Preface

          
Any reconstruction of the knowledge or belief systems of a preliterate people must of necessity be at least somewhat imaginative. Even though our research may have uncovered what an early people knew, without an eyewitness description or a written record at hand we can never really be sure how they came to know it. What the stimulus or motivation or accidental discovery may have been that led to such and such an idea or to this or that custom or practice, we oftentimes can only speculate. And, in so doing, one is obliged to seek the most conservative and credible solution possible, while at the same time realizing that the true explanations for some human thoughts and/or actions may well border on the bizarre and irrational. This book, then, is both fact and fiction. In it, I not only recount what I and other researchers have learned through the decades about the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica, and their impressive cultural achievements, but I also attempt to posit what I hope are rational hypotheses concerning where, when, and how many of their innovative breakthroughs and discoveries were actually made. Thus, while most of the facts I present are immutable, some of my interpretations and explanations are admittedly conjectural, and the reader is invited to decide for himself or herself whether more credible answers yet can be given. This, then, is really an invitation to join me in solving not one but a whole series of mysteries. As we go along, I will tell you what the clues are, and give you my best arguments for what the "motives" may have been. Hopefully, by the time my case has been made, you -- the jury -- will have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and can render an impartial verdict, namely that the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica were among the most precocious and ingenious of any on our planet!


       Among my companions on this quest into the origins of the Mesoamerican intellect have been half a generation of field assistants drawn chiefly from my students at Middlebury and Dartmouth Colleges. To each and all of them I owe a special debt of thanks for their patience, understanding, and unflagging good spirit under what have oftentimes been trying and difficult conditions. Beginning with Aaron Kiley, they include Linc Cleveland, Rob Walkinshaw, Karin Malmström, Bruce Keogh, Jay Harter, Paul Dunn, Warren Whitney, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Alex de Sherbinin. Though the questions of some of the 100-odd students who took part in my Foreign Study courses in Mexico through the years helped to guide my own thoughts into new directions, I must make special mention of at least one, Sarah Kotchian, whose independent research project led to the accidental discovery of what was then probably the oldest magnetic artifact in the world. (Four years later, Paul Dunn became the first person to recognize the magnetic properties of the yet-older "Fat Boys.") On some of my later Foreign Study Programs, when I chose not to both drive and lecture at the same time, I depended on the iron nerves and steady hands of such stalwart chauffeurs as John Corbett, Steve Mines, and Tony Hartshorn; to all three of them I say "thanks again" for bringing all my student charges and me home again in one piece. To my friend and professional colleague of nearly two decades, Professor J. Rowland Illick, I owe the warmest of thanks not only for his cordial and supportive encouragement through the years but also for his valuable participation in my final field program sponsored by Middlebury College in 1975.

       Fortunately, my change of venue to Dartmouth College resulted in increased interest in and expanded support of my Mesoamerican research from both administrative and alumni quarters. Professor of history Gregory Prince, then provost at Dartmouth and now president of Hampshire College, became an energetic proponent of my hypotheses and was instrumental in introducing me to Dartmouth alumnus Guido R. Rahr Jr. of Minneapolis, whose strong dedication to the cause of geography is matched by his deep commitment to Native American Studies. Because both of his "loves" happened to come together in my research, Guido Rahr made a generous financial gift to Dartmouth, establishing a Mexico-oriented field program in the Department of Geography. I also owe a special word of thanks to Dartmouth alumnus Robert C. Dorion of Guatemala, whose financial support made possible, among other things, one of my wide-ranging "expeditions" to South America and Polynesia. Without such assistance I could never have carried out the research described in the following pages.

       As these various field studies culminated in a growing series of journal articles, the idea was born to incorporate my findings into a single comprehensive volume. It is to Shannon Davies of the University of Texas Press that I owe the inspiration for preparing this book; as my sponsoring editor, she successfully shepherded the manuscript between the Scylla and Charybdis of editorial committees and critical reviewers with tireless patience, good humor, and energetic determination. I am deeply grateful to her. To John Clark of Brigham Young University's Department of Anthropology and Archaeology I owe a special debt of gratitude for his careful reading and critical evaluation of the manuscript at the earliest stages of its preparation. And to Deborah Nichols, a colleague in Dartmouth's Department of Anthropology, I wish to express thanks for helping me to update my acquaintance with the recent literature and philosophical trends of a sister discipline. Without their help, the completion of this book would not have been realized. I alone am responsible for any shortcomings which the finished volume may have.

       By the same token, without the patient, long-suffering forebearance of a tolerant and forgiving wife, my many seemingly capricious forays into jungle, mountain, and desert would never have been possible. For the many months of absence and neglect which my obsession with the sacred calendar has occasioned her, I can only apologize belatedly -- and lovingly dedicate this book to Ruth.

Hanover, New Hampshire

December 1995

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