Primary sources of Maya history – part two

articles History & People Maya

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

Four major cultural areas provide us with the most extensive documentation in Mesoamerica: the Valley of Mexico (Aztec), Northern Yucatan (Lowland Maya), Western Oaxaca (Mixtec), and Guatemala (Highland Maya and Cakchiquel). In previous articles we looked at the first two of these primary sources of native historical tradition. Most of the pre-Hispanic historical codices come to us from the Mixtec people of the Oaxaca cultural region. But the Quichean civilization of Guatemala produced some of the most polished “literary” texts in the entire repertoire of pre-Columbian literature. Two of these, the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya and the Annals of the Cakchiquels, are of fundamental importance for the reconstruction of the pre-Hispanic Maya concept of history.

Classification and interpretation of these documents are difficult, partly because of a lack of coordination among researchers in dealing with native American literature in general. For example, anthropologists tend to make limited use of such documents. Indeed, until recently, most academic studies of native literature came under the heading of Anthropological Linguistics. Ethnologists deal with contemporary functioning cultures, where the emphasis is more on oral tradition, stories, legends, and myths recorded directly from native story tellers. Archaeologists excavate sites to determine certain details not found in documentary sources, such as settlement patterns, technology, and economic development. However, none of these approaches to Mesoamerican cultures is entirely satisfactory in dealing with pre-Columbian literature.

We may illustrate the problem by reference to the controversy that has arisen between some hardline archaeologists and epigraphers and decipherers of the Maya hieroglyphic texts. Since so few historical texts survived the Spanish cultural holocaust, so the argument goes, we have only a relatively small sampling of actual texts. Moreover, since the inscriptions on the stelae and stone monuments, such as the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, were produced by and for the elite classes, they present a highly biased picture of Maya life and thought.

While there is some merit in this argument, the point should not be pressed too far. The point is that written texts, whether in hieroglyphic form or in Roman transcription, afford us a unique insight into the hearts and minds of the people who wrote them or those for whom they were written. Much the same can be said about other written or hieroglyphic manuscripts in the native historical tradition.

This scholarly controversy reminds me of the Homeric Question, which pitted the Unitarians against the Analysts. Were the Iliad and the Odyssey written, or orally composed, by one supreme bard or by a corporation of revisionist poets and interpolaters? After years of study and a Ph.D. thesis, I concluded that what really matters is what Homer (or whoever) is actually saying to us today in his epic poems. So too for the present controversy. What are the Maya, the Aztecs, and others actually saying in these texts and can we put aside our own prejudices and preconceptions long enough to listen to them?

Ethnohistory, the reconstruction of native New World cultures mainly from written sources, offers a reasonable compromise. Documents such as Sumerian cuneiform tablets, mediaeval English texts, American Indian land claims, Aztec codices, and colonial administrative records and the like are increasingly used in cultural studies. They serve as control evidence. Archaeology relies on the study of individual artifacts and the comparison of one site with another to determine cross-cultural influence, the spread of goods and ideas, etc. Documents, on the other hand, are the direct thoughts of the people themselves and so provide a level of interpretation beyond that which can be determined through archaeology alone.

As a general cultural area, Mesoamerica is ideal for documentary studies for a number of reasons. Pre-Hispanic civilizations shared certain common social and cultural features. The Spaniards destroyed much of the old order but imposed their own social and cultural values and systems on the conquered peoples. They also kept detailed administrative records. We thus have a remarkable continuity of documentary source material from the time of the Conquest onwards.

Highland Guatemala lends itself admirably to the ethnohistorical approach. Not only do we have major Quiche archaeological sites, such as Zacaleu and Utatlán, some of which were actually occupied at the time of the Conquest, we also have corroborating documentary evidence, such as the Popol Vuh in which these places are actually mentioned by name.

Let us look at a few of these documents.

Located in the central Guatemalan Highlands and adjacent lowlands, the Quichean civilization produced some of the most important examples of texts in the native historical tradition. “Quichean” refers to a group of Mayan languages, including Quiche, Rabinal, Cakchiquel, Tzutuhil, and Uspantec. For historical purposes the Quiche and Cakchiquel are of great importance.

The Popol Vuh is the single most distinguished native literary composition we have. Discovered by Father Ximénez in Chichicastenango around 1701, it has been translated into various languages, including English. Occasionally doubts have been cast on its authenticity, because it was written down after the Spanish Conquest and the opening passages sound very much like the Biblical story of creation. However, internal analysis and comparisons with other indigenous sources verify it as a genuine pre-Hispanic composition. First, it is written in 16th century Classical Quiche in a poetical style characterized by semantic couplets, where one half of the couplet is echoed by the other half. For example: “When it whitens, when it brightens” ( Ta chavax ok/Ta zaquir ok!). Secondly, the author tells us that the Book of Counsel (Popol Vuh) is no more to be seen, because the original manuscript (vuhil, >book,= >paper=) has been lost. References to the “former word” ( oher tzih) strongly indicate that the original source was indeed a hieroglyphic manuscript.

The Popol Vuh begins with the story of the creation of the human race and the beginning of the Quiche people; it continues with an account of the first leaders of the Quiche, their travels, and the final establishment of the Quiche nation. References to Tula, probably the well-known archaeological site in Hidalgo, suggest an interesting historical connection between the Aztecs and the Maya, both of whom are said to have come from Tula. Indeed the Popol Vuh has been described as a bilingual document in which Aztec ideas are expressed in Quiche words and Quiche ideas in Aztec words. Because of its extensive coverage of topics from creation stories to verifiable historical events, it is a major primary source of information about Maya religion and history in general.

Complimentary to the Popol Vuh is the Title of the Lords of Totonicapán. Originally written in Quiche about 1554, it is now extant only in a Spanish translation. The names of the author or authors are unknown but the document is signed by kings and dignitaries of the Quiche court. It tells the story of the three wandering Indian tribes who eventually established themselves as a nation. Written possibly in the Quiche capital of Utatlán, it confirms the historical and legendary accounts in the Popol Vuh, providing therefore an important source of information about the life of the people before the coming of the Spaniards.

The Annals of the Cakchiquels (in Cakchiquel) was written sometime in the late 16th century by several Indians who had learned modern writing. The book was kept in the town of Sololá overlooking Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, until it was later “discovered” in 1844 and subsequently passed through several more hands before being published in an English translation (1953). The mythical and legendary part, which must have been orally preserved for centuries, was finally collected and preserved by members of the Xahil family or clan. The historical narrative continues with the exploits of kings and warriors and their various conquests, the founding of villages, and the succession of rulers up to the time of the Spanish Conquest. Like the Aztec documentary tradition, the Popol Vuh, and the Books of Chilam Balam, the Annals also identifies the almost legendary Tula as the place from which they all set out – at least at one point in their various migrations. The Cakchiquel document continues with an account of their journeys and the places through which they passed along the way, ending with a sober, factual account of the Conquest. This is the native story of the Conquest of Guatemala from the point of view of the vanquished.

In Quichean Civilization (1973), R.M. Carmack presented a case study of the Titulo Coyoi, a Quiche document written at Utatlán by several members of a lineage of the Quiche Maya around 1550 to 1570. Ostensibly a land claim, it parallels accounts in the Popol Vuh and other major Quiche documents. The Titulo tells of the coming of the forefathers from the east, a series of migrations, the founding of the capital of Utatlán, and various conquests, especially in the area of Quetzaltenango. This historical narrative provides a unique Quiche Maya view of the Spanish Conquest of Guatemala and the destruction of the residences of the native rulers. The document also contains important information about Tecum Umam, the national hero of Guatemala. Before the final struggle against the Spaniards, he was carried on the shoulders of the people for seven days in his honour. His prowess in the battle against the Spaniards was highly acclaimed. He was killed in the ensuing battle but was greatly admired by the Spaniards even in death.

The Maya had an extraordinarily strong sense of their own history long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Even the Conquistadores were impressed by the native historical tradition. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortés on the Conquest, reported that the Indians had books made from the bark of a tree, in which they recorded past events and deeds by means of signs and symbols. The early missionaries too confirmed that the Indians of Mexico and Guatemala preserved their histories and traditions by means of writing or painting. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas gathered much information about the life and beliefs of the Indians, including reports about their historians and chroniclers. He was so impressed by the native historical tradition that he even hinted that the Indian method of communication by signs and symbols was not inferior to the European style of writing.

How do we deal with texts and documents that express such a different world view from our own? Is complete objectivity really possible? Or even desirable? Some competent Maya scholars complain that the interpretation of Maya history is made more difficult by the Mesoamerican concept of cyclical time, as if the ancient Maya were somehow responsible for the problems faced by modern investigators and scholars!

Why study ancient cultures at all? Does it really matter what the ancient Maya did or thought? Every culture, every generation comes up with its own set of values and priorities. Even on the individual level what is “real” for me may not be “real” for you. However, by studying an ancient civilization or an alien culture, we can at least learn that there is more than one valid way of viewing the world in which we live. In different places at different times, people have been forced to come to terms with their environment and find different ways of coping. Some of these ways may seem strange indeed. The Maya are just one more example.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2006 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2006
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