Children of the First Men
Palenque, Chiapas Province
Evening was settling in. I sat just beneath the north-east corner of
the Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions and gazed north over the
darkening jungle where the land dropped away towards the flood plain
of the Usumacinta.
The Temple consisted of three chambers and rested on top of a
nine-stage pyramid almost 100 feet tall. The clean and harmonious
lines of this structure gave it a sense of delicacy, but not of
weakness. It felt strong, rooted into the earth, enduring—a creature
of pure geometry and imagination.
Looking to my right I could see the Palace, a spacious rectangular
complex on a pyramidal base, dominated by a narrow, four-storied
tower, thought to have been used as an observatory by Maya priests.
Around about me, where bright-feathered parrots and macaws skimmed
the treetops, a number of other spectacular buildings lay half
swallowed by the encroaching forest. These were the Temple of the
Foliated Cross, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Count, and
the Temple of the Lion—all names made up by archaeologists. So much
of what the Maya had stood for, cared about, believed in and
remembered from earlier times was irretrievably lost. Though we’d
long ago learned to read their dates, we were only just beginning to
make headway with the deciphering of their intricate hieroglyphs.
I stood and climbed the last few steps into the central chamber of
the Temple. Set into the rear wall were two great grey slabs, and
inscribed on them, in regimented rows like pieces on a chequerboard,
were 620 separate Mayan glyphs. These took the form of faces,
monstrous and human, together with a writhing bestiary of mythical
What was being said here? No one knew for sure because the
inscriptions, a mixture of word pictures and phonetic symbols, had
not yet been fully decoded. It was evident, however, that a number
of the glyphs referred to epochs thousands of years in the past, and
spoke of people and gods who had played their parts in prehistoric
Atlas of Mysterious Places (ed. Jennifer Westwood), Guild
Publishing, London, 1987, p. 70.
To the left of the hieroglyphs, let into the huge flagstones of the
temple floor, was a steep descending internal stairway. This led to
a room buried deep in the bowels of the pyramid, where
the tomb of
Lord Pacal lay. The stairs, of highly polished limestone blocks,
were narrow and surprisingly slippery and moist. Adopting a crabbed,
sideways stance, I switched on my torch and stepped gingerly down
into the gloom, steadying myself against the southern wall as I did
This damp stairway had been a secret place from the date when it was
originally sealed, in AD 683, until June 1952 when the Mexican
archaeologist Alberto Ruz lifted the flagstones in the temple floor.
Although a second such tomb was found at Palenque in 1994,2 Ruz had
the honour of being the first man to discover such a feature inside
a New World pyramid. The stairway had been intentionally filled with
rubble by its builders, and it took four more years before the
archaeologists cleared it out completely and reached the bottom.
2 The Times, London, 4 June 1994.
When they had done so they entered a narrow corbel-vaulted chamber.
Spread out on the floor in front of them were the mouldering
skeletons of five or possibly six young victims of sacrifice. A huge
triangular slab of stone was visible at the far end of the chamber.
When it was removed, Ruz was confronted by a remarkable tomb.
described it as,
‘an enormous room that appeared to be graven in ice,
a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planed in
perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped
with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick
stalagmites like the dripping of a candle.’3
The room, also roofed with a corbel vault, was 30 feet long and 23
feet high. Around the walls, in stucco relief, could be seen the
striding figures of the Lords of the Night—the ‘Ennead’ of nine
deities who ruled over the hours of darkness. Centre-stage, and
overlooked by these figures, was a huge monolithic sarcophagus
lidded with a five-ton slab of richly carved stone. Inside the
sarcophagus was a tall skeleton draped with a treasure trove of jade
A mosaic death mask of 200 fragments of jade was affixed
to the front of the skull. These, supposedly, were the remains of Pacal, a
ruler of Palenque in the seventh century AD. The
inscriptions stated that this monarch had been eighty years old at
the time of his death, but the jade-draped skeleton the
archaeologists found in the sarcophagus appeared to belong to a man
half that age.4
Having reached the bottom of the stairway, some eighty-five feet
below the floor of the temple, I crossed the chamber where the
sacrificial victims had lain and gazed directly into Pacal’s tomb.
The air was dank, full of mildew and damp-rot, and surprisingly
cold. The sarcophagus, set into the floor of the tomb, had a curious
shape, flared strikingly at the feet like an Ancient Egyptian mummy
case. These were made of wood and were equipped with wide bases
since they were frequently stood upright. But Pacal’s coffin was
made of solid stone and was uncompromisingly horizontal.
had the Mayan artificers gone to so much trouble to widen its base
when they must have known that it served no useful purpose? Could
they have been slavishly copying a design-feature from some ancient
model long after the raison d’être for the design had been
forgotten?5 Like the beliefs concerning the perils of the afterlife,
might Pacal’s sarcophagus not be an expression of a common legacy
linking Ancient Egypt with the ancient cultures of Central America?
3 Quoted in The Atlas of Mysterious Places, pp. 68-9.
Michael D. Coe, The Maya, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991, pp.
5 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 94-5.
Rectangular in shape, the heavy stone lid of the sarcophagus was ten
inches thick, three feet wide and twelve and a half feet long. It,
too, seemed to have been modelled on the same original as the
magnificent engraved blocks the Ancient Egyptians had used for this
Indeed, it would not have looked out of place in the Valley of the
Kings. But there was one major difference. The scene carved on top
of the sarcophagus lid was unlike anything that ever came out of
Egypt. Lit in my torch beam, it showed a clean-shaven man dressed in
what looked like a tight-fitting body-suit, the sleeves and leggings
of which were gathered into elaborate cuffs at the wrists and
The man lay semi-reclined in a bucket seat which supported
his lower back and thighs, the nape of his neck resting comfortably
against some kind of headrest, and he was peering forward intently.
His hands seemed to be in motion, as though they were operating
levers and controls, and his feet were bare, tucked up loosely in
front of him.
Was this supposed to be Pacal, the Maya king?
If so, why was he shown operating some kind of machine? The Maya
weren’t supposed to have had machines. They weren’t even supposed to
have discovered the wheel. Yet with its side panels, rivets, tubes
and other gadgets, the structure Pacal reclined in resembled a
technological device much more strongly than it did ‘the transition
of one man’s living soul to the realms of the dead’,6 as one
authority claimed, or the king ‘falling back into the fleshless jaws
of the earth monster’,7 as another argued.
I remembered ‘Man in Snake’, the Olmec relief described in Chapter
Seventeen. It, too, had looked like a naïve depiction of a piece of
technology. Furthermore, ‘Man in Snake’ had come from La Venta,
where it had been associated with several bearded figures,
apparently Caucasians. Pacal’s tomb was at least a thousand years
younger than any of the La Venta treasures.
Nevertheless, a tiny
jade statuette was found lying close to the skeleton inside the
sarcophagus, and it appeared to be much older than the other
grave-goods also placed there. It depicted an elderly Caucasian,
dressed in long robes, with a goatee beard.8
6 The Atlas of Mysterious Places, p. 70.
7 Time Among the Maya, p.
8 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 95-6.
Pyramid of the Magician
On a stormy afternoon, 700 kilometers north of Palenque, I began to
climb the steps of yet another pyramid. It was a steep building,
oval rather than square in plan, 240 feet long at the base and 120
feet wide. It was, moreover, very high, rising 120 feet above the
Since time out of mind this edifice, which did look like the castle
of a necromancer, had been known as the ‘Pyramid of the Magician’
and also as the ‘House of the Dwarf’. These names were derived from
a Maya legend which asserted that a dwarf with supernatural powers
the entire building in just one night.9
The steps, as I climbed them, seemed more and more perversely
narrow. My instinct was to lean forward, flatten myself against the
side of the pyramid, and cling on for dear life. Instead I looked up
at the angry, overcast sky above me. Flocks of birds circled,
screeching wildly as though seeking refuge from some impending
disaster, and the thick mass of low-lying cloud that had blotted out
the sun a few hours earlier was now so agitated by high winds that
it seemed to boil.
The Pyramid of the Magician was by no means unique in being
associated with the supernatural powers of dwarves, whose
architectural and masonry skills were widely renowned in Central
‘Construction work was easy for them,’ asserted one typical
Maya legend, ‘all they had to do was whistle and heavy rocks would
move into place.’10
A very similar tradition, as the reader may recall, claimed that the
gigantic stone blocks of the mysterious Andean city of Tiahuanaco
had been ‘carried through the air to the sound of a trumpet’.11
In both Central America and in the far-off regions of the Andes,
therefore, strange sounds had been associated with the miraculous
levitation of massive rocks.
What was I to make of this?
Maybe, through some fluke, two almost
identical ‘fantasies’ could have been independently invented in both
these geographically remote areas. But that didn’t seem very likely.
Equally worthy of consideration was the possibility that common
recollections of an ancient building technology could have been
preserved in stories such as these, a technology capable of lifting
huge blocks of stone off the ground with ‘miraculous’ ease.
be relevant that memories of almost identical miracles were
preserved in Ancient Egypt? There, in one typical tradition, a
magician was said to have raised into the air ‘a huge vault of stone
200 cubits long and 50 cubits broad’?12
9 Mexico: Rough Guide, Harrap-Columbus, London, 1989, p. 354.
The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 8. Maya History and
11 See Chapter Ten.
E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, The Medici
Society Ltd., 1911, volume II, p. 180.
The sides of the stairway I was climbing were richly decorated with
what the nineteenth-century American explorer John Lloyd Stephens
described as ‘a species of sculptured mosaic’.13 Oddly, although the
Pyramid of the Magician had been built long centuries before the
Conquest, the symbol most frequently featured in these mosaics was a
close approximation of the Christian cross. Indeed there were two
distinct kinds of ‘Christian’ crosses: one the wide-pawed croix-patte favoured by the Knights Templar and other crusading
orders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the other the
x-shaped Saint Andrew’s cross.
After climbing a further shorter flight of steps I reached the
temple at the very top of the Magician’s pyramid. It consisted of a
single corbel-vaulted chamber from the ceiling of which large
numbers of bats hung suspended. Like the birds and the clouds, they
were visibly distressed by the sense of a huge storm brewing. In a
furry mass they shuffled restlessly upside down, folding and
unfolding their small leathery wings.
I took a rest on the high platform that surrounded the chamber. From
here, looking down, I could see many more crosses. They were
everywhere, literally all over this bizarre and ancient structure. I
remembered the Andean city of
Tiahuanaco and the crosses that had
been carved there, in distant pre-Colombian times, on some of the
great blocks of stone lying scattered around the building known as
Puma Punku.14 ‘Man in Snake’, the Olmec sculpture from La Venta,
had also been engraved with two Saint Andrew’s crosses long before
the birth of Christ.
John. L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas
and Yucatan, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1841, vol. II, p. 422.
14 See Chapter Twelve.
And now, here at the Pyramid of the Magician in the Mayan site of Uxmal, I was confronted by crosses yet again.
Bearded men ...
How likely was it to be an accident that symbols as distinctive as
these should repeat themselves in widely separated cultures and at
different periods of history? Why were they so often built into the
fabric of sophisticated works of art and architecture?
A science of prophecy
Not for the first time I suspected that I might be looking at signs
and icons left behind by some cult or secret society which had
sought to keep the light of civilization burning in Central America
(and perhaps elsewhere) through long ages of darkness. I thought it
notable that the motifs of the bearded man, the Plumed Serpent, and
the cross all tended to crop up whenever and wherever there were
hints that a technologically advanced and as yet unidentified
civilization might once have been in contact with the native
And there was a sense of great age about this contact, as
though it took place at such an early date that it had been almost
forgotten. I thought again about the sudden way the Olmecs had
emerged, around the middle of the second millennium BC, out of the
swirling mists of opaque prehistory. All the archaeological evidence
indicated that from the beginning they had venerated huge stone
heads and stele showing bearded men.
I found myself increasingly
drawn to the possibility that some of those remarkable pieces of
sculpture could have been part of a vast inheritance of civilization
handed down to the peoples of Central America many thousands of
years before the second millennium BC, and thereafter entrusted to
the safekeeping of a secret wisdom cult, perhaps the cult of
Much had been lost. Nevertheless the tribes of this region—in
particular the Maya, the builders of Palenque and Uxmal—had
preserved something even more mysterious and wonderful than the
enigmatic monoliths, something which declared itself even more
persistently to be the legacy of an older and a higher civilization.
We see in the next chapter that it was the mystical science of an
ancient star-gazing folk, a science of time and measurement and
prediction—a science of prophecy even—that the Maya had preserved
most perfectly from the past. With it they inherited memories of a
terrible, earth-destroying flood and an idiosyncratic legacy of
empirical knowledge, knowledge of a high order which they shouldn’t
really have possessed, knowledge that we have only reacquired very
Chapter 21 -
A Computer for Calculating the End of the World
The Maya knew where their advanced learning originated. It was
handed down to them, they said, from the First Men, the creatures of
Quetzalcoatl, whose names had been Balam-Quitze (Jaguar with the
Sweet Smile), Balam-Acab (Jaguar of the Night), Mahucutah (The
Distinguished Name) and Iqui-Balam (Jaguar of the Moon).1
the Popol Vuh, these forefathers:
were endowed with intelligence; they saw and instantly they could
see far; they succeeded in seeing; they succeeded in knowing all
that there is in the world. The things hidden in the distance they
saw without first having to move ... Great was their wisdom; their
sight reached to the forests, the rocks, the lakes, the seas, the
mountains, and the valleys. In truth, they were admirable men ...
They were able to know all, and they examined the four corners, the
four points of the arch of the sky, and the round face of the
The achievements of this race aroused the envy of several of the
most powerful deities.
‘It is not well that our creatures should
know all,’ opined these gods, ‘Must they perchance be the equals of
ourselves, their Makers, who can see afar, who know all and see all?
... Must they also be gods?’3
Obviously such a state of affairs could not be allowed to continue.
After some deliberation an order was given and appropriate action
Let their sight reach only to that which is near; let them
see only a little of the face of the earth ... Then the Heart of
Heaven blew mist into their eyes which clouded their sight as when a
mirror is breathed upon. Their eyes were covered and they could only
see what was close, only that was clear to them ... In this way the
wisdom and all the knowledge of the First Men were destroyed.4
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament will remember that the reason
for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden had to do
with similar divine concerns. After the First Man had eaten of the
fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
The Lord God said,
‘Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know
good and evil. Now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the
tree of life and eat and live for ever, [let us] send him forth from
the Garden of Eden ...’5
1 Popol Vuh, p. 167.
2 Ibid., pp. 168-9.
3 Ibid., p. 169.
5 Genesis, 4:22-4
The Popol Vuh is accepted by scholars as a great reservoir of
uncontaminated, pre-Colombian tradition.6 It is therefore puzzling
to find such similarities between these traditions and those
recorded in the Genesis story. Moreover, like so many of the other
Old World/New World links we have identified, the character of the
similarities is not suggestive of any kind of direct influence of
one region on the other but of two different interpretations of the
same set of events.
Thus, for example:
The biblical Garden of Eden looks like a metaphor for the state of
blissful, almost ‘godlike’, knowledge that the ‘First Men’ of the
Popol Vuh enjoyed.
The essence of this knowledge was the ability to ‘see all’ and to
‘know all’. Was this not precisely the ability Adam and Eve acquired
after eating the forbidden fruit, which grew on the branches of the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil’?
Finally, just as Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, so were
the four First Men of the Popol Vuh deprived of their ability to
‘see far’. Thereafter ‘their eyes were covered and they could only
see what was close ...’
Both the Popol Vuh and Genesis therefore tell the story of
fall from grace. In both cases, this state of grace was closely
associated with knowledge, and the reader is left in no doubt that
the knowledge in question was so remarkable that it conferred
godlike powers on those who possessed it.
The Bible, adopting a dark and muttering tone of voice, calls it
‘the knowledge of good and evil’ and has nothing further to add. The
Popol Vuh is much more informative. It tells us that the knowledge
of the First Men consisted of,
the ability to see ‘things hidden in
the distance’, that they were astronomers who ‘examined the four
corners, the four points of the arch of the sky’, and that they were
geographers who succeeded in measuring ‘the round face of the
Geography is about maps. In
Part I we saw evidence suggesting that
the cartographers of an as yet unidentified civilization might have
mapped the planet with great thoroughness at an early date. Could
the Popol Vuh be transmitting some garbled memory of that same
civilization when it speaks nostalgically of the First Men and of
the miraculous geographical knowledge they possessed?
Geography is about maps, and astronomy is about
stars. Very often
the two disciplines go hand in hand because stars are essential for
navigation on long sea-going voyages of discovery (and long
sea-going voyages of discovery are essential for the production of
Is it accidental that the First Men of the Popol Vuh were remembered
not only for studying ‘the round face of the earth’ but for their
contemplation of ‘the arch of heaven’?8 And is it a coincidence that
outstanding achievement of Mayan society was its observational
astronomy, upon which, through the medium of advanced mathematical
calculations, was based a clever, complex, sophisticated and very
6 Popol Vuh, Introduction, p. 16. See also The Magic and Mysteries
of Mexico, p. 250ff.
7 Popol Vuh, pp. 168-9.
Knowledge out of place
In 1954 J. Eric Thompson, a leading authority on the archaeology of
Central America, confessed to a deep sense of puzzlement at a number
of glaring disparities he had identified between the generally
unremarkable achievements of the Mayas, as a whole and the advanced
state of their astro-calendrical knowledge,
‘What mental quirks,’ he
asked, ‘led the Maya intelligentsia to chart the heavens, yet fail
to grasp the principle of the wheel; to visualize eternity, as no
other semi-civilized people has ever done, yet ignore the short step
from corbelled to true arch; to count in millions, yet never to
learn to weigh a sack of corn?’9
9 J. Eric Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, Pimlico,
London, 1993, p. 13.
Perhaps the answer to these questions is much simpler than
realized. Perhaps the astronomy, the deep understanding of time, and
the long-term mathematical calculations, were not ‘quirks’ at all.
Perhaps they were the constituent parts of a coherent but very
specific body of knowledge that the Maya had inherited, more or less
intact, from an older and wiser civilization.
Such an inheritance
would explain the contradictions observed by Thompson, and there is
no need for any dispute on the point. We already know that the Maya
received their calendar as a legacy from the Olmecs (a thousand
years earlier, the Olmecs were using exactly the same system). The
real question, should be, where did the Olmecs get it? What kind of
level of technological and scientific development was required for a
civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?
Take the case of the solar year. In modern Western society we still
make use of a solar calendar which was introduced in Europe in 1582
and is based on the best scientific knowledge then available: the
famous Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar, which it replaced,
computed the period of the earth’s orbit around the sun at 365.25
Pope Gregory XIII’s reform substituted a finer and more
accurate calculation: 365.2425 days. Thanks to scientific advances
since 1582 we now know that the exact length of the solar year is
365.2422 days. The Gregorian calendar therefore incorporates a very
small plus error, just 0.0003 of a day— pretty impressive accuracy
for the sixteenth century.
Strangely enough, though its origins are wrapped in the mists of
antiquity far deeper than the sixteenth century, the Mayan calendar
achieved even greater accuracy. It calculated the solar year at
days, a minus error of only 0.0002 of a day.10
Similarly, the Maya knew the time taken by the moon to orbit the
earth. Their estimate of this period was 29.528395 days—extremely
close to the true figure of 29.530588 days computed by the finest
modern methods.11 The Mayan priests also had in their possession
very accurate tables for the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses
and were aware that these could occur only within plus or minus
eighteen days of the node (when the moon’s path crosses the apparent
path of the sun).12
Finally, the Maya were remarkably accomplished
mathematicians. They possessed an advanced technique of metrical
calculation by means of a chequerboard device we ourselves have only
discovered (or rediscovered?) in the last century.13 They also
understood perfectly and used the abstract concept of zero14 and
were acquainted with place numerations.
These are esoteric fields. As Thompson observed,
The cipher (nought) and place numerations are so much parts of our
cultural heritage and seem such obvious conveniences that it is
difficult to comprehend how their invention could have been long
delayed. Yet neither ancient Greece with its great mathematicians,
nor ancient Rome, had any inkling of either nought or place
numeration. To write 1848 in Roman numerals requires eleven letters:
MDCCCXLVIII. Yet the Maya had a system of place-value notation very
much like our own at a time when the Romans were still using their
Isn’t it a bit odd that this otherwise unremarkable Central American
tribe should, at such an early date, have stumbled upon an
innovation which Otto Neugebauer, the historian of science, has
described as ‘one of the most fertile inventions of humanity’.16
William Gates’s notes (p. 81) to Diego de Landa’s Yucatan before and
after the Conquest.
This is evident from the Dresden Codex. See, for example, An
Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs, p. 32.
The Maya, p. 176; Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 291; The
Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, p. 173.
13 Mysteries of the
Mexican Pyramids, p. 287.
14 The Maya, p. 173.
15 The Rise and Fall
of Maya Civilization, pp. 178-9.
16 Cited in The Maya, p. 173.
Someone else’s science?
Let us now consider the question of
Venus, a planet that was of
immense symbolic importance to all the ancient peoples of Central
America, who identified it strongly with Quetzalcoatl (or Gucumatz
or Kukulkan, as the Plumed Serpent was known in the Maya
World Mythology, p. 241.
Unlike the Ancient Greeks, but like the Ancient Egyptians, the Maya
understood that Venus was both ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening
star’.18 They understood other things about it as well. The
‘synodical revolution’ of a planet is the period of time it takes to
return to any given point in the sky—as viewed from earth. Venus
revolves around the sun every 224.7 days, while the earth follows
its own slightly wider orbit. The composite result of these two
motions is that Venus rises in exactly the same place in the earth’s
sky approximately every 584 days.
Whoever invented the sophisticated calendrical system inherited by
the Maya had been aware of this and had found ingenious ways to
integrate it with other interlocking cycles. Moreover, it is clear
from the mathematics which brought these cycles together that the
ancient calendar masters had understood that 584 days was only an
approximation and that the movements of Venus are by no means
They had therefore worked out the exact figure established
by today’s science for the average synodical revolution of Venus
over very long periods of time.19 That figure is 583.92 days and it
was knitted into the fabric of the Mayan calendar in numerous
intricate and complex ways.20
For example, to reconcile it with the
so-called ‘sacred year ’ (the tzolkin of 260 days, which was divided
into 13 months of 20 days each) the calendar called for a correction
of four days to be made every 61 Venus years. In addition, during
every fifth cycle, a correction of eight days was made at the end of
the 57th revolution. Once these steps were taken, the tzolkin and
the synodical revolution of Venus were intermeshed so tightly that
the degree of error to which the equation was subject was
staggeringly small—one day in 6000 years.21
And what made this all
the more remarkable was that a further series of precisely
calculated adjustments kept the Venus cycle and the tzolkin not only
in harmony with each other but in exact relationship with the solar
year. Again this was achieved in a manner which ensured that the
calendar was capable of doing its job, virtually error-free, over
vast expanses of time.22
Why did the ‘semi-civilized’ Maya need this kind of high-tech
precision? Or did they inherit, in good working order, a calendar
engineered to fit the needs of a much earlier and far more advanced
Consider the crowning jewel of Maya calendrics, the so-called ‘Long
Count’. This system of calculating dates also expressed beliefs
about the past—notably, the widely held belief that time operated in
Great Cycles which witnessed recurrent creations and destructions of
the world. According to the Maya, the current Great Cycle began in
darkness on 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, a date corresponding to 13 August 3114
BC in our own calendar.23
18 The Maya, p. 176.
19 The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, p. 170;
Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p.
20 The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, p. 170.
21 Ibid., 170-1.
22 Ibid., 169.
23 Breaking The Maya Code, p. 275.
As we have seen, it was also believed that
the cycle will come
to an end, amid global destruction, on 4 Ahau 3 Kankin: 23 December
AD 2012 in our calendar. The function of the Long Count was to
record the elapse of time since the beginning of the current Great
Cycle, literally to count off, one by one, the 5125 years allotted
to our present creation.24
The Long Count is perhaps best envisaged as a sort of celestial
adding machine, constantly calculating and recalculating the scale
of our growing debt to the universe. Every last penny of that debt
is going to be called in when the figure on the meter reads 5125.
So, at any rate, thought the Maya.
Calculations on the Long Count computer were not, of course, done in
our numbers. The Maya used their own notation, which they had
derived from the Olmecs, who had derived it from ... nobody knows.
This notation was a combination of dots (signifying ones or units or
multiples of twenty), bars (signifying fives or multiples of five
times twenty), and a shell glyph signifying zero.
Spans of time were
counted by days (kin), periods of twenty days (uinat), ‘computing
years’ of 360 days (tun), periods of 20 tuns (known as katun), and
periods of 20 katuns (known as bactun). There were also 8000-tun
periods (pictun) and 160,000-tun periods (calabtun) to mop up even
All this should make clear that although the Maya believed
themselves to be living in one Great Cycle that would surely come to
a violent end they also knew that time was infinite and that it
proceeded with its mysterious revolutions regardless of individual
lives or civilizations. As Thompson summed up in his great study on
In the Maya scheme the road over which time had marched stretched
into a past so distant that the mind of man cannot comprehend its
remoteness. Yet the Maya undauntedly retrod that road seeking its
starting point. A fresh view, leading further backward, unfolded at
every stage; the mellowed centuries blended into millennia, and they
into tens of thousands of years, as those tireless inquirers
explored deeper and still deeper into the eternity of the past.
On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is
computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is
given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and
month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar
giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at
equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such
astronomical figures ...26
24 Ibid., pp. g, 275.
25 José Arguelles, The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond
Technology, Bear and Co., Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1987, pp. 26; The
Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p.
26 The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, pp. 13-14, 165.
Isn’t all this a bit avant-garde for a civilization that didn’t
otherwise distinguish itself in many ways? It’s true that Mayan
architecture was good within its limits. But there was precious
little else that these jungle-dwelling Indians did which suggested
they might have had the capacity (or the need) to conceive of really
long periods of time.
It’s been a good deal less than two centuries since the majority of
Western intellectuals abandoned Bishop Usher’s opinion that the
world was created in 4004 BC and accepted that it must be infinitely
older than that.27 In plain English this means that the ancient Maya
had a far more accurate understanding of the true immensity of
geological time, and of the vast antiquity of our planet, than did
anyone in Britain, Europe or North America until Darwin propounded
the theory of evolution.
So how come the Maya got handy with big periods like hundreds of
millions of years? Was it a freak of cultural development? Or did
they inherit the calendrical and mathematical tools which
facilitated, and enabled them to develop, this sophisticated
If an inheritance was involved, it is legitimate to
ask what the original inventors of the Mayan calendar’s
computer-like circuitry had intended it to do. What had they
designed it for? Had they simply conceived of all its complexities
to concoct ‘a challenge to the intellect, a sort of tremendous
anagram’, as one authority claimed?28 Or could they have had a more
pragmatic and important objective in mind?
27 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 12:214.
28 The Rise and Fall of Maya
Civilization, p. 168.
We have seen that the obsessive concern of Mayan society, and indeed
of all the ancient cultures of Central America, was with
calculating—and if possible postponing—the end of the world. Could
this be the purpose the mysterious calendar was designed to fulfill?
Could it have been a mechanism for predicting some terrible cosmic
or geological catastrophe?
Back to El Tzolkin Maya
Chapter 22 -
City of the Gods
The overwhelming message of a large number of Central American
legends is that the Fourth Age of the world ended very badly. A
catastrophic deluge was followed by a long period during which the
light of the sun vanished from the sky and the air was filled with a
The gods gathered together at Teotihuacan [‘the place of the gods’]
and wondered anxiously who was to be the next Sun. Only the sacred
fire [the material representation of Huehueteotl, the god who gave
life its beginning] could be seen in the darkness, still quaking
following the recent chaos. ‘Someone will have to sacrifice himself,
throw himself into the fire,’ they cried, ‘only then will there be a
A drama ensued in which two deities (Nanahuatzin and
immolated themselves for the common good. One burned quickly in the
centre of the sacred fire; the other roasted slowly on the embers at
‘The gods waited for a long time until eventually the sky
started to glow red as at dawn. In the east appeared the great
sphere of the sun, life-giving and incandescent ...’2
It was at this moment of cosmic rebirth that
himself. His mission was with humanity of the Fifth Age. He
therefore took the form of a human being—a bearded white man, just
In the Andes, Viracocha’s capital was Tiahuanaco. In Central
America, Quetzalcoatl’s was the supposed birth-place of the Fifth
Sun, Teotihuacan, the city of the gods.3
1 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, pp. 25-6.
2 Ibid., pp. 26-7.
Ancient America, Time-Life International, 1970, p. 45; Aztecs: Reign
of Blood and Splendour, p. 54; Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 24.
The Citadel, the Temple and the Map of Heaven
kilometers north-east of Mexico City I stood in the
airy enclosure of the Citadel and looked north across the morning
haze towards the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. Set amid
grey-green scrub country, and ringed by distant mountains, these two
great monuments played their parts in a symphony of ruins strung out
along the axis of the so-called ‘Street of the Dead’.
lay at the approximate mid point of this wide avenue which ran
perfectly straight for more than four kilometers. The Pyramid of the
Moon was at its northern extreme, the Pyramid of the Sun offset
somewhat to its east.
In the context of such a geometric site, an exact north-south or
east-west orientation might have been expected. It was therefore
surprising that the architects who had planned Teotihuacan had
deliberately chosen to incline the Street of the Dead 15° 30’ east
of north. There were several theories as to why this eccentric
orientation had been selected, but none was especially convincing.
Growing numbers of scholars, however, were beginning to wonder
whether astronomical alignments might have been involved. One, for
example, had proposed that the Street of the Dead might have been
‘built to face the setting of the Pleiades at the time when it was
4 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 67.
Another, Professor Gerald Hawkins, had suggested
that a ‘Sirius-Pleiades axis’ could also have played a part.5 And
Stansbury Hagar (secretary of the Department of Ethnology at the
Brooklyn Institute of the Arts and Sciences), had suggested that the
street might represent the Milky Way.6
Indeed Hagar went further than this, seeing the portrayal of
specific planets and stars in many of the pyramids, mounds and other
structures that hovered like fixed satellites around the axis of the
Street of the Dead. His complete thesis was that Teotihuacan had
been designed as a kind of ‘map of heaven’:
‘It reproduced on earth
a supposed celestial plan of the sky-world where dwelt the deities
and spirits of the dead.’7
During the 1960s and 1970s Hagar’s intuitions were tested in the
field by Hugh Harleston Jr., an American engineer resident in
Mexico, who carried out a comprehensive mathematical survey at Teotihuacan. Harleston reported his findings in October 1974 at the
International Congress of Americanists.8 His paper, which was full
of daring and innovative ideas, contained some particularly curious
information about the Citadel and about the Temple of Quetzalcoatl
located at the eastern extreme of this great square compound.
The Temple was regarded by scholars as one of the best-preserved
archaeological monuments in Central America.9 This was because the
original, prehistoric structure had been partially buried beneath
another much later mound immediately in front of it to the west.
Excavation of that mound had revealed the elegant six-stage pyramid
that now confronted me. It stood 72 feet high and its base covered
an area of 82,000 square feet.
Still bearing traces of the original multicoloured paints which had
coated it in antiquity, the exposed Temple was a beautiful and
strange sight. The predominant sculptural motif was a series of huge
serpent heads protruding three-dimensionally out of the facing
blocks and lining the sides of the massive central stairway. The
elongated jaws of these oddly humanoid reptiles were heavily endowed
with fangs, and the upper lips with a sort of handlebar moustache.
Each serpent’s thick neck was ringed by an elaborate plume of
feathers—the unmistakable symbol of Quetzalcoatl.10
5 Beyond Stonehenge, pp. 187-8.
6 Cited in Mysteries of the Mexican
Pyramids, pp. 220-1.
Hugh Harleston Jr., ‘A Mathematical Analysis of Teotihuacan’, XLI
International Congress of Americanists, 3 October 1974.
9 Richard Bloomgarden, The Pyramids of Teotihuacan, Editur S. A. Mexico, 1993,
10 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 215.
What Harleston’s investigations had shown was that a complex
mathematical relationship appeared to exist among the principal
structures lined up along the Street of the Dead (and indeed beyond
it). This relationship suggested something extraordinary, namely
that Teotihuacan might originally have been designed as a precise
model of the solar system.
At any rate, if the centre line of the
Temple of Quetzalcoatl were taken as denoting the position of the
sun, markers laid out northwards from it along the axis of the
Street of the Dead seemed to indicate the correct orbital distances
of the inner planets, the asteroid belt, Jupiter, Saturn
(represented by the so-called ‘Sun’ Pyramid), Uranus (by the ‘Moon’
Pyramid), and Neptune and Pluto by as yet unexcavated mounds some
kilometers farther north.11
If these correlations were more than coincidental, then, at the very
least, they indicated the presence at Teotihuacan of an advanced
observational astronomy, one not surpassed by modern science until a
relatively late date. Uranus remained unknown to our own astronomers
until 1787, Neptune until 1846 and Pluto until 1930.
Even the most
conservative estimate of Teotihuacan’s antiquity, by contrast,
suggested that the principal ingredients of the site-plan (including
the Citadel, the Street of the Dead and the Pyramids of the Sun and
the Moon) must date back at least to the time of Christ.12
11 Ibid., pp. 266-9.
12 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p.
civilization of that epoch, either in the Old World or in the New,
is supposed to have had any knowledge at all of the outer
planets—let alone to have possessed accurate information concerning
their orbital distances from each other and from the sun.
Egypt and Mexico—more coincidences?
After completing his studies of the pyramids and avenues of
Teotihuacan, Stansbury Hagar concluded:
‘We have not yet realized
either the importance or the refinement, or the widespread
distribution throughout ancient America, of the astronomical cult of
which the celestial plan was a feature, and of which Teotihuacan was
one of the principal centres.’13
But was this just an astronomical ‘cult’? Or was it something
approximating more closely to what we might call a science? And
whether cult or science, was it realistic to suppose that it had
enjoyed ‘widespread distribution’ only in the Americas when there
was so much evidence linking it to other parts of the ancient world?
For example, archaeo-astronomers making use of the latest
star-mapping computer programmes had recently demonstrated that the
three world-famous pyramids on Egypt’s Giza plateau formed an exact
terrestrial diagram of the three belt stars in the constellation of
13 Mysteries of the
Mexican Pyramids, p. 221.
14 The Orion Mystery.
Nor was this the limit of the celestial map the Ancient
Egyptian priests had created in the sands on the west bank of the
Nile. Included in their overall vision, as we shall see in Parts VI
and VII, there was a natural
feature—the river Nile—which was exactly where it should be had it
been designed to represent the Milky Way.15
The incorporation of a ‘celestial plan’ into key sites in Egypt and
Mexico did not by any means exclude religious functions. On the
contrary, whatever else they may have been intended for it is
certain that the monuments of Teotihuacan, like those of the Giza
plateau, played important religious roles in the lives of the
communities they served.
Thus Central American traditions collected in the sixteenth century
by Father Bernardino de Sahagun gave eloquent expression to a
widespread belief that Teotihuacan had fulfilled at least one
specific and important religious function in ancient times.
According to these legends the City of the Gods was so known because
‘the Lords therein buried, after their deaths, did not perish but
turned into gods ...’16
In other words, it was ‘the place where men
It was additionally known as ‘the place of those who
had the road of the gods’,18 and ‘the place where gods were made’.19
Was it a coincidence, I wondered, that this seemed to have been the
religious purpose of the three pyramids at Giza? The archaic
the Pyramid Texts, the oldest coherent body of
writing in the world, left little room for doubt that the ultimate
objective of the rituals carried out within those colossal
structures was to bring about the deceased pharaoh’s
transfiguration—to ‘throw open the doors of the firmament and to
make a road’ so that he might ‘ascend into the company of the
16 Bernardino de Sahagun, cited in Mysteries of the Mexican
Pyramids, p. 23.
17 Mexico: Rough Guide, p. 216.
18 The Atlas of
Mysterious Places, p. 158.
19 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 24.
The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Utt. 667A, p. 281.
The notion of pyramids as devices designed (presumably in some
metaphysical sense) ‘to turn men into gods’ was, it seemed to me,
too idiosyncratic and peculiar to have been arrived at independently
in both Ancient Egypt and Mexico. So, too, was the idea of using the
layout of sacred sites to incorporate a celestial plan.
Moreover, there were other strange similarities that deserved to be
Just as at Giza, three principal pyramids had been built at
Just as at Giza, the site plan was
not symmetrical, as one might have expected, but involved two
structures in direct alignment with each other while the third
appeared to have been deliberately offset to one side.
Finally, at Giza, the summits of the Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of
were level, even though the former was a taller building than the
latter. Likewise, at Teotihuacan, the
summits of the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon were level even
though the former was taller. The reason was the same in both cases:
the Great Pyramid was built on lower ground than the Pyramid of
Cephren, and the Pyramid of the Sun on lower ground than the Pyramid
of the Moon.21
Could all this be coincidence? Was it not more logical to conclude
that there was an ancient connection between Mexico and Egypt?
For reasons I have outlined in Chapters Eighteen and Nineteen I
doubted whether any direct, causal link was involved—at any rate
within historic times.
Once again, however, as with the Mayan
calendar, and as with the early maps of Antarctica, was it not worth
keeping an open mind to the possibility that we might be dealing
with a legacy: that the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Teotihuacan might express the technology, the geographical
knowledge, the observational astronomy (and perhaps also the
religion) of a forgotten civilization of the past which had once, as
the Popul Vuh claimed, ‘examined the four corners, the four points
of the arch of the sky, and the round face of the earth’?
There was widespread agreement among academics concerning the
antiquity of the Giza pyramids, thought to be about 4500 years
old.22 No such unanimity existed with regard to Teotihuacan. Neither
the Street of the Dead, nor the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, nor the
Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon had ever been definitively dated.23
The majority of scholars believed that the city had flourished
between 100 BC and AD 600, but others argued strongly that it must
have risen to prominence much earlier, between 1500 and 1000 BC.
There were others still who sought, largely on geological grounds,
to push the foundation date back to 4000 BC before the eruption of
the nearby volcano Xitli.24
Amid all this uncertainty about the age of Teotihuacan, I had not
been surprised to discover that no one had the faintest idea of the
identity of those who had actually built the largest and most
remarkable metropolis ever to have existed in the pre-Colombian New
All that could be said for sure was this: when the Aztecs,
on their march to imperial power, first stumbled upon the mysterious
city in the twelfth century AD, its colossal edifices and avenues
were already old beyond imagining and so densely overgrown that they
seemed more like natural features than works of man.26
them, however, was a thread of local legend, passed down from
generation to generation, which asserted that they had been
giants27 and that their purpose had been to
transform men into gods.
21 The Ancient Kingdoms Of Mexico, p. 74; The Traveller’s Key To
Ancient Egypt, pp. 110
22 See, for example, Ahmed Fakhry, The Pyramids, University of
Chicago Press, 1969.
23 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, pp.
25 The Prehistory of the Americas, p. 282.
26 Mysteries of ‘the
Mexican Pyramids, pp. 11-12.
Hints of forgotten wisdom
Leaving the Temple of Quetzalcoatl behind me, I recrossed the
Citadel in a westerly direction.
There was no archaeological evidence that this enormous enclosure
had ever served as a citadel—or, for that matter, that it had any
kind of military or defensive function at all. Like so much else
about Teotihuacan it had clearly been planned with painstaking care,
and executed with enormous effort, but its true purpose remained
unidentified by modern scholarship.28
Even the Aztecs, who had been
responsible for naming the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (an
attribution which had stuck though no one had any idea what the
original builders had called them) had failed to invent a name for
the Citadel. It had been left to the Spaniards to label it as they
did—an understandable conceit since the 30-acre central patio of La Ciudadela was surrounded by massively thick embankments more than 23
feet high and some 1500 feet long on each side.29
My walk had now brought me to the western extreme of the patio. I
climbed a steep set of stairs that led to the top of the embankment
and turned north on to the Street of the Dead. Once again I had to
remind myself that this was almost certainly not what the
Teotihuacanos (whoever they were) had called the immense and
impressive avenue. The Spanish name Calle de los Muertos was of
Aztec origin, apparently based on speculation that the numerous
mounds on either side of the Street were graves (which, as it
happened, they were not).30
We have already considered the possibility that the Way of the Dead
may have served as a terrestrial counterpart of the Milky Way. Of
interest in this regard is the work of another American, Alfred E. Schlemmer, who—like
Hugh Harleston Jr.—was an engineer. Schlemmer’s
field was technological forecasting, with specific reference to the
prediction of earthquakes,31 on which he presented a paper at the
Eleventh National Convention of Chemical Engineers (in Mexico City
in October 1971).
Schlemmer’s argument was that the Street of the Dead might never
have been a street at all. Instead, it might originally have been
laid out as a row of linked reflecting pools, filled with water
which had descended through a series of locks from the Pyramid of
the Moon, at the northern extreme, to the Citadel in the south.
28 Ibid., p. 213.
30 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 72.
31 Mysteries of the
Mexican Pyramids, pp. 271-2.
As I walked steadily northward towards the still-distant Moon
Pyramid, it seemed to me that this theory had several points in its
favour. For a start the ‘Street’ was blocked at regular intervals by
high partition walls, at the foot of which the remains of well-made
sluices could clearly be seen.
Moreover, the lie of the land would
have facilitated a north-south
hydraulic flow since the base of the Moon Pyramid stood on ground
that was approximately 100 feet higher than the area in front of the
Citadel. The partitioned sections could easily have been filled with
water and might indeed have served as reflecting pools, creating a
spectacle far more dramatic than those offered by the Taj Mahal or
the fabled Shalimar Gardens.
Finally, the Teotihuacan Mapping
Project (financed by the National Science Foundation in Washington
DC and led by Professor Rene Millon of the University of Rochester)
had demonstrated conclusively that the ancient city had possessed
‘many carefully laid-out canals and systems of branching waterways,
artificially dredged into straightened portions of a river, which
formed a network within Teotihuacan and ran all the way to [Lake
Texcoco], now ten miles distant but perhaps closer in antiquity’.32
There was much argument about what this vast hydraulic system had
been designed to do. Schlemmer’s contention was that the particular
waterway he had identified had been built to serve a pragmatic
purpose as ‘a long-range seismic monitor’—part of ‘an ancient
science, no longer understood’.33
He pointed out that remote
earthquakes ‘can cause standing waves to form on a liquid surface
right across the planet’ and suggested that the carefully graded and
spaced reflecting pools of the Street of the Dead might have been
designed ‘to enable Teotihuacanos to read from the standing waves
formed there the location and strength of earthquakes around the
globe, thus allowing them to predict such an occurrence in their own
32 Ibid., p. 232.
33 Ibid., p. 272.
Reconstruction of Teotihuacan, looking down the Way of the Dead from
behind the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun lies to the
left of the Way of the Dead. Visible in the distance beyond it is
the pyramid-temple of Quetzalcoatl inside the large compound of the
There was, of course, no proof of Schlemmer’s theory. However, when
I remembered the fixation with earthquakes and floods apparent
everywhere in Mexican mythology, and the equally obsessive concern
with forecasting future events evident in the Maya calendar, I felt
less inclined to dismiss the apparently far-fetched conclusions of
the American engineer.
If Schlemmer were right, if the ancient
Teotihuacanos had indeed understood the principles of resonant
vibration and had put them into practice in seismic forecasting, the
implication was that they were the possessors of an advanced
science. And if people like Hagar and Harleston were right—if, for
example, a scale-model of the solar system had also been built into
the basic geometry of Teotihuacan—this too suggested that the city
was founded by a scientifically evolved civilization not yet
I continued to walk northwards along the Street of the Dead and
turned east towards the Pyramid of the Sun. Before reaching this
great monument, however, I paused to examine a ruined patio, the
principal feature of which was an ancient ‘temple’ which concealed a
perplexing mystery beneath its rock floor.
Continue to Chapter 23