Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks Named Pfoho Faculty Deans


Harvard SEAS Faculty Reflect on Outgoing Dean, Say Successor Should Be Top Scholar


South Korean President Yoon Talks Nuclear Threats From North Korea at Harvard IOP Forum


Harvard University Police Advisory Board Appoints Undergrad Rep After Yearlong Vacancy


After Meeting with Harvard Admin on ‘Swatting’ Attack, Black Student Leaders Say Demands Remain Unanswered

Harvard Scientists Invade Yucatan Jungles to Wrest Secrets of Lost Mayan Civilization from Temple Ruins


Science and history have not yet succeeded in fathoming the secret of the great American civilization that vanished suddenly from Central America, and the mystery of the Mayas remains unsolved. An expedition headed by Dr. H. J. Spinden '06, of the Peabody Museum and the writer Gregory Mason, is now on its way to the Yucatan to explore territory hither to unknown in the hope of finding new clues to the archaeological riddle of the Maya civilization. In this article, reprinted from the New York Times, Mr. Mason describes the problems and hopes of the expedition.

Deep in the thick jungles of Central America are dozens of splendid stone cities abandoned centuries ago. Of the mysterious race which built them, there remain only a few hundred thousand Indians, ignorant of their glorious past.

The lovely architecture of these desolate palaces, the faded paintings on crumbling temple walls, the grace and symmetry of sculpture found on monuments buried under the matted undergrowth of who knows how many years, all stamp the builders of these cities as the creators of the highest civilization that flourished in the New World before the coming of Europeans. "New World?" Outstanding facts in the history of these first Americans have now been traced back to the ancient days when Thales was founding Greek philosophy.

Origin of Mayas Puzzling

Whence came these people, whom we call the Mayas? What was the catastrophe that wiped out the civilizations of their golden age so suddenly that no tradition of them was left among the savage tribes who inherited their territory? In what fashion did the immigrant Mayas retrieve a measure of ancient culture in a new land? When we enter their deserted cities we feel the poignantly tantalizing quality of the mystery that surrounds a magnificent ship discovered in mid-ocean with sails set, gear in order and not a soul on board.

Why was this great ship, bearing no outward sign of wreck or misfortune, so abruptly abandoned? Why were these temples, palaces and astronomical observatories of cunningly carved white limestone suddenly left to the bats, the lizards and the sinister little owls the later Indians called "moan birds" and associated with death? It is conceivable that any rice might forget its humble beginnings in the dawn of history. But how came legend to be so silent about the collapse of a cultivated nation whose greatest cities we can now prove were inhabited in the first six centuries of the Christian era?. One reiterates the query, one gropes for an answer, till the imagination aches.

Once Numbered Millions

It was a widespread civilization as well as a high one, for it left the carved facades of its urban centres over what is now British Honduras, Southeastern Mexico, two-thirds of Guatemala and part of "Spanish Honduras." To this oldest American civilization archaeologists have agreed to give the name Maya(pronounce the first three letters like the pronoun my). This is a name of uncertain origin, connected with a late Yucatan capital called Mayapan. It has been extended to cover a great nation which once numbered many millions.

The Mayar were a true branch of the American Indian race, virtually or entirely uninfluenced by contact with Asia or any other part of the Old World. The earliest of their dates carved in stone which has yet been found corresponds to 98 B. C. in our calendar. Harvard University recently announced Dr. Spinden's discovery that the beginnings of the annual calendar and the Venus calendar of the Mayas must be carried back to dates between 613 and 530 B. C.

Mayas Superior to Incas

It seems fair to give the Mayas the palm for culture existing in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans A comparison with the Incas presents some difficulties, but as Dr. Spinden points out. "The Peruvians had no system of hieroglyphic writing and no carefully elaborated calendar." They were thus unable to conserve intellectual gains. But the Mayas had a well developed system of hieroglyphs, mostly ideographic, that is consisting of abbreviated pictures of the thing intended or of an object associated with it.

Their calendar is now an open book and can be proved more accurate than the Julian Calendar of the Spanish conquerors the same calendar that Greece and Russia abandoned only a few years ago. Moreover, the extraordinary astronomical science of the Mayas seems to have been built up without telescopes. Astronomical sighting lines marked with monuments were used to measure the true length of the year.

Of the Maya proficiency in painting Dr. Spinden says, "In foreshortening they greatly excelled the Egyptians and Assyrians."

Religion Resembles that of Egyptians

One of the most interesting things about these first Americans is that they were very religious. All their arts seem to have sprung from the religious impulse or to have been developed in interpreting it. Their gods and culture heroes had the physical attributes of reptiles, birds or lower mammals, although they were often somewhat partly humanized, like the beast gods of Egypt.

Our foremost authorities on Maya history, including Dr. S. G. Morley of the Carnegle Institute. Dr. Spinden of Harvard, and the British archaeologists Maudslay and Joyce, are agreed that Maya culture suffered eclipse before the coming of the Spaniards. There was an early collapse in the seventh century A. D., and a later one in the fifteenth century. The most likely causes of these collapses are civil war, exhaustion of the soil, climatic change and the appearance of disease.

The Europeans from whom we Americans are descended first heard of the great stone-built cities of the tropical New World from the Spanish conquerors. Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage, in 1502, just missed becoming the discoverer of Yucatan when he failed to follow a canoe believed to have been filled with Yucatans, which he met off the coast of what is now Honduras.

Cordoba Saw City in 1517

In 1517, another Spaniard, Cordoba, touched the east coast of Yucatan, near Cape Catoche and Mujeres Island and saw "a large town standing back from the coast about two leagues . . .and . . idols. . .nearly all of them with figures of tall women, so that we called the place the Punta de Mugeres" (Women's Point). Juan de Grijalva a year later sailed from Cuba to the Island of Cozumel. After claiming that land for his sovereign with the usual blithe arrogance of his age, Grijalva crossed to the visible eastern shore of Yucatan, where his historian describes sighting "three large towns separated from each other by about two miles. There were many houses of stone, very call towers and buildings covered with straw . . .the next day toward sun-set we perceived a city or town so large that Seville would not have seemed more considerable nor better."

Tulum is Finest Ruin

Perhaps unfortunately for present knowledge, Grijalva decided not to land, but modern archaeologists believe that that last "city or town" was Tulum (or Tuloom), the finest ruined city now known on the east coast of Yucatan, whose white walls top a cliff directly over the restless waters of the Caribbean.

Then, in 1519, came Cortez, who stopped in Yucatan only long enough to pick up the shipwrecked priest, Jeronimo de Aguilar, before proceeding along the coast to Vera Cruz, whence he marched inland. The discovery of great wealth in upland Mexico, and later in Peru, turned the attentions of the Spanish conquistadores from Yucatan, where little gold was to be had. The conquest of the hot lowlands, inhabited by the valiant Mayas, was long delayed. The Indians have never given up the struggle for independence and in the eastern part of the Yucatan peninsula, called Quintana Roo, they have retained a practical independence in several small states.

Some of the priests, and especially Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatan left accounts of the old Indian life, but their writings were locked up in archives and escaped attention.

The first real awakening of outside in Yucatan and Guatemala came with the reports from the American explorer, John L. Stephens, and his companion, the English artist, Francis Catherwood. Between 1839 and 1842 these two men visited and, with admirable exactitude, described "forty-four ruined cities or places in which remains or vestiges of ancient populations were found."

At the risk of appearing flippant, it may be said that the Mayas have never had a first-class press agent. While the works of Stephens found many readers, they were overshadowed by the publication of Prescott's fascinating "Conquest of Mexico." Prescott dwelt on the semi-barbaric culture of the Aztecs. He failed to stress the fact that the Mayas had an older and higher civilization, and to this day, if you speak of "ruined cities in Mexico," the average layman will respond. "Oh, yes, you mean the Aztecs." The fact is that the Mayas were far superior to the Aztecs in art, in science, in most of the refinements which make what we loosely call civilization.

Nearly all our present information has been gained since Stephens's time, that is, within the last ninety years. And most of our knowledge of the glyphs has been hammered out within the past thirty years by arduous study of the inscriptions on monuments and of the texts of three Maya books, or "codiees," as the experts call them, which fortunately escaped the Spanish zeal for destroying what were considered "writings of the devil."

No Rosetta Stone Found

No Rosetta Stone has been discovered to make the decipherment easier by permitting comparison of the hieroglyphs with another language. Nor is it likely that such an said to interpretation will be found, although it is quite possible that more codices will be discovered.

Hunting for ruined cities in the unmapped jungle is somewhat like hunting for a needle in a haystack. The chances of success are increased because of the fact that the country was more thickly populated than most countries of our modern world. The civilization of the Mayas was built up on an abundant reservoir of man power supported by the fertile vegetable growth of the tropics. Our admiration for them must increase when we reflect that their magnificent temples of worship alone were probably made with man power alone, man power wielding tools of stone.

Very little intensive archaeological work has yet been done in the Maya area. If the riddle is to be solved it will be done by energetic labor in the field and not by armchair theorizing and fireside dreaming. It is not beyond the limits of possibility that more codices more ancient books, will some day be found in sealed chests or chambers.

At any rate, there are numerous-inscriptions to be recovered. The more of these sources our experts have for study and comparison, the easier will be the task of deciphering the many hieroglyphs that still baffle us.

As this is published Dr. Spinden, the other members of our party and myself are travelling northward along the eastern coast of Yucatan, retracing in a schooner with powerful gasoline engines the track of the clumsy high-pooped vessels of the first Spanish discoverers. Although most of Mexico has greatly progressed, this region of the earliest American civilization is far from well known. For example, few naturalists have been here, and one of our number, Ludlow Griscom, Assistant Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, expects to get important new data on the ornithology of these parts.

Coast Line is Dangerous

The desolate coast line has shallow ports which we must enter, trusting to defective charts, mostly based on surveys by British warships before 1840. We have reason to think, therefore, that our hydrographer, Commander Ogden T. McClurg, will be able to gather much information of value to future navigators of these coral-torn waters.

We are as certain that there are in this strip important Maya ruins unvisited by archaeologists as men can be certain of things they have not seen. Rumors of such cities have repeatedly come from the natives who are the descendants of the race that built Tulum, Chichen Itza and Copan.

That such unfound archaeological treasure probably exists so near, civilized parts of Central America is due to the long hostility of the independent Indians, who had repelled previous explorers. That hostility has largely disappeared; we are proceeding with confidence on advices that we shall be allowed to penetrate the interior unmolested.

We may not find the wonderful city which the lineal descendant of a proud clan that once ruled a Maya province reported to Mr. Gann. But with fair luck we hope to return to the United States with some worth-while contribution to modern knowledge of this old world in the New World, this civilization that had already passed its splendid prime when Columbus and Cortez came.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.