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Fire and Blood
A History Of Mexico
By T. R. Fehrenbach
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 T. R. Fehrenbach
All rights reserved.
THE OLD ONES
The forces of the past still live on and exert their influence on us, though we may not be consciously aware of this. It is frightening to realize in full depth what it means to be a human being: that is, to realize that we are all imbedded in the flux of generations, whose legacy of thought and feeling we irrevocably carry along with us.
- Kurt W. Marek (C. W. Ceram), Gods, Graves, and Scholars
The rise of man in ancient Mexico is shrouded in mystery.
For that matter, no one knows for certain where or when the human race began, or how it became differentiated and scattered across the globe. Scientists have deduced from the study of skeletal fragments that the genus Homo appeared in Africa during the late Pleistocene era some hundred thousand years ago, with perhaps a half million or more years of cultural evolution already in his past. Bones also indicate that Homo sapiens, true man, the symbol-drawer and weapon-maker, the hunter and killer, began forging into a still subarctic Europe out of Asia about 30,000 b.c. And about the same time, as prehistory goes, human beings also entered the Americas.
The old bones of possible human ancestors—larger apes, pithecanthropi, or hominids such as Neanderthal men have never been found in the Western Hemisphere. The first Americans, tall, erect, gregarious, using fire, wearing animal skins, and armed with flint-tipped spears, arrived from the Eastern Hemisphere.
Thirty to forty thousand years ago, during the last great Ice Age, from which the earth is still emerging, huge areas of the northern hemisphere were covered with glaciers. Ice gripped much of what is now the United States. Southwestern North America, however, was fertile. The high plateaus of these southlands were rich savannahs of waving grasses, dotted with trees and sweetwater lakes. They teemed with mammalian life, and these regions, if not man's cradle, were certainly vast nurseries for the species.
When much of the earth's water supply was locked in glacial ice, the oceans shrank and land bridges rose. One of these connected Asia and Alaska across the Bering Strait. Even during the last Ice Age ice-free valleys and corridors led north and south through Siberia and Alaska. It was through these valleys and across the ephemeral land bridge that the first Americans almost certainly came. They were adventurous and incredibly tough, enduring enormous hardships and traveling thousands of miles.
In relatively recent times ancient human campsites have been found over much of the southwestern United States and the country that is now Mexico. These campsites, the remains of ages-extinct fires, have revealed the bones of Pleistocene animals, artifacts, and tools. The modern carbon-14 dating process exploded many theories by proving that some of these fire-sites are much, much older than previously believed—some dating back approximately thirty thousand years. The animal bones found come from species like the American camel and the woolly mammoth, which have been extinct for thousands of years.
In central Mexico, on the banks of the Rio Atoyac, a mastodon bone has been found that bears unmistakably human carvings—symbols from the brain and hand of man. Nearby, the skulls of other vanished animals have been uncovered, some imbedded with flint points. This same region has revealed hundreds of stone and bone artifacts, abandoned or buried beside the bones of mastodons, elephants, and the small Pleistocene ancestor of the horse. A rock showing the impression of a human hand and containing the skull of a saber-toothed tiger and the femur from a human skeleton which must have stood eight feet tall has been unearthed.
Who were these people? It is impossible to answer dogmatically, because their skeletal characteristics do not seem to resemble any surviving human stock. They had massive teeth set in strong jaws, and curved, flat leg bones. The bones they left behind in limestone and calcified rock are as different from those of later American Indians as the skeletons of modern Frenchmen are from Chinese. This ancient, longheaded people may have been a precursor of the Mongoloid branch of mankind, or they may have been a Caucasoid ancestor.
The few relics these old Americans left tell a great deal: that they were true Homo sapiens, not half-men, that they made weapons and knew fire and used symbols, and that they were the most formidable predators the world had yet evolved.
At that time huge beasts roamed over the high plains of the American Southwest and Mexico. There was the enormous imperial mammoth, and the awe-inspiring American elephant. Mastodons, ground sloths, giant armadillos, and a bison four times the weight of the modern North American buffalo grazed the lush meadows. There were antelope, camels, miniature horses, various cats, snakes, wolves, birds, and bears. Modern men would feel immensely courageous hunting most of these beasts with high-powered rifles; the first Americans killed all of them with flimsy, flint-tipped spears.
The large, curving horn of Middle America was rich, varied, mysterious, and geologically new, with two great mountain ranges thrown up no more than fifty million years before. The mountain chains, or Cordilleras, generally rose from north to south, one on the east facing the green Gulf, the other sloping westward to the blue Pacific. Between these mountain ranges a broad, high central plateau, called the meseta, also rose from north to south, tapering with the horn of Mexico. The center of this plateau, eons ago, was crossed with a smoking volcanic strike, leaving it cut up into countless jumbled valleys.
The rugged cordilleras and the rising volcanoes left Mexico one vast mountain, rising from the surrounding seas, pocked with valleys at varying altitudes. The eastern coastal plains, extending inward about sixty miles— though covering the whole peninsula of Yucatán—were humid, tropical, or subtropical, sometimes lush jungles, sometimes miasmic swamps. The western mountains went down precipitously to the Pacific; their bones baked dry under the tropic sun. But the central plateau, with its valleys, green forests, and brimming lakes, had a climate of eternal spring and was eminently fit for man.
This great plateau was very different then. It had not been despoiled. The air was much more humid then than now. Vast stands of pine, oak, fir, and alder trees covered the mountainsides. Rich volcanic, alluvial soils were washed down to surround the numerous lakes; broad, wet meadows of sedge and grass grew around the water. Millions upon millions of birds flocked about the lakes, and their waters teemed with freshwater fish; the forests and meadows were filled with grazing herbivores.
Like the animals, men sought the lakes and marshes where there was water, grass, and salt. In these places, also, the gigantic, dangerous beasts could be more easily trapped and killed. The first Americans lived on fresh meat; they knew the sharp thrills of the chase, the fierce joy of the kill, the exultation of the triumphant hunters' safe return, and the satiety of the communal feast.
They roasted their bloody meat in huge kitchen middens in the rock. They flaked keen flints around glowing coals. They must have shivered in the ice-age night-wind, and roared songs of worship or defiance at the cold, high moon. They took shelter in caves, and they may have chanted paeans of thanksgiving to the returning sun. Like most primitive men, they probably prayed to the spirits of the animals they killed. They may have had drums and flutes and made music. They surely wondered about the meaning of life and worried about the future of the dead, because they were men, with the conscious and subconscious minds of men.
They lived short, strenuous, terrible, brutal, and exhilarating lives, but for all their nakedness and crude techniques they had the brains, sensibilities, and perceptions of modern men.
How many millennia this race wandered over the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico is unknown. These people never became separated or culturally varied; the relics they left are always identical. Over thousands of miles and thousands of years, this people made their spear points and artifacts in exactly the same way.
They lived together in small hunting societies ranging from about twenty to sixty members. Everyone had kinship and a place. Territorial arrangements were probably carved out with neighboring bands, and very early, man learned the necessity of exogamous mating relationships. At any one time the total population of these people was probably no more than a few thousand. They had a precarious dominion over the beasts, but none over nature, and for thousands of years they failed to progress or change.
But the earth changed and warmed. The glaciers shrank northward, the oceans rose, the land bridges sank, the sun burned away the mists and fresh inland seas. The winds blew more fiercely, drying the earth. In Middle America, the rivers dug deeper into the ground, now slicing down mountainsides; the broad waters of the meseta shrank into still wide, but more marshy, lakes. To the north of the central highlands, where the plateau widened and flattened out between the cordilleras, the trees died and the landscape dried into semideserts. And though the inner valley between the southern mountains remained still fresh and green, the great Pleistocene mammals began to disappear.
Climatic change probably killed off the mammoth, the camel, the mastodon, and the elephant, but their extinction may have been hastened by Paleolithic spears. And when the Pleistocene animals were gone, the first Americans had vanished with them.
The race may have simply died out, unable to adapt, it may have been exterminated by a newer race; or the stock may have changed or interbred with fresh waves of invaders so much over generations as to become unrecognizable. At any rate, after some millennia, the old ones vanished.
But a second invasion had already taken the land; these new people must have crossed the northern land bridge before it finally disappeared, sometime before 7000 b.c. Later peoples, however, could have passed through the Aleutian island chain. This later immigration, however, apparently either spanned many centuries, possibly millennia, or else the invaders arrived in small, fragmented streams. Unlike the earliest American culture, the newcomers were or became extremely varied culturally.
As the small bands spread across the cold northlands, reaching each ocean, they must have become isolated and inbred. These people made their Stone Age artifacts in countless distinctive styles; within a broad genetic Mongoloid framework, they also differentiated widely in skin color, bone structure, and height. The most important indicator of long periods of relative isolation was their linguistic development, which grew amazingly complex: 140 different stocks, divided into about 1200 mutually incomprehensible languages and dialects.
Although some Negroid characteristics appeared occasionally among these people, their mainstream was definitely Asian. They were Mongoloid in skin shade, ranging from yellowish to copper to dark brown, in head shape, and in hair-color and form. Some had the characteristic Asian eye fold.
Spreading across all North America and Middle America, some invaders did not stop until they climbed the Andean peaks of the southern continent. They made their homes in the highlands, on the coastlines, and on the islands of the Caribbean. They deposited small numbers of people all across the hemisphere. Some folk never left the far northwest, but there was a general pattern of restless migration from north to south.
Columbus, thinking he had reached India in 1492, called the people he found in the New World indios. The descendants of this race, including modern Mexicans, prefer to think of themselves as "indigenous" rather than wanderers out of prehistoric Asia. Anthropologists assigned them to the Mongoloid branch of human stock and called them Amerindians, or American Indians.
Like all men of the eighth millennium b.c., the Amerindians were Stone Age hunters and gatherers. They ate wild fruits, seeds, and berries, but the staple of their diet was meat and fish. They hunted bear, rabbits, and a variety of deer, as well as a smaller bison and a great proliferation of native birds. Depending on their habitat, Amerinds ate insects, shellfish, turkey, and even snakes.
Many Amerinds, especially in the uplands, followed the game herds across the plains and high plateaus. The best hunting was still around the waterholes in the forested country; here men could more easily trap or kill elusive animals on foot. Many Amerindians congregated in the hospitable region of the meseta.
As the kinship bands grew larger, they developed into clans, phratries of clans, and tribes, which were no longer united by direct blood ties, but which retained a common spirit due to territoriality, common language, and common ways. But blood and community was always more important to the Amerindian than ties of place; his organization remained social rather than territorial in concept and scope.
The Amerinds brought with them out of Asia a great bag of Stone Age flint, obsidian, or bone artifacts and tools: knives, scrapers, drills, axes, picks. They wore skin garments and wove crude baskets out of reeds. Their principal weapon was the ubiquitous spear, but they soon discovered the throwing stick, or atlatl, which gave their darts more range. They also brought domesticated dogs from Asia.
Soon after the Amerind migrations began, the earth assumed its present form. The rising oceans now completely isolated the Amerindians from further human currents from the Old World.
The Amerindians were racially similar, though not identical, but they were fantastically varied culturally. Every kinship band spoke a different dialect and made its artifacts in different styles. These nomadic, hunting bands and clans constantly impinged on each other as the land became more populated. They followed what seems to have the oldest collective human logic: they made war on everyone outside the immediate tribe or clan. Whether such conflict arose from the instinctive desire to seize or hold good hunting lands or from the early-realized need for exogamous mating, which led to raiding and counter-raiding for females between bands; or whether warfare arises from some other instinct or need is so far undetermined. What is inarguable is that warfare became deeply imbedded in the Amerind heart and mind. All Amerindians were warlike, though some were vastly more aggressive than others. War was not just practiced; it was socialized. In most Amerindian tongues the words "male" and "warrior" became synonymous.
In a pattern that was generally true everywhere, the more successful tribes also tended to be most warlike. Which came first is immaterial; the peoples who succeeded in holding the best ground grew in numbers, and also became more adept and powerful. The clans who were reduced to marginal territories tended to appear more peaceful; that is, they acted as fearful skulkers rather than imperious warriors. The actual practice of war varied enormously. Some Amerind violence was carried to the point of dispersion or extermination of enemies; more often, however, violence took on a ceremonial tone. It was beyond the capacity, and perhaps the vision, of primitive peoples to destroy an enemy; raids and expeditions were carried out more to seize loot, women, or to prove manhood, leadership, or skill at war.
The powerful or lucky warrior came to be the most respected member of the tribe. He was the best provider for his immediate clan, and also their best defender in constant peril from outside. It was inevitable that the warrior-male became utterly dominant within the family group. Women did his bidding, as well as all menial work; the social specialization biology required between the sexes in a hunting society made any other course impossible. The male who was not aggressive in hunt or war was not just a personal failure; he was a social disaster. But except on mass hunts, or in war, the only genuinely socializing acts, in which leadership devolved upon exceptionally capable men, all warriors lived within their tribes as peers. This was logical, also: the duties, and therefore the rights, of all warrior males were identical.
Excerpted from Fire and Blood by T. R. Fehrenbach. Copyright © 1995 T. R. Fehrenbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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