What is history?

articles History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

History is generally written from the standpoint of the victors or the dominant society. Consequently the other side of the story is hardly ever told in full. This is especially true of Mexico, although the balance is now being redressed to some extent through improved translation and interpretation of native sources. Advances in the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs and the interpretation of the Maya, Aztec, and Mixtec codices reveal a different concept of time and history from our own.

What is history anyway? Sounds like a naive question, until you stop to think about it. It’s like the concept of time. Everybody knows what it is, until one is asked to define it. In our society we are obsessed with the idea of keeping time. Nevertheless, your time and my time may be quite different, depending on our individual perceptions of time and space. Time in Mexico, as many visitors and even long-time foreign residents have observed, often does not mean the same as it does in the time-oriented society north of the border.

Our concept of history also depends to a large extent on our concept of time. The precise definition of time is a complicated philosophical problem. Does time exist independently of our thinking about it? Would the past, present, and future even exist if no one were alive to think about it? We do not have time to ponder theories of time when we are pressed for time. In one sense, every remembered event is “historical,” whether it is a recent personal experience or something you read in a history book. The experience of reading history takes place in a kind of eternal present in which past events become the present, insofar as you reconstruct them in your mind.

In ancient Mexico, the Maya, Aztecs, and other high cultures observed both cyclical and linear time. Consequently their concept of history was far different from our own. Therefore, in dealing with theories about the origins of Mesoamerican civilizations and the meaning of history in ancient Mexico certain basic questions arise concerning the purpose and method of recording historical events. For convenience we may break the subject down into categories: traditional history, alternative history, oral history, and pseudo-history.

First, traditional or academic history. Historians in the western academic tradition generally follow one of two main approaches: speculative or critical. In the first approach, history is seen as a process with a purpose or master plan. In religious terms this presupposes a divine purpose or forward linear development of human history. In secular terms this implies an attempt to apply “scientific” method to the study of history, while at the same time maintaining the idea that history has some overall significance. The second is the critical approach, which represents a trend away from speculative theories. In this concept of history the emphasis is on specific persons and events as unrepeatable “happenings.” On this view there is no universal pattern or linear progression in the course of human history. For lack of space and time the historians following these different approaches cannot be dealt with here. But it is important to remember that much of our current historical knowledge of ancient Mexico is based on these premises.

The method of writing history poses even greater problems. We therefore have to consider the nature of the historical explanation itself. Some historians advocate, as far as possible, the application of scientific methodology to the study of history. Others object that the subject matter, the quirks of human nature, and the sometimes bizarre events which go to make up history are simply not susceptible to scientific analysis and therefore require a radically different approach. We can conduct controlled laboratory experiments on white rats, but what does this really tell us about human behaviour?

With a few notable exceptions, historians do not generally participate directly in the events they write about. Julius Caesar, who wrote the war commentaries about the battles in which he himself led the Roman legions, was a notable exception. During the Conquest of Mexico, Cortés wrote letters to the emperor to describe and justify his actions against the native population. Years later Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the Conquistadors, wrote his “true” version of the same events. However, this raises the problem of objective observation versus subjective participation. If one is completely objective, it is difficult to understand another person’s view of the same historical events. On the other hand, if one is completely immersed in an experience, it is equally difficult to avoid a biased interpretation of these same events.

The historian must of necessity be selective in the choice of events and persons to be entered into the historical record. The alternative, as in Alice in Wonderland, is to produce a map the same size as the terrain to be described. Regardless of the way in which the historical narrative is divided into time sequences, the historian cannot cover all the details, even in a minor event. Some events and personages will stand out above the others and demand special attention, but not everyone will agree on who or what is most important. Moreover, in order to make the historical account intelligible to the reader, the historian has to arrange his series of historical “facts” into some kind of coherent story line. We must then ask how much of the historical narrative is to be attributed solely to the imagination of the historian. Depending upon the skill or the bias of the writer, the reader is presented with a running narrative somewhere between historical fact and literary fiction. Prescott’s popular Conquest of Mexico is a prime example of a historical account that reads like a novel and is extremely biased in favour of the conquerors.

These are just a few of the problems involved in writing history. The history of pre-Hispanic Mexico poses an even greater challenge, for the Spanish soldiers and the missionaries who followed them had no real respect for or interest in the cultural or spiritual values of the people with whom they came in contact. While certain Spanish chroniclers, such as Fray Bernardino de Sahagun and Bishop Landa, have left us invaluable historical accounts of the Aztecs and the Maya, their primary purpose was to wipe out every vestige of the indigenous religions, which, unfortunately, included almost everything else of intellectual or cultural value along with it.

In contrast to the standard academic historical approach to the history of ancient Mexico, we have what we may, for want of a better term, call “pseudo-history.” Here, however, the waters become even murkier, for some scientific writers regard all forms of alternative history, including oral tradition, as pseudo-history, i.e. the indiscriminate intermingling of historical myths and legends with history proper. By these criteria, Herodotus’ history of the Persian Wars and Livy’s histories of Rome would be relegated to the category of pseudo-history, along with known frauds and fabrications. This is a gross over-simplification.

Not all forms of alternative history can be classified as pseudo-history. Sometimes oral tradition can be more accurate than written texts. Historical myths, too, contain much more than a mere grain of truth. As a form of alternative history, epic poetry and saga can be more valuable than a sober academic historical treatise. Epic traditions tell us what people actually think of their own history, not simply what some outside observer writes about it. The semi-legendary, semi-historical account of the migration of the Mexica from Aztlán to the founding of México-Tenochtitlan is a case in point.

Pseudo-history, in my view, comprises theories about pre-Columbian trans-oceanic voyages to the Americas, the Jewish migration of the tribe of Dan, the mysterious “Sea Peoples,” Afro-centrism, space aliens, lost continents, and a host of other diffusionist theories about the origins of Mesoamerican civilizations. It is not that these theories are in themselves totally objectionable or simply rejected outright by the traditional academic community; rather the evidence is often too weak to support the theory. Even when there is no intention to deceive, diffusionist theories too often rest on false or misleading information. Alternative historians and archaeologists sell millions of copies of their books to readers who want to be convinced that the figure on the sarcophagus in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque really is an ancient astronaut at the controls of his spaceship or that the colossal stone heads at La Venta and elsewhere in the Veracruz area are actual portraits of African chiefs who supposedly founded the Olmec civilization.

Many such examples of pseudo-history could be given. In an online exposition of Graham Hancock’s Dusting for Fingerprints, the reviewer, Jason Colavito, noted certain similarities in ceremonies and ideas in Egypt and Mexico which, according to Colavito, made Hancock’s view of Mexican civilization more palatable than von Daniken’s theory of space aliens. As a footnote, the reviewer added that certain anomalous artifacts appear to support diffusionist theories of the origins of Mesoamerican civilizations. In his words: “… a group of archaeologists said in 2001 that Roman artifacts found beneath an Aztec ruin were genuine and that Romans must have been to America.” This is a reference to an alleged find of Roman coins underneath the floor of an Aztec temple. The reviewer indeed allowed for the possibility that some of these anomalous artifacts could have arrived in ships blown off course or been carried to Mexico by the Conquistadores themselves. However, he then stated that the “mystery” remained unexplained.

I have not personally investigated this particular claim in great detail, so there may well be some written authoritative account of this alleged find somewhere. However, the manner of presentation is typical of this kind of pseudo-history. First, the “archaeologists” are not named. No mention is made of when or where they may have published their findings. We are not told anything about the date of the “Aztec ruin” or the corresponding dates on the alleged Roman coins. Rome was founded in 753 B.C., according to tradition, and in ruins by the 15th century A.D., just about the time of the rise of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Let us suppose for a moment that “Romans” actually did leave some coins under an Aztec ruin. When would that most likely have happened? According to G. C. Vaillant in The Aztecs of Mexico (1944), the Aztecs began to build in stone during the Early Aztec II Period (1299-1351) and the Late Aztec II Period (1455-1507). The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan rose to political power during the Early and Late Aztec III Periods (1403-1507), during which time most of the major building projects took place. This leaves just a little more than a decade before Cortes destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521. What were the “Romans” doing during those years? In Europe, the old Roman Empire had long since come to an end and the Holy Roman Empire was in the course of revival after the Last Crusade in 1270. At such a late period, we would expect at least some corroborating evidence of Roman voyages to the Americas, unless of course the Romans got there first and the Aztecs inadvertently built a temple over a horde of Roman coins. But this is an exercise in futility, for we are not given enough information even to reach an informed opinion. However, this is typical of the approach of pseudo-historians and pseudo-archaeologists.

Theories like this raise far more questions than they answer. The alleged evidence is simply too slight to support the claim that Romans came to America. With certain variations, this applies as well to the Celts, the Egyptians, the Hebrews, the Phoenicians, and a host of other alleged pre-Columbian, trans-oceanic voyagers, including space visitors to the African Dogon tribe from the Sirian star system (Robert Temple) and extraterrestrials among the Sumerians (Zecharia Sitchen).

Alternative or revisionist historians provide just enough information to whet the appetite of the general reader, but they leave out all contradictory evidence or they claim that the academic establishment is attempting to hide the truth. Professional scholars and researchers do not usually consider it worth the effort to refute such claims. But perhaps this is a disservice to the public.

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2005 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2005
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