First explorers of the Maya World

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, First explorers of the Maya World   John Lloyd Stephens along with the artist Frederick Catherwood braved the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras to become the first English-speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only by the Mayans. On a trip to London, Stephens met Catherwood, an Englishman who was already well known for his drawings of archeological digs in Egypt and Jerusalem. Catherwood’s talent lay in his ability to portrait ancient monuments with great accuracy. In 1839 President Martin Van Buren appointed Stephens as special ambassador to Central America for the purpose of negotiation treaties with several countries. Stephens immediately connected Catherwood reccuesting he accompany him on the project. They set out for Central America. This journey spawned Stephen’s first work on the Mayans “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan”. In the preface Stephens states it is the most extensive journey made by a foreigner to the Yucatan Peninsula, containing accounts of 44 ruined cities where antiquarian remains were found.   According to Stephens, the existence of most of these ruins was unknown to the residents of Merida, as few had been visited by outsiders. Desolate and overgrown with trees, the only evidence of these structures appeared as grass-covered mounds. To the untrained eye, it would take a wild stretch of imagination to visualize the former grandeur of these sites. When Stephens, Catherwood and their physician Dr. Cabot, first started out from Merida, they had no “servants in attendance”, a travesty for explorers at that time. They had no map of Yucatan as none existed. The closest thing they could find that would set them in the right direction was a map in manuscript from only, given to them by Dona Joaquina Peon, with the disclaimer that it was inaccurate. So for Stephens and Catherwood, their expedition truly was a journey into the unknown, and it would include logging the number of hours from village to village and the pace of their horses to better assist the next explorers who would eventually follow in their footsteps.   One wonders how Stephens prepared for this journey. What sources and materials were required? In his books, Stephens jumped right into the explorations themselves with little fanfare given to his preparations, but no doubt they were lengthy and costly. Catherwood was determined to make use of his Daguerreotype camera as no one in their group knew how to use it, the man set up in a quick portrait taking business in their Merida hotel before heading into the field. This familiarized them with the camera, and after developing confidence in its use, they changed hats; became explorers again, and headed into the Yucatan jungle. The once great city of Mayapan, 47 miles southeast of Merida, was the first ruin sighting. “For ages, these ruins went unnoticed” commented Stephens. Now linked to the Post Classic Period, Mayapan was founded in 1007 by the great ruler Kukulcan. After the fall of Chichen Itza around 1200, Mayapan became the dominant force in the Mayan world, their center of civilization before Spanish arrival.

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