Ancient History Sketched

(This is taken from John D. Baldwin's Ancient America, originally published in 1871.)

Toltec library sketch

It is impossible to know what was contained in the books of annals written by the official chroniclers of these ancient American countries, for these books are lost. They existed at the time of the Conquest; some of them were seen and described by Las Casas; but, so far as is known, not one of these books of regular annals, such as he described, has escaped destruction; therefore it is impossible to know any thing certainly of their character as histories.

The books preserved furnish little more than vague outlines of the past, with obscure views of distinct periods in the history, created by successive dominations of different peoples or different branches of the same people. What they enable us to know of the old history resembles what is known of the early times of the Greeks, who had no ancient histories excepting such as were furnished by their “poets of the cycle.” In one case we are told of Pelasgians, Leleges, Cadmeans, Argives, and Eolians very much as in the other we are told of Colhuas, Chichimecs, Quinames, and Nahuas.

But the outline is not wholly dark; it does not exclude the possibility of a reasonable attempt at hypothesis. When Cortez entered Mexico, the Aztecs, Montezuma’s people, had been in power more than two centuries. Most of the ancient history, of which something is said in these books, relates to ages previous to their time, and chiefly to their predecessors, the Toltecs. According to these writings, the country where the ruins are found was occupied in successive periods by three distinct peoples, the Chichimecs, the Colhuas, and the Toltecs or Nahuas. The Toltecs are said to have come into the country about a thousand years before the Christian era. Their supremacy appears to have ceased, and left the country broken up into small states, two or three centuries before the Aztecs appeared. They were preceded by the Colhuas, by whom this old civilization was originated and developed. The most ancient people, those found in the country by the Colhuas, are called Chichimecs. They are described as a barbarous people who lived by hunting and fishing, and had neither towns nor agriculture. This term Chichimecs appears to have been a generic appellation for all uncivilized aborigines. Brasseur de Bourbourg says, “Under the generic name Chichimecs, which has much embarrassed some writers, the Mexican traditions include the whole aboriginal population of the New World, and especially the people by whom it was first occupied at the beginning of time.”

Some of the traditions state that the Colhuas came from the east in ships. Sahagun mentions that a tradition to this effect was current in Yucatan. The precise value of these traditional reports is uncertain; but, if accepted as vague historical recollections, they could be explained by supposing the civilized people called Colhuas came from South America through the Caribbean Sea, and landed in Yucatan and Tabasco. They are uniformly described as the people who first established civilization and built great cities. They taught the Chichimecs to cook their food, cultivate the earth, and adopt the ways of civilized life; and the Chichimecs civilized by their influence are sometimes called Quinames.

The Colhuas are connected with vague references to a long and important period in the history previous to the Toltec ages. They seem to have been, in some respects, more advanced in civilization than the Toltecs. What is said of events in their history relates chiefly to their great city called Xibalba, the capital of an important kingdom to which this name was given. The Toltecs, in alliance with the uncivilized Chichimecs of the mountains, subjugated this city and kingdom, and thus brought to a close the period which may be termed Colhuan. This kingdom appears to have included Guatemala, Yucatan, Tabasco, Tehuantepec, Chiapa, Honduras, and other districts in Central America; and it may have included all Southern Mexico, for places north of the Tampico River are mentioned as being within its limits when the Toltecs came into the country. Some of the principal seats of the Colhuan civilization were in the region now covered by the great forest. Some investigators have sought to identify the city of Xibalba with the ruined city known to us as Palenque. Brasseur de Bourbourg says: “Palenque appears to have been the same city to which the books give the name of Xibalba;” but this is nothing but conjecture. We may as reasonably suppose Copan, Quirigua, or some other old ruin, to have been Xibalba.

Those who attempt to believe this old American civilization was brought across the Atlantic by the Phoenicians in very remote times, assume, against the plain testimony of the monuments, that the Colhuas came to America from some country on the Mediterranean. They may have come from some other part of this continent. In my judgment, it is not improbable that they came by sea from South America. Brasseur de Bourbourg would say they were people of the Atlantic race, who, having escaped destruction by the cataclysm, found their way to Yucatan and Tabasco. But there is little beside conjecture to support any theory of their origin. We have only the fact that, according to the old books and traditions of the country, they occupied that region at a remote period, and originated the civilization whose monuments are found there. Tradition places their first settlements on the Gulf coast in Tabasco, between Tehuantepec and Yucatan. It is inferred that the Mayas, Tzendals, Quichés, and some other communities of the old race, were descendants of the Colhuas, their speech being more highly developed than that of any native community not connected with this family, and their written characters having a close resemblance to those of the oldest inscriptions.



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