A note from Jeff Wagg:
Barbara (Kitty) Mervine is a long-time friend of the JREF who is joining us on her second Amaz!ng Adventure. While she'll be enlightening those on board with tales of Mexican UFOs, she's taken time to point out some European assumptions concerning ancient American civilizations for those who missed the boat.
In preparation for travelling to Mexico for the first time I have been studying up the history of Mexico and in particular the Mayan civilization. The misconception that the native people of Mexico were incapable of having such advanced skills in architecture, math and astronomy started long before the Erich von Däniken wrote his infamous "Chariot of the Gods" book. When sixteenth- century Spanish historians wrote of the Mayan ruins, they concluded that the people that built the pyramids and other advanced architectural structures were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Cotton Mather, William Penn and Roger Williams were all supporters of what was called the "Jewish Theory" for Mexico. Other theories to explain how such an advanced civilization ended up in Mexico include the Mayans being survivors of a lost continent such as Atlantis. In recent times we have space aliens coming to both Egypt and Central and South America to build landing pads and pyramids, and pass on their wisdom.
James Randi, and other skeptics, have long been vocal critics of these theories. But I was surprised to discover that there was another early skeptic, at times a voice of reason in a wilderness of prejudice, named John Lloyd Stevens. Stevens, known as "the father of Mayan archeology" who wrote in 1840 in his book "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan" "The works of these people are different from the works of any other known people; they are of a new order, and entirely and absolutely anomalous: they stand alone."
He added (bolding mine):
Unless I am wrong, we have a conclusion far more interesting and wonderful than that of connecting the builders of these cities with the architecture, sculpture and drawing, and beyond doubt in other more perishable arts...not derived from the Old World, but originating and growing up here, without models or masters, having a distinct, separate, independent existence: like the plants and fruits of the soul, indigenous
In other words, the people of Mexico did it all by themselves.
He also had something to say about the still popular belief that somehow the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico are somehow culturally (or paranormally) tied together:
The pyramid form is one which suggests itself to human intelligence in every country as the simplest and surest mode of erecting a high structure upon a solid foundation. It cannot be regarded as a ground for assigning a common origin to all people among whom structures of that character are found unless the similarity is preserved in its most striking features.
(Jeff notes: the Luxor casino in Las Vegas has a Mayan pyramind inside, and their expansion towers are shaped vaguely like step pyramids.)
As a preschool teacher I would add I have seen countless preschoolers building pyramids because it is the most stable shape to build. In a way, a pyramid is a building that already has fallen down!
And so I salute John Lloyd Stevens: a skeptic that even back in 1840 understood that the people of Mexico were the geniuses behind the great Mayan culture. His firm conviction that people not "white Europeans" were capable of such an advanced culture put his at odds with most of his peers.
The spirit of John Lloyd Stevens, and even modern skeptics, is reflected in another bit of his writing:
We live in an age whose spirit is to discard phantasms and arrive at truth, and the interest lost in one particular is supplied in another scarcely inferior.
The truth can be as interesting if not more so than the mistaken misconception. Even today sadly, with the Mayans, these misconceptions are still often based on prejudice rather than reason.