Matthew Stirling, the American archaeologist who excavated La Venta
in the 1940s, made a number of spectacular discoveries there. The
most spectacular of all was the Stele of the Bearded Man.
The plan of the ancient Olmec site, as I have said, lay along an
axis pointing 8° west of north. At the southern end of this axis,
100 feet tall, loomed the fluted cone of the great pyramid. Next to
it, at ground level, was what looked like a curb about a foot high
enclosing a spacious rectangular area one-quarter the size of an
average city block. When the archaeologists began to uncover this
curb they found, to their surprise, that it consisted of the upper
parts of a wall of columns.
Further excavation through the
undisturbed layers of stratification that had accumulated revealed
that the columns were ten feet tall. There were more than 600 of
them and they had been set together so closely that they formed a
near-impregnable stockade. Hewn out of solid basalt and transported
to La Venta from quarries more than sixty miles distant, the columns
weighed approximately two tons each.
Why all this trouble? What had the stockade been built to contain?
Even before excavation began, the tip of a massive chunk of rock had
been visible jutting out of the ground in the centre of the enclosed
area, about four feet higher than the illusory ‘curb’ and leaning
steeply forward. It was covered with carvings. These extended down,
out of sight, beneath the layers of soil that filled the ancient
stockade to a height of about nine feet.
Stirling and his team worked for two days to free the great rock.
When exposed it proved to be an imposing stele fourteen feet high,
seven feet wide and almost three feet thick. The carvings showed an
encounter between two tall men, both dressed in elaborate robes and
wearing elegant shoes with turned-up toes.
Either erosion or
deliberate mutilation (quite commonly practiced on Olmec monuments)
had resulted in the complete defacement of one of the figures. The
other was intact. It so obviously depicted a Caucasian male with a
high-bridged nose and a long, flowing beard that the bemused
archaeologists promptly christened it ‘Uncle Sam’.1
1 Fair Gods and Stone Faces, p. 144.
I walked slowly around the twenty-ton stele, remembering as I did so
that it had lain buried in the earth for more than 3000 years. Only
in the brief half century or so since Stirling’s excavations had it
seen the light of day again. What would its fate be now? Would it
stand here for another
thirty centuries as an object of awe and splendour for future
generations to gawp at and revere? Or, in such a great expanse of
time, was it possible that circumstances might change so much that
it would once again be buried and concealed?
Perhaps neither would happen. I remembered the ancient calendrical
system of Central America, which the Olmecs had initiated. According
to them, and to their more famous successors the Mayas, there just
weren’t any great expanses of time left, let alone three millennia.
The Fifth Sun was all used up and a tremendous earthquake was
building to destroy humanity two days before Christmas in AD 2012.
I turned my attention back to the stele. Two things seemed to be
clear: the encounter scene it portrayed must, for some reason, have
been of immense importance to the Olmecs, hence the grandeur of the
stele itself, and the construction of the remarkable stockade of
columns built to contain it. And, as was the case with the negro
heads, it was obvious that the face of the bearded Caucasian man
could only have been sculpted from a human model. The racial
verisimilitude was too good for an artist to have invented it.
The same went for two other Caucasian figures I was able to identify
among the surviving monuments from La Venta. One was carved in low
relief on a heavy and roughly circular slab of stone about three
feet in diameter. Dressed in what looked like tight-fitting
leggings, his features were those of an Anglo-Saxon. He had a full
pointed beard and wore a curious floppy cap on his head.
In his left
hand he extended a flag, or perhaps a weapon of some kind. His right
hand, which he held across the middle of his chest, appeared to be
empty. Around his slim waist was tied a flamboyant sash. The other
Caucasian figure, this time carved on the side of a narrow pillar,
was similarly bearded and attired.
Who were these conspicuous strangers? What were they doing in
Central America? When did they come? And what relationship did they
have with those other strangers who had settled in this steamy
rubber jungle—the ones who had provided the models for the great
Some radical researchers, who rejected the dogma concerning the
isolation of the New World prior to 1492, had proposed what looked
like a viable solution to the problem: the bearded, thin-featured
individuals could have been Phoenicians from the Mediterranean who
had sailed through the Pillars of Hercules and across the Atlantic
Ocean as early as the second millennium BC. Advocates of this theory
went on to suggest that the negroes shown at the same sites were the
‘slaves’ of the Phoenicians, picked up on the coast of West Africa
prior to the trans-Atlantic run.2
2 Ibid., p. 141-42.
The more consideration I gave to the strange character of the La
Venta sculptures, the more dissatisfied I became with these ideas.
Phoenicians and other Old World peoples had crossed the Atlantic
before Columbus. There was compelling evidence for that,
although it is outside the scope of this book.3 The problem was that
the Phoenicians, who had left unmistakable examples of their
distinctive handiwork in many parts of the ancient world,4 had not
done so at the Olmec sites in Central America.
Neither the negro
heads, nor the reliefs portraying bearded Caucasian men showed any
signs of anything remotely Phoenician in their style, handiwork or
character.5 Indeed, from a stylistic point of view, these powerful
works of art seemed to belong to no known culture, tradition or
genre. They seemed to be without antecedents either in the New World
or in the Old.
Fair Gods and Store Faces, passim. See also Cyrus H. Gordon, Before
Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America, Crown
Publishers Inc, New York, 1971.
See, for example, (a) Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the
West, Cambridge University Press, 1993; (b) Gerhard Herm, The
Phoenicians, BCA, London, 1975; (c) Sabatino Moscati, The World of
the Phoenicians, Cardinal, London, 1973.
5 This can be confirmed in
any of the works cited in note 4.
They seemed rootless ... and that, of course, was impossible,
because all forms of artistic expression have roots somewhere.
Hypothetical third party
It occurred to me that one plausible explanation might lie in a
variant of the ‘hypothetical third party’ theory originally put
forward by a number of leading Egyptologists to explain one of the
great puzzles of Egyptian history and chronology.
The archaeological evidence suggested that rather than developing
slowly and painfully, as is normal with human societies, the
civilization of Ancient Egypt, like that of the Olmecs, emerged all
at once and fully formed. Indeed, the period of transition from
primitive to advanced society appears to have been so short that it
makes no kind of historical sense. Technological skills that should
have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to evolve were
brought into use almost overnight— and with no apparent antecedents
For example, remains from the pre-dynastic period around 3500 BC
show no trace of writing. Soon after that date, quite suddenly and
inexplicably, the hieroglyphs familiar from so many of the ruins of
Ancient Egypt begin to appear in a complete and perfect state. Far
from being mere pictures of objects or actions, this written
language was complex and structured at the outset, with signs that
represented sounds only and a detailed system of numerical symbols.
Even the very earliest hieroglyphs were stylized and
conventionalized; and it is clear that an advanced cursive script
was it common usage by the dawn of the First Dynasty.6
6 W. B. Emery, Archaic Egypt,
Penguin Books, London, 1987, p. 192.
What is remarkable is that there are no traces of evolution from
simple to sophisticated, and the same is true of mathematics,
medicine, astronomy and architecture and of Egypt’s amazingly rich
and convoluted religio-mythological system (even the central content
of such refined works as the Book of the Dead existed right at the
start of the dynastic period).7
The majority of Egyptologists will not consider the implications of
Egypt’s early sophistication. These implications are startling,
according to a number of more daring thinkers. John Anthony West, an
expert on the early dynastic period, asks:
How does a complex civilization spring full-blown into being? Look
at a 1905 automobile and compare it to a modern one. There is no
mistaking the process of ‘development’. But in Egypt there are no
parallels. Everything is right there at the start.
The answer to the mystery is of course obvious but, because it is
repellent to the prevailing cast of modern thinking, it is seldom
considered. Egyptian civilization was not a ‘development’, it was a
West has been a thorn in the flesh of the Egyptological
establishment for many years. But other more mainstream figures have
also confessed puzzlement at the suddenness with which Egyptian
civilization appeared. Walter Emery, late Edwards Professor of
Egyptology at the University of London, summed up the problem:
At a period approximately 3400 years before
Christ, a great change
took place in Egypt, and the country passed rapidly from a state of neolithic culture with a complex tribal character to one of
well-organized monarchy ...
At the same time the art of writing appears, monumental architecture
and the arts and crafts develop to an astonishing degree, and all
the evidence points to the existence of a luxurious civilization.
All this was achieved within a comparatively short period of time,
for there appears to be little or no background to these fundamental
developments in writing and architecture.9
Ibid., p. 38. See also The Egyptian Book of the Dead (trans. E.A.
Wallis Budge), British Museum, 1895, Introduction, pp. xii, xiii.
John Anthony West, Serpent in the Sky, Harper and Row, New York,
1979, p. 13.
9 Archaic Egypt, p. 38. 10 Ibid., pp. 175-91.
One explanation could simply be that Egypt received its sudden and
decisive cultural boost from some other known civilization of the
ancient world. Sumer, on the Lower Euphrates in Mesopotamia, is the
most likely contender. Despite many basic differences, a variety of
shared building techniques and architectural styles10 does suggest a
link between the two regions. But none of these similarities is
strong enough to infer that the connection could have been in any
way causal, with one society directly influencing the other.
contrary, as Professor Emery writes:
The impression we get is of an indirect connection, and perhaps the
existence of a third party, whose influence spread to both the
Euphrates and the Nile ... Modern
scholars have tended to ignore the possibility of immigration to
both regions from some hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area.
[However] a third party whose cultural achievements were passed on
independently to Egypt and Mesopotamia would best explain the common
features and fundamental differences between the two
Among other things, this theory sheds light on the mysterious fact
that the Egyptians and Sumerian people of Mesopotamia appear to have
worshipped virtually identical lunar deities who were among the
oldest in their respective pantheons (Thoth in the case of the
Egyptians, Sin in the case of the Sumerians).12
According to the
eminent Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge,
‘The similarity between
the two gods is too close to be accidental ... It would be wrong to
say that the Egyptians borrowed from the Sumerians or the Sumerians
from the Egyptians, but it may be submitted that the literati of
both peoples borrowed their theological systems from some common but
exceedingly ancient source.’13
11 Ibid., pp. 31, 177.
12 Ibid., p. 126.
13 E. A. Wallis Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt, Oxford
University Press, 1934,
The question, therefore, is this: what was that ‘common but
exceedingly ancient source’, that ‘hypothetical and as yet
undiscovered area’, that advanced ‘third party’ to which both Budge
and Emery refer? And if it left a legacy of high culture in Egypt
and in Mesopotamia, why shouldn’t it have done so in Central
It’s not good enough to argue that civilization ‘took off’ much
later in Mexico than it had in the Middle East. It is possible that
the initial impulse could have been felt at the same time in both
places but that the subsequent outcome could have been completely
On this scenario, the civilizers would have succeeded brilliantly in
Egypt and in
Sumer, creating lasting and remarkable cultures there.
In Mexico, on the other hand (as also seems to have been the case in
Peru), they suffered some serious setback—perhaps getting off to a
good start, when the gigantic stone heads and reliefs of bearded men
were made, but going rapidly downhill.
The light of civilization
would never quite have been lost, but perhaps things didn’t pick up
again until around 1500 BC, the so-called ‘Olmec horizon’. By then
the great sculptures would have been hoary with age, ancient relics
of immense spiritual power, their all-but-forgotten origins wrapped
in myths of giants and bearded civilizers.
If so, we may be gazing at faces from a much more remote past than
we imagine when we stare into the almond eyes of one of the negro
heads or into the angular, chiselled Caucasian features of ‘Uncle
Sam’. It is by no means impossible that these great works preserve
the images of peoples from a vanished civilization which embraced
several different ethnic groups.
That, in a nutshell, is the ‘hypothetical third party’ theory as
the civilization of Ancient Mexico
did not emerge
without external influence, and it did not emerge as a result of
influence from the Old World
instead certain cultures in the Old
World and in the New World may both have received a legacy of
influence and ideas from a third party at some exceedingly remote
Villahermosa to Oaxaca
Before leaving Villahermosa I visited CICOM, the Centre for
Investigation of the Cultures of the Olmecs and Maya. I wanted to
find out from the scholars there whether there were any other
significant Olmec sites in the region. To my surprise, they
suggested that I should look farther afield. At Monte Alban, in
Oaxaca province hundreds of kilometers to the southwest,
archaeologists had apparently unearthed ‘Olmecoid’ artifacts and a
number of reliefs thought to represent the Olmecs themselves.
Santha and I had intended to drive straight on from Villahermosa
into the Yucatan Peninsula, which lay north-east. The journey to
Monte Alban would involve a huge detour, but we decided to make it,
in the hope that it might shed further light on the Olmecs. Besides,
it promised to be a spectacular drive over immense mountains and
into the heart of the hidden valley where the city of Oaxaca lies.
We drove almost due west past the lost site of La Venta, past
Coatzecoalcos once again, and on past Sayula and Loma Bonita to the
road-junction town of Tuxtepec. In so doing, by degrees we left
behind countryside scarred and blackened by the oil industry,
crossed long gentle hillsides carpeted in lush green grass, and ran
between fields ripe with crops.
At Tuxtepec, where the sierras really began, we turned sharply south
following Highway 175 to Oaxaca. On the map it looked barely half
the distance that we had driven from Villahermosa. The road,
however, proved to be a complicated, nerve-racking,
muscle-wrenching, apparently endless zig-zag of hairpin
bends—narrow, winding and precipitous— which went up into the clouds
like a stairway to heaven.
It took us through many different layers
of alpine vegetation, each occupying a specialized climatological
niche, until it brought us out above the clouds in a place where
familiar plants flourished in giant forms, like John Wyndham’s
triffids, creating a surreal and alien landscape. It took twelve
hours to drive the 700 kilometers from Villahermosa to Oaxaca.
the time the journey was over, my hands were blistered from gripping
the steering-wheel too tight for too long around too many hairpin
bends. My eyes were blurred and I kept having mental retrospectives
of the vertiginous chasms we had skirted on Highway 175, in the
mountains, where the triffids grew.
The city of Oaxaca is famous for magic mushrooms, marijuana and D.H.
Lawrence (who wrote and set part of his novel The Plumed Serpent
here in the 1920s). There is still a bohemian feel about the place
and until late at night a current of excitement seems to ripple
among the crowds filling its bars and cafés, narrow cobbled streets,
old buildings and spacious plazas.
We checked into a room overlooking one of the three open courtyards
in the Hotel Las Golondrinas. The bed was comfortable. There were
starry skies overhead. But, tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep.
What kept me awake was the idea of the civilizers ... the bearded
gods and their companions. In Mexico, as in Peru, they seemed to
have confronted failure. That was what the legends implied, and not
only the legends, as I discovered when we reached Monte Alban the
Chapter 19 -
Adventures in the Underworld, Journeys to the Stars
The ‘hypothetical third party’ theory explains the similarities and
fundamental differences between Ancient Egypt and Ancient
Mesopotamia by proposing that both received a common legacy of
civilization from the same remote ancestor. No serious suggestions
have been made as to where that ancestral civilization might have
been located, its nature, or when it flourished. Like a black hole
in space, it cannot be seen. Yet its presence can be deduced from
its effects on things that can be seen—in this case the
civilizations of Sumer and Egypt.
Is it possible that the same mysterious ancestor, the same invisible
source of influence, could also have left its mark in Mexico? If so,
we would expect to find certain cultural similarities between
Mexico’s ancient civilizations and those of Sumer and Egypt. We
would also expect to be confronted by immense differences resulting
from the long period of divergent evolution which separated all
these areas in historical times.
We would, however, expect the
differences to be less between Sumer and Egypt, which were in
regular contact with each other during the historical period, than
between the two Middle Eastern cultures and the cultures of far-off
Central America, which enjoyed at most only haphazard, slight and
intermittent contacts prior to the ‘discovery ’ of the New World by
Columbus in AD 1492.
Eaters of the dead, earth monsters, star kings, dwarves and other
For some curious reason that has not been explained, the Ancient
Egyptians had a special liking and reverence for dwarves.1 So, too,
did the civilized peoples of ancient Central America, right back to Olmec times.2 In both cases it was believed that dwarves were
directly connected to the gods.3 And in both cases dwarves were favoured as dancers and were shown as such in works of art.4
In Egypt’s early dynastic period, more than 4500 years ago, an
‘Ennead’ of nine omnipotent deities was particularly adored by the
priesthood at Heliopolis.5 Likewise, in Central America, both the
Aztecs and the Mayas
believed in an all-powerful system of nine deities.6
See, for example, The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt, pp. 69-70;
also Jean-Pierre Hallet, Pygmy Kitabu, BCA, London, 1974, pp.
2 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p.
3 Ibid., The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt, pp. 69-70, and
Pygmy Kitabu, pp. 84-106.
5 The Encyclopaedia of Ancient
Egypt, p. 85.
6 The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 148.
The Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya of Mexico
and Guatemala, contains several passages which clearly indicate a
belief in ‘stellar rebirth’—the reincarnation of the dead as stars.
After they had been killed, for example, the Hero Twins named
Hunahpu and Xbalanque,
‘rose up in the midst of the light, and
instantly they were lifted into the sky ... Then the arch of heaven
and the face of the earth were lighted. And they dwelt in heaven.’7
At the same time ascended the Twins’ 400 companions who had also
been killed, ‘and so they again became the companions of Hunahpu and
Xbalanque and were changed into stars in the sky.’8
The majority of the traditions of the God-King
Quetzalcoatl, as we
have seen, focus on his deeds and teachings as a civilizer. His
followers in ancient Mexico, however, also believed that his human
manifestation had experienced death and that afterwards he was
reborn as a star.9
It is therefore curious, at the very least, to discover that in
Egypt, in the Pyramid Age, more than 4000 years ago, the state
religion revolved around the belief that the deceased pharaoh was
reborn as a star.10 Ritual incantations were chanted, the purpose
of which was to facilitate the dead monarch’s rapid rebirth in the
‘Oh king, you are this Great Star, the Companion of Orion,
who traverses the sky with Orion ... you ascend from the east of the
sky, being renewed in your due season, and rejuvenated in your due
We have encountered the Orion constellation before, on
the plains of Nazca, and we shall encounter it again ...
Meanwhile, let us consider the
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Parts of its contents are as old as the civilization of Egypt itself
and it serves as a sort of Baedeker for the transmigration of the
soul. It instructs the deceased on how to overcome the dangers of
the afterlife, enables him to assume the form of several mythical
creatures, and equips him with the passwords necessary for admission
to the various stages, or levels, of the underworld.12
Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya, (English
version by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley from the translation
by Adrian Recinos), University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, p. 163.
9 Ibid., p. 181; The Mythology of Mexico and Central
America, p. 147.
The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, (trans. R. O. Faulkner), Oxford
University Press, 1969. Numerous Utterances refer directly to the
stellar rebirth of the King, e.g. 248, 264, 265, 268, and 570 (‘I am
a star which illumines the sky’), etc.
11 Ibid., Utt. 466, p. 155.
The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, (trans. R. O. Faulkner),
British Museum Publications, 1989.
Is it a coincidence that the peoples of Ancient Central America
preserved a parallel vision of the perils of the afterlife? There it
widely believed that the underworld consisted of nine strata through
which the deceased would journey for four years, overcoming
obstacles and dangers on the way.13
The strata had self-explanatory
names like ‘place where the mountains crash together’, ‘place where
the arrows are fired’, ‘mountain of knives’, and so on. In both
Ancient Central America and Ancient Egypt, it was believed that the
deceased’s voyage through the underworld was made in a boat,
accompanied by ‘paddler gods’ who ferried him from stage to stage.14
The tomb of ‘Double Comb’, an eighth-century ruler of the Mayan city
of Tikal, was found to contain a representation of this scene.15
Similar images appear throughout the Valley of the Kings in Upper
Egypt, notably in the tomb of Thutmosis III, an Eighteenth Dynasty
Is it a coincidence that the passengers in the barque of
the dead pharaoh, and in the canoe in which Double Comb makes his
final journey, include (in both cases) a dog or dog-headed deity, a
bird or bird-headed deity, and an ape or ape-headed deity?17
The seventh stratum of the Ancient Mexican underworld was called
Teocoyolcualloya: ‘place where beasts devour hearts’.18
Is it a coincidence that one of the stages of the Ancient Egyptian
underworld, ‘the Hall of Judgment’, involved an almost identical
series of symbols? At this crucial juncture the deceased’s heart was
weighed against a feather. If the heart was heavy with sin it would
tip the balance. The god Thoth would note the judgment on his
palette and the heart would immediately be devoured by a fearsome
beast, part crocodile, part hippopotamus, part lion, that was called
‘the Eater of the Dead ’.19
13 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 37.
14 The Gods and Symbols of
Ancient Mexico and the Maya, pp. 128-9.
Reproduced in National Geographic Magazine, volume 176, Number 4,
Washington DC, October 1989, p. 468: ‘Double Comb is being taken to
the underworld in a canoe guided by the “paddler twins”, gods who
appear prominently in Maya mythology. Other figures—an iguana, a
monkey, a parrot, and a dog—accompany the dead ruler.’ We learn more
of the mythological significance of dogs in Part V of this book.
Details are reproduced in John Romer, Valley of the Kings, Michael
O’Mara Books Limited, London, 1988, p. 167, and in J. A. West, The
Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, Harrap Columbus, London, 1989, pp.
In the case of Ancient Egypt the dog represents Upuaut, ‘the Opener
of the Ways’, the bird (a hawk) represents Horus, and the ape,
Thoth. See The Traveller’s Key To Ancient Egypt, p. 284, and The
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, pp. 116-30. For Ancient Central
America see note 15.
18 Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 40.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead (trans. E. A. Wallis Budge), Arkana,
London and New York, 1986, p. 21.
Finally, let us turn again to Egypt of the Pyramid Age and the
privileged status of the pharaoh, which enabled him to circumvent
the trials of the underworld and to be reborn as a star. Ritual
incantations were part of the process. Equally important was a
mysterious ceremony known as ‘the opening of the mouth’, always
conducted after the death of the pharaoh
and believed by archaeologists to date back to pre-dynastic times.20
The high priest and four assistants participated, wielding the
peshenkhef, a ceremonial cutting instrument. This was used ‘to open
the mouth’ of the deceased God-King, an action thought necessary to
ensure his resurrection in the heavens. Surviving reliefs and
vignettes showing this ceremony leave no doubt that the mummified
corpse was struck a hard physical blow with the peshenkhef.21 In
addition, evidence has recently emerged which indicates that one of
the chambers within the Great Pyramid at Giza may have served as the
location for the ceremony.22
All this finds a strange, distorted twin in Mexico. We have seen the
prevalence of human sacrifice there in pre-conquest times. Is it
coincidental that the sacrificial venue was a pyramid, that the
ceremony was conducted by a high priest and four assistants, that a
cutting instrument, the sacrificial knife, was used to strike a hard
physical blow to the body of the victim, and that the victim’s soul
was believed to ascend directly to the heavens, sidestepping the
perils of the underworld? 23
As such ‘coincidences’ continue to multiply, it is reasonable to
wonder whether there may not be some underlying connection. This is
certainly the case when we learn that the general term for
‘sacrifice’ throughout Ancient Central America was p’achi, meaning
‘to open the mouth’.24
See, for example, R. T. Rundle-Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient
Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London, 1991, p. 29.
21 Henri Frankfort,
Kingship and the Gods, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 134.
The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, e. g. Utts. 20, 21.
Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, The Orion Mystery, Wm. Heinemann,
London, 1994, pp. 208-10, 270.
23 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient
Mexico and the Maya, pp. 40, 177.
24 Maya History and Religion, p.
Could it be, therefore, that what confronts us here, in widely
separated geographical areas, and at different periods of history,
is not just a series of startling coincidences but some faint and
garbled common memory originating in the most distant antiquity? It
doesn’t seem that the Egyptian ceremony of the opening of the mouth
influenced directly the Mexican ceremony of the same name (or vice
versa, for that matter).
The fundamental differences between the two
cases rule that out. What does seem possible, however, is that their
similarities may be the remnants of a shared legacy received from a
common ancestor. The peoples of Central America did one thing with
that legacy and the Egyptians another, but some common symbolism and
nomenclature was retained by both.
This is not the place to expand on the sense of an ancient and
elusive connectedness that emerges from the Egyptian and Central
American evidence. Before moving on, however, it is worth noting
that a similar ‘connectedness’ links the belief systems of
pre-Colombian Mexico with those of Sumer in Mesopotamia. Again the
evidence is more suggestive of an ancient common ancestor than of
any direct influence.
Take the case of Oannes, for example.
‘Oannes’ is the Greek rendering of the Sumerian Uan, the name of the
amphibious being, described in Part II, believed to have brought the
arts and skills of civilization to Mesopotamia.25 Legends dating
back at least 5000 years relate that Uan lived under the sea,
emerging from the waters of the Persian Gulf every morning to
civilize and tutor mankind.26 Is it a coincidence that
uaana, in the
Mayan language, means ‘he who has his residence in water’?27
Let us also consider Tiamat, the Sumerian goddess of the oceans and
of the forces of primitive chaos, always shown as a ravening
monster. In Mesopotamian tradition, Tiamat turned against the other
deities and unleashed a holocaust of destruction before she was
eventually destroyed by the celestial hero Marduk:
She opened her mouth, Tiamat, to swallow him.
He drove in the evil wind so that she could not close her lips.
The terrible winds filled her belly. Her heart was seized,
She held her mouth wide open,
He let fly an arrow, it pierced her belly,
Her inner parts he clove, he split her heart,
He rendered her powerless and destroyed her life,
He felled her body and stood upright on it.28
How do you follow an act like that?
Marduk could. Contemplating his adversary’s monstrous corpse, ‘he
conceived works of art’,29 and a great plan of world creation began
to take shape in his mind. His first move was to split Tiamat’s
skull and cut her arteries. Then he broke her into two parts ‘like a
dried fish’, using one half to roof the heavens and the other to
surface the earth. From her breasts he made mountains, from her
spittle, clouds, and he directed the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to
flow from her eyes.30
Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press,
1990, p. 326; Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and
Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, 1992, pp.
26 Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, p. 41.
Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 169; The God-Kings and the
Titans, p. 234.
28 New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, pp.
29 Ibid., p. 54.
30 Ibid. See also Gods, Demons and Symbols of
Ancient Mesopotamia, p. 177.
A strange and violent legend, and a very old one.
The ancient civilizations of Central America had their own version
of this story. Here Quetzalcoatl, in his incarnation as the creator
deity, took the role of Marduk while the part of Tiamat was played
by Cipactli, the ‘Great Earth Monster’.
Quetzalcoatl seized Cipactli’s limbs,
‘as she swam in the primeval waters and wrenched
her body in half, one part forming the sky and the other the earth’.
From her hair and skin he created grass, flowers and herbs; ‘from
her eyes, wells and springs; from her shoulders,
Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 59; Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs,
Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 177. See also The Gods and
Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, p.
Are the peculiar parallels between the Sumerian and Mexican myths
pure coincidence or could both have been marked by the cultural
fingerprints of a lost civilization? If so, the faces of the heroes
of that ancestral culture may indeed have been carved in stone and
passed down as heirlooms through thousands of years, sometimes in
full view, sometimes buried, until they were dug up for the last
time by archaeologists in our era and given labels like ‘Olmec Head’
and ‘Uncle Sam’.
The faces of those heroes also appear at Monte Alban, where they
seem to tell a sad story.
Monte Alban: the downfall of masterful men
A site thought to be about 3000 years old,32
Monte Alban stands on a
vast artificially flattened hilltop overlooking Oaxaca. It consists
of a huge rectangular area, the Grand Plaza, which is enclosed by
groups of pyramids and other buildings laid out in precise
geometrical relationships to one another. The overall feel of the
place is one of harmony and proportion emerging from a well-ordered
and symmetrical plan.
32 Mexico, p. 669.
Following the advice of CICOM, whom I had spoken to before leaving
Villahermosa, I made my way first to the extreme south-west corner
of the Monte Alban site. There, stacked loosely against the side of
pyramid, were the objects I had come all this way to see: several
dozen engraved stelae depicting negroes and Caucasians ... equal in
life ... equal in death.
If a great civilization had indeed been lost to history, and if
these sculptures told part of its story, the message conveyed was
one of racial equality. No one who has seen the pride, or felt the
charisma, of the great negro heads from La Venta could seriously
imagine that the original subjects of these magisterial sculptures
could have been slaves. Neither did the lean-faced, bearded men look
as if they would have bent their knees to anyone. They, too, had an
At Monte Alban, however, there seemed to be carved in stone a record
of the downfall of these masterful men. It did not look as if this
could have been the work of the same people who made the La Venta
sculptures. The standard of craftsmanship was far too low for that.
But what was certain—whoever they were, and however inferior their
work— was that these artists had attempted to portray the same negroid subjects and
the same goatee-bearded Caucasians as I had
seen at La Venta.
There the sculptures had reflected strength, power
and vitality. Here at Monte Alban the remarkable strangers were
corpses. All were naked, most were castrated, some were curled up in foetal positions as though to avoid showers of blows, others lay
Archaeologists said the sculptures showed ‘the corpses of prisoners
captured in battle’.33
What prisoners? From where?
The location, after all, was Central America, the New World,
thousands of years before Columbus, so wasn’t it odd that these
images of battlefield casualties showed not a single native American
but only and exclusively Old World racial types?
For some reason, orthodox academics did not find this puzzling, even
though, by their reckoning, the carvings were extremely old (dating
to somewhere between 1000 and 600 BC 34). As at other sites, this
time-frame had been derived from tests on associated organic matter,
not on the carvings themselves, which were incised on granite stele
and therefore hard to date objectively.
Cities of Ancient Mexico, p. 53.
Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 53; Mexico, p. 671.
An as yet undeciphered but fully elaborated hieroglyphic script had
been found at Monte Alban,35
much of it carved on to the same stele as the crude Caucasian and
35 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico,
pp. 53-4; The Cities of Ancient Mexico, p. 50.
Experts accepted that it was ‘the
earliest-known writing in Mexico’.36 It was also clear that the
people who had lived here had been accomplished builders and more
than usually preoccupied with astronomy. An observatory, consisting
of a strange arrowhead-shaped structure, lay at an angle of 45° to
the main axis (which was deliberately tilted several degrees from
north-south).37 Crawling into this observatory, I found it to be a
warren of tiny, narrow tunnels and steep internal stairways, giving
sightlines to different regions of the sky.38
The people of Monte Alban, like the people of Tres Zapotes, left
definite evidence of their knowledge of mathematics, in the form of
bar-and-dot computations.39 They had also used the remarkable
calendar,40 introduced by the Olmecs and much associated with the
later Maya,41 which predicted the end of the world on
23 December AD
If the calendar, and the preoccupation with time, had been part of
the legacy of an ancient and forgotten civilization, the Maya must
be ranked as the most faithful and inspired inheritors of that
‘Time’ as the archaeologist Eric Thompson put it in 1950,
‘was the supreme mystery of Maya religion, a subject which pervaded
Maya thought to an extent without parallel in the history of
As I continued my journey through Central America I felt myself
drawn ever more deeply into the labyrinths of that strange and
36 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, pp. 54.
37 Mexico, pp. 669-71.
For further details, see The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and
the Maya, p. 17: ‘These buildings probably confirm knowledge of a
large body of star lore.’
39 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, p. 53.
40 Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, p. 350.
41 The Ancient
Kingdoms of Mexico, pp. 44-5.
J. Eric Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, Carnegie Institution,
Washington DC, 1950, p. 155.
Continue to Chapter 20