Questions, Hypotheses, and Assorted Detours
All research begins with a question -- often a host of questions. I suppose that the first time I asked the question that resulted in this book was when I was a sophomore in an anthropology class at the University of Michigan back in 1944. "How," I queried my professor, "did the Maya ever come up with a calendar that had only 260 days?" His answer was as honest as it was unsatisfying: "No one really knows."
This was, of course, not the kind of question that one loses any sleep over or that begs for an immediate reply. After all, if it hadn't been answered in over a thousand years, the solution to this enigma, intriguing as it might be, could probably wait a while longer. As it turned out, it did not capture my own attention again until nearly thirty years later when, quite by accident, I stumbled onto what seemed to be a credible answer while leading my first student field trip to Mexico in the winter of 1973.
In the meantime, the checkered course of my evolution from university undergraduate to professor of geography, then at Middlebury College in Vermont, had taken me through a series of episodes as a cartographic researcher with the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C.; a pilot cadet in the U.S. Air Force; the first graduate student in geography at the University of Texas; and a Fulbright grantee to Norway. Along the way, I had married a lovely Norwegian woman, fathered two attractive daughters, and settled down in a charming 200-year-old farmhouse replete with a mountain view and a nearby covered bridge to teach at a prestigious New England college. By that time, most of my research and writing had found its focus in Europe.
The field trip to Mexico was my first real opportunity to visit a region which had been the primary object of my earliest academic interests. In addition to majoring in geography, I had taken minors in both anthropology and geology, and immersed myself in the study of history as well as the Spanish and Portuguese languages to prepare myself for a career in Latin America. Now, given the opportunity to develop a brief but innovative inter-session course, my long-latent interest surfaced once more in an offering which I titled "Civilization and Environment in the American Tropics."
For five eventful weeks I drove a vanful of excited students from Vermont to the Yucatán and back. In that hectic itinerary we included visits to as many archaeological sites in as many different natural settings as we could possibly reach. And at all of them we examined the various aspects of the ceremonial center's location, as well as its surrounding patterns of landforms, climate, soil, and vegetation. However, when it came to an interpretation of the artwork and architecture of the site itself, we invariably deferred to the local guide or a tourist's handbook.
One morning in late January 1973, as my students and I lounged in the shade of "El Caracol" -- the snail-shaped observatory at Chichén Itzá -- my unanswered undergraduate question suddenly flashed into my mind. We were listening to a Mexican guide explain the dramatic interplay of light and shadow on the façade of the great El Castillo pyramid at the time of the equinoxes. As he spoke, I wondered if the strange 260-day calendar of the Maya might not have marked the interval between two successive passages of the vertical sun somewhere here in the tropics.
There was no way to test that hypothesis -- at least none that suggested itself to me during our grueling drive back to Vermont. But once I had returned to campus, I immediately made a dash to the college library. The first question I had to answer was at what latitude such a phenomenon would take place. And the second was whether such a latitude lay anywhere in the vicinity of where the Maya lived.
Getting out a solar ephemeris (a volume published annually by the government for astronomers and navigators which provides the latitude of the sun for each day of the year), I quickly discovered that a 260-day interval can in fact be measured in Central America at latitude 14º.8 N, as well as at the same distance south of the equator in the general area of southern Peru and Bolivia. Of the two options it was naturally the first that interested me most, for I found that the parallel of 14º.8 N ran across the southeasternmost corner of Mexico and the entire width of the countries of Guatemala and Honduras.
What the ephemeris also revealed was that such a 260-day interval could only be measured between the time that the sun passed southward over that line until its next crossing in a northerly direction. Thus, in the sun's apparent annual migration from tropic to tropic, it took 260 days for it to travel from 14º.8 N latitude to the Tropic of Capricorn and return, whereas only 105 days were required for the sun to go up to and return from the Tropic of Cancer. Most intriguing of all, however, was the date on which this 260-day interval commenced. It was August 13 -- the day the Maya believed that the present age of the world had begun!
While this seemed too fortuitous to be a coincidence, the very location of the critical parallel also left me in stunned disbelief. It ran right through Copán, the great ceremonial center in the mountains of western Honduras which had served as the Maya's principal seat of astronomical studies. Was this, too, just a coincidence?
Additional library research soon provided some answers but also raised some new questions. The archaeological literature told me that Copán dated to the fifth century A.D., whereas it also revealed that the sacred 260-day calendar was in existence at least as early as 400-300 B.C. (The actual occupation of the Copán valley by early farmers had begun at least by 1000 B.C., but the first evidence of an advanced level of "civilization" in the area is a stela with a date equivalent to A.D. 426.) Thus, while the astronomy of Copán was correct, the ceremonial center had been founded about 800 years too late to have served as the calendar's birthplace.
Continuing my readings, I encountered an observation made by a German naturalist, Hans Gadow, that made especially good sense to me as a geographer. Writing about the turn of the century, Gadow, like so many researchers both before and since, was intrigued by the origins of the strange 260-day calendar. He was convinced that it had to have been the product of a lowland tropical setting, because its days were named for such animals as alligators, monkeys, and iguanas, which do not live in highland environments. I knew that such creatures would certainly not be found amidst the pine and oak forests surrounding Copán, so now I had the additional reason of geography for rejecting what had seemed at first glance to be both a facile and obvious solution. (Only later did I learn that several earlier researchers already had fallen into what I soon came to label the "Copán trap" because they had overlooked both the historical and geographical constraints of the sacred calendar.)
Of course, to answer my original question, I now had to return to the map of archaeological sites to see if I could find one that not only lay along the parallel of 14º. 8 N, but that also was situated in a lowland tropical niche and that was in existence at least as early as 400 B. C.
Zeroing in on the "lowland ecological niche" was easy, because it could only exist in one of two places: it was either to be found on the western (Pacific) coastal plain of Mexico or on the eastern (Caribbean) coastal plain of Honduras. Because the parallel of 14º.8 N ran through the mountainous core of Central America for most of its length, the only lowlands it crossed were on either end of this line. Deciding which of the two lowland areas it might have been -- Pacific versus Caribbean -- was also quickly resolved, because only a few Indians inhabit the swampy, trade wind-soaked rain forests of eastern Honduras even to this day. On the other hand, in the narrow coastal plain of southernmost Mexico my map of archaeological sites showed what was described as an "important ceremonial center in Late Pre-Classic times": a place named Izapa that had never been mentioned in any of my anthropology courses, and that certainly was unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless, what mattered was that Izapa had the "right" astronomy, the "right" geography, and the "right" history; indeed, it was the only site in all of the pre-Columbian New World that did! I was excited enough by this striking convergence of clues to dash off an article describing my hypothesis and submit it to the magazine Science, which published it in early September 1973.
CONFRONTATION AND CHALLENGE
Among the many letters which poured in congratulating me on my deductions and asking for reprints of my article was one postmarked in England. It was a note from the dean of Maya archaeologists, Sir John Eric Sydney Thompson, and he was clearly unhappy with my conclusions -- so unhappy, it appears, that in an exchange of letters later published in Science one of his disciples accused me of having been "anticipated" by earlier, subsequently "discredited" researchers whom I, perhaps knowingly, had failed to acknowledge.
Naturally, I was taken aback by the hostile, almost vitriolic tone of this response, and I began to wonder what sensitive nerve I had touched to elicit such a harsh indictment. After all, to my mind I had simply put forward an original hypothesis which seemed to make sense and deserved to be debated in a broader academic forum. I could not imagine why the "big guns" in the field of archaeology found my reasoning so distasteful.
As time went by, several facets of the confrontation became clearer. The contention that my hypothesis had been "anticipated" by earlier researchers was accurate in only one particular. I found from a review of the literature that the conclusion that the 260-day calendar derived from the interval between zenithal sun passages near the 15th parallel of north latitude had been reached by at least three scholars: Zelia Nuttall in 1928, Ola Apenes in 1936, and Rafael Girard in 1948. The first two had fallen into the "Copán trap," as I nearly had myself, while Girard, as a nationalistic Guatemalan, had insisted that the calendar had been developed in the highlands of his country and not in neighboring Honduras. Thus, none of these researchers had truly "anticipated" me by pinpointing the locus of the calendar's birthplace in Izapa, even though the same facts of history and geography should have been known to each of them as were known to me.
Moreover, I found that in 1945 Robert Merrill had pointed out the correspondence between the date of the sun's southward zenithal passage over the latitude of Copán and the beginning date of the present epoch of the Maya world. But I also learned that Merrill's observation had been summarily dismissed as a "coincidence" by Thompson. Thus, even this early in the "confrontation," I sensed that the latter's response seemed to be part of a definite pattern -- to wit, anyone at odds with J. Eric Sydney Thompson could obviously expect trouble!
It was only much later that I realized how accurate my initial perception was. Some years after Thompson had passed away, the distinguished Yale anthropologist Michael Coe candidly admitted in print how fortunate he counted himself for not having invoked Thompson's "caustic criticism," even though he had dared disagree with him as a graduate student. (Thankfully, the discipline of geography has never had so chilling a father figure in its cast of characters.)
There was another reason for the cool reception my hypothesis had received from the anthropological fraternity. At the time my Science article appeared, I had no idea that an internecine struggle was raging within the discipline over one of the most divisive issues imaginable: the question of which people had been the true founders of civilization in Mesoamerica -- the name by which the region of high culture in Mexico and Central America is defined. Was it the Maya, who without question represented the ultimate in pre-Columbian cultural sophistication within the region, or was it the still somewhat shadowy people known as the Olmecs? The anthropologists and archaeologists were polarized into two opposing camps with strong antagonisms for each other's point of view. The "Mayanistas" were led by such notables as the Englishman Thompson and the American Sylvanus Morley, while the "Olmequistas" were comprised chiefly of Mexican anthropologists. Unbeknownst to me, by arguing for the calendar's birthplace in Izapa, I had inadvertently joined the Olmec camp, and if for no other reason than that, I found the entire "Mayanista" faction of the discipline arrayed against me.
Even though I somewhat belatedly came to understand how Thompson's domineering personality and the internal struggle between the "Mayanistas" and "Olmequistas" had both conspired to generate such negative reactions to my hypothesis, I should have been aware at the outset that my real transgression was not being a card-carrying anthropologist or archaeologist. Here was I, a geographer, invading the turf of "their" discipline and daring to suggest a solution to a problem that had engaged them in more than a half century of research and debate.
Although I was scheduled to spend the spring term of 1974 doing research at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, in view of the antagonism which my Science article had generated I decided that I must devote at least six weeks of that time to a field reconnaissance of southern Mexico and western Honduras. Only in that way could I actually see for myself the place where my deductions had told me the sacred calendar had been born. And, only by making a pilgrimage to Copán could I confirm my conclusion that the calendar had given rise to it, and not the other way around. Indeed, by now it had become a "matter of honor" for me to determine whether I could have been so misguided in my deductions, or if the problem lay with "them." Certainly, I was under no illusion that the anthropologists or archaeologists had any more of a corner on the "truth" or on logic than a geographer did. If what I found failed to support my hypothesis, I would say so, and put the matter to rest once and for all. But if I was reassured that I was "onto something," I vowed to keep looking for the proof for as long as it took me to make my case.
PIECING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE: A PRE-COLUMBIAN "WHODUNIT"
So many new, exciting, and unexpected discoveries emerged from my first visit to Izapa that even before I had left that awe-inspiring site I was convinced that I really was "onto something." However, little or nothing of what I learned at Izapa had ever appeared in print. Indeed, apart from a few cursory digs which had been carried out there in the 1940's, its systematic excavation had begun only in 1962 under the auspices of the New World Archaeological Foundation, funded by Brigham Young University. Just wandering amongst Izapa's 130-odd mounds and pyramids, experiencing first-hand its tropical rain forest setting, and trying to imagine what the carvers of its flamboyant, enigmatic sculptures were trying to commemorate was something that a lifetime in a library carrel or a classroom could never duplicate.
As I stood musing over the site from the summit of its highest mound, I realized as never before that what the geographer looks for in the field and the kinds of questions he or she asks are entirely different from those that the archaeologist or anthropologist is trained to investigate. The latter seek to establish a temporal context into which to fit the various artifacts which their excavations uncover, and for most of the history of these disciplines that has meant using stratigraphy -- working out the age of a site by a careful examination of the layers of soil which have accumulated over it. More recently (beginning in the 1950's), radiocarbon dating replaced stratigraphic analysis as the primary tool in establishing chronological horizons, in many instances resulting in substantial revisions of dates fixed by stratigraphic means. (Indeed, as my own research progressed, it was both ironic and reassuring that where my findings initially appeared to be at odds with the generally accepted, stratigraphically determined chronology of a site, once the radiocarbon results came in, they invariably served to lend additional support to my hypotheses.)
Moreover, when it came to understanding the spatial context of a place, where it was located, and how it was related to its surroundings, I found that there was little helpful information to be gleaned from the literature of our sister disciplines. Nowhere, for example, would I have discovered that the entire ceremonial center of Izapa was aligned to a towering volcano on the northern horizon, or that from its main pyramid the length of the solar year could be calibrated at the summer solstice against the highest volcano in all of Central America. Seeing at the edge of the jungle clearing a statue of a man on his knees worshipping the mountain and along the side of the ball court a bas-relief depicting a seaborne visitor to the site told me that Izapa was a very special place indeed.
But now I also realized that I would have to carefully reexamine most of the ceremonial centers I had so hurriedly visited on my earlier reconnaissance, because only now was I beginning to ask "the right questions": What was the site's spatial relationship to the surrounding topographic features? And was there any significance to the internal design and layout of the ceremonial center or to the orientation of its principal structures? So, even before I said my first farewell to Izapa, I was already making plans for my next research trip to Mexico the following winter.
My 1975 junket to Mexico produced two more exciting discoveries -- one which confirmed my basic hypothesis regarding the origin of the 260-day calendar as nothing else could have, and the other which added an entirely new and unexpected twist to my research. Since the buzzwords of that expedition were alignments and orientations, when my students and I arrived at Teotihuacán, I immediately put them to work trying to decipher the layout of the great metropolis. At its peak, this immense ceremonial center on the outskirts of modern Mexico City had been the largest urban center in the New World, and for a time it was one of the three largest cities on our planet. When we discovered that it was oriented to the setting sun on August 13, that could only mean that the city's founders -- although they were over 1000 km (600 mi) from Izapa -- had already been engulfed by a "wave of calendrical diffusion" a couple of centuries before the dawn of the Christian era!
The second discovery was made at Izapa itself, while checking the alignment of a couple of freestanding sculptures off to the side of one of the main pyramids. Although the first sculpture, a representation of a rattlesnake's head, produced no surprises, the second (which my students and I identified as the head of a turtle) proved to be strongly magnetic in its snout. Had its sculptor not been aware of its magnetic lines of force, its pole of attraction would probably have been randomly situated in the eye or the ear of the creature instead. My paper reporting the discovery of what was probably the oldest magnetic artifact in the world was published by the British science journal Nature early in February 1976.
By the time of the article's publication, my own professional evolution had taken a new turn, for at the beginning of that year I had accepted a position as professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Making such a career change in the middle of the winter had one drawback: It prevented me from carrying out further fieldwork in Mexico in 1976. On the other hand, an important compensatory trade-off was in gaining access to Dartmouth's impressive computer facilities. I therefore decided to write a computer program incorporating those parameters of the Maya calendrical system on which there was the most general agreement and then proceed to run it "backward" -- from Spanish colonial times to whenever -- to see if I could establish when each of its components, the 365-day secular calendar and the 260-day sacred almanac, had come into being. In the process, I also thought that it might be possible to determine when the Maya had undertaken a reform in their calendar by selecting a new new year's day, as well as to establish when their so-called Long Count had come into being. The latter was an extremely sophisticated innovation whose European counterpart was not developed until the sixteenth century!
One of the results of this computer exercise -- the date of the origin of the Long Count -- proved to be not only "credible" but also confirmative of one of the many researchers who had earlier run afoul of Thompson; however, the other three seemed to leave me even further out "on thin ice" than I had been with my initial hypothesis and would surely open me up to an additional barrage from the archaeological community. I therefore held off publishing my findings, because in one instance I was projecting a calendar reform among the Maya 600 years before the city at which it supposedly took place had been founded, and in the other two instances, my calculations showed that both the secular and sacred calendars were about a millennium older than Izapa was supposed to be! (In each of these instances, newer radiocarbon dates ultimately came to my rescue, and all of my far-out computer results have subsequently been vindicated.)
The winter of 1976 was also a time for intense map research, and the results of that exercise proved fully as rewarding as my computer project had been. As I pored over large-scale maps of the major ceremonial centers of Mesoamerica, I found that time after time they replicated the locational principle which I had first discovered in Izapa: Their solar orientation at one of the solstices invariably aligned with the highest mountain within view. (In other words, the location of the ceremonial center had been consciously chosen so as to align with the highest point at sunrise or sunset on either June 22 or December 22.) It was as though the sun-god himself had decreed the location of native American cities, for each of them employed a commanding topographic feature to calibrate the march of time. When I sent a couple of research papers describing my computer reconstruction of the Maya calendar and the locational principle of pre-Columbian cities to the editor of the Journal of the History of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, he encouraged me to combine them into one longer treatise, which I did, and this was published in 1978.
In the meantime, I had made a further research trip to Mesoamerica in the winter of 1977. Although my student assistants and I had ranged from the far northern desert of Mexico to El Salvador and Honduras on our journey, our principal accomplishment was to visually confirm many of the alignments I had first measured on the maps.
The following winter I was back in Mexico again, and this time my primary focus was the site of the supposed Maya calendar reform. Not only did I find the proof I was looking for, but I also confirmed that the Maya had used the August 13th sunset to orient the first great city which they had constructed. Exciting as these discoveries were, I also identified what is probably the oldest lunar observatory in the New World -- a totally unexpected bonus!
The year 1978 also marked my first research trip to South America. Its mission was to locate possible antecedents to the calendars of Mesoamerica; here, a negative result proved reassuring. In the autumn of the same year, while leading a Dartmouth Foreign Study Program to Sweden, I had occasion to identify a monument on the south coast of the country as the Swedish equivalent of Stonehenge. Composed of some 200 tons of mammoth stones arranged in the shape of a ship, it stands on a morainic bluff overlooking the Baltic Sea. (By this time, of course, I couldn't even take my wife on a Sunday picnic without looking for alignments and orientations.) The Swedish antiquities board had described this monument as a "late Iron Age burial" (i.e., A.D. 400-1050). This unplanned detour into megalithic astronomy lasted another year, for the autumn of 1979 was again spent in Scandinavia attempting to find other calendrical monuments attributable to the same culture. (This brief foray into European archaeoastronomy did generate an article for a Swedish scientific journal which managed to stir the pot on the far side of the Atlantic as well.)
The Swedish discovery had come in the wake of an especially productive expedition to Mesoamerica in the winter of 1978. My field assistant and I had finally "cracked" the formula which the early town planners had used to lay out their cities, and we had repeatedly confirmed its presence throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands of Oaxaca. We had likewise worked out the astronomical properties of the spectacular Maya capital city of Tikal, and by now the final bits of evidence for how the calendar had diffused throughout Mesoamerica were almost all in place. One element of "static" in the whole picture was that we also had discovered nearly a dozen more magnetic sculptures, this time in Guatemala, which were probably even older than the turtle-head at Izapa. The latter find was reported on the Science page of Time magazine, while the astronomical matrix of Tikal and the evidence of calendrical diffusion were published in a symposium report issued by the Center for Archaeoastronomy.
In 1981 a more extensive journey to western South America and Polynesia took my field assistant and me to such varied sites as San Agustín in the jungles of Colombia, Cerro Sechín in the desert of Peru, Tiahuanaco near the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and Easter Island. While we uncovered several intriguing bits of evidence, subsequently described in a comprehensive paper dealing with Mexico and Sweden as well, again the fact that no credible antecedents for the calendars of Izapa were uncovered in any of these possible "donor regions" simply reinforced the likelihood that the calendars were the products of the native genius of Mesoamerica.
With the calendars' origins and diffusion now so clearly established -- in my own mind at least -- I saw my further research taking a somewhat different tack. By making Izapa the centerpiece of my argument, I knew that even most of the "Olmequistas" were wary of me. Half a century of their work had turned up so much evidence of the Olmec presence in the Gulf coastal plain of Mexico that for anyone to suggest that the "real" geographic center of innovation had been instead on the Pacific coastal plain was totally flying in the face of the "Olmequista" camp.
Many different geographic foci have been suggested as the cradle of the Olmecs, with some lines of reasoning being based on environmental evidence and others on the stylistic evolution of art forms. For example, in his classic study from 1949 titled Mundo olmeca (The 0lmec World), Ignacio Bernal identified the hearth of their civilization as the "Olmec metropolitan area" -- that part of the Gulf coastal plain lying to the south and east of the Tuxtla Mountains. Michael Coe, writing in 1965, essentially agreed, arguing that the core area of Olmec culture lay in the heartland of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco, most probably at San Lorenzo because the earliest radiocarbon dates stem from there. However, Coe conceded that the original home of the Olmecs may have been in the Tuxtlas since this is where most of their building stone came from and it was probably one of the many volcanoes in that region which served as the inspiration for the fluted-cone pyramid at La Venta. Of course, if such were the case, their true origins might lie buried forever beneath deep layers of lava and ash -- which would certainly account for no earlier evidence ever having been found.
Alfonso Caso tended to agree, in part at least, contending that the Olmec civilization, like those of the Near East, was the product of the great alluvial valleys that one finds so prominently in evidence on the Gulf coastal plain of Mexico. It was their fertile soils, he argued, that made possible the food surpluses that in turn gave rise to the great urban developments of the Olmecs. Of course, Caso made no distinction between the environments through which their respective rivers flowed, those in the Old World being deserts and that in the New being a rainforest. To him, the "hydraulic" parallel was close enough.
William Sanders disagreed, pointing out that all the Old World civilizations were based on irrigation techniques developed in arid lands; therefore, the urban origins of the Olmecs, if they paralleled those of virtually every other known civilization -- and there was no good reason to believe that they didn't! -- must have been in the semiarid basins of the Mexican plateau. In short, it was quite inconceivable to Sanders that the Olmecs should have been such an exception to the "rule" that they could have developed the necessary agricultural surpluses in a tropical rainforest environment, when no other culture in the world appeared to have been able to do so.
Roman Piña Chan agreed in part with Sanders, suggesting the likelihood that, because of the relatively numerous Olmec finds which had been encountered in and around the state of Morelos, this area must have been the cradle of their civilization. Using much the same line of argument but stressing a stylistic progression, Miguel Covarrubias believed it was on the Pacific slopes of the states of Oaxaca and especially Guerrero that the origins of the Olmecs should be sought; it was in the latter areas, he said, that "[Olmec culture's] most archaic forms appear." Charles Wicke essentially seconded Covarrubias's motion, specifically zeroing in on the Mixteca-Alta region of western Oaxaca where a particularly primitive monument had been discovered at the village of San Martín Huamelulpan. Edwin Ferdon used much the same rationale to argue for the primacy of the Tehuantepec region, having discovered a fairly early representative of Olmec sculpture at Tonalá, whereas S. W. Miles wanted to push the Olmec heartland even farther south into the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas and Guatemala, likewise on the basis of "archaic" sculptures.
At first glance it might seem an exaggeration to attach so much importance to the sacred calendar. Yet, anyone familiar with its role in the life of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica realizes that bound up with the calendar are many if not all of the more sophisticated aspects of the region's early intellectual life: the awareness of a cyclicity in the movement of celestial bodies, the evolution of mathematical skills by which they could manipulate the numbers derived from those cycles, and the development of a system of hieroglyphics for recording the results. Thus, if and when the calendar diffused from Izapa to the Olmecs, the Maya, and the other peoples of the region, with it must have come most of the trappings of civilization -- astronomy, mathematics, writing, urban planning. So, too, should there have been some transfer of material culture, witnessed in types of pottery and styles of architecture. And certainly one of the most reliable of trace elements in pinning down the diffusion of peoples is language. If I could find evidence that cultural traits such as these had paralleled the movement of the calendar, my hypothesis would be immeasurably strengthened.
Accompanied by another student assistant in the spring of 1983, 1 was off to some of the most remote mountain areas of southern Mexico to visit remnants of a linguistic group who I hypothesized were the original bearers of civilization in Mesoamerica. Our results not only confirmed what earlier researchers had argued for in terms of the interrelationships of the languages they spoke, but they also provided a coherent spatial context by which to explain their present scattered distribution. So confident was I of my findings that I titled my resultant paper, published in 1985, "The Origins of Civilization in Mesoamerica." (Concurrent and subsequent studies by linguistic specialists have confirmed the linguistic identity of the Olmecs, though my hypothesis for the present geographic distribution of these languages has yet to win their endorsement.)
Confident that I had at long last pulled together about as much evidence as I could regarding the origins of civilization in Mesoamerica, I decided to turn my attention to the situation which existed in the waning days of pre-Columbian civilization. What, for instance, had been the contribution of the peoples and cultures of the region who were the last to fall into the embrace of the sacred calendar -- peoples like the Nahuatl-speaking nomads from the northern desert, the Toltecs and the Aztecs, and the Purépecha, or Tarascans, who live in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán? And how does the explanation of one much-repeated Maya date at Copán now make it possible for us to confirm positively the correlation of their calendar with our own? In the pages which follow, these are some of the themes I will explore as I chart the achievements of the "Mesoamerican intellect."