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Early History of the Maya

Diego López de Cogolludo (born Alcalá de Henares 1613, died New Spain 1665) was a  native of Alcalá de Henares in Spain, where he took the habit of St. Francis at the convent of San Diego, on 31 March 1629, and emigrated to Yucatán, where he became successively lector in theology, guardian, and finally provincial of his Franciscan order. His work, the Historia de Yucatán, appeared at Madrid in 1688, and was reprinted in 1842 and 1867.  The excerpt from his work that follows is presented by Philip Ainsworth Means in “Papers, in Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology (Harvard University).”

The excerpt gives a broad discussion of Maya society at the time of first contact, and ends with a discussion of human giant remnants, which is also reported in Aztec chronicles.



Neither from the peoples who populated this Kingdom of Yucatan nor from their ancient Histories have I been able to find more than I shall say here. In some writings which those who first learned how to write left behind them, and which are in the native idiom (which is still used among the Indians), it says that some of the people came from the East and some from the West. With those who were from the Occident was one who, as it were, was a Priest of theirs, called Zamna; and they say that he it was who gave the names by which they are called in that tongue to all the Ports of the Sea, points of land, estuaries, coasts, and all the regions, sites, mountains (forests), and all the places of this entire land; and certain it is that it is a thing worthy of admiration if it was so, for such a division did he make of everything in order that each spot might be known by its own name that there is scarcely a palm of land which has not a name in their tongue. The opinion that the settlers came to this land from the Occident (although they do not know who they were nor how they came) is in accord with what Padre [Tomás de] Torquemada says in his Monarquia Indiana. (Lib. iii, cap. 13.) This is, That the Teochichimecas, after that terrible battle with the Huexotzincas, remained lords of the territory of Tlaxcalan, and made peace with the other nations on account of the fame of that victory of theirs. These Teochichimecas must needs found their towns and distribute their lands in such a manner that they were constantly increasing their power and gradually occupying the country in such a way that in a little more than 300 years they had spread through the greater part of New Spain from one coast on the North to the other on the South, a territory which includes all the inland regions which are to the East, and especially those of this province of Yucathan as far as the province of Hibueras or Honduras. From this it seems that the Yucatecs are descended from Chichimec and Aculhua families which, coming from the West by way of the stopping-places told of by Father Torquemada in his first books, settled New Spain.

If from the Orient came other peoples who settled in this land, there is among the people now there neither tradition nor writing telling with certainty from whence they came nor what people they were, although, however, it is said (by some) that they came from the Island of Cuba. Difficulty arises now, for some came from some regions and others from very different ones, yet all speak a very ancient tongue, nor has there been any information saying that any other has existed in the land. But this might have been occasioned by some tribes being more numerous than others, or by reason of war, or by trade and communication which, by strengthening the relations of the one race with the other, may have caused the idiom, usages, and customs of those who were of the greatest number to prevail over and obliterate those of the less numerous people. From the very differences which exist between the Yucatec tongue and the Mexican, it seems that the Settlers of this land must have been they who came from the East; and they may even have been the most ancient people since the Indian Zamna who came with them was he who first gave names to the places and lands, as has been told already, for if the others had been the first, they would have done so. Padre Lizana says the opposite because, first calling attention to the fact that these Indians call the East Cenial, and the West, Nohnial, the first of which signifies Small Descent and the second Large Descent, he says: ‘And it is a fact that they relate that from the East descended upon this land a small race and from the West a large one; and by that phrase do they understand little and much, East and West, few from the one, many from the other.’ The Reader will judge which seems to him the better.

This land of Yucathan, which the natives of it call Maya, was governed for a long time by a Supreme Lord, and the last descendant of these Lords was Tutul Xiu, he who was Lord of Mani and its neighborhood when, voluntarily, he came to do homage, making himself a friend of the Spaniards on the day of San Ildefonso, 1541, as has been told. Thus it appears that there has ever been in the land a Monarchical government which, according to the most weighty opinion among Writers, is the best for the conservation of Realms. This King had for the capital of his Monarchy a very populous City called Mayapan (from which must have been derived the name of this land, Maya); this capital, through wars and discords between the King and his vassals, and because justice lay only in the greatest power among them (unhappy the times in which the Supreme Lord has not a power equal to his justice), this government came to an end; many of the Lords and Caciques rebelled, each dominating the greatest amount of land he could, and being always engaged in continuous wars; thus the Spaniards found them (divided into estates, like Dukes and Counts, albeit without recognizing any Superior). When Yucathan was left entirely without a Supreme Lord, then the ambition of private persons who united their forces and banded together to effect their will, resulted in their ordering the destruction of the City of Mayapan, Capital of the Kingdom; they demolished it about the year of Our Lord fourteen hundred and twenty (according to the computation of the ages [_Ahaus?_] of the Indians) and about the 260th year of their establishment. By this rebellion he who was King and Supreme Lord of all Yucathan was left only with the Lordship of Mani whither he retired upon the destruction of the City of Mayapan which was where now are to be seen the ruins of buildings, near the Village of Telchaquillo. They left him with this small power partly because of the fidelity of those vassals who did not deny him obedience due, and partly because of the permission given by the rebels who knew that he had not now more strength than any of themselves….

When the Lords of the City of Mayapan were ruling all the land was tributary to them. The tribute was in small cotton mantles, native fowl, some cacao in those places where it was got, and a resin which served as incense in the Temples, and all told it was very small in quantity. All the citizens and dwellers who lived within the City of Mayapan were free from tribute; and in the city all the nobles of the land had houses; and by the year 1582 (in which was written the relation from which all this is drawn) it is said that all those who were held to be Lords and nobles of Yucathan still remembered, in that place, their old lots. Now with the change of government and because of the slight estimation in which they are held … the descendants of Tutul Xiu, who was King and by right natural Lord, if they do not work with their hands at labor, have nothing to eat, and toil does not now seem to them unworthy of consideration. In ancient times, the nobles of Mayapan were wont to serve in the Temples of the Idols in the ceremonies and feasts which were by right assigned to them, assisting by day and by night; and though many themselves had vassals, they recognized the Supreme Lord, and served him in his wars.

They who dwelt without the City and in the rest of the Province were vassals and tributaries, not being of those who had houses there in the capacity of land-holders; but they were greatly favored by their Lords because they themselves served them as Advocates looking out for their welfare with great solicitude whenever anyone asked that it be so. They (the vassals and tributaries) were not obliged to live in assigned Villages since they had license to live and to marry with whomsoever they wished; the object of this was to ensure multiplication, for they said that if the people were hampered, there could not fail to result a diminution. Lands were held in common, and so between the Villages there were no boundaries or landmarks to divide them; although it is true that between one Province and another because of wars, save some fields for sowing fruit-bearing trees and land which had been bought for some purpose of improvement [incomplete sentence in the Spanish]. Also the salt-works which are on the Shores of the Sea were held in common, and those who dwelt nearest to them were wont to pay tribute to the Lords of Mayapan with salt which they had got….

The Lords were absolute in power and caused their orders to be executed with severity. There were Caciques placed in the Villages, or some other leading person to hear suits and public demands. This officer received the litigants or disputants, heard the cause of their coming, and, if the matter were a grave one, talked it over with the Lord. In order to try the case, other Ministers were appointed who were like Advocates and Constables and who always attended in the presence of the judges…. They were not in the habit of writing down the lawsuits, although they had characters (of which many are to be seen in the ruins of their buildings). All was set forth in words by means of the Ministers before referred to, and what was then and there determined remained valid and permanent without either of the parties venturing to work against it. But if the affair which was to be tried concerned many, they had a great meeting of all the interested together; then the gist was communicated, upon which followed the decision of the matter.

In sales and contracts they had neither writings to oblige them to keep their word nor promissory notes with which to give satisfaction, but still the contract remained valid provided only that the parties drank together publicly before witnesses. This was particularly the usage in sales of slaves or of cacao-lands, and even today (it is said) they use it still among themselves in the sale of horses and cattle. The debtor never denied the debt even though he could not pay at once; but all was made certain by the debtor’s confessing his debt, for the wife, children and relatives of the debtor would pay the debt after his death….

In the wars which because of their ambition they made upon one another, some were taken prisoners, those of the conquered who were taken remaining slaves. In this situation they were very rigorous, treating the enslaved with asperity, and making use of them in all sorts of bodily labor.

In food-supplies there were no bargains, because they were always fixed at one price, save Maize, which was wont to go up when crops were poor, but it never passed what it is now worth, a real or so, the load (which is half a Castillian fanega).

The money that they used was little bells and jingles of copper, which had value according to their size, and some red shells, which were brought from far away from this land, which they strung, after the manner of rosaries. Also they used as money grains of cacao, and of these they made the most use in commerce, and certain precious stones and discs of copper brought from New Spain which they exchanged for other things, as happens elsewhere….”

For display and on gala occasions, they used to scarify themselves with certain small points of stone on the breasts, arms and thighs; they even went so far as to draw blood, and in the wounds they rubbed a black earth or powdered carbon. When they scarified with these knives the scars remained, shaped like Eagles, serpents, birds and animals, and they perforated the nose as well…. The Cupules, who are the people of the territory of the Town of Valladolid, used this practice a great deal.

In the times of their heathenry, as now, they danced and sang after the manner of the Mexicans, and they used to have, as indeed they still do have, a chief Singer (or Chanter) who intones, and who appoints what they shall sing; and him they venerate and reverence, giving him an honorable seat in Church, and at their assemblies and weddings. They call him Holpop, and in his charge are the kettle-drums or Tuncules and other musical instruments, such as the flutes, little trumpets, tortoise-shells, and others that they used. The Tuncul is of thick wood, and there are some so large that they can be heard at a distance of two leagues to leeward. To the accompaniment of these instruments they sing their fables and old legends; all this will be reformed, or rather, the Religious have already done so in many places, giving the Indians Histories of Saints and some of the Mysteries of the Faith to sing, at least at public dances, Easter celebrations, and festivities, so that the ancient times will be forgotten.

They have Babblers [Farfante = babbler, boaster; may mean jester, buffoon] who repeat fables and ancient Histories, which I am certain would be well done away with, or at least the costumes in which they are represented, because it appears that they are like those of their Heathen Priests; and when there is no worse harm than the preservation among them of that memory, it appears a very pernicious thing, for it inclines them all the more to the idolatrous practices which they indulge in when wearing the costume; but every one will have his own opinion in this matter, conformable, more or less, to what his observation has taught him. The babblers are apt to be graceful at mottoes and in the witty sayings which they tell to their elders and Judges if they are over-rigourous, ambitious, avaricious, laying before them the events that have taken place and even that which concerns the officer’s own duties. They thus speak to the officers’ very faces, and sometimes they rebuke them with a single word. But he who would understand them must be a great linguist and must listen well. They are very dangerous, these representations, when they are held at night and in the Indians’ own houses, for God knows what goes on there, and at the very least many of them end up in drunkenness. They call these Farfantes Balzam, and they apply the word metaphorically to him who is talkative and scurrilous; and in their representations they mimic birds.

They held, and still do hold, banquets on the occasion of weddings and betrothals, using up in one day many turkeys that they have been breeding for a whole year. Those who are leaving the office of Alcalde entertain those who are entering it, on the pain of disgrace, and on election nights there is much drunkenness.

The Indians of this land were and are very dextrous with the bow and arrows, and so they are mighty huntsmen, and they grow dogs so that they may fetch deer, wild boar, badgers. Tigers, some little Lions, rabbits, armadillos, iguanas, and other animals. They shoot with their arrows peacocks [sic], some birds they call faysanes [pheasants], and many others.

At present they are great imitators of all the different sorts of handiwork that are made, and so they learn all the trades with ease. There are many Indians in their villages, beside those who live in the City and in the Towns, who are great workers as smiths, locksmiths, bridlemakers, shoemakers, carpenters, wood-carvers, sculptors, saddlers, tradesmen who make many curious things out of shell, bricklayers, stonecutters, tailors, painters, and so on. What causes wonder is that there are many Indians who work at four or six trades where a Spaniard would have but one … but with that almost innate coolness for work they supply their wants and turn out good work, which they sell more cheaply than the Spaniards do, so that those tradesmen who go to Yucathan fare badly at their trades; so there are but few of them, and they seek other means of earning a livelihood.

They wear clothes of very white cotton, of which they make shirts, breeches, and certain mantles a vara and a half square which they call tilmas or hayantes. These can be made to serve as capes by drawing the two corners up on the shoulder and making a knot; indeed, very many people use ones made out of somewhat coarse woven wool, and even many of stuffs brought from Spain, such as damasks and other silks. Some use jackets, and many wear shoes and hempe sandals. The usual custom, however, is to go barefoot, especially in their own houses and fields, but the opposite is true of some Caciques and leading men, and of women. Most of the men wear hats of straw or palm-leaves, and nowadays many buy felt hats. The women use Uaipiles, which is a garment that falls from the throat to the middle of the leg, with an opening at the top, where the head goes, and two others at the top of the sides for the arms, which are covered half-way down. Because this garment is not tied in at the waist, it also serves as a shirt. From the waist to the feet is another garment called Pic, and it is like petticoats and goes under the outer garment. Most of these are worked with blue and red thread, which makes them sightly. If a Spanish woman is seen in this dress it looks, on her, most improper. Little Indian girls who are growing up with Spanish women become great embroiderers, seamstresses, and patchers, and they make things that are sold at large prices and much esteemed.

For Sundays and Feast-days when they go to Mass, and when they are to be confessed, both men and women have cleaner and neater clothes, which they keep for this. Other customs and things of theirs will be learned through the laws that have been given to remedy them, which will be related in the Fifth Book.

There were Indians in the past days of their ancestors who had larger bodies than those now common, bodies which were found in the sepulchres of this land and which had gigantic stature. In 1647 in the village of Vecal, on the royal road of Campeche, Padre Fray Juan de Carrión (now Provincial Commissioner for the next General Chapter) ordered his Indians to make an arbor for a reception he was to hold. They had just set up the sticks with which it was to be made when the tools hit upon a very large sepulchre made of flag-stones placed one over another without any peculiarities of carving whatever. The Indians ran away from it and went to call the Padre, who, on arriving, ordered them to take out whatever was in the sepulchre. The Indians did not want to do this, saying that it was prohibited for them to touch anything of that sort. So the Padre, with the aid of a small boy, got out the bones of a man of formidable size. There were in the sepulchre three bowls of very fine pottery having three hollow balls in place of feet, and there was a small black box of what appeared to be jasper. The Padre burned the bones, threw them away, and filled up the hole, rebuking the Indians for not wishing to touch it, on the plea that it was forbidden to them to do so….

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The Orly

As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.