Friday, July 29, 2011

Theories on the Origins of the Mound Builders







One of these theories is (or was), that the original civilizers of Mexico and Central America were the “lost ten tribes of Israel.” This extremely remarkable explanation of the mystery was devised very early, and it has been persistently defended by some persons, although nothing can be more unwarranted or more absurd. It was put forward by the Spanish monks who first established missions in the country, a class of men to whom the world is indebted for a great variety of amazing contributions to the literature of hagiology; and the same men, in a way equally conclusive, explained the sculptured crosses found in the old ruins by assuming that the Gospel was preached in America by St. Thomas. Lord Kingsborough adopted their views, and gave up nearly the whole of one of his immense volumes on Mexican Antiquities to an elaborate digest of all that had been written to explain and support these absurdities. Others have maintained this Israelitish hypothesis without deeming it necessary to estimate in a reasonable way what was possible to those Israelites.

According to this truly monkish theory, the “lost ten tribes of Israel” left Palestine, Syria, Assyria, or whatever country they dwelt in at the time, traversed the whole extent of Asia, crossed over into America at Behring’s Strait, went down the Pacific coast, and established a wonderful civilization in that part of the continent[167] where the great ruins are found. The kingdom of the ten tribes was destroyed not long previous to the year 700 B.C. How many years are allowed, after their escape from captivity, for this unparalleled journey, has not yet been ascertained. But, if such a journey had been possible, it would have resulted in utter barbarism rather than any notable phase of civilized life. Even the Jews who remained faithful to Moses, although important on account of their scriptures and their religion, were not remarkable for civilization. They were incapable of building their own Temple without aid from the Tyrians. Moreover, there is not any where either a fact, a suggestion, or a circumstance of any kind to show that the “lost ten tribes” ever left the countries of Southwestern Asia, where they dwelt after the destruction of their kingdom. They were “lost” to the Jewish nation because they rebelled, apostatized, and, after their subjugation by the Assyrians in 721 B.C., were to a great extent absorbed by other peoples in that part of Asia. Some of them probably were still in Palestine when Christ appeared. This wild notion, called a theory, scarcely deserves so much attention. It is a lunatic fancy, possible only to men of a certain class, which in our time does not multiply.


Another hypothesis, much less improbable, though not satisfactory, is that civilization was brought to America in ancient times by the Malays. There was a great island empire of the Malays, whose history extended far[168] back into pre-historic times, how far back can not now be known. It was still in existence when the Portuguese first went to India around the Cape of Good Hope; and we have several accounts of this empire written by travelers who saw and described it six hundred years before this first Indian voyage of the Portuguese was undertaken. El Mas’údí, who was one of these travelers, used very strong terms to describe its extent, intelligence, and power. Speaking of its sovereign, he said, “The islands under his sceptre are so numerous that the fastest sailing vessel is not able to go round them in two years,” implying that his sway was acknowledged by the island world over a large portion of the Pacific. This Malayan empire was maritime and commercial; it had fleets of great ships; and there is evidence that its influence reached most of the Pacific islands. This is shown by the fact that dialects of the Malay language have been found in most of these islands as far in this direction as Easter Island. The language of the Sandwich Islanders, for instance, is Malayan, and has a close relationship to that now spoken in the Malay islands.

The metropolis of this great empire was in the island of Java, where old ruins still bear witness to the former “civilization, wealth, and splendor” celebrated by El Mas’údí. Mr. A. R. Wallace, in his work on the Malay Archipelago, says, “Few Englishmen are aware of the number and beauty of the architectural remains in Java. They have never been popularly illustrated or described, and it will therefore take most persons by surprise to learn that they far surpass those of Central America,[169] perhaps even those of India.” The purpose of his visit to the island did not allow him to explore ruins, but he describes some of them. He saw what still remains of an ancient city called “Modjo-pahit,” and says, “There were two lofty brick masses, apparently the sides of a gateway. The extreme perfection and beauty of the brick-work astonished me. The bricks are exceedingly fine and hard, with sharp angles and true surfaces. They were laid with great exactness, without visible mortar or cement, yet somehow fastened together so that the joints are hardly perceptible, and sometimes the two surfaces coalesce in a most incomprehensible manner. Such admirable brick-work I have never seen before or since. There was no sculpture here, but abundance of bold projections and finely-worked mouldings. Traces of buildings exist for many miles in every direction, and almost every road and pathway shows a foundation of brick-work beneath it, the paved roads of the old city.” In other places he saw sculptures and beautifully carved figures in high relief.

The Malays still read and write, have some literature, and retain many of the arts and usages of civilization, but they are now very far below the condition indicated by these ruins, and described by El Mas’údí, who traveled among them a thousand years ago. It is by no means improbable that their ships visited the western coast of America, and traded with the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians in the days of their greatest power and activity. It is not easy to believe they could fail to do so after taking such control of Easter Island as to leave[170] their language there; and, according to the old traditions of both Mexico and Peru, the Pacific coast in both countries was anciently visited by a foreign people who came in ships. But they did not come to America as civilizers; there is nothing Malayan in either the antiquities or the ancient speech of these countries.

What is known of the former great condition and power of the Malays furnishes important suggestions relative to the ancient history of the islands of Eastern Asia and the Pacific Ocean,170-* as well as those of the Indian Ocean.

The people who inhabit the eastern side of Formosa, it is said, use a Malay dialect, and have no resemblance whatever to the Mongols. Who can fully explain the little known Ainos, who formerly occupied the whole, or nearly the whole of Japan? The unmistakable traces of Malay influence every where in the islands of the Pacific can have but one meaning. The Malays formerly sailed on that ocean, occupied its islands, and doubtless visited America.

That there was communication between Eastern Asia and America in very ancient times, through the Malays or otherwise, is in a high degree probable. This continent was known to the Japanese and Chinese long before the time of Columbus. Accounts of it were recorded in their books previous to his time. They called it “Fusang,” and evidently, at some period, had been accustomed to make voyages to some part of the American coast. But neither the Malays, the Chinese, nor the[171] Japanese came here as civilizers, for there is no trace of either of these peoples in the old ruins, in the ancient language of the country, or in any thing we know of the people whom these American ruins represent.


Some of the more intelligent investigators have maintained, with no little confidence, that this ancient American civilization came originally from the Phœnicians. Among those who use reason in their inquiries sufficiently to be incapable of accepting the absurdities of monkish fancy, this hypothesis has found more favor than any other. Wherever inquiry begins by assuming that the original civilizers came from some other part of the world, it seems more reasonable than any other, for more can be said to give it the appearance of probability.

The people known to us as Phœnicians were pre-eminent as the colonizing navigators of antiquity. They were an enlightened and enterprising maritime people, whose commerce traversed every known sea, and extended its operations beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” into the “great exterior ocean.” The early Greeks called them Ethiopians (not meaning either black men or Africans), and said they went every where, establishing their colonies and their commerce in all the coast regions, “from the extreme east to the extreme west.” But the great ages of this people are in the distant past, far beyond the beginning of what we call history. History has knowledge only of a few of their later communities, the Sabeans of Southern Arabia, the Phœnicians[172] (meaning chiefly the Tyrians), and the Carthaginians. What a change there would be in the prevalent conceptions of the past if we could have a complete record of this race from the beginning of its development!

It is not difficult to believe that communities of the Phœnician or Ethiopian race were established all around the Mediterranean, and even beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, in ages quite as old as Egypt or Chaldea, and that they had communication with America before Tyre or Sidon was built. Why did the ancients say so much of a “great Saturnian continent” beyond the Atlantic if nobody in the pre-historic ages had ever seen that continent? It was there, as they said and as we know; but whence came their knowledge of it, and such knowledge as led them to describe it as “larger than Asia (meaning Asia Minor), Europe, and Libya together?” This ancient belief must have been due to Phœnician or Ethiopian communication with America in earlier times, which was imperfectly recollected, or perhaps never completely revealed to other nations; and this must have taken place at a very remote period, for imperfect recollection of the great continent across the Atlantic, including what Solon heard in Egypt of Atlantis, was more ancient than the constrained voyage of that Tyrian ship of which Diodorus Siculus gives an account; and it can be seen that the early Greeks had a better knowledge even of Western Europe than those of later times. A dark age, so far as relates to geographical knowledge, set in upon the countries around the Ægean Sea and on the coast of Asia Minor after the independence and enter[173]prise of Tyre and the other Phœnician cities were destroyed by the Assyrians, toward the close of the ninth century before Christ, which was disturbed some four hundred and fifty or five hundred years later by the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The known enterprise of the Phœnician race, and this ancient knowledge of America, so variously expressed, strongly encourage the hypothesis that the people called Phœnicians came to this continent, established colonies in the region where ruined cities are found, and filled it with civilized life. It is argued that they made voyages on the “great exterior ocean,” and that such navigators must have crossed the Atlantic; and it is added that symbolic devices similar to those of the Phœnicians are found in the American ruins, and that an old tradition of the native Mexicans and Central Americans described the first civilizers as “bearded white men,” who “came from the East in ships.” Therefore, it is urged, the people described in the native books and traditions as “Colhuas” must have been Phœnicians.

But if it were true that the civilization found in Mexico and Central America came from people of the Phœnician race, it would be true also that they built in America as they never built any where else, that they established a language here radically unlike their own, and that they used a style of writing totally different from that which they carried into every other region occupied by their colonies. All the forms of alphabetical writing used at present in Europe and Southwestern Asia came directly or indirectly from that anciently invented by the[174] race to which the Phœnicians belonged, and they have traces of a common relationship which can easily be detected. Now the writing of the inscriptions at Palenque, Copan, and elsewhere in the ruins has no more relatedness to the Phœnician than to the Chinese writing. It has not a single characteristic that can be called Phœnician any more than the language of the inscriptions or the style of architecture with which it is associated; therefore we can not reasonably suppose this American civilization was originated by people of the Phœnician race, whatever may be thought relative to the supposed ancient communication between the two continents and its probable influence on civilized communities already existing here.


I have already stated in general terms the hypothesis advanced by Brasseur de Bourbourg and some other writers. This may be called the “Atlantic” theory, for it attributes the civilization of Ancient America to the Atlantides or Atlantic race, who occupied the lost “island of Atlantis.” Brasseur de Bourbourg has studied the monuments, writings, and traditions left by this civilization more carefully and thoroughly than any other man living. He has fancies which may be safely rejected, and he has theories which, doubtless, will always lack confirmation; but he has much, also, which demands respectful consideration. There is a great deal in his books to provoke criticism; those well acquainted with the antiquities and ancient speech of Egypt may[175] reasonably give way to a smile of incredulity while reading what he says in support of the notion that the great civilization of Egypt also came originally from this Atlantic race. Nevertheless, his volumes are important, because they furnish materials which others can use more carefully, and because he has learned to decipher some of the Central American writings and brought to view certain paths of inquiry which others may pursue with a more rigid method.

As already stated, his Atlantic theory of the old American civilization is, that it was originated on this continent, but on a portion of the continent which is now below the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It supposes the continent extended, anciently, from New Granada, Central America, and Mexico in a long, irregular peninsula, so far across the Atlantic that the Canary, Madeira, and Azores or Western Islands may be remains of this portion of it. High mountains stood where we now find the West India islands. Beyond these, toward Africa and Europe, was a great extent of fertile and beautiful land, and here arose the first civilization of mankind, which flourished many ages, until at length this extended portion of the continent was ingulfed by a tremendous convulsion of nature, or by a succession of such convulsions which made the ruin complete. After the cataclysm, a part of the Atlantic people who escaped destruction settled in Central America, where perhaps their civilization had been previously introduced. The reasons urged in support of this hypothesis make it seem plausible, if not probable, to imaginative minds.

[176]In the first place, Brasseur de Bourbourg claims that there is in the old Central American books a constant tradition of an immense catastrophe of the character supposed; that this tradition existed every where among the people when they first became known to Europeans; and that recollections of the catastrophe were preserved in some of their festivals, especially in one celebrated in the month of Izcalli, which was instituted to commemorate this frightful destruction of land and people, and in which “princes and people humbled themselves before the divinity, and besought Him to withhold a return of such terrible calamities.” This tradition affirms that a part of the continent extending into the Atlantic was destroyed in the manner supposed, and appears to indicate that the destruction was accomplished by a succession of frightful convulsions. Three are constantly mentioned, and sometimes there is mention of one or two others. “The land was shaken by frightful earthquakes, and the waves of the sea combined with volcanic fires to overwhelm and ingulf it.” Each convulsion swept away portions of the land, until the whole disappeared, leaving the line of the coast as it is now. Most of the inhabitants, overtaken amid their regular employments, were destroyed; but some escaped in ships, and some fled for safety to the summits of high mountains, or to portions of the land which, for the time, escaped immediate destruction. Quotations are made from the old books in which this tradition is recorded which appear to verify his report of what is found in them. To criticise intelligently his interpretation of their significance, one needs[177] to have a knowledge of those books and traditions equal at least to his own.

In the second place, he appeals to the story of Atlantis, preserved in the annals of Egypt, and related to Solon by the priests of Sais. It is stated in Plutarch’s life of Solon that while in Egypt “he conferred with the priests of Psenophis, Sonchis, Heliopolis, and Sais, and learned from them the story of Atlantis.” Brasseur de Bourbourg cites Cousin’s translation of Plato’s record of this story as follows:

“Among the great deeds of Athens, of which recollection is preserved in our books, there is one which should be placed above all others. Our books tell that the Athenians destroyed an army which came across the Atlantic Sea, and insolently invaded Europe and Asia; for this sea was then navigable, and beyond the strait where you place the Pillars of Hercules there was an island larger than Asia [Minor] and Libya combined. From this island one could pass easily to the other islands, and from these to the continent which lies around the interior sea. The sea on this side of the strait (the Mediterranean) of which we speak resembles a harbor with a narrow entrance; but there is a genuine sea, and the land which surrounds it is a veritable continent. In the island of Atlantis reigned three kings with great and marvelous power. They had under their dominion the whole of Atlantis, several other islands, and some parts of the continent. At one time their power extended into Libya, and into Europe as far as Tyrrhenia; and, uniting their whole force, they sought to destroy our[178] countries at a blow, but their defeat stopped the invasion and gave entire independence to all the countries on this side of the Pillars of Hercules. Afterward, in one day and one fatal night, there came mighty earthquakes and inundations, which ingulfed that warlike people; Atlantis disappeared beneath the sea, and then that sea became inaccessible, so that navigation on it ceased on account of the quantity of mud which the ingulfed island left in its place.”

This invasion took place many ages before Athens was known as a Greek city. It is referred to an extremely remote antiquity. The festival known as the “Lesser Panathenæa,” which, as symbolic devices used in it show, commemorated this triumph over the Atlantes, is said to have been instituted by the mythical Erichthonius in the earliest times remembered by Athenian tradition. Solon had knowledge of the Atlantes before he went to Egypt, but he heard there, for the first time, this account of their “island” and of its disappearance in a frightful cataclysm. But Atlantis is mentioned by other ancient writers. An extract preserved in Proclus, taken from a work now lost, which is quoted by Boeckh in his commentary on Plato, mentions islands in the exterior sea beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and says it was known that in one of these islands “the inhabitants preserved from their ancestors a remembrance of Atlantis, an extremely large island, which for a long time held dominion over all the islands of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Brasseur de Bourbourg claims that these traditions, on both sides of the Atlantic, mean the same thing. The[179] “island of Atlantis,” larger than Libya and Asia Minor together, was the extended portion of the American continent. These concurring traditions can not be devoid of historical significance. The constant references by ancient Greek writers to the Atlantes, who are always placed at the extremity of Europe and Africa, on the ocean which bears their name, may reasonably be regarded as vague and faded recollections of such a history connected with that ocean as that implied by what was said of their island in the annals of Egypt. In support of his view of what is meant by the traditions, he adds this philological argument:

“The words Atlas and Atlantic have no satisfactory etymology in any language known to Europe. They are not Greek, and can not be referred to any known language of the Old World. But in the Nahuatl language we find immediately the radical aatl, which signifies water, war, and the top of the head. (Molina, Vocab. en lengua mexicana y castellana, etc.) From this comes a series of words, such as atlan, on the border of or amid the water, from which we have the adjective Atlantic. We have also atlaça, to combat or be in agony; it means likewise to hurl or dart from the water, and in the preterit makes atlaz. A city named Atlan existed when the continent was discovered by Columbus, at the entrance of the Gulf of Uraba, in Darien, with a good harbor; it is now reduced to an unimportant pueblo named Acla.”

In the third place, he quotes opinions expressed without any regard whatever to his theory to show that sci[180]entific men who have considered the question believe that there was formerly a great extension of the land into the Atlantic in the manner supposed. The first quotation is from Moreau de Saint-Mery’s “Description topographique et politique de la Partie Espagnole a l’Isle de Saint-Domingue,” published in 1796, as follows:

“There are those who, in examining the map of America, do not confine themselves to thinking with the French Pliny that the innumerable islands situated from the mouth of the Orinoco to the Bahama Channel (islands which include several Grenadins not always visible in very high tides or great agitations of the sea) should be considered as summits of vast mountains whose bases and sides are covered with water, but who go farther, and suppose these islands to be the tops of the most elevated of a chain of mountains which crowned a portion of the continent whose submersion has produced the Gulf of Mexico. But to sustain this opinion it must be added that another vast surface of land which united the islands of this archipelago to the continent, from Yucatan to the mouth of the Orinoco, was submerged in the same way, and also a third surface which connected them with the peninsula of Florida and with whatever land may have constituted the northern termination; for we can not imagine that these mountains whose summits appear above water stood on the terminating line of the continent.”

He quotes, also, another authority which “can not be suspected,” namely, M. Charles Martins, who said, in the Revue des Deux Mondes for March 1, 1867, “Now, hy[181]drography, geology, and botany agree in teaching us that the Azores, the Canaries, and Madeira are the remains of a great continent which formerly united Europe to North America.” He could have added other quotations in the same strain. Those geologists who believe that “our continents have long remained in nearly the same relative position” would probably give the supposed change a much greater antiquity than Brasseur de Bourbourg would be likely to accept; and the geological “Uniformitarians” would deny with emphasis that so great a change in the shape of a continent was ever effected by such means, or with such rapidity as he supposes. But the latest and most advanced school of geological speculation does not exclude “Catastrophism,” and, therefore, will not deny the possibility of sudden and great changes by this method.

Doubtless the antiquity of the human race is much greater than is usually assumed by those whose views of the past are still regulated by mediæval systems of chronology. Archæology and linguistic science, not to speak here of geology, make it certain that the period between the beginning of the human race and the birth of Christ would be more accurately stated if the centuries counted in the longest estimate of the rabbinical chronologies should be changed to millenniums. And they present also another fact, namely, that the antiquity of civilization is very great, and suggest that in remote ages it may have existed, with important developments, in regions of the earth now described as barbarous, and even, as Brasseur de Bourbourg supposes, on ancient continents or[182] portions of continents now out of sight below the surface of the oceans. The representation of some speculators that the condition of the human race since its first appearance on earth has been a condition of universal and hopeless savagery down to a comparatively modern date, is an assumption merely, an unwarranted assumption used in support of an unproved and unprovable theory of man’s origin. Its use in the name of science by advocates of this theory, like the theory itself, shows that the constructive power of fancy and imagination will sometimes supersede every thing else, and substitute its ingenious constructions for legitimate conclusions, even in scientific speculation.

We may claim reasonably that Brasseur de Bourbourg’s Atlantic theory is not proved, and on this ground refuse to accept it. So far as appears, it is a fanciful theory which can not be proved. No one is under obligation to attempt disproving it. It may, in some cases, win supporters by enlisting in its favor all the forces of imagination, to which it appeals with seductive plausibility. On the other hand, it will be rejected without much regard to what can be said in its favor, for it interferes with current unreasoning beliefs concerning antiquity and ancient history, and must encounter vehement contradiction from habits of thought fixed by these beliefs. True, some of the stock views of antiquity, by which it will be earnestly opposed, are themselves far more destitute of foundation in either fact or reason; but this will make no difference, as the habit of never allowing them to be subjected to the searching power of reason does[183] not permit such persons either to believe or deny any thing connected with this topic in a reasonable manner.

Some of the uses made of this theory can not endure criticism. For instance, when he makes it the basis of an assumption that all the civilization of the Old World went originally from America, and claims particularly that the supposed “Atlantic race” created Egypt, he goes quite beyond reach of the considerations used to give his hypothesis a certain air of probability. It may be, as he says, that for every pyramid in Egypt there are a thousand in Mexico and Central America, but the ruins in Egypt and those in America have nothing in common. The two countries were entirely different in their language, in their styles of architecture, in their written characters, and in the physical characteristics of their earliest people, as they are seen sculptured or painted on the monuments. An Egyptian pyramid is no more the same thing as a Mexican pyramid than a Chinese pagoda is the same thing as an English light-house. It was not made in the same way, nor for the same uses. The ruined monuments show, in generals and in particulars, that the original civilizers in America were profoundly different from the ancient Egyptians. The two peoples can not explain each other.

This, however, does not require us to assert positively that the Central American “Colhuas” and the legendary Atlantes could not possibly have been the same people, or people of the same race. Room may be left for any amount of conjecture not inconsistent with known facts, without making it necessary to accept a theory of the[184] origin of the old Mexican race which at present can neither be proved nor disproved.


It has been said, very justly, by one explorer of the Mexican and Central American ruins, that “the American monuments are different from those of any other known people, of a new order, and entirely and absolutely anomalous; they stand alone.” The more we study them, the more we find it necessary to believe that the civilization they represent was originated in America, and probably in the region where they are found. It did not come from the Old World; it was the work of some remarkably gifted branch of the race found on the southern part of this continent when it was discovered in 1492. Undoubtedly it was very old. Its original beginning may have been as old as Egypt, or even farther back in the past than the ages to which Atlantis must be referred; and it may have been later than the beginning of Egypt. Who can certainly tell its age? Whether earlier or later, it was original.

Its constructions seem to have been a refined and artistic development of a style of building different from that of any other people, which began with ruder forms, but in all the periods of its history preserved the same general conception. They show us the idea of the Mound-Builders wrought out in stone and embellished by art. The decorations, and the writing also, are wholly original. There is no imitation of the work of any people ever known in Asia, Africa, or Europe. It appears evident[185] that the method of building seen in the great ruins began with the ruder forms of mound-work, and became what we find it by gradual development, as the advancing civilization supplied new ideas and gave higher skill. But the culture and the work were wholly original, wholly American.

The civilized life of the ancient Mexicans and Central Americans may have had its original beginning somewhere in South America, for they seem more closely related to the ancient South Americans than to the wild Indians north of the Mexican border; but the peculiar development of it represented by the ruins must have begun in the region where they are found. I find myself more and more inclined to the opinion that the aboriginal South Americans are the oldest people on this continent; that they are distinct in race; and that the wild Indians of the North came originally from Asia, where the race to which they belong seems still represented by the Koraks and Chookchees found in that part of Asia which extends to Behring’s Strait.

If, as there is reason to believe, the countries on the Mediterranean had communication with America in very ancient times, they found here a civilization already developed, and contributed nothing to change its style of building and decorating cities. They may have influenced it in other respects; for, if such communication was opened across the Atlantic, it was probably continued for a long time, and its interruption may or may not be due, as Brasseur de Bourbourg supposes, to the cataclysm which ingulfed Atlantis. Religious symbols are[186] found in the American ruins which remind us of those of the Phœnicians, such as figures of the serpent, which appear constantly, and the cross, supposed by some to represent the mounting of the magnetic needle, which was among the emblems peculiar to the goddess Astarte. A figure appears occasionally in the sculptures, in which some have sought to recognize Astarte, one at Palenque being described as follows: “It is a female figure moulded in stucco, holding a child on her left arm and hand, just as Astarte appears on the Sidonian medals.” I find it impossible to see that this figure has any resemblance whatever to the Phœnician goddess. They are not alike either in dress, posture, or expression. Dupaix describes it correctly in saying it represents a person apparently “absorbed in devotion”—a worshiper, and not a goddess. Moreover, Astarte usually appears on the medals standing on the forward deck of a vessel, holding a cross with one hand, and pointing forward with the other. And, finally, this figure seems to represent, not a woman, but a priest. There was sun-worship in America, and the phallic ceremonies existed in some places in the time of Cortez. In Asia these ceremonies and figures of the serpent were usually associated with sun-worship. Humboldt was sure that these symbols came to America from the Old World. A more careful study of the subject might have led him to modify this belief. But, whether we adopt his explanation or some other, the traditions on both sides of the Atlantic are without meaning unless it be admitted that there was communication between the two continents in times of which we have no history.