Part III

Plumed Serpent
Central America


Chapter 13 - 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 exactly.1

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 Chacmool.

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, pp. 839.

2 Ronald Wright, Time Among the Maya, Futura Publications, London, 1991, pp. 343.

Rather lugubriously, I continued to climb the steps of the Temple of 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 hearts.

‘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 ...

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 human beings.

Chichen Itza.



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 child.

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 tradition.

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 family.5

Another mass sacrifice was witnessed by the Spanish chronicler Diego 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 world.8

4 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.
5 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.
8 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

9 From the Vaticano-Latin Codex 3738, cited in Adela Fernandez, Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, Panorama Editorial, Mexico City, 1992, pp. 21-2.


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 symbolic statements.


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:

‘During that 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.’

The Fourth 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,

‘the 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.

10 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.

11 Ibid.
12 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 24.

13 Peter Tompkins, Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, Thames & Hudson, London, 1987, p. 286.
14 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 on 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 all.


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 region.

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

17 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, p. 286.
19 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.

He 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 civilization.

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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


1 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.

3 The 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


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 reality.


In the judgment of Sylvanus Griswold Morley, the doyen of Maya studies:

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.


In 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.
7 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 the Books of Chilam Balam, for instance, reported that,

‘the first 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.

11 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.
14 James Bailey, The God-Kings and the Titans, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1972, p. 206.
15 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 37-8.
16 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 fostered peace.’

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 the arts.

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 butterflies.17

17 The God-Kings and the Titans, p. 57.

Cosmic struggle

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.


Fire serpents
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 archaeologists.


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 decapitated.

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 kind.

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.

Serpent Sanctuary
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


He was ‘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.

20 Ibid.
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 Central America.

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 says,

‘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.

27 Ibid.
28 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 139-40.

29 The Feathered Serpent and the Cross, pp. 35, 66.

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Chapter 15 - Mexican Babel

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 farmsteads.

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 that 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 hosts.4


Six thousand died in this horrible massacre5 which matched, in its savagery, the most bloodstained rituals of the Aztecs:

‘Those 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.

6 Contemporary account cited in Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 6.

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 everything ...

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 glowingidol ’ that rested 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 Indians:

‘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 Christianity ...’10


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 past.


7 The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico, pp. 228-9.

8 Ibid.
9 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 7.
10 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.

14 Ibid.
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 great ziggurat:

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.’

Immediately the 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

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 the 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 single theory.


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 to heaven’:

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 entire earth.’

Now 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 earth.19

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 now rose.

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 seven thousand years ago.20


19 Genesis 11:1-9.
20 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 stratification 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 years ago’.21


21 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


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, ‘the largest building ever erected on earth.’24


23 The Riddle of the Pyramids, p. 190.

24 Ibid.

  • Why?

  • Why go to all that trouble?

  • What sort of name for themselves were the peoples of Central America trying to make?

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.


Back to Contents


Chapter 16 - Serpent Sanctuary

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.

2 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 development.


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 American-Indian.

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.

Santiago Tuxtla
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 mountains.

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 patient gravity.

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 15,000 BC.4


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 thirty tons.

Tres Zapotes
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 Stirling.

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.

6 Ibid.

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 angry.

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 realistic treatment. 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 conquest.


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 toys.

9 Matthew W. Stirling, ‘Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle’, National Geographic Magazine, volume 78, September 1940, pp. 314, 310.


Back to Contents


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


1 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. 61.

2 The Prehistory of the Americas, p. 268.

3 Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendour, p. 158.
4 ‘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 distinctive form.’

San Lorenzo
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 4000 feet 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 BC.7


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.

La Venta
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 province of 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 suspension bridges.


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 archaeology ...

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 the planets.


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


Then 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 any standards.


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 forcefully when 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 Villahermosa.

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, Egypt.

Above right: Profile view of Olmec Head from La Venta, Mexico.

Below left: Front view of the head of the Sphinx.

Below right: Front view of Olmec Head.

Compare also further below, top left: Sphinx-like Olmec sculpture from San Lorenzo, Mexico.

Is it 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.

Bottom: Double-lion symbolism from Ancient Egypt, depicting the Akeru, lion gods of yesterday and today (Akeru was written in hieroglyphs as ).


The 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 sculpture, 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 machinery.

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.


The 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 been used.

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 stockcharismatic 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 of the 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 ...


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