April 08: Path of the Maya

2016/04/08 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1840 John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood reached Palenque.

Perhaps due to his birth and upbringing in New Jersey, Stephens (1805-52) was inspired to travel: first to New York for his education in the Classics and law, later to Europe (when it was still pretty rare for an American to do that), and on to Egypt (when it was virtually unheard of to do that).  Catherwood (1799-1854), an architect and artist, likewise had been bit by the travel bug early in life, voyaging as far away from his home in England as Greece, Palestine and Turkey.  The two met in 1836 in London and immediately hit it off with some kind of cultured-danger-boy-traveller-bromance that culminated in their journeys through Central America in 1839-40.

They were not the first English speakers to travel in these lands, but they were among the first to take the ruins and their makers as seriously as they did.  It was apparently Catherwood who most forcefully argued that the ancient Maya built the great structures at places like Palenque (smaller than other cities, but richer by yards, and thus now the most-studied Maya site), countering the prevalent opinion that it must have been far-flung Egyptians or even the Tribes of Israel responsible for such masterworks.  Both Catherwood and Stephens were willing to give the credit to the indigenous folks, and opened a new line of thinking about the Maya and their modern ancestors.  Their publication, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan was published in 1841 and became a huge bestseller among British and American readership that, at the time, could not get enough cultural history.

For all their adventuresomeness, both men came, sadly, to ironic ends.  Stephenson, whose health was diminished by his travels in Central and South America, succumbed to an illness after working on a railroad project in Panama.  Catherwood died in a steamship collision in open water during a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.   Hardly fitting ends to two men who ought to have an Indiana Jones-style movie made in their honor.

Image: The Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque (from this source)

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