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Alfredo López Austin as a young child in northern Mexico

‘What first inspired you to study ancient Mexico/Mesoamerica?’ (1)

A school recently asked us this question, so we directed it at the members of our Panel of Experts... We’re adding ‘entries’ in the order that we received them. We launched it in January 2020 with probably our most eminent living Panel member, Dr. Alfredo López Austin (pictured right, some eight decades ago!). We love his answer (translated from the Spanish)... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The ‘jaguar bowl’, an Aztec sacrificial altar stone sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo from Wikipedia
The ‘jaguar bowl’, an Aztec sacrificial altar stone sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Photo from Wikipedia (Click on image to enlarge)

Alfredo López Austin
‘It was a combination of three things from my early childhood.
1) I wasn’t born in the part of Mexico belonging to Mesoamerica, but rather on the northern border, in the desert, where the Mexican state of Chihuahua (where I was born) joins Texas and New Mexico. An old, old man, don Anastasio Hidalgo, used to tell us stories of his youthful experiences in my city of birth. He had actually met some of the Chiricahua Apaches, amongst them Chief Vitorio. His stories made my imagination really fly...
2) I wasn’t brought up to follow any particular religion. Whilst in primary school I was introduced to the ancient Greeks and Romans through storytelling. I began to feel a strong desire to study ‘polytheist’ religion [multiple deities], a subject I’m still passionate about.
3) As a child we travelled as a family by train to Mexico City, a distance of 2,000 kilometres. In the capital my family would always take me to visit the Museum of Anthropology; the one object that used to fascinate me was the ocelocuauhxicalli or ‘jaguar bowl’ [above left]. The image of it remained with me forever.
’These three experiences - and major aspirations - came together, by good fortune, when as an adult I had the opportunity to study Mesoamerican polytheist religion.
’Today, as an old man of 83, I have no intention of retiring, and I continue to give classes at the National University of Mexico and to research ancient Mesoamerican mythology, alongside that of present-day indigenous communities. I couldn’t be happier in my work.’

The poem mentioned by John Bierhorst, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City; Bierhorst on the steps of a pyramid at Teotihuacan in 1968
The poem mentioned by John Bierhorst, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City; Bierhorst on the steps of a pyramid at Teotihuacan in 1968 (Click on image to enlarge)

John Bierhorst
’The answer is simple: the Cantares Mexicanos, a most fascinating manuscript. It all began in the late 1960s, when I visited Mexico with my wife Jane - and we went to the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. There, high on the walls, were passages of poetry - translated from Nahuatl into Spanish -including this one:-
¿Sólo así he de irme?
¿Como las flores que perecieron?
¿Nada quedará en mi nombre?
¿Nada de mi fama en la tierra?
¡Al menos flores, al menos cantos!
- Cantos de Huexotzinco
(My translation from the Nahuatl: “I’m to pass away like a ruined flower. My fame will be nothing, my renown here on earth will be nothing. There may be flowers, there may be songs.”)
’I asked at the Museum’s gift shop for a copy of this “Cantos de Huexotzinco,” got a shrug - and that was the beginning. Eventually I discovered there are no “Cantos de Huexotzinco” - and the passage, instead, is from Cantares Mexicanos (song 17, stanza 14).
’By the late 1970s I was writing a dictionary of Aztec poetic usage and preparing the first complete edition of the Cantares Mexicanos. From then on I was committed to Mexican studies.’

Alberto Ruz, inside Pakal’s tomb, June 20, 1952
Alberto Ruz, inside Pakal’s tomb, June 20, 1952 (Click on image to enlarge)

Leonardo López Luján
’Working as a kid with archaeologists. My mother was for many years assistant to Alberto Ruz, the great Mayanist who found King Pakal’s tomb in Palenque, Mexico. In the early seventies I went to his lab with my brother in order to wash and mark old Maya sherds. Since then I love my job as researcher of the ancient civilizations.’

Esther Pasztory
’First knew about the Aztecs from photos of the pyramids’

Elizabeth Graham and David Pendergast excavating at Lamanai, Belize. Prof Graham has been Director of the Lamanai Archaeology Project since 1997
Elizabeth Graham and David Pendergast excavating at Lamanai, Belize. Prof Graham has been Director of the Lamanai Archaeology Project since 1997 (Click on image to enlarge)

Elizabeth Graham
’Complete accident. I wound up in Belize and fell in love with the country, and the Maya were part of the country’s past.’

Jennifer Mathews
’My great grandfather started traveling in Mexico in the early 1900s and when my father was a young boy, he would travel with him. When I was old enough, my dad began taking me to Mexico and I fell in love with the people, the language, the food, and beautiful landscape. When I went to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Anthropology, I had an opportunity to live and work in the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico to study the ancient Maya. 25+ years later, I am still studying and working there.’

Matthew Restall in the Yucatan, 1984
Matthew Restall in the Yucatan, 1984 (Click on image to enlarge)

Matthew Restall
’When I first visited the Yucatan peninsula for the first time, when I was a 19-year-old English university student, I was struck by how much it reminded me of southern England (where I was born and educated). When I tell people that, they usually respond that it makes no sense! Surely, they say, you cannot find two places more different in the world? But for me, the obvious differences of climate and language and culture were less important than the similarities of a flat countrysides dotted with small villages built around old churches, featuring little houses with thatched roofs, linked by winding country roads lined with stone walls or hedgerows, and - above all - ancient ruined sites everywhere. I was so fascinated I decided to pursue a career that allowed me to visit any time I wanted.’

Anastasia Kalyuta
’The first book that inspired me was “When the Sun Was God” by the Polish author Zenon Kosidowski. It tells about ancient civilizations including Mesoamerican ones.’

Map showing Tarascan and Aztec states - from Ancientpages.com
Map showing Tarascan and Aztec states - from Ancientpages.com (Click on image to enlarge)

Ross Hassig
’I started out in grad school interested in Northern Plains Indian societies and legal anthropology, but I soon learned there was little to study today on that topic and so I shifted to the pueblos of the American southwest. But again, the data were thin. So I kept shifting south to central Mexico. I was also heavily influenced in graduate school by one of my professors who specialized in regional analysis, which gave me an interest in broad spaces and long time spans. We had to write a paper for that seminar, which I did, but a friend was having trouble with his, so I suggested some ideas that he ultimately didn’t use, but it encouraged me to think about the Tarascan empire in MIchoacan Mexico. My interest was in how they integrated all the towns around the extensive Lake Patzcuaro into a single unit. But when I told one of my doctoral committee members about it, I admitted there was not much information available, but I suggested that if it proved inadequate, I could compare it to the Aztecs who also built on an extensive lake system. He then told me to forget the Tarascans becasue nobody cared, and to do the Aztecs because everybody cared. Then, after I finished my Ph.D., if I was still interested in the Tarascans, I could go back and do them. It was one of the best pieces of advice I got in grad school. I did my dissertation on the political-economy of the Aztecs and have never looked back. The deeper I go into the various aspects of their society, the more interesting I find them. So far, I have written books on their politics, economics, social organization, calendar, warfare, the Spanish conquest, and papers on a variety of topics. The only major area I have yet to study about them is their religion, but I am collecting ideas and plan to do that too.’

Eric Taladoire, as a 4-year-old cowboy
Eric Taladoire, as a 4-year-old cowboy (Click on image to enlarge)

Eric Taladoire
’When I finished my secondary school, I was relatively fluent in English, and thanks to an excellent teacher, quite interested in history. In spite of his personal political preferences, he quite honestly presented the facts, leaving us the possibility to choose our own interpretations. We remained friends, afterwards.
As a kid, I loved western movies that were quite popular in those times. I still do, but I started wondering afterwards why the Indians were always presented as cruel, overwhelming and stupid. Stupid, because whenever they intend to go to war, they dance, howl and uselessly waste their ammunition shooting in the air. Of course, during the battle, they have to resort to bows and arrows. Cruel and treacherous, that is obvious in many movies that do not mention their sense of humour, their gentleness, and their sense of hospitality. Overwhelming because in most movies, hundreds of “savages” violently attack peaceful settlers or small units of cavalry. Even so-called pro-Indian movies, such as Soldier Blue, which criticizes the Sand Creek massacre by the US army, begins with a surprise attack by the Cheyenne on a small cavalry unit. This implies that the Indians started the hostilities; hence, they are the bad ones after all.
’I thus started wondering about the truth, and naturally turned to the history of the conquest of the west to discover that the westerns I loved were a far cry from reality. Without the help of the Indians, the Pilgrim Fathers would probably have starved. When 70 years old, the Apache warrior Nana led a raid in Arizona, with seven warriors, and was hunted (uselessly) by 2,000 US cavalrymen. And so forth.

Jacques Soustelle on the cover of Time Magazine, 1959
Jacques Soustelle on the cover of Time Magazine, 1959 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘It was not easy, then, for a Frenchman to develop historical studies in the USA, but French scholars were already involved in anthropological and archaeological researches in Mexico, where prehispanic civilizations had left numerous remains. I was also lucky, because Jacques Soustelle was a friend of my father, and I had read several of his books. So I switched rapidly from history to archaeology, from the USA to Mexico, and found myself lucky to be recruited as student by the French Archaeological Mission in Mexico. I never regretted it, even if I remain interested in History.
It is difficult to assert that my school studies determined my job, but they certainly influenced my choices.’

Young Michael Heinrich, in the field
Young Michael Heinrich, in the field (Click on image to enlarge)

Michael Heinrich
’As a youngster, I had very little knowledge about America South of the Rio Grande, but during my years at secondary school, many of us became interested in this region. It was the time of the political dicatatorships in Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and other countries, but also a time where many people in South America called for drastic changes. So my first contact with the ‘Spanish speaking world’ in the Americas was in fact refugees whom a group of us tried to help. Studying anthropology in Michigan (Wayne State Univ.) exposed me to researchers working on Mexican ethnopharmacology, medical anthropology and linguistics and this started me on a path of research looking at the role of medicinal plants in Mexico among indigenous cultures, first the Lowland Mixe, and later with students Zapotec, Nahua (modern Aztecs), Yucatec Maya, Mazatecs and (in Guatemala) Chorti. So, in many ways, I was lucky that my early interest was further developed with people like Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Jane Hill, Carole Browner and Barry Bogin.

Traditional herbal medicines on sale in a Mexican market
Traditional herbal medicines on sale in a Mexican market (Click on image to enlarge)

‘However, what is so fascinating about Mexico is that it is a wonderful very diverse and welcoming country, albeit also with many problems. Its biocultural diversity is high and one always learns something new about people, plants (also mushrooms and animals) and how people use them. Research on Mexican medicinal plants has then strengthened my enthusiasm for research and for trying to develop ways to help Mexican (indigenous) people to cope with the many challenges. So it is never about one aspect which drives one to engage with Mexico, but all the diversity.
’The historic Aztecs were one of many American cultures, and today’s challenges in Mexico are multiple, In the area of health the fast rise of chronic diseases like diabetes is just one example, and science is all about bringing together people with different backgrounds in order to help to answer the burning questions of today. And these are not Mexican problems but often just one facet of the global challenges we face in world struggling with climate change and – despite of some progress – huge socio-economic challenges. Lastly, I hope my research has helped to raise awareness about the biocultural diversity of Mexico and has provided a scientific basis for better healthcare. This struggle continues – la lucha continua.’

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque (Click on image to enlarge)

Ximena Chávez
Me gustaba excavar en el jardín de la casa de mis papás y encontrar vestigios de las personas que vivieron ahí, antes que nosotros. Cuando conocí el Templo de las Inscripciones en Palenque, supe que solamente quería estudiar arqueología
’I used to love digging in the garden of my parents’ house and finding the remains of people who had lived there previously. As soon as I saw the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque i knew all I wanted to do was to study archaeology.’

William Fish and Davíd Carrasco; Ben Leeming
William Fish and Davíd Carrasco; Ben Leeming (Click on image to enlarge)

Ben Leeming
’I was inspired to study Mesoamerican cultures more deeply when I took a graduate-level course in “Mesoamerican Civilizations” at Harvard University. It was taught by a very dynamic pair of instructors: historian of religions David Carrasco and archaeologist Bill Fash. Their enthusiasm for the subject lit a fire in me that led me to want to know more. When I had to write my masters’ thesis (essentially a very long research essay), I chose a topic from the history of colonial Mesoamerica which introduced me more thoroughly to the encounter of religions – Spanish and Aztec – during that fascinating early period. Along the way I had discovered that there was a vast number of documents written in the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, which pertained to the encounter of religions. Very few people could read these documents due to the language barrier, so began to teach the language to myself, eventually traveling to Mexico to learn more and after that entering a Ph.D. program. One piece of advice I’ve given to students before is that you should always sign up for the classes taught by the teachers or professors who are widely considered to give the best classes, regardless of whether you’re very interested in the subject or not. I am very pleased I decided to take Carrasco and Fash’s class so many years ago. It’s led me to great things since.’

John Schwaller (right) with brother Henry in Mexico, 1956
John Schwaller (right) with brother Henry in Mexico, 1956 (Click on image to enlarge)

John Schwaller
’As a child, I began traveling in Mexico with my parents at about age 5. I was very impressed with the ruins. In those days there were very few tourists of any type at the archeological zones. My big brother and I usually could run around unfettered, as long as we were careful not to fall off the temples. I remember being about 8 and visiting Monte Alban in Oaxaca. There was a tunnel between one side and the temples in the middle. My brother and I found it. We would yell at our parents from the side temple, duck in the tunnel and race to the middle temple, pop up and yell again, mystifying them as to how we could do that. Things like that are closed now. They were very hazardous, but boy we had fun! Traveling yearly in Mexico, I learned Spanish and Mexican place names. So when I arrived in University, studying Mexican History and the Aztecs in particular just made a lot of sense. I already knew considerably more than nearly everyone but the professor.’

Alan Sandstrom
’I fell in love with Mexico after spending a summer in Northern Veracruz as a participant in an experimental field school while a graduate student in anthropology. My original intent was to conduct research in the Amazon but after getting to know the Nahua people that first summer there was no turning back for me.’

Chloë Sayer researching Mazahua textiles in the State of Mexico in the 1980s (Photo Mariana Yampolsky)
Chloë Sayer researching Mazahua textiles in the State of Mexico in the 1980s (Photo Mariana Yampolsky) (Click on image to enlarge)

Chloe Sayer
’Everyone on the panel could give a different answer to this intriguing and thought-provoking question. My interest in Mexico has dominated my life, but the connection was made almost accidentally. Born in England, I chose to study languages at University and was keen to travel. Friends suggested that I could teach English in Mexico, so I took their advice.
’When I arrived in Mexico City in late October, Mexicans were preparing for ‘The Days of the Dead’. Street markets were full of flowers, sugar skulls and skeleton toys. I had never heard of this important festival, when Mexicans honour and commemorate their dead. I realised then how little I knew of Mexico and its people. As the months passed and became years, I was able to travel to villages in remote regions of Mexico and Guatemala. I met weavers and embroiderers, pot-makers and mask-carvers... I was made welcome during religious festivals, and often stayed in people’s homes. Scholarly books and museums were enormously influential: they offered the background knowledge that I lacked, and provided an intellectual key to Mexican culture. But human contact was more important still.

Helmet of partially shaved/painted deerskin incorporating a wooden mask inset with wire-mesh. Made c.1900 for Holy Week in the Mayo community of El Fuerte, Sinaloa, it represents a Pharisee. Height 30.5 cm. Ruth D. Lechuga Collection/©David Lavender
Helmet of partially shaved/painted deerskin incorporating a wooden mask inset with wire-mesh. Made c.1900 for Holy Week in the Mayo community of El Fuerte, Sinaloa, it represents a Pharisee. Height 30.5 cm. Ruth D. Lechuga Collection/©David Lavender (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Sometimes, if one is lucky, one meets a cultural guide at the right moment. For me, this was Ruth Deutsch Lechuga (1920-2004). Born in Vienna, she and her family were among the many thousands of Jews who fled Austria after its annexation by Nazi Germany. After her arrival in Mexico at the age of 19, she worked in the field of medicine - but her interest in Mexican folk art soon made her a prodigious collector, a dedicated photographer, and a keen educator. Travelling on foot and horseback to remote regions, she gained a profound respect for indigenous traditions and for the dignity and intrinsic beauty of hand-crafted objects. Her home became a museum filled with fine textiles, ceramic figures, dance-masks and carvings. It was a privilege to visit her and to learn about some of the 10,000 objects in her collection. She cared about the technical processes involved, but she also cared about the cultural significance of these objects in their communities of origin.

Small girl by a decorative archway during a religious festival in Zoatecpan in the Puebla highlands. The indigenous language of Náhuatl is widely spoken throughout this region. (© Chloë Sayer, 1994)
Small girl by a decorative archway during a religious festival in Zoatecpan in the Puebla highlands. The indigenous language of Náhuatl is widely spoken throughout this region. (© Chloë Sayer, 1994) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Today, five hundred years after the Spanish Conquest, roughly eighty per cent of all Mexicans live in modern Spanish-speaking towns and cities. In rural Mexico, however, textile and other craft skills reflect the identity of indigenous cultures. Official statistics put Mexico’s total indigenous population at approximately fifteen million. Of this number, over half speak an indigenous language. Although the majority are also fluent in Spanish, a substantial number (perhaps a tenth) are monolingual. According to the Mexican Government, sixty-eight indigenous languages survive. Some are spoken by a dwindling number of people. The Aztec language of Náhuatl, by contrast, is regularly used by 1,545,000 speakers over the age of five.
’This brings us, finally, to the question under consideration: “What first inspired me to study ancient Mexico?” My interest in the past was excited by my interest in Mexico’s indigenous present. My admiration for the achievements of contemporary cultures led me back in time. Craft skills and cultural attitudes, like language, have a long history. It is fascinating to analyse, and challenging to unpick, the cultural fusion that followed the Spanish Conquest. Techniques used by traditionally-minded weavers or potters can help us to visualise the working methods of their predecessors. Certain forms of garment or ways of patterning cloth are extremely ancient; some contemporary pottery vessels are close in style to Aztec or Maya examples. Other types of object, by contrast, show a more marked European influence.

Food and flowers are offered to the souls of the departed during the Days of the Dead. Home-altars decorated in this style are common throughout the central valleys of Oaxaca state. (© Chloë Sayer, 2001)
Food and flowers are offered to the souls of the departed during the Days of the Dead. Home-altars decorated in this style are common throughout the central valleys of Oaxaca state. (© Chloë Sayer, 2001) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Religious beliefs and practices have also merged over time. Spanish clerics, anxious to promote Christianity and to spread the teachings of the Roman Catholic 
Church, tried hard after the Conquest to crush all native forms of worship. Today Christianity is the prevailing religion in modern Mexico. Whether they live in large towns or small villages, most Mexicans celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas or Holy Week. But Christianity has not erased all traces of pre-Conquest religion. In many indigenous communities, ancient beliefs and customs co-exist with those of Christianity. This blending of religions is known as “syncretism”.
’As I mentioned at the start of this essay, my arrival in Mexico coincided with ‘The Days of the Dead’. Decades later, I remain fascinated by this complex and visually splendid festival. All Saints’ and All Souls’, celebrated on 1 and 2 November, were introduced after the Conquest by Spanish friars. During this short period, according to popular belief, the dead have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth. The living welcome the souls of the departed with an abundance of flowers, fruit and other offerings. Craftworkers make colourful banners of cut paper, skeleton toys, and ceramic incense burners.

Miniature tableau of painted pottery and wood: a skeleton gazes at herself in the mirror, Height 8.5 cm., 1980s. Chloë Sayer Collection (© David Lavender)
Miniature tableau of painted pottery and wood: a skeleton gazes at herself in the mirror, Height 8.5 cm., 1980s. Chloë Sayer Collection (© David Lavender) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Although the festival varies from region to region, it is always regarded as a time of reunion, remembrance and renewal. When festivities end on 2 November, families gather in cemeteries to say a fond farewell to loved ones. Because the cultural fusion has been so complete, it is difficult to determine which aspects of the festival were introduced from Christian Europe and which aspects had existed previously. Images of Christian saints have replaced the old gods, but celebrations convey a sense of timelessness. All human societies find a way to remember their dead, but no other country does this quite like Mexico.’

Papercut made for the Days of the Dead by Maurilio Rojas of San Salvador Huixcolotla. Height 51.5 cm, 1980s. Chloë Sayer Collection (© David Lavender)
Papercut made for the Days of the Dead by Maurilio Rojas of San Salvador Huixcolotla. Height 51.5 cm, 1980s. Chloë Sayer Collection (© David Lavender) (Click on image to enlarge)

Further Reading:-
• Carmichael, Elizabeth and Chloë Sayer
The Skeleton at the Feast: The Mexican Day of the Dead (British Museum Press UK / University of Texas Press, 1991)
• Lechuga, Ruth D. and Chloë Sayer
Mask Arts of Mexico (Thames & Hudson, 1994)
• Sayer, Chloë
Arts and Crafts of Mexico (Thames and Hudson, 1990)
The Mexican Day of the Dead (Redstone Press, 1990)
Fiesta: Days of the Dead and other Mexican Festivals (British Museum Press, 2009).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 14th 2020

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Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Professor! (Prof Hosler is another member of our Panel of Experts)