History? by William T. Sanders (1926-2008)



[00:00:00] One of the purposes of [Mesoamerican] history was to legitimize the rights of ruling families to rule, and to show that they had great time-depth to their position. And very often to track that time-depth back to sort of mythical beginnings of the dynastic list. And so, a lot of it [history] was commissioned by ruling families to document the deeds of their ancestors and themselves, and essentially to legitimize their right to be rulers. Clearly it has a very strong political motivation.

Well, I think in the history of any one of these royal lines there probably were crises and the royal authority declined or was even lost for awhile and then reestablished. This seems to have happened at Tikal. For a period of, I think it’s something like sixty or seventy years, there was no ruler of Tikal, and then all of a sudden a royal succession starts again, and the first of the new rulers claimed some kind of genealogical descent from one of the earlier rulers that was there before the gap in the sequence occurred. So he is trying to reclaim that lineage relationship again, which may in fact have been completely falsified and faked. We have no way of verifying whether that claim was valid or not.

An Aztec Example

[01:08:00] There’s this famous account in Aztec history which indicates very clearly that texts were manipulated and created and official accounts were made and older accounts were intentionally gotten rid of. For example, the Aztecs paid tribute to a town called Azcatpotzalco, in the Valley of Mexico, until 1428 and then they revolt and Itzcoatl becomes ruler finally of an independent polity.

About ten years after Itzcoatl becomes ruler, his uncle comes to him and says, “Look, I think it is time to re-write history. All the old texts are just full of lies, let’s get rid of them.” So they destroy all the old accounts and then they write real history, meaning, as I would say, “official” history. If you look at that, what you have is a story of a chosen people who start out in northern Mexico. They spend years wandering to the south [to central Mexico] led by a man who is both god and priest and human named Huitzilopochtli, who leads them into the Valley of Mexico.

Now, are we going to accept that as history, or is that myth? It’s part of the historical account that goes into the later events which are verifiable, and there are several different versions of these that check. And you know you are dealing to a great extent with history in the later accounts, but it’s combined with this mythological stuff.

This idea of coming from outside with a mission linked with religion is a pretty common pattern in central Mexican historical accounts, and I think it is all fake. I think the local dynasties that were there at the time of the Spanish Conquest all came from earlier populations living in the same area. I don’t think there were ever any major migrations.

So a lot of this manipulation goes on, and I don’t think Maya scholars pay enough attention to this. I’m sure the Maya did the same thing. Like the Altar Q on top of the Acropolis has the entire dynastic sequence of the kings of Cop├ín indicated, sixteen rulers in succession, and it even shows the first ruler handing over the baton of office to the sixteenth ruler. So clearly the purpose of that is to say, “Hey, I am the king here, I am sixteenth king in a dynastic succession that went back through fifteen previous generations, and I claim my right to rule because of this descent.” And so the monument is clearly meant to legitimize his right to be ruler. There is always a certain suspicion about the early rulers and their actual status, particularly when you don’t have contemporary stelae erected by them, which would be sort of an archaeological confirmation that they actually existed.

Is Epigraphy Reliable?

[03:38:00] Epigraphers think they can read Maya writing pretty well by now, and each year they learn the meaning of more of the glyphs, but I still think they have some problems. For example, in the Maya texts there are many accounts of rulers capturing neighboring rulers and bringing them to their home town and sacrificing them. But what did this mean in terms of the later political relationship between these two towns?

Now in Maya there are certain glyphs that have been interpreted as being the names of places. For example, Tikal is a place glyph, they think. Now sometimes you see that same glyph in another site like Uaxactun, and they have interpreted that to mean that these outlying sites were subject to Tikal. Well, first of all, I’m not sure that these are place names. I think they may be lineage names rather than place names. And I think a lot of these references to Tikal probably refer to the royal lineage of Tikal, and they are saying, “We are descended from that royal lineage, our kings come from that royal lineage.” And Tikal is a place where kingship began. There could easily be a confusion between conquest and simply claims of lineage relationships. And it all depends on what that glyph means.

How to Know?

[04:44:00] The only way I can see to check these accounts of conquest, if really conquest did happen, would be to look at the building programs going on in each of these places. For example, if you have an account at Tikal that certain other Mayan towns were conquered, you should look at the history of construction going on in that supposedly conquered town in the next generation. If it’s the same level as it was before, then it’s very dubious that any significant conquest occurred. If there is a reduction of construction going on of royal palaces and funerary temples, then you might argue that maybe they were conquered, and maybe they couldn’t build at the same scale because their labor was being taken over by the conquering state.

So one way of checking it archaeologically would be to look at what is going on in terms of actual reconstruction of royal monuments, buildings, in supposedly conquered states. I don’t know any other way to check this because we know the kings brag and we know that these accounts are overstated. They were meant to glorify the royal lineage and to maintain its power and position at home, so we always should be suspicious of these accounts.

For the Classic period, all you’ve got is what kings say about themselves (as far as the writing is concerned) and put on public monuments. So, clearly they have a propaganda value and you have to find something archaeologically that can be independent of these claims. The only one that I can think of is this sort of “energetic” study of the construction going on.