I've been really fascinated by public debates over our personal echo chambers and how we can discern real news from the fake news cranked out by random teenagers in Macedonia. I'm reminded by some of my earlier work on how people tried to figure out what was real about archaeology in early twentieth century Guatemala. This post is a recycled conference paper that explores these issues.

Early Twentieth-century Mesocamerican Archaeology and The (Pseudo-) Scientific Origins of the Maya


Egypt. The lost city of Atlantis. Ancient astronauts. These and other patently absurd theories about the origin of the ancient native civilizations of the Americas seem to have come straight from the zany pages of the Weekly World News. In particular, unorthodox theories about the external origins of the ancient Maya have been employed to explain the presence of some of the most enigmatic and least understood civilizations of the ancient world that flourished in the midst of inhospitable jungles. Although the existence of other ancient civilizations, such as those of the Nile River Valley and Mesopotamia, have long fascinated both scientists and more general audiences, the mystique of the ancient Maya continues to provoke global debates over the development of their technological, scientific, and cultural achievements. What is it about the ancient Maya that makes for such fertile ground for such rampant speculation and the endless proliferation of outrageous theories?

The historical legacies and continuity of debates over the origins of native peoples could be attributed to scientific misunderstandings of archaeological evidence or simple racism towards indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, neither scientific misinterpretations nor racism seem able to account for the continuation of these debates even after conclusive scientific evidence should have put the matter to rest. In this paper, I argue that ongoing debates over the origin of the ancient native civilizations of Mesoamerica reflect a deep ambiguity and uncertainty over the very nature of native peoples. Rooted in colonial era debates about the capacities of native peoples for spiritual conversion, controversies over the fundamental characteristics of both ancient and contemporary native peoples continued throughout the twentieth century. During the 1920 and 1930s, the production of new archaeological knowledge from recently excavated ancient Mayan sites in Guatemala, such as Quiriguá, Piedra Negras, and Tikal, brought these debates to the forefront of scientific research agendas and new interpretations about the role of native peoples in national mythologies. In both Guatemala and the United States, intellectuals, archaeologists, explorers, and the interested public appropriated archaeological evidence to answer a series of perplexing questions. How did the ancient Maya fit into historical and cultural understandings of the ancient world and modern nations? Were they civilized or savage? Advanced or primitive? Sophisticated or unsophisticated?

The parameters of debates over the nature of native peoples emerged during the early period of the Spanish conquest in the context of controversies related to the unexpected existence of native peoples in a supposedly virgin land and possibilities for their subsequent spiritual conversion. Colonial officials and clergy struggled to determine if native peoples truly could become Christians. Expressed in religious terms, these debates attempted to evaluate the capacities of native peoples for inclusion in not only the body of the Church, but also the larger enterprise of colonial empire construction. Contentious arguments about the relative civilization or barbarity of native people erupted in ecclesiastical and intellectual circles; both made impassioned arguments in favor of their particular understandings of how to best interpret the meaning of indigenous cultures. Theories about the origin of Mesoamerican cultures emerged to try to explain the presence of native peoples, but also to resolve doubts about their fundamental characteristics; Egyptian, Carthaginian, Spanish, and Asiatic origins were floated as likely possibilities and because of the limitations of colonial science, no single origin theory could be proven or disproven. The unresolved questions about Amerindian origins further confused the fundamental question of how to understand native peoples. Neither the Spanish crown nor the Catholic church reached any clear cut conclusions on the matter, leading to a contradictory set of Indian policies that relegated native peoples to the status of dependent while treating them as sufficiently mature for purposes of taxation and economic exploitation.

These unsettled debates influenced early nineteenth-century thinking on native peoples, as earlier controversies over the suitability of native peoples for Christianity were transformed into debates over their role as new national citizens after political independence in 1821. In a major turning point in 1840, proto-archaeologist, diplomat, and travel writer John Lloyd Stephens made three startling arguments about native people in Mesoamerica based on his archaeological work published in his bestselling travelogue, Incidents of Travel. First, pointing to the spectacular ancient ruins that he explored, he argued that ancient native peoples of Mesoamerica were an undeniably civilized people. Secondly, he argued they alone authored the great cities, such as Copán and Quriguá, dismissing earlier theories of the external cultural development of the ancient Maya. Finally, Stephens asserted the existence of unbroken cultural and biological linkages between ancient native people and their contemporary descendants. His conclusions created shock waves that cut through intellectual circles in throughout both the U.S. and Mesoamerica. The idea that the wretched and downtrodden Mayan Indians that worked as beasts of burden should considered as civilized challenged racial and cultural stereotypes of them as lazy, barbarous, and far too culturally different to be a part of the body politic in either Mexico or Guatemala. Some Mexican intellectuals outright rejected Stephens's conclusions about the ancient Maya, as they threatened long-established racial and cultural hierarchies that did not seem to coincide with tangible realities of the present. In particular, in the midst of the violence of the Caste War of Yucatán, journalist and historian Justo Sierra O'Reilly publicly rejected Stephens's characterizations of native people as civilized and suggested that his naïve enthusiasm had led him to erroneous conclusions.1

Drawing on fashionable theories of scientific racism and evolutionary paradigms, late nineteenth century discourses cast native peoples as major obstacles to national progress because of popular perceptions of their racial degeneracy and cultural backwardness. Debates over the possibilities of external cultural development of the ancient Maya reached a crescendo during this time because interpretations of them as either civilized or barbarous had direct implications for national economic development and the attainment of European-inspired ideals of cultural modernity. Anxious to put Guatemala on par with its U.S. and European counterparts, intellectuals in both Guatemala and the U.S. often linked the archaeological remains of Mesoamerica with the great pyramids of ancient Egypt or the glories of ancient Greece. Nevertheless, when equating the ancient Maya with the ancient Greeks, both U.S. archaeologists and Guatemalans made a point of carefully emphasizing the distinctly American origins of the Mesoamerican archaeological treasures. Many U.S. archaeologists asserted the American origins of the Maya to reinforce geo-political hemispheric power relations, while Guatemalans sought to construct a national history that began with the cultural greatness of the ancient Maya. Those intellectuals and archaeologists who insisted on the independent cultural development of the ancient Maya often contrasted sharply with those who either continued to argue in favor of the Egyptian origins of the ancient Maya or claimed that the existing evidence was insufficient to make such judgments. In a bizarre twist on most external origin theories, the British-American archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon amassed an astonishing amount of archaeological evidence that he claimed proved the Mesoamerican origin of ancient Egypt, based on the numerous cultural similarities he imagined between them, including sun worship, pyramid construction, and hieroglyphic writing systems.2 Although his unorthodox theories caused later generations of archaeologists to regard him as a crackpot relic of the late nineteenth-century, his arguments about the civilized nature of the ancient Maya resonated with Guatemalan intellectuals. They seized on his claims about Mesoamerica as the cultural cradle of Egypt to support the development of cultural narratives that positioned that the ancient Maya and their significant architectural, scientific, and technological achievements as the cultural bedrock of the modern nation.3 Nevertheless, they continued to struggle to reconcile the contrasting evidence of the glories of the ancient Maya with what they viewed as the cultural and racial degeneracy of the destitute and exploited Indians that surrounded them.

Although by 1915, most professional U.S. archaeologists had taken a firm stand in favor the American origins of the ancient Maya, Le Plongeon's legacy lived on in the proliferation of other equally imaginative theories that drew on recent archaeological evidence. In his 1924 book, Elephants and Ethnologists, anatomist and amateur ethnographer Grafton Elliott Smith argued that the iconography he observed on Stela B of the Classic Period site of Copán represented an Indian elephant, which he claimed was unmistakable evidence of the Asiatic origins of ancient Mayan civilizations.4 Marshalling an impressive body of archaeological and ethnographic evidence, Smith twisted the newly formulated anthropological theory of cultural diffusion to explain the how elephant iconography had migrated with the ancient Maya to the New World. He proposed that upon their arrival to the Honduran city of Copán, migrants from the Indian sub-continent transferred their memories of the majestic animals of their former home onto the stone stelae of the New World. Despite the strenuous objections from the U.S. archaeological community that Smith had erroneously interpreted images of the Mayan rain god Chac as an Asian elephant, Smith fired back with stinging criticism. Not content with merely promoting his own theory of external cultural development, he derided the U.S. archaeological community for its disbelief and criticism of his theory. He accused U.S. archaeologists of blindly adhering to an inflexible “ethnological Monroe Doctrine” that disparaged schools of unorthodox origin theories and barred even well-documented theories of outside cultural influence.5

Historiographic debates over the origin and nature of ancient Mayan civilizations not only took place inside of U.S. archaeological circles, but also between Guatemalan intellectuals anxious to reify the place of native people within national cultural narratives. Guatemalan intellectuals staunchly believed in the American origins of the ancient Maya, but remained bitterly divided over the nature and characteristics of these civilizations, as well as the implications of these interpretations for national development. Drawing on official and revisionist histories of the Spanish conquest, heated debates ensued in the columns of El Imparcial in 1937 over the role of native peoples in national histories.6 Indigenistas, including Antonio Carrera Goubaud, Carlos Gándara Durán, and others argued that pre-Columbian cultures had constituted separate nations, each with its own language, world view, and religious practices. These thinkers drew on archaeological data to support their contentions that pre-Columbian peoples had developed civilized, sophisticated societies, complete with advanced scientific knowledge and strikingly modern political systems. Echoing John Lloyd Stephens's earlier arguments about the reasons for the cultural degeneration of contemporary native peoples, indigenistas argued that the force and brutality of the Spanish conquest had resulted in the subsequent destruction of these nations and obliterated all traces of ancient Mayan culture. Anti-indigenistas refuted these arguments and asserted that pre-Columbian native peoples had no civilization prior to the Spanish conquest and constituted an inferior race devoid of any vestiges of cultural refinement. They further argued that the Spaniards destroyed nothing of value when they arrived because there was nothing valuable to destroy. Followed to its logical conclusion, anti-indigenista rhetoric suggested that the national government had no responsibility to incorporate culturally native peoples into the body politic, as such racially and culturally degenerate people clearly belonged outside of civilized society. The eventual outcome of these debates held serious consequences for later Indian policy, as indigenistas sought to craft state policies that promoted cultural assimilation, which they believed would finally solve Guatemala's persistent Indian problem.7

Because so much of the historiographic debates about native peoples hinged on the presumed degree of civilization of pre-conquest societies at the time of the Spanish arrival in the Americas, archaeological remains immediately became crucial pieces of evidence deployed strategically in support of political arguments. Indigenistas pointed to the vestiges of the ancient Maya as incontrovertible proof of the cultural sophistication of these civilizations. According to J. Fernando Juárez Muñoz, in his 1931 publication El Indio Guatemalteco, archaeological remains “...are sufficient to demonstrate the culture of these people...their religious beliefs, their marvelous astronomic conceptions, and their government, a constitutional monarchy, similar to the English government.”8 Archaeological data came to be viewed as the most authoritative sources about ancient native people, preferred over even colonial chronicles or indigenous texts. Colonial chronicles and conquest-era indigenous texts were thought to be tainted with traces of Christian influence and far from the unadulterated evidence that indigenista thinkers sought. In his compilation of colonial Spanish documents about the discovery of Palenque, indigenista Ricardo Castañeda Paganini evaluated the respective merit and reliability of colonial chronicles, indigenous texts, and archaeological remains as evidence in the debates over native peoples. He concluded that archaeological remains offered the best way to understand ancient cultures, as they could be read and understood as texts. “In these books of stone are sculpted the heroic deeds, religious acts, and the sacred science of the American man,” he wrote.9 The Classic Period site of Quiriguá, with its finely sculpted and towering stelae, became a crucial site for indigenistas and they endeavored to promote it as an important part of their larger political program. Indigenista archaeologists, such as J. Antonio Villacorta, gave educational lectures at Quiriguá to prominent members of Guatemalan society, carefully elucidating the site's significance and details of its fine sculpture to his eager audience. Drawing on the latest scientific findings about the site, he linked Quiriguá to classical antiquity and suggested that the towering stelae served as proof of the builder's cultural sophistication.10

Debates over the origin and nature of native peoples have not abated during the twentieth century. Writing with the benefit of hindsight in 1962, archaeologist Robert Wauchope argued that the intellectual clashes in the U.S. over unorthodox theories of ancient Maya origins reflected ongoing struggles between professional scholars and their amateur counterparts, characterizing these debates as struggles to define the contours of archeology as an academic discipline.11 Nevertheless, his reading of the persistence of unorthodox origin theories ignores the longer history of debates over the nature of native peoples and characterizations of them as either undeniably civilized or irredeemably savage. During the early twentieth century, emerging archaeological knowledge became a crucial piece of evidence in these debates and employed to support diverse interpretations about the meaning of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. A wide variety of scholars, intellectuals, and archaeologists in both the U.S. and Guatemala participated in these debates and often appropriated questions about the nature of native people in order to substantiate their own beliefs about the the rightful place of indigenous cultures in national narratives. Even in the face of seemingly solid scientific evidence about the New World origins, unorthodox origin theories continued to flourish and often provided conflicting conceptions of the degree of civilization and savagery of ancient native peoples. The continual shifts in interpretations about their origin and nature suggests a deep ambiguity and a profound uncertainty about how archaeologists and intellectuals thought about them in the past and the ways that we continue to think about them today.


1 John F. Chuchiak, “Indians, Intellectuals, and the Press: The Politicization of Justo Sierra O’Reilly’s Views on the Maya While in the United States,” in Strange Pilgrimages: Exile, Travel, and National Identity in Latin America, 1800-1990s, ed. Karen Racine and Ingrid Fey (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2000), 59–74.

2 R Tripp Evans, Romancing the Maya : Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915, 1st ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 126–152.

3 Robert Wauchope, Lost Tribes & Sunken Continents: Myth and Method in the Study of American Indians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 7–27; Augustus Le Plongeon, Queen M’oo and the Egyptian Sphinx (New York, The Author, 1896).

4 Grafton Elliot Smith, Elephants and Ethnologists, (London; New York: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.; E.P. Dutton & Co., 1924), 4.

5 Grafton Elliot Smith, Elephants and Ethnologists, (London; New York: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.; E.P. Dutton & Co., 1924), 5–6.

6 Marta Elena Casáus Arzú, “El Gran Debate Historiográfico de 1937 En Guatemala:‘ Los Indios Fuera de La Historia Y de La Civilización’. Dos Formas de Hacer Historia,” Revista Complutense de Historia de América no. 34 (2008): 209–231.

7 Antonio Goubaud Carrera, Indigenismo en Guatemala. (Guatemala: Centro Editorial “José de Pineda Ibarra,” Ministerio de Educación Pública, 1964).

8 J. Fernando Juárez Muñoz, El indio guatemalteco; ensayo de sociología nacionalista, (Guatemala, C.A: [Tip. Latina], 1931), 31. “...son bastante a demonstrar y patentizar la cultura de dicho pueblo...sus teogonías, sus maravillosas concepciones astronómicas, y la forma de su gobierno, monárquico constitucional, a modo del gobierno inglés.” Translation mine.

9 Ricardo Castañeda Paganini, Las Ruinas De Palenque: Su Descubrimiento Y Primeras Exploraciones En El Siglo XVIII (Guatemala: Tipografia Nacional Guatemala, 1946), 12–13. “En esos libros de piedra están esculpidas las gestas heroicas, los hechos religiosos y la ciencia hierática del hombre americano.” Translation mine.

10 J Antonio Villacorta, “Quiriguá,” Anales de la sociedad de Geografia e Historia 3, no. 3 (1927): 244–270.

11 Wauchope, Lost Tribes & Sunken Continents: Myth and Method in the Study of American Indians, 123–137.

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