To boldly go. Everyone knows those words. For many of us they introduced the future, and a promising one at that. And yet those three words are not trapped in a little amber bubble that represents some fictional time in the future. I would say those words are highly applicable not so much to the adventurers of novels or movies…whose treks pale in comparison to reality…but to historic travelers and seekers of all kinds who have voyaged outward to find new, fascinating horizons.
That was certainly the case with the mid-19th Century explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The partners were in the vanguard of exploration of Central America’s Mayan ruins. In the 1840s the lost cities of that region were little more than rumor inextricably tied to the well-worn narratives of Spanish conquistadors. In 1839 the two men came to Central America as seasoned travelers. They had spent many years independently exploring the ancient monuments of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Keen observers, they brought this experience as well as fresh viewpoints to an area that had been given only limited scientific investigation. And what they discovered…not without cost…laid the groundwork for understanding not just the original peoples of the New World, but the very human capacity to create greatness even in the most challenging of environments.
The book Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen tells the story of the American writer Stephens and the British architect and artist Catherwood. It is a marvelous biography of two adventurers who through dedication and hardship explored a lost world. Applying solid scientific observation they challenged the notion prevalent at the time that the peoples of the New World were incapable of independently creating a unique civilization. The old cities of Mexico and Central America were known to exist, however the view among academics was that these marvelous civilizations had been created by lost migrants from the Old World. Indeed, the thinking at the time was that after the original migrants had died off the native peoples simply copied or mimicked what had been brought to their shores. Some of these “lost migrants” included Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even a Lost Tribe of Israel.
Stephens and Catherwood came to their groundbreaking conclusion only after long and careful study of the ruins they uncovered with the aid of native guides. Although not the first to suggest this view, the theory that New World natives had independently created a civilization out of the jungles of Central America was somewhat controversial. The fact that the two explorers applied observation, careful measurement, and comparative data of the ruins they came across with those of the Old World is in the best scientific tradition. Indeed, Catherwood made carefully detailed drawings of the sites with an architect’s eye. His drawings of elaborate Mayan stelae and hieroglyphics were the first of their kind.
The two explorers also worked closely with, and were at times very dependent upon, native peoples. This included muleteers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, guides as well as revolutionary leader Rafael Carrera and the dashing yet tragic General Francisco Morazán. This unique combination of scientific rigor and cultural interaction led Stephens and Catherwood to the inescapable conclusion that the proud remnants of the lost Mayan civilization were a product of Central America and its people.
Jungle of Stone is not just a book about history and the beginnings of archeology it is also a book full of adventure. As a writer Stephens often needed “incidents” to write about. Central America was quick to offer these. The land is as much a character in the book as are the many people the two explorers encounter. The place is mysterious, time-wise, mercurial, dramatic, and beautiful. On the first day of their arrival they are treated to a powerful earthquake. This is a harbinger perhaps of the varied challenges that await them in the natural world: steep mountain treks, volcanoes, torrential rain, swollen rivers, thick jungles where one might get lost forever, insects, dangerous animals, and surprisingly: dry spells. There is also political upheaval, banditry, and disease. Yet Central America also offers a willing hand and the two are often aided by people who act out of kindness, pride, and in many cases an interest in the history of their land and their place in it. However, as they are so often warned, the land will not give up its secrets easily. And yet, throughout it all, Catherwood and Stephens are undaunted.
William Carlsen shows a deft hand and the book is at times as much about those who the two explorers encounter as about the explorers themselves. I learned a great deal about Carrera and Morazán, for instance, and a book about these two adversaries certainly awaits. The Caddy and Walker mission is also interesting in that it is a segment about hard travels and an expedition sent forth to “beat” Stephens at his own game. It is an essay in human endurance but also a peek at how so many attempts to literally wrest discovery have gone awry.
The book is also about the Maya themselves, the civilization they created, and how it flourished. Their tale is also one of caution in that the forces to which it eventually succumbed are similar to the forces that have harried all civilizations throughout history. Those forces…overpopulation, war, disease, cultural hubris, environmental degradation…are multi-layered and complex. Places such as Copán, Quirigua, Iximche, Tonina, Pelenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum stand in mute testimony to the strength, vision, beauty, dedication and tradition of one civilization’s powerful saga.
Stephens wrote up his adventures in a book titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. Like so many of his previous works it was a major bestseller. Richly illustrated by Catherwood it inspired others to study Mesoamerica. In the late 1840s a Central American official, Colonel Modesto Méndez ventured deep into the forest and discovered the giant temples of Tikal. Méndez made the first official recordings in his report on Tikal. Later explorers followed decades later and these expeditions utilized photography to capture the wonders of the lost cities.
Stephens and Catherwood made two expeditions to the lands of the Maya. Afterward the necessities of life made them follow more practical paths. Stephens became an advisor and later president of a consortium that built the first railway across the isthmus of Panama. Catherwood continued as an illustrator but with a family to support in London he often reinvented himself as a railway engineer or later, during the California gold rush, as a miner. The two men remained friends and Carlsen’s detective work leads to a poignant epilogue that is as fascinating as the rest of the book.
Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen is an excellent work and one I would highly recommend. It can be found in hard cover from William Morrow/Harper-Collins Publishers. It is 461 pages and includes many fine illustrations by Frederick Catherwood.
(Note on photo: a view of the southern facade of Temple 11 from the East Court of Copan..this is one of the first sites Catherwood and Stephens visited during their 1839 expedition to Guatemala). source: Wikipedia Commons