The Lost Libraries of the Americas

Niccolo Caldararo

If a people came from outer space and destroyed all the libraries on earth, the computers, video cassettes, memory banks and tapes. Everything which recorded our history and culture and all of our archives. Suppose they kept as examples of our books a magazine of crossword puzzles, a sales catalogue of plumbing supplies, and a few TV Guides from 1965 to 1970. Now suppose you are a historian 500 years in the future and you are trying to describe the history of Earth.' This is similar to what occurred possibly by accident to the literature of the Cretan Minoan civilization and the rest of the Aegean world of the second millennium BC The only examples of writing we have from this culture are on stone or clay. The clay has survived due to the intensity of the fires which destroyed the cities of these peoples. If there were books of papyrus or skin, wood or other organic materials, they were burned in the fires, as William Taylour asserted. The clay tablets were an immediate method of recording; the wet clay was simply scored with a stylus. This method of writing on tablets led Taylour to speculate that writing on other materials was likely among these peoples. The basis of this conjecture was the fact that permanent records made of clay in neighboring kingdoms were written with a wedge and baked. A stylus could be used on other materials like the Assyrian ivory tablets. Also, the Aegean records Taylour refers to which survived. were day-to-day business records which lends support to this view.

Likewise is the situation anthropologists, art historians, and students of history of today are faced with when we try and study pre-Columbian America. Actually things are worse, since research efforts for the past 100 years have been confused by contemporary reports by unsympathetic Westerners. When Hernan Cortes set foot on the coast of Mexico he had arrived in a world that was as different from his European home as would the future depicted in Star Wars be to a Yankee trapper in AD 1750. When we speak of science fiction, we refer to writers who try to imagine worlds as different as possible from our own. What we must realize of the period of Western 'discovery' of the 15th and 16th centuries is that given the dogma of the Church of 1490 there were no other peoples on Earth than those already known. The fantastic world of the Americas of 1492 was beyond the belief and imagination of the European mind. Some joined this world, others fought to destroy and distort its memory. It was a living real world of which our notions of science fiction are modest indeed.

The majority of the Europeans arriving in the Americas at the time of contact regarded this new world as either a land of demons (a hell) or a paradise on Earth. It is in the context of the land they left that we can best understand the way they interpreted what they saw. The Europe of 1492 was a land shattered by war and pestilence, ravaged for more than a hundred years by the Black Death and other epidemics. In Spain, two civilized peoples of great learning and culture, Arabs and Jews, had just been driven out to Africa and beyond. Just 40 years before, the last citadel of the Roman Empire (Byzantium) had expired, crushed by one of the many peoples who had oppressed and overrun Europe for more than eight centuries. Europe was an unstable mixture of peoples and borders, volatile in embryonic nationalism and religion.

A great war, both intellectual and physical, had raged for two centuries between a new enlightenment rising from the looted remains of classical civilization, which had resided at Byzantium, and a religious backlash which sought to suppress all change and to exterminate the remnants of this past world they considered heathen, heretical and demonic.

Beginning in AD 1204. when a Crusader army en route to Palestine stormed and sacked Byzantium, classical texts of great literature, art, science and architecture began to breach the cloud of barbarism that held sway over Western Europe since the fall of Rome. Among some scholars, the continuous influence of Muslim intellectuals and teachers throughout the Middle Ages provided the foundations for the Renaissance, both in the preservation of Greek and Roman classics and new Arab interpretations of them (e.g. Averroes on Aristotle) and the independent Muslim developments in science and humanities, like the algebra and trigonometry of Al-Khwarizmi.

The effects of this literature fueled curiosity, invention, and a questioning of the status quo which not only sparked the intellectual foundation of the Renaissance but provided the basis for men like Columbus to strike out against the common knowledge and the bonds of ideology into the unknown. Paradoxically, this enlightenment also provided a new outlet for a savage force which had been brewing in the turmoil of Europe and Spain. The stage for the terrible events in the Americas was set in the merciless conflict of the Crusades and the extermination of the Cathars and other heretical groups in Europe. It is only fitting that by 1497 it was commonplace, as historian Jacob Burckhart has pointed out, for European cities under the control of religious influence to hold public bonfires, autos-da-fe, in which Classic texts, paintings, and artifacts were destroyed. Father Cogolludo refers directly to these days of cleansing in his description of the destruction of the Mayan libraries, especially referring to volumes relating to Mayan ancient history.10 This force was exemplified in the Americas by the exploits of men like Hernan Cortes.

In a remarkable parallel of cultural history, the destruction of the native populations of the Americas and the ravaging of the resources of Mesoamerica and South America - and especially the extermination of the natives in mines Spain had endured a similar fate at the hands of the Phoenicians. More than a thousand years before Christ Phoenician traders landed on the shores of an unknown land: Spain. They encountered a simple people to whom they appeared as gods and they exploited them mercilessly. Spain provided first Phoenicia, then Carthage and finally Rome with a rich source of copper, gold and silver, slaves and raw materials. Cortes and the other conquistadors brought with them a method of conquest and colonization developed in the crusades and especially in the wars to drive the Moors from Spain. The laws and process of this method demanded the condemnation of the inhabitants as savages. heathen and unbelievers. Their laws were void since they were not laws made under the Christian god, or the Catholic sect. For Cortes, Diaz del Castillo, Gomara and the other adventuring Spaniards, the world they found was peopled with strange and frightening images, with unknown gods. But for generations men such as these had won fortunes in the Mediterranean by ravaging civilized and cultured peoples. The opportunity they faced in the Americas was dazzling.

To justify the eradication of a culture and thus deprive not only the people of their history, literature, etc., but also posterity, it was necessary to declare it evil incarnate. The paintings, sculpture and literature of Mesoamerica was incomprehensible to the Spanish men who encountered it, and even today many of the Mixtec glyphs and a number of the Mayan remain enigmas. This did not prevent the friars and bishops of the Inquisition from perceiving evil everywhere among these new peoples. Where the pictographs depicted one figure crouched over another with an implement or heart in his hand and an opening in the breast of the other, they saw ritual murder. In depictions of the executions of men, they saw human sacrifice. In the context of the mass executions and tortures inflicted on European populations by the Inquisition for nearly 300 years prior to 1492 this was understandable, such images of human cruelty were quite common in Spain and Italy in the Church's efforts to root out heretics. The bishops saw and interpreted in the images of the native writing systems what they themselves were familiar with and certainly the folklore of pre-Christian Europe also provided a basis. If one simply glances through the pages of Frazer's "The Golden Bough," tale after tale of ritual sacrifice is explained in terms of rites for the renewal of life. That these are not literal murders is discussed, but in Europe, as in the lands of the Aztec, these myths were enough to condemn the native priests and healers to death. This is not to explain away current sources concerning ritual sacrifice among Mesoamerican civilizations, rather I wish to point out the denuded quality of the information.

This is equivalent, in a naive sense, to the vision of aliens arriving on earth after a nuclear war where all humans are dead. They see images of humans nailed to crosses in gathering places, photographs in books of gas chambers, public hangings, heart operations. Could they not believe that all these images translated into a culture that worshipped death? In the Americas, rather than an uncivilized mass, Europeans encountered lands of organized religions and urbanized nations. Hoping by sailing west to find a way to China and India unfettered by Turks or Mongol, they encountered the unexpected, Mesoamerica. Ironically, China - then the paramount sea-power of the orient - was already in the process of attempting the same thing in the fantastic voyages of discovery exemplified in the great expeditions of Cheng Ho ending around 1433.

Europeans first encountered the peoples of the Caribbean, who, with the exception of the Caribs who are depicted as cannibals, lived nearly as if in paradise. But then came the Aztecs, not only a sophisticated people, but in possession of a cosmopolitan empire with zoos, museums, and most disconcerting to the Spanish, libraries. These libraries were the crux of a controversy which would rage in the court of Spain because they contained proof of the native peoples of the Americas' humanity: they were organized repositories of knowledge, a knowledge which held a history of its people and of their religious beliefs. We can only speculate on how these libraries were used, organized and founded since little has come down to us in contemporary reports. We do know, as Terence Grieder has shown. that almost all of the Native American forms of information retrieval (knotted strings, accordion books, bark paper scrolls, and the birch bark books of the North American tribes) also existed in Asia. We might assume that either the traditions of these systems were a part of oral lore that persisted through the long trek over the Bering Straits to Central America and Peru, or by vessel across the Pacific, or that groups carried with them precious books, knotted strings or bark scrolls from Asia. Perhaps these documents told the route of explorers before them. As we can see, the route is consistent with known Chinese maritime history in the 14th and l5th century expansion toward India and Africa.

Theories of contact between the civilizations of Asia and the Americas are legion and while various archaeological theories contend for the antiquity of the first arrival of Amerindians in the Americas, it is clear that there were several 'waves' of peoples. Alternative to this view are the numerous trans-Pacific theories of contact which have found some scientific support, for example, in the excavation done in Ecuador by Estrada, Meggers and Evans, where pottery found at levels dated to 3,000 BC to 1,500 BC shows similar form and design to the early and middle Jomon of Japan. Contact is not necessary to explain the existence of these similar forms among the Asian and Amerindian civilizations. The persistence of a common culture can go far to explain many parallel developments, and, too, independent invention is always a factor. For example, we do not need contact to explain the fact that only Arabic, perhaps Hindu, but most certainly Mesoamerican Amerindian scholars invented the zero.

The writings of Lao Kal show that knotted strings and notched sticks were superseded by books in ancient China, and knotted strings were used in Polynesia. The tradition of the book in China, and other methods of recording, were well established by 1,000 BC Bark and silk for scrolls and screen-fold books were replaced largely by the invention of paper. But in what can only be a bizarre coincidence of history, the destruction of all books in China relating to history and philosophy and almost everything else with the exception of utilitarian subjects by Emperor Li Ssu took place, beginning in 213 BC The study of the evolution of book forms has been severely limited, though many of the same traditions had existed in India and southeast Asia. Reconstruction has been possible, as in the work done by Tsien, and conjecture on the literature may be made from the substantial survival of Japanese books. Even the critical historiography of Ssu-ma Ch'ien (died ca. 85 BC) had difficulty re constructing historical events from mythology as close as he was to Li Ssu's acts. Any records of early Chinese geographers and explorers were lost forever. The fact that the sea-voyages of the navies of the Ming Dynasty could have been forgotten so completely substantially supports this assertion.

Since the ancient Chinese had knotted strings that recorded information, it is not difficult to assign some connection between them and the quipu of the Inca. These knotted strings of multi-colored threads were read by trained quipu-camayocas. Unfortunately, all the Inca archives of thousands of quipu were destroyed by Catholic priests in the 17th century The camayocas were forbidden to teach the young to read the few quipu that remained and now their knowledge is lost. The origin of the screen-fold book may have been in Mesoamerica, southeast Asia, and Indonesia, as mentioned above. In Mesoamerica, these are often referred to as the sacred texts of priests, at least this is assumed from remaining information. Both in design and material (bark) the Asian objects are remarkably similar to Mesoamerican codices although some Mesoamerican screen-folds were made of deerskin and jaguar skin. Southeast Asia and Indonesia, some of these objects were made of unfelted bark, others of paper made of bark fibre, with wooden carved boards at the front and back as were Mayan books. Tolstoy has shown the close similarity of methods, materials, and techniques between the two areas in bark paper manufacture. Knowledge of the books of the peoples of southeast Asia prior to Buddhism, the Chams, Khmers, Mons, Karens, Yao, Shan and Thai, are usually characterized as magic incantations; perhaps, as the four language translation of the Pali canon may indicate, these early documents may have been historical and of other types of texts.

We know that the libraries of the Mayan codices and scrolls were housed in buildings with elaborately carved exteriors. We are ignorant as to whether these libraries were divided by function. Were there separate libraries for the priesthood, separate from the temples located at the observatories or were the libraries encyclopedic, containing all subjects like those of Alexandria and Pergamum, or administrative like those archives of Sumer at Lagas-Girsu or Alckad at Nippur. Perhaps they were restricted to the functions of the priesthood, like the temple libraries of ancient Egypt, and yet may there have been Mayan scholars like Aristotle, or Chinese scholars of the same period, who founded their own collections of written matter? We know, at least, that the Aztec library at Texcoco housed thousands of manuscripts of religious, magical and historical subjects and was made up primarily of screen-fold books of sacred subjects. Since our sources are largely the Spanish soldiers and priests this information may be suspect. As Craine and Reindorp have stated:

The Spanish copyists, apparently in an effort to expedite control of the Mayas by the Spaniards. tend to modify the prophecies to make it appear that the Chilam Balam and the other prophets were predicting the coming of the Spaniards and Christianity, ... but they lacked the ability to interpolate their thought successfully with the abstract thought of the Mayas. Their doctoring of the Books of Chilam Balam resulted in intermittent sections of absolute nonsense and frequent blurring of the finer meaning as written by the Mayas.

We are told that in every manner the Mesoamerican peoples regarded their books highly; when in pre-Columbian times the Mayan rulers of Mayapan were driven out they are said to have carried away their books. and that Mayan priests were buried with their books. This strikes another consonant chord with China for the Tso Chuan records that in 517 BC, the Chin drove out the late Chou king's son and the royal household, they carried with them the archives of Chou. We know so little of how documents were used in Mesoamerican societies, parallels are difficult to establish. For example, Boone in her discussion of the 'religious/divinatory' manuscripts of Mesoamerica, describes how readers consulted these almanacs to give prognostications for events on individual days for specific events. For the Mayan these were subject-specific while those from the central area of Mexico of the Aztec and others were less so, although it is hard to generalize on so small a sample. In comparison with the activities of the College of Pontiffs of Ancient Rome, the Mayan and Aztec counterparts may have had similar functions. The Pontiffs were consulted for advice on which days lawsuits could best be undertaken and had possession of secret formulas which they used in relation to the calendar.

Historian Victor von Hagen has reasoned from contemporary reports at the time of the conquest, that the huge Aztec government archives at Tenochtitlan mainly contained scrolls of tribute lists. From other chronicles we hear that the Toltecs and Aztecs had books on subjects as varied as zoology to poetry, medicine and songs. Bernal Diaz tells of archives of maps of all of Mexico. According to Brainerd, the design and execution of forms, figures and glyphs is similar to that on the codices and ceramics, and the same artists may have worked in both media. Of the Mixtec books there are similarities in coloring and design on the recto of books and murals but the verso differs in substantial aspects of color and outlining. These methods and materials share many aspects with the manuscript illustrations of India and southeast Asia which were either derived from or influenced the wall paintings of the area. Little can be made of these comparisons since so few examples of books exist.

While Bishop Landa in the 16th century condemned mountains of Native American texts to fire for containing what he termed, "lies about the devil", might we conjecture they possessed among their number the memoirs of hundreds of Mayan and Mixtec travelers and merchants, Central American Thucydides who had recorded their visits to the fabulous monolithic cities of the Mound Builders of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, or to the Amazon with its strange and exotic animals and vegetation. We can only dream.

We may never know what was in the minds of men like Bishop Landa, despite their few confessions, but we may soon find through the Landsat Project that in the remote recesses of Yucatan and Quintana Roo there lie hidden and forgotten cities of the Mayans. Perhaps a lucky archaeologist will uncover an untouched library filled with fragile leaves of bark paper or deerskin formed into vividly painted screen-folds and scrolls. And all at once, the misadventures of a dozen Bishop Landas and a Li Ssu would be, in a small way, undone. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the papyrus manuscripts of Nag Hammadi, the ancient world will be allowed to speak again through the careful labors of patient modern scholars and scientists who will painstakingly preserve the texts, translate them and open their secrets to the voices of America's lost libraries.

See: Tezcat's Invocation Kit

See also: Smoking Mirror and the Shadow

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