until the time of the
The ‘dogmobiles’ proved, at the very least, that the
principle of the wheel had been known to the Olmecs, Central
America’s earliest civilization. And if a people as resourceful as
the Olmecs had worked out the principle of the wheel, it seemed
highly unlikely that they would have used it just for children’s
Matthew W. Stirling, ‘Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle’,
National Geographic Magazine, volume 78, September 1940, pp. 314,
Chapter 17 -
The Olmec Enigma
After Tres Zapotes our next stop was San Lorenzo, an Olmec site
lying south-west of Coatzecoalcos in the heart of the ‘Serpent
Sanctuary’ the legends of Quetzalcoatl made reference to. It was at
San Lorenzo that the earliest carbon-dates for an Olmec site (around
1500 BC) had been recorded by archaeologists.1 However, Olmec
culture appeared to have been fully evolved by that epoch and there
was no evidence that the evolution had taken place in the vicinity
of San Lorenzo.2
In this there lay a mystery.
The Olmecs, after all, had built a significant civilization which
had carried out prodigious engineering works and had developed the
capacity to carve and manipulate vast blocks of stone (several of
the huge monolithic heads, weighing twenty tons or more, had been
moved as far as 60 miles overland after being quarried in the Tuxtla
mountains).3 So where, if not at ancient San Lorenzo, had their
technological expertise and sophisticated organization been
experimented with, evolved and refined?
Strangely, despite the best efforts of archaeologists, not a single,
solitary sign of anything that could be described as the
‘developmental phase’ of Olmec society had been unearthed anywhere
in Mexico (or, for that matter, anywhere in the New World). These
people, whose characteristic form of artistic expression was the
carving of huge negroid heads, appeared to have come from nowhere.4
The Prehistory of the Americas, pp. 268-71. See also Jeremy A.
Sabloff, The Cities of Ancient Mexico: Reconstructing a Lost World,
Thames and Hudson, London, 1990, p. 35. Breaking the Maya Code, p.
2 The Prehistory of the Americas, p. 268.
3 Aztecs: Reign of
Blood and Splendour, p. 158.
‘Olmec stone sculpture achieved a high, naturalistic plasticity, yet
it has no surviving prototypes, as if this powerful ability to
represent both nature and abstract concepts was a native invention
of this early civilization.’ The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico
and the Maya, p. 15; The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 55: ‘The
proto-Olmec phase remains an enigma ... it is not really known at
what time, or in what place, Olmec culture took on its very
We reached San Lorenzo late in the afternoon.
Here, at the dawn of
history in Central America, the Olmecs had heaped up an artificial
mound more than 100 feet high as part of an immense structure some
in length and 2000 feet in width. We climbed the dominant mound, now
heavily overgrown with thick tropical vegetation, and from the
summit we could see for miles across the surrounding countryside. A
great many lesser mounds were also visible and around about were
several of the deep trenches the archaeologist Michael Coe had dug
when he had excavated the site in 1966.
Coe’s team made a number of finds here, which included more than
twenty artificial reservoirs, linked by a highly sophisticated
network of basalt-lined troughs. Part of this system was built into
a ridge; when it was rediscovered water still gushed forth from it
during heavy rains, as it had done for more than 3000 years. The
main line of the drainage ran from east to west. Into it, linked by
joints made to an advanced design, three subsidiary lines were
channelled.5 After surveying the site thoroughly, the archaeologists
admitted that they could not understand the purpose of this
elaborate system of sluices and water-works.6
Nor were they able to come up with an explanation for another
enigma. This was the deliberate burial, along specific alignments,
of five of the massive pieces of sculpture, showing negroid
features, now widely identified as ‘Olmec heads’. These peculiar and
apparently ritualistic graves also yielded more than sixty precious
objects and artifacts, including beautiful instruments made of jade
and exquisitely carved statuettes. Some of the statuettes had been
systematically mutilated before burial.
The way the San Lorenzo sculptures had been interred made it
extremely difficult to fix their true age, even though fragments of
charcoal were found in the same strata as some of the buried
objects. Unlike the sculptures, these charcoal pieces could be
carbon-dated. They were, and produced readings in the range of 1200
5 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 36.
6 The Prehistory of the
Americas, p. 268.
7 Ibid., pp. 267-8. The Ancient Kingdoms of
Mexico, p. 55.
This did not mean, however, that the sculptures had been carved
in 1200 BC. They could have been. But they could have originated in
a period hundreds or even thousands of years earlier than that. It
was by no means impossible that these great works of art, with their
intrinsic beauty and an indefinable numinous power, could have been
preserved and venerated by many different cultures before being
buried at San Lorenzo.
The charcoal associated with them proved only
that the sculptures were at least as old as 1200 BC; it did not set
any upper limit on their antiquity.
We left San Lorenzo as the sun was going down, heading for the city
of Villahermosa, more than 150 kilometers to the east in the
Tabasco. To get there we rejoined the main road running from
Acayucan to Villahermosa and by-passed the port of Coatzecoalcos in
a zone of oil refineries, towering pylons and ultra-modern
The change of pace between the sleepy rural
backwater where San Lorenzo was located and the pockmarked
industrial landscape around Coatzecoalcos was almost shocking.
Moreover, the only reason that the timeworn outlines of the Olmec
site could still be seen at San Lorenzo was that oil had not yet
been found there.
It had, however, been found at La Venta—to the eternal loss of
We were now passing La Venta.
Due north, off a slip-road from the freeway, this sodium-lit
petroleum city glowed in the dark like a vision of nuclear disaster.
Since the 1940s it had been extensively ‘developed’ by the oil
industry: an airstrip now bisected the site where a most unusual
pyramid had once stood, and flaring smokestacks darkened the sky
which Olmec star-gazers must once have searched for the rising of
Lamentably, the bulldozers of the developers had
flattened virtually everything of interest before proper excavations
could be conducted, with the result that many of the ancient
structures had not been explored at all.8 We will never know what
they could have said about the people who built and used them.
Matthew Stirling, who excavated Tres Zapotes, carried out the bulk
of the archaeological work done at La Venta before progress and oil
money erased it. Carbon-dating suggested that the Olmecs had
established themselves here between 1500 and 1100 BC and had
continued to occupy the site—which consisted of an island lying in
marshes to the east of the Tonala river—until about 400 BC.9
construction was suddenly abandoned, all existing buildings were
ceremonially defaced or demolished, and several huge stone heads and
other smaller pieces of sculpture were ritually buried in peculiar
graves, just as had happened at San Lorenzo.
The La Venta graves
were elaborate and carefully prepared, lined with thousands of tiny
blue tiles and filled up with layers of multicoloured clay.10 At one
spot some 15,000 cubic feet of earth had been dug out of the ground
to make a deep pit; its floor had been carefully covered with
serpentine blocks, and all the earth put back. Three mosaic
pavements were also found, intentionally buried beneath several
alternating layers of clay and adobe.11
8 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 30.
9 Ibid., p. 31.
10 The Prehistory of the Americas, pp. 268-9.
11 Ibid., p. 269.
La Venta’s principal pyramid stood at the southern end of the site.
Roughly circular at ground level, it took the form of a fluted cone,
the rounded sides consisting of ten vertical ridges with gullies
between. The pyramid was 100 feet tall, almost 200 feet in diameter
and had an overall mass in the region of 300,000 cubic feet—an impressive monument by
The remainder of the site stretched for almost half a
kilometer along an axis that pointed precisely 8° west of north.
Centered on this axis, with every structure in flawless alignment,
were several smaller pyramids and plazas, platforms and mounds,
covering a total area of more than three square miles.
There was something detached and odd about La Venta, a sense that
its original function had not been properly understood.
Archaeologists referred to it as a ‘ceremonial centre’, and very
probably that is what it was. If one were honest, however, one would
admit that it could also have been several other things. The truth
is that nothing is known about the social organization, ceremonies
and belief systems of the Olmecs.
We do not know what language they
spoke, or what traditions they passed to their children. We don’t
even know what ethnic group they belonged to. The exceptionally
humid conditions of the Gulf of Mexico mean that not a single Olmec
skeleton has survived.12 In reality, despite the names we have given
them and the views we’ve formed about them, these people are
completely obscure to us.
12 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 28.
It is even possible that the enigmatic sculptures ‘they’ left
behind, which we presume depicted them, were not ‘their’ work at
all, but the work of a far earlier and forgotten people.
Not for the
first time I found myself wondering whether some of the great heads
other remarkable artifacts attributed to the Olmecs might not have
been handed down like heirlooms, perhaps over many millennia, to the
cultures which eventually began to build the mounds and pyramids at
San Lorenzo and La Venta.
Reconstruction of La Venta.
Note the unusual fluted-cone pyramid
that dominates the site.
If so, then who are we speaking of when we use the label ‘Olmec’?
The mound-builders? Or the powerful and imposing men with negroid
features who provided the models for the monolithic heads?
Fortunately some fifty pieces of ‘Olmec’ monumental sculpture,
including three of the giant heads, were rescued from La Venta by
Carlos Pellicer Camara, a local poet and historian who intervened
he discovered that oil-drilling by the PEMEX company jeopardized the
ruins. By determined lobbying of the politicians of Tabasco (within
which La Venta lies), he arranged to have the significant finds
moved to a park on the outskirts of the regional capital
Taken together these finds constitute a precious and irreplaceable
cultural record—or rather a whole library of cultural records—left
behind by a vanished civilization.
But nobody knows how to read the
language of these records.
Above left: Profile view of the head of the Great Sphinx at Giza,
Above right: Profile view of Olmec Head from La Venta,
Below left: Front view of the head of the Sphinx.
right: Front view of Olmec Head.
Compare also further below, top
left: Sphinx-like Olmec sculpture from San Lorenzo, Mexico.
possible that the many similarities between the cultures of
pre-Columbian Central America and Ancient Egypt could have stemmed
from an as-yet-unidentified ‘third-party’ civilization that
influenced both widely separated regions at a remote and early date?
Centre: Double-puma statue at Uxtnal, Mexico.
symbolism from Ancient Egypt, depicting the Akeru, lion gods of
yesterday and today (Akeru was written in hieroglyphs as
religions of both regions share many other common images and ideas.
Also noteworthy is the fact that p’achi, the Central American word
for ‘human sacrifice’, means, literally ‘to open the mouth’— which
calls to mind a strange Ancient Egyptian funerary ritual known as
‘the opening of the mouth’.
Likewise it was believed in both regions
that the souls of dead kings were reborn as stars.
Deus ex machina
Villahermosa, Tabasco province
I was looking at an elaborate relief that had been dubbed ‘Man in
Serpent’ by the archaeologists who found it at La Venta. According
to expert opinion it showed ‘an Olmec, wearing a head-dress and
holding an incense bag, enveloped by a feathered serpent’.13
13 The Cities of Ancient Mexico, p. 37.
The relief was carved into a slab of solid granite measuring about
four feet wide by five feet high and showed a man sitting with his
legs stretched out in front of him as though he were reaching for
pedals with his feet. He held a small, bucket-shaped object in his
right hand. With his left he appeared to be raising or lowering a
lever. The ‘head-dress’ he wore was an odd and complicated garment.
To my eye it seemed more functional than ceremonial, although I
could not imagine what its function might have been. On it, or
perhaps on a console above it, were two x-shaped crosses.
I turned my attention to the other principal element of the
the ‘feathered serpent’. On one level it did, indeed, depict exactly
that: a plumed or feathered serpent, the age-old symbol of
Quetzalcoatl, whom the Olmecs, therefore, must have worshipped (or
at the very least recognized). Scholars do not dispute this
interpretation.14 It is generally accepted that Quetzalcoatl’s cult
was immensely ancient, originating in prehistoric times in Central
America and thereafter receiving the devotion of many cultures
during the historic period.
14 The Prehistory of the Americas, p. 270.
The feathered serpent in this particular sculpture, however, had
certain characteristics that set it apart. It seemed to be more than
just a religious symbol; indeed, there was something rigid and
structured about it that made it look almost like a piece of
Whispers of ancient secrets
Later that day I took shelter in the giant shadow cast by one of the
Olmec heads Carlos Pellicer Camara had rescued from La Venta. It was
the head of an old man with a broad flat nose and thick lips. The
lips were slightly parted, exposing strong, square teeth.
expression on the face suggested an ancient, patient wisdom, and the
eyes seemed to gaze unafraid into eternity, like those of the Great
Sphinx at Giza in lower Egypt.
It would probably be impossible, I thought, for a sculptor to invent
all the different combined characteristics of an authentic racial
type. The portrayal of an authentic combination of racial
characteristics therefore implied strongly that a human model had
I walked around the great head a couple of times. It was 22 feet in
circumference, weighed 19.8 tons, stood almost 8 feet high, had been
carved out of solid basalt, and displayed clearly ‘an authentic
combination of racial characteristics’. Indeed, like the other
pieces I had seen at Santiago Tuxtla and at Tres Zapotes, it
unmistakably and unambiguously showed a negro.
The reader can form his or her own opinion after examining the
relevant photographs in this book. My own view is that the Olmec
heads present us with physiologically accurate images of real
individuals of negroid stock—charismatic and powerful African men
whose presence in Central America 3000 years ago has not yet been
explained by scholars. Nor is there any certainty that the heads
were actually carved in that epoch. Carbon-dating of fragments of
charcoal found in the same pits tells us only the age of the
charcoal. Calculating the true antiquity of the heads themselves is
a much more complex matter.
It was with such thoughts that I continued my slow walk among the
strange and wonderful monuments of La Venta. They whispered of
ancient secrets—the secret of the man in the machine ... the secret
negro heads ... and, last but not least, the secret of a legend
brought to life.
For it seemed that flesh might indeed have been put
on the mythical bones of Quetzalcoatl when I found that several of
the La Venta sculptures contained realistic likenesses not only of
negroes but of tall, thin-featured, long-nosed, apparently Caucasian
men with straight hair and full beards, wearing flowing robes ...
Continue to Chapter 18
to Mensajes de Civilizaciones Andinas y Americanas