Historical Reprints History Ancient Inhabitants of America

Ancient Inhabitants of America

Ancient Inhabitants of America
Catalog # SKU2992
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 2.00 lbs
Author Name Alexander de Von Humboldt Helen Maria Williams
ISBN 10: 1610334000
ISBN 13: 9781610334006


Ancient Inhabitants
of America

Alexander de Humboldt

In the beginning of the Conquest of America, the attention of Europe was chiefly directed toward the gigantic constructions of Couzco, the high roads carried along the centre of the Cordilleras, the pyramids with steps, and the worship and symbolical writings of the Mexicans.



The country around Port Jackson, in New Holland, and the island of Otaheite, have not been more frequently described in our times, than were the regions of Mexico and Peru at that period. To form a proper estimate of the simplicity, the true and local colouring which characterizes the descriptions of the first Spanish writers, we must have visited the spot. While we peruse their writings, we regret that they are not accompanied with drawings, to have given us aprecise idea of the numerous monuments which became the prey of fanaticism, or which have been suffered to fall into ruin from negligence not less culpable.

The ardour, with which America had been the object of investigation, diminished from the beginning of the seventeeth century. The Spanish colonies, which were the only regions formerly inhabited by civilized nations, were shut against foreigners; and recently, when the Abbe Clavigero published in Italy his ancient history of Mexico, the facts, attested by a crowd of occular witnesses, often hostile to each other, were regarded as extremely doubtful. Some distinguished writers more struck with the contrasts than the harmony of nature, have described the whole of America as a marshy country unfavourable to the increase of animals, and newly inhabited by hordes as savage as the people of the South Sea. In the historical researches respecting the Americans, candid examination had given place to absolute scepticism. The declamatory descriptions of Solis, and of some other writers, who had never quitted Europe, were confounded with the simple but true narratives of the first travellers; and it seemed to be the duty of a philosopher, to refuse assent to every observation made by the missionaries.

Since the end of the last century a happy revolution has taken place in the manner of examining the civilization of nations, and the causes which impede or favour its progress. We have become acquainted with countries, the customs, institutions, and arts of which differ almost as widely from those of the Greeks and Romans, as the primitive forms of extinct races of animals differ from those of the species, which are the objects of descriptive natural history. The society at Calcutta has thrown a luminous ray over the history of the people of Asia. The monuments of Egypt which are at present delineated with singular precision, have been compared with the monuments of countries the most remote; and my own recent investigations on the natives of America appear at an epocha, in which we no longer deem unworthy of attention whatever is not conformable to that style, of which the Greeks have left such inimitable models.

It might have been preferable to have arranged the materials, contained in this work, in geographical order; but the difficulty of collecting, and terminating at the same time, a great number of plates engraved in Italy, Germany, and France, has prevented me from following this method. The want of order, compensated, to a certain degree, by the advantage of variety, is also less reprehensible in the descriptions of a Picturesque Atlas, than in a regular Treatise; and I shall endeavour to remedy this inconvenience by a table, in which the plates are classed agreeably to the nature of the objects they represent.

Excerpt 2:

They who have made a particular study of the Tolteck and Azteck monuments must be struck both with the analogy and the contrasts between the relief of Oaxaca, and the figures which we find repeated in the hieroglyphical manuscripts, on the idols, and on the covering of several teocallis. Instead of those dwarfish men, who are scarcely five heads high, and who remind us of the most ancient Etruscan style, we distinguish in the relief represented in the eleventh plate a group of three figures, of slender form, and drawn too correctly for the infancy of the art. There is reason to think, that the Spanish painter, who copied this scuplture at Oaxaca, corrected the outlines in certain parts, perhaps unintentionally, particularly in sketching the hands and toes. But can we suppose, that he has changed the proportions of the whole figures? and is not this supposition devoid of probability, if we examine with what careful minuteness the forms of the heads, the eyes, and particularly the orniments of the helmet, are traced? These ornaments, among which we distinguish feathers, ribands, and flowers; these noses, of extraordinary size, resemble those that are found in the Mexican paintings preserved at Rome, Veletri, and Berlin. It is only by comparing what was produced at the same epocha, and by people of the same origin, that we can form an exact idea of the style, which characterizes the different monuments; if we may be allowed to apply the word style to the analogies we discover among a multitude of fantastic and singular forms.

We might also ask, whether the relief of Oaxaca does not date from a period, when, after the first arrival of the Spaniards, the Indian sculptors were already acquainted with some European works of art. In discussing this question we should recollect, that, three or four years before Cortez made himself master of the country of Anahuac, and before religious missionaries hindered the natives from graving any other figures than those of saints, Hernandez de Cordova, Antonio Alaminos, and Grixalva, had visited the Mexican coasts, from the island of Cozumel, and False Cape, in the peninsula of Yucatan, as far as the mouth of the river of Panuco. These conquerors had general communications with the inhabitants, whom they found well clothed, dwelling in populous towns, and more civilized than any other people on the New Continent. It is possible, that, in these military expeditions, crosses, rosaries, and images, objects of veneration among the catholics, were left with the natives; and it is possible also, that some of these images may have passed successively from the coasts as far inland as the mountains of Oaxaca: but can we suppose, that the sight of a drawn could have determined the natives to abandon forms consecrated by the fashion of so many ages? A Mexican sculptor might have faithfully copied the image of an Apostle no doubt; but in a country where, as in Hindostan and China, the natives adhered with the greatest perseverance to the manners, habits, and arts of their ancestors, would he have dared to represent a hero, or a Mexican divinity, under a new and foreign form? Besides, the historical pictures of the Mexican painters after the arrival of the Spaniards, several of which are found in the remains of the collection of Boturini at Mexico, evidently prove, that this influence of the European arts on the taste of the American nations, and on the correctness of their drawings, was extremely slow.

I thought it indispensable to state the doubts, that might be suggested respecting the origin of the relief of Oaxaca, which I have had engraved at Rome after the sketch that was communicated to me; but I am far from giving any decided opinion on so extraordinary a monument, which I had no opportunity of examining myself. The architecture of the palace of Mitla, the elegance of the Grecques and labyrinths, which decorate the walls, are proofs, that the civilization of the Zapoteck nations was superior to that of the inhabitants of the valley of Mexico. We may therefore be less surprised, that the relief in question should have been found at Oaxaca, the ancient Huaxyacac, which was the capital of the country of the Zapotecks. If I might presume to offer my own private opinion, I should observe, that it appears to me more natural to attribute this monument to Americans, who had yet had no communication with the Whites; than to suppose, that some Spanish sculptor, who had followed the army of Cortez, should have amused himself with a work in the Mexican style in honour of a vanquished people. The the natives of north-west coast of America have never been deemed very civilized; yet they have executed drawings, the just proportions of which have been admired by English navigators.

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