Chapter 18  - Conspicuous Strangers

Matthew Stirling, the American archaeologist who excavated La Venta in the 1940s, made a number of spectacular discoveries there. The most spectacular of all was the Stele of the Bearded Man.

The plan of the ancient Olmec site, as I have said, lay along an axis pointing 8° west of north. At the southern end of this axis, 100 feet tall, loomed the fluted cone of the great pyramid. Next to it, at ground level, was what looked like a curb about a foot high enclosing a spacious rectangular area one-quarter the size of an average city block. When the archaeologists began to uncover this curb they found, to their surprise, that it consisted of the upper parts of a wall of columns.


Further excavation through the undisturbed layers of stratification that had accumulated revealed that the columns were ten feet tall. There were more than 600 of them and they had been set together so closely that they formed a near-impregnable stockade. Hewn out of solid basalt and transported to La Venta from quarries more than sixty miles distant, the columns weighed approximately two tons each.

Why all this trouble? What had the stockade been built to contain?

Even before excavation began, the tip of a massive chunk of rock had been visible jutting out of the ground in the centre of the enclosed area, about four feet higher than the illusory ‘curb’ and leaning steeply forward. It was covered with carvings. These extended down, out of sight, beneath the layers of soil that filled the ancient stockade to a height of about nine feet.

Stirling and his team worked for two days to free the great rock. When exposed it proved to be an imposing stele fourteen feet high, seven feet wide and almost three feet thick. The carvings showed an encounter between two tall men, both dressed in elaborate robes and wearing elegant shoes with turned-up toes.

Either erosion or deliberate mutilation (quite commonly practiced on Olmec monuments) had resulted in the complete defacement of one of the figures. The other was intact. It so obviously depicted a Caucasian male with a high-bridged nose and a long, flowing beard that the bemused archaeologists promptly christened it ‘Uncle Sam’.1

1 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, p. 144.

I walked slowly around the twenty-ton stele, remembering as I did so that it had lain buried in the earth for more than 3000 years. Only in the brief half century or so since Stirling’s excavations had it seen the light of day again. What would its fate be now? Would it stand here for another thirty centuries as an object of awe and splendour for future generations to gawp at and revere? Or, in such a great expanse of time, was it possible that circumstances might change so much that it would once again be buried and concealed?

Perhaps neither would happen. I remembered the ancient calendrical system of Central America, which the Olmecs had initiated. According to them, and to their more famous successors the Mayas, there just weren’t any great expanses of time left, let alone three millennia. The Fifth Sun was all used up and a tremendous earthquake was building to destroy humanity two days before Christmas in AD 2012.

I turned my attention back to the stele. Two things seemed to be clear: the encounter scene it portrayed must, for some reason, have been of immense importance to the Olmecs, hence the grandeur of the stele itself, and the construction of the remarkable stockade of columns built to contain it. And, as was the case with the negro heads, it was obvious that the face of the bearded Caucasian man could only have been sculpted from a human model. The racial verisimilitude was too good for an artist to have invented it.

The same went for two other Caucasian figures I was able to identify among the surviving monuments from La Venta. One was carved in low relief on a heavy and roughly circular slab of stone about three feet in diameter. Dressed in what looked like tight-fitting leggings, his features were those of an Anglo-Saxon. He had a full pointed beard and wore a curious floppy cap on his head.

In his left hand he extended a flag, or perhaps a weapon of some kind. His right hand, which he held across the middle of his chest, appeared to be empty. Around his slim waist was tied a flamboyant sash. The other Caucasian figure, this time carved on the side of a narrow pillar, was similarly bearded and attired.

Who were these conspicuous strangers? What were they doing in Central America? When did they come? And what relationship did they have with those other strangers who had settled in this steamy rubber jungle—the ones who had provided the models for the great negro heads?

Some radical researchers, who rejected the dogma concerning the isolation of the New World prior to 1492, had proposed what looked like a viable solution to the problem: the bearded, thin-featured individuals could have been Phoenicians from the Mediterranean who had sailed through the Pillars of Hercules and across the Atlantic Ocean as early as the second millennium BC. Advocates of this theory went on to suggest that the negroes shown at the same sites were the ‘slaves’ of the Phoenicians, picked up on the coast of West Africa prior to the trans-Atlantic run.2


2 Ibid., p. 141-42.

The more consideration I gave to the strange character of the La Venta sculptures, the more dissatisfied I became with these ideas. Probably the Phoenicians and other Old World peoples had crossed the Atlantic ages before Columbus. There was compelling evidence for that, although it is outside the scope of this book.3 The problem was that the Phoenicians, who had left unmistakable examples of their distinctive handiwork in many parts of the ancient world,4 had not done so at the Olmec sites in Central America.


Neither the negro heads, nor the reliefs portraying bearded Caucasian men showed any signs of anything remotely Phoenician in their style, handiwork or character.5 Indeed, from a stylistic point of view, these powerful works of art seemed to belong to no known culture, tradition or genre. They seemed to be without antecedents either in the New World or in the Old.


3 Fair Gods and Store Faces, passim. See also Cyrus H. Gordon, Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America, Crown Publishers Inc, New York, 1971.
4 See, for example, (a) Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West, Cambridge University Press, 1993; (b) Gerhard Herm, The Phoenicians, BCA, London, 1975; (c) Sabatino Moscati, The World of the Phoenicians, Cardinal, London, 1973.

5 This can be confirmed in any of the works cited in note 4.

They seemed rootless ... and that, of course, was impossible, because all forms of artistic expression have roots somewhere.

Hypothetical third party
It occurred to me that one plausible explanation might lie in a variant of the ‘hypothetical third party’ theory originally put forward by a number of leading Egyptologists to explain one of the great puzzles of Egyptian history and chronology.

The archaeological evidence suggested that rather than developing slowly and painfully, as is normal with human societies, the civilization of Ancient Egypt, like that of the Olmecs, emerged all at once and fully formed. Indeed, the period of transition from primitive to advanced society appears to have been so short that it makes no kind of historical sense. Technological skills that should have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to evolve were brought into use almost overnight— and with no apparent antecedents whatever.

For example, remains from the pre-dynastic period around 3500 BC show no trace of writing. Soon after that date, quite suddenly and inexplicably, the hieroglyphs familiar from so many of the ruins of Ancient Egypt begin to appear in a complete and perfect state. Far from being mere pictures of objects or actions, this written language was complex and structured at the outset, with signs that represented sounds only and a detailed system of numerical symbols. Even the very earliest hieroglyphs were stylized and conventionalized; and it is clear that an advanced cursive script was it common usage by the dawn of the First Dynasty.6

6 W. B. Emery, Archaic Egypt, Penguin Books, London, 1987, p. 192.

What is remarkable is that there are no traces of evolution from simple to sophisticated, and the same is true of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and architecture and of Egypt’s amazingly rich and convoluted religio-mythological system (even the central content of such refined works as the Book of the Dead existed right at the start of the dynastic period).7

The majority of Egyptologists will not consider the implications of Egypt’s early sophistication. These implications are startling, according to a number of more daring thinkers. John Anthony West, an expert on the early dynastic period, asks:

How does a complex civilization spring full-blown into being? Look at a 1905 automobile and compare it to a modern one. There is no mistaking the process of ‘development’. But in Egypt there are no parallels. Everything is right there at the start.

The answer to the mystery is of course obvious but, because it is repellent to the prevailing cast of modern thinking, it is seldom considered. Egyptian civilization was not a ‘development’, it was a legacy.8

West has been a thorn in the flesh of the Egyptological establishment for many years. But other more mainstream figures have also confessed puzzlement at the suddenness with which Egyptian civilization appeared. Walter Emery, late Edwards Professor of Egyptology at the University of London, summed up the problem:

At a period approximately 3400 years before Christ, a great change took place in Egypt, and the country passed rapidly from a state of neolithic culture with a complex tribal character to one of well-organized monarchy ...

At the same time the art of writing appears, monumental architecture and the arts and crafts develop to an astonishing degree, and all the evidence points to the existence of a luxurious civilization. All this was achieved within a comparatively short period of time, for there appears to be little or no background to these fundamental developments in writing and architecture.9


7 Ibid., p. 38. See also The Egyptian Book of the Dead (trans. E.A. Wallis Budge), British Museum, 1895, Introduction, pp. xii, xiii.

8 John Anthony West, Serpent in the Sky, Harper and Row, New York, 1979, p. 13.

9 Archaic Egypt, p. 38. 10 Ibid., pp. 175-91.

One explanation could simply be that Egypt received its sudden and decisive cultural boost from some other known civilization of the ancient world. Sumer, on the Lower Euphrates in Mesopotamia, is the most likely contender. Despite many basic differences, a variety of shared building techniques and architectural styles10 does suggest a link between the two regions. But none of these similarities is strong enough to infer that the connection could have been in any way causal, with one society directly influencing the other.


On the contrary, as Professor Emery writes:

The impression we get is of an indirect connection, and perhaps the existence of a third party, whose influence spread to both the Euphrates and the Nile ... Modern scholars have tended to ignore the possibility of immigration to both regions from some hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area. [However] a third party whose cultural achievements were passed on independently to Egypt and Mesopotamia would best explain the common features and fundamental differences between the two civilizations.11

Among other things, this theory sheds light on the mysterious fact that the Egyptians and Sumerian people of Mesopotamia appear to have worshipped virtually identical lunar deities who were among the oldest in their respective pantheons (Thoth in the case of the Egyptians, Sin in the case of the Sumerians).12


According to the eminent Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge,

‘The similarity between the two gods is too close to be accidental ... It would be wrong to say that the Egyptians borrowed from the Sumerians or the Sumerians from the Egyptians, but it may be submitted that the literati of both peoples borrowed their theological systems from some common but exceedingly ancient source.’13

11 Ibid., pp. 31, 177.
12 Ibid., p. 126.
13 E. A. Wallis Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, 1934, p. 155.

The question, therefore, is this: what was that ‘common but exceedingly ancient source’, that ‘hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area’, that advanced ‘third party’ to which both Budge and Emery refer? And if it left a legacy of high culture in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, why shouldn’t it have done so in Central America?

It’s not good enough to argue that civilization ‘took off’ much later in Mexico than it had in the Middle East. It is possible that the initial impulse could have been felt at the same time in both places but that the subsequent outcome could have been completely different.

On this scenario, the civilizers would have succeeded brilliantly in Egypt and in Sumer, creating lasting and remarkable cultures there. In Mexico, on the other hand (as also seems to have been the case in Peru), they suffered some serious setback—perhaps getting off to a good start, when the gigantic stone heads and reliefs of bearded men were made, but going rapidly downhill.


The light of civilization would never quite have been lost, but perhaps things didn’t pick up again until around 1500 BC, the so-called ‘Olmec horizon’. By then the great sculptures would have been hoary with age, ancient relics of immense spiritual power, their all-but-forgotten origins wrapped in myths of giants and bearded civilizers.

If so, we may be gazing at faces from a much more remote past than we imagine when we stare into the almond eyes of one of the negro heads or into the angular, chiselled Caucasian features of ‘Uncle Sam’. It is by no means impossible that these great works preserve the images of peoples from a vanished civilization which embraced several different ethnic groups.

That, in a nutshell, is the ‘hypothetical third party’ theory as applied to Central America:

  • the civilization of Ancient Mexico did not emerge without external influence, and it did not emerge as a result of influence from the Old World

  • instead certain cultures in the Old World and in the New World may both have received a legacy of influence and ideas from a third party at some exceedingly remote date

Villahermosa to Oaxaca
Before leaving Villahermosa I visited CICOM, the Centre for Investigation of the Cultures of the Olmecs and Maya. I wanted to find out from the scholars there whether there were any other significant Olmec sites in the region. To my surprise, they suggested that I should look farther afield. At Monte Alban, in Oaxaca province hundreds of kilometers to the southwest, archaeologists had apparently unearthed ‘Olmecoid’ artifacts and a number of reliefs thought to represent the Olmecs themselves.

Santha and I had intended to drive straight on from Villahermosa into the Yucatan Peninsula, which lay north-east. The journey to Monte Alban would involve a huge detour, but we decided to make it, in the hope that it might shed further light on the Olmecs. Besides, it promised to be a spectacular drive over immense mountains and into the heart of the hidden valley where the city of Oaxaca lies.

We drove almost due west past the lost site of La Venta, past Coatzecoalcos once again, and on past Sayula and Loma Bonita to the road-junction town of Tuxtepec. In so doing, by degrees we left behind countryside scarred and blackened by the oil industry, crossed long gentle hillsides carpeted in lush green grass, and ran between fields ripe with crops.

At Tuxtepec, where the sierras really began, we turned sharply south following Highway 175 to Oaxaca. On the map it looked barely half the distance that we had driven from Villahermosa. The road, however, proved to be a complicated, nerve-racking, muscle-wrenching, apparently endless zig-zag of hairpin bends—narrow, winding and precipitous— which went up into the clouds like a stairway to heaven.


It took us through many different layers of alpine vegetation, each occupying a specialized climatological niche, until it brought us out above the clouds in a place where familiar plants flourished in giant forms, like John Wyndham’s triffids, creating a surreal and alien landscape. It took twelve hours to drive the 700 kilometers from Villahermosa to Oaxaca.


By the time the journey was over, my hands were blistered from gripping the steering-wheel too tight for too long around too many hairpin bends. My eyes were blurred and I kept having mental retrospectives of the vertiginous chasms we had skirted on Highway 175, in the mountains, where the triffids grew.

The city of Oaxaca is famous for magic mushrooms, marijuana and D.H. Lawrence (who wrote and set part of his novel The Plumed Serpent here in the 1920s). There is still a bohemian feel about the place and until late at night a current of excitement seems to ripple among the crowds filling its bars and cafés, narrow cobbled streets, old buildings and spacious plazas.

We checked into a room overlooking one of the three open courtyards in the Hotel Las Golondrinas. The bed was comfortable. There were starry skies overhead. But, tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep.

What kept me awake was the idea of the civilizers ... the bearded gods and their companions. In Mexico, as in Peru, they seemed to have confronted failure. That was what the legends implied, and not only the legends, as I discovered when we reached Monte Alban the next morning.

Back to Contents


Chapter 19 - Adventures in the Underworld, Journeys to the Stars

The ‘hypothetical third party’ theory explains the similarities and fundamental differences between Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia by proposing that both received a common legacy of civilization from the same remote ancestor. No serious suggestions have been made as to where that ancestral civilization might have been located, its nature, or when it flourished. Like a black hole in space, it cannot be seen. Yet its presence can be deduced from its effects on things that can be seen—in this case the civilizations of Sumer and Egypt.

Is it possible that the same mysterious ancestor, the same invisible source of influence, could also have left its mark in Mexico? If so, we would expect to find certain cultural similarities between Mexico’s ancient civilizations and those of Sumer and Egypt. We would also expect to be confronted by immense differences resulting from the long period of divergent evolution which separated all these areas in historical times.


We would, however, expect the differences to be less between Sumer and Egypt, which were in regular contact with each other during the historical period, than between the two Middle Eastern cultures and the cultures of far-off Central America, which enjoyed at most only haphazard, slight and intermittent contacts prior to the ‘discovery of the New World by Columbus in AD 1492.

Eaters of the dead, earth monsters, star kings, dwarves and other relatives
For some curious reason that has not been explained, the Ancient Egyptians had a special liking and reverence for dwarves.1 So, too, did the civilized peoples of ancient Central America, right back to Olmec times.2 In both cases it was believed that dwarves were directly connected to the gods.3 And in both cases dwarves were favoured as dancers and were shown as such in works of art.4

In Egypt’s early dynastic period, more than 4500 years ago, an ‘Ennead’ of nine omnipotent deities was particularly adored by the priesthood at Heliopolis.5 Likewise, in Central America, both the Aztecs and the Mayas believed in an all-powerful system of nine deities.6

1 See, for example, The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt, pp. 69-70; also Jean-Pierre Hallet, Pygmy Kitabu, BCA, London, 1974, pp. 84-106.

2 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p. 82.

3 Ibid., The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt, pp. 69-70, and Pygmy Kitabu, pp. 84-106.

4 Ibid.

5 The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt, p. 85.
6 The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 148.

The Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya of Mexico and Guatemala, contains several passages which clearly indicate a belief in ‘stellar rebirth’—the reincarnation of the dead as stars. After they had been killed, for example, the Hero Twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque,

‘rose up in the midst of the light, and instantly they were lifted into the sky ... Then the arch of heaven and the face of the earth were lighted. And they dwelt in heaven.’7


At the same time ascended the Twins’ 400 companions who had also been killed, ‘and so they again became the companions of Hunahpu and Xbalanque and were changed into stars in the sky.’8

The majority of the traditions of the God-King Quetzalcoatl, as we have seen, focus on his deeds and teachings as a civilizer. His followers in ancient Mexico, however, also believed that his human manifestation had experienced death and that afterwards he was reborn as a star.9

It is therefore curious, at the very least, to discover that in Egypt, in the Pyramid Age, more than 4000 years ago, the state religion revolved around the belief that the deceased pharaoh was reborn as a star.10 Ritual incantations were chanted, the purpose of which was to facilitate the dead monarch’s rapid rebirth in the heavens:

‘Oh king, you are this Great Star, the Companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion ... you ascend from the east of the sky, being renewed in your due season, and rejuvenated in your due time ...’11

We have encountered the Orion constellation before, on the plains of Nazca, and we shall encounter it again ...

Meanwhile, let us consider the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Parts of its contents are as old as the civilization of Egypt itself and it serves as a sort of Baedeker for the transmigration of the soul. It instructs the deceased on how to overcome the dangers of the afterlife, enables him to assume the form of several mythical creatures, and equips him with the passwords necessary for admission to the various stages, or levels, of the underworld.12


7 Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya, (English version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley from the translation by Adrian Recinos), University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, p. 163.

8 Ibid., 164.

9 Ibid., p. 181; The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 147.
10 The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, (trans. R. O. Faulkner), Oxford University Press, 1969. Numerous Utterances refer directly to the stellar rebirth of the King, e.g. 248, 264, 265, 268, and 570 (‘I am a star which illumines the sky’), etc.

11 Ibid., Utt. 466, p. 155.
12 The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, (trans. R. O. Faulkner), British Museum Publications, 1989.

Is it a coincidence that the peoples of Ancient Central America preserved a parallel vision of the perils of the afterlife? There it was widely believed that the underworld consisted of nine strata through which the deceased would journey for four years, overcoming obstacles and dangers on the way.13


The strata had self-explanatory names like ‘place where the mountains crash together’, ‘place where the arrows are fired’, ‘mountain of knives’, and so on. In both Ancient Central America and Ancient Egypt, it was believed that the deceased’s voyage through the underworld was made in a boat, accompanied by ‘paddler gods’ who ferried him from stage to stage.14


The tomb of ‘Double Comb’, an eighth-century ruler of the Mayan city of Tikal, was found to contain a representation of this scene.15 Similar images appear throughout the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt, notably in the tomb of Thutmosis III, an Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh.16


Is it a coincidence that the passengers in the barque of the dead pharaoh, and in the canoe in which Double Comb makes his final journey, include (in both cases) a dog or dog-headed deity, a bird or bird-headed deity, and an ape or ape-headed deity?17

The seventh stratum of the Ancient Mexican underworld was called Teocoyolcualloya: ‘place where beasts devour hearts’.18

Is it a coincidence that one of the stages of the Ancient Egyptian underworld, ‘the Hall of Judgment’, involved an almost identical series of symbols? At this crucial juncture the deceased’s heart was weighed against a feather. If the heart was heavy with sin it would tip the balance. The god Thoth would note the judgment on his palette and the heart would immediately be devoured by a fearsome beast, part crocodile, part hippopotamus, part lion, that was called ‘the Eater of the Dead ’.19


13 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 37.

14 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, pp. 128-9.
15 Reproduced in National Geographic Magazine, volume 176, Number 4, Washington DC, October 1989, p. 468: ‘Double Comb is being taken to the underworld in a canoe guided by the “paddler twins”, gods who appear prominently in Maya mythology. Other figures—an iguana, a monkey, a parrot, and a dog—accompany the dead ruler.’ We learn more of the mythological significance of dogs in Part V of this book.
16 Details are reproduced in John Romer, Valley of the Kings, Michael O’Mara Books Limited, London, 1988, p. 167, and in J. A. West, The Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, Harrap Columbus, London, 1989, pp. 282-97.
17 In the case of Ancient Egypt the dog represents Upuaut, ‘the Opener of the Ways’, the bird (a hawk) represents Horus, and the ape, Thoth. See The Traveller’s Key To Ancient Egypt, p. 284, and The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, pp. 116-30. For Ancient Central America see note 15.

18 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 40.
19 The Egyptian Book of the Dead (trans. E. A. Wallis Budge), Arkana, London and New York, 1986, p. 21.

Finally, let us turn again to Egypt of the Pyramid Age and the privileged status of the pharaoh, which enabled him to circumvent the trials of the underworld and to be reborn as a star. Ritual incantations were part of the process. Equally important was a mysterious ceremony known as ‘the opening of the mouth’, always conducted after the death of the pharaoh and believed by archaeologists to date back to pre-dynastic times.20


The high priest and four assistants participated, wielding the peshenkhef, a ceremonial cutting instrument. This was used ‘to open the mouth’ of the deceased God-King, an action thought necessary to ensure his resurrection in the heavens. Surviving reliefs and vignettes showing this ceremony leave no doubt that the mummified corpse was struck a hard physical blow with the peshenkhef.21 In addition, evidence has recently emerged which indicates that one of the chambers within the Great Pyramid at Giza may have served as the location for the ceremony.22

All this finds a strange, distorted twin in Mexico. We have seen the prevalence of human sacrifice there in pre-conquest times. Is it coincidental that the sacrificial venue was a pyramid, that the ceremony was conducted by a high priest and four assistants, that a cutting instrument, the sacrificial knife, was used to strike a hard physical blow to the body of the victim, and that the victim’s soul was believed to ascend directly to the heavens, sidestepping the perils of the underworld? 23

As such ‘coincidences’ continue to multiply, it is reasonable to wonder whether there may not be some underlying connection. This is certainly the case when we learn that the general term for ‘sacrifice’ throughout Ancient Central America was p’achi, meaning ‘to open the mouth’.24


20 See, for example, R. T. Rundle-Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London, 1991, p. 29.

21 Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 134. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, e. g. Utts. 20, 21.
22 Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, The Orion Mystery, Wm. Heinemann, London, 1994, pp. 208-10, 270.

23 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, pp. 40, 177.

24 Maya History and Religion, p. 175.

Could it be, therefore, that what confronts us here, in widely separated geographical areas, and at different periods of history, is not just a series of startling coincidences but some faint and garbled common memory originating in the most distant antiquity? It doesn’t seem that the Egyptian ceremony of the opening of the mouth influenced directly the Mexican ceremony of the same name (or vice versa, for that matter).


The fundamental differences between the two cases rule that out. What does seem possible, however, is that their similarities may be the remnants of a shared legacy received from a common ancestor. The peoples of Central America did one thing with that legacy and the Egyptians another, but some common symbolism and nomenclature was retained by both.


This is not the place to expand on the sense of an ancient and elusive connectedness that emerges from the Egyptian and Central American evidence. Before moving on, however, it is worth noting that a similar ‘connectedness’ links the belief systems of pre-Colombian Mexico with those of Sumer in Mesopotamia. Again the evidence is more suggestive of an ancient common ancestor than of any direct influence.

Take the case of Oannes, for example.

‘Oannes’ is the Greek rendering of the Sumerian Uan, the name of the amphibious being, described in Part II, believed to have brought the arts and skills of civilization to Mesopotamia.25 Legends dating back at least 5000 years relate that Uan lived under the sea, emerging from the waters of the Persian Gulf every morning to civilize and tutor mankind.26 Is it a coincidence that uaana, in the Mayan language, means ‘he who has his residence in water’?27

Let us also consider Tiamat, the Sumerian goddess of the oceans and of the forces of primitive chaos, always shown as a ravening monster. In Mesopotamian tradition, Tiamat turned against the other deities and unleashed a holocaust of destruction before she was eventually destroyed by the celestial hero Marduk:

She opened her mouth, Tiamat, to swallow him.
He drove in the evil wind so that she could not close her lips.
The terrible winds filled her belly. Her heart was seized,
She held her mouth wide open,
He let fly an arrow, it pierced her belly,
Her inner parts he clove, he split her heart,
He rendered her powerless and destroyed her life,
He felled her body and stood upright on it.28

How do you follow an act like that?

Marduk could. Contemplating his adversary’s monstrous corpse, ‘he conceived works of art’,29 and a great plan of world creation began to take shape in his mind. His first move was to split Tiamat’s skull and cut her arteries. Then he broke her into two parts ‘like a dried fish’, using one half to roof the heavens and the other to surface the earth. From her breasts he made mountains, from her spittle, clouds, and he directed the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to flow from her eyes.30


25 Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 326; Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, 1992, pp. 163-4.

26 Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, p. 41.

27 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 169; The God-Kings and the Titans, p. 234.

28 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, pp. 53-4.

29 Ibid., p. 54.

30 Ibid. See also Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, p. 177.

A strange and violent legend, and a very old one.

The ancient civilizations of Central America had their own version of this story. Here Quetzalcoatl, in his incarnation as the creator deity, took the role of Marduk while the part of Tiamat was played by Cipactli, the ‘Great Earth Monster’.


Quetzalcoatl seized Cipactli’s limbs,

‘as she swam in the primeval waters and wrenched her body in half, one part forming the sky and the other the earth’. From her hair and skin he created grass, flowers and herbs; ‘from her eyes, wells and springs; from her shoulders, mountains’.31

31 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 59; Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 177. See also The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p. 144.

Are the peculiar parallels between the Sumerian and Mexican myths pure coincidence or could both have been marked by the cultural fingerprints of a lost civilization? If so, the faces of the heroes of that ancestral culture may indeed have been carved in stone and passed down as heirlooms through thousands of years, sometimes in full view, sometimes buried, until they were dug up for the last time by archaeologists in our era and given labels like ‘Olmec Head’ and ‘Uncle Sam’.

The faces of those heroes also appear at Monte Alban, where they seem to tell a sad story.

Monte Alban.


Monte Alban: the downfall of masterful men
A site thought to be about 3000 years old,32 Monte Alban stands on a vast artificially flattened hilltop overlooking Oaxaca. It consists of a huge rectangular area, the Grand Plaza, which is enclosed by groups of pyramids and other buildings laid out in precise geometrical relationships to one another. The overall feel of the place is one of harmony and proportion emerging from a well-ordered and symmetrical plan.


32 Mexico, p. 669.

Following the advice of CICOM, whom I had spoken to before leaving Villahermosa, I made my way first to the extreme south-west corner of the Monte Alban site. There, stacked loosely against the side of a low pyramid, were the objects I had come all this way to see: several dozen engraved stelae depicting negroes and Caucasians ... equal in life ... equal in death.

If a great civilization had indeed been lost to history, and if these sculptures told part of its story, the message conveyed was one of racial equality. No one who has seen the pride, or felt the charisma, of the great negro heads from La Venta could seriously imagine that the original subjects of these magisterial sculptures could have been slaves. Neither did the lean-faced, bearded men look as if they would have bent their knees to anyone. They, too, had an aristocratic demeanour.

At Monte Alban, however, there seemed to be carved in stone a record of the downfall of these masterful men. It did not look as if this could have been the work of the same people who made the La Venta sculptures. The standard of craftsmanship was far too low for that. But what was certain—whoever they were, and however inferior their work— was that these artists had attempted to portray the same negroid subjects and the same goatee-bearded Caucasians as I had seen at La Venta.


There the sculptures had reflected strength, power and vitality. Here at Monte Alban the remarkable strangers were corpses. All were naked, most were castrated, some were curled up in foetal positions as though to avoid showers of blows, others lay sprawled slackly.

Archaeologists said the sculptures showed ‘the corpses of prisoners captured in battle’.33


What prisoners? From where?

The location, after all, was Central America, the New World, thousands of years before Columbus, so wasn’t it odd that these images of battlefield casualties showed not a single native American but only and exclusively Old World racial types?

For some reason, orthodox academics did not find this puzzling, even though, by their reckoning, the carvings were extremely old (dating to somewhere between 1000 and 600 BC 34). As at other sites, this time-frame had been derived from tests on associated organic matter, not on the carvings themselves, which were incised on granite stele and therefore hard to date objectively.


33 The Cities of Ancient Mexico, p. 53.

34 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 53; Mexico, p. 671.

An as yet undeciphered but fully elaborated hieroglyphic script had been found at Monte Alban,35 much of it carved on to the same stele as the crude Caucasian and negro figures.

35 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, pp. 53-4; The Cities of Ancient Mexico, p. 50.

Experts accepted that it was ‘the earliest-known writing in Mexico’.36 It was also clear that the people who had lived here had been accomplished builders and more than usually preoccupied with astronomy. An observatory, consisting of a strange arrowhead-shaped structure, lay at an angle of 45° to the main axis (which was deliberately tilted several degrees from north-south).37 Crawling into this observatory, I found it to be a warren of tiny, narrow tunnels and steep internal stairways, giving sightlines to different regions of the sky.38

The people of Monte Alban, like the people of Tres Zapotes, left definite evidence of their knowledge of mathematics, in the form of bar-and-dot computations.39 They had also used the remarkable calendar,40 introduced by the Olmecs and much associated with the later Maya,41 which predicted the end of the world on 23 December AD 2012.

If the calendar, and the preoccupation with time, had been part of the legacy of an ancient and forgotten civilization, the Maya must be ranked as the most faithful and inspired inheritors of that legacy.

‘Time’ as the archaeologist Eric Thompson put it in 1950, ‘was the supreme mystery of Maya religion, a subject which pervaded Maya thought to an extent without parallel in the history of mankind.’42

As I continued my journey through Central America I felt myself drawn ever more deeply into the labyrinths of that strange and awesome riddle.

36 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, pp. 54.

37 Mexico, pp. 669-71.
38 For further details, see The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p. 17: ‘These buildings probably confirm knowledge of a large body of star lore.’

39 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 53.

40 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 350.

41 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, pp. 44-5.
42 J. Eric Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, Carnegie Institution, Washington DC, 1950, p. 155.


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