Stephens And Catherwood: Adventurers Discovering the Ancient Maya

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Main temple at Tulum with hieroglyphic stairway by Frederick Catherwood, from Views of Ancient Monuments (Public Domain)

Stephens And Catherwood: Adventurers Discovering the Ancient Maya

The astounding journeys of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood to Central America in 1839 to 1842 introduced the ancient, unrecognized Maya civilization to the rest of the world. Their life-threatening adventures saw them fighting their way through hundreds of miles of thick jungle vegetation, suffering from the sweltering heat, suffocating humidity, and soul-soaking rains. They were obstructed by the civil war of General Santa Anna and blocked by threatening politicians exercising their illusionary power. Despite the enormous struggles, they managed to locate and explore numerous ruined cities that flourished during the Classic Period of Maya history, from the third to the 10th centuries.  They were caught in the midst of a violent revolution, their endurance tested by bats, snakes, biting insects, malaria, flesh-eating parasites, and days without food or water. The adventurers were the first English speakers to visit these areas of Central America and the first to record many of the ancient monuments. Along their hazardous journey they met and documented many descendants of the ancient Maya, some who still spoke the same ancient language. Many natives were anxious to assist the explorers in their discoveries, despite their primitive living conditions.

Panoramic View of Uxmal ( Adrian Hernandez / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Panoramic View of Uxmal ( Adrian Hernandez / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A detailed description of their treacherous journey, along with their amazing discoveries, appeared in their joint two-volume book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, published in 1841. Their travel book became an instant best seller with 12 editions printed in only three months which was unheard of at that time. Stephen’s first-person account and lively text revealed the scoop and complexity of the Maya cities; Catherwood’s colorful artworks illustrated the variety of buildings, the precise details of their carvings and the intricacy of hieroglyphic writings. These ruins were indeed created by a totally unknown culture. Stephens and Catherwood uncovered not merely new architectural wonders and buried cities but an entire unknown civilization, buried in the tropical jungles for over 1,000 years.

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