1902 Encyclopedia > Yucatan


YUCATAN, a peninsular region of Central America, Bound-forming the south-eastern extremity of Mexico (see vol. ar>es, xvi. pi. I.), of which, since 1861, it constitutes the two area'&* confederate states of Campeche (Campeachy) in the west and Yucatan in the east. At its neck the peninsula is conterminous on the south-east with British Honduras, on the south-west with the state of Tabasco (Mexico), and on the south with the republic of Guatemala, the boundaries towards these territories being largely of a purely conven-tional character. From this base the land projects in a compact rectangular mass between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, west and east, for 280 miles northwards, across nearly four degrees of latitude (18° to 21° 40' N.) and three of longitude (87° 30' to 90° 30' W.), to within 120 miles of Cuba, from which it is separated by the Yucatan Channel. It has a mean breadth of about 200 miles, a coast-line of 700 miles, and a total area of 55,400 square miles, with a population in 1882 of 393,000 (Yucatan, 29,570 square miles, population 302,500; Campeche, 25,830 square miles, population 90,500).
26,100 to Campeche.
The coast-line presents a uniform monotonous aspect, Physical being fringed by no islands except Cozumel near the north- features, east point, and broken by no indentations except the shallow Lake Terminos on the west and the inlets of Ascension, Espiritu Santo, and Chetumal Bays on the east side. But the north coast is skirted by an almost continu-ous line of low dunes, nearly 200 miles long, enclosing a broad lagoon, which varies in length and depth with the

seasons. Behind the lagoon a bed of coralline and porous limestone rocks, composing nearly the whole tableland of Yucatan, rises continuously southwards in the direction of the Sierra Madre, which, beyond the frontier, traverses the whole of Guatemala and Central America. Geologic-ally, Yucatan thus presents the character of a compara-tively recent formation, built up by polypi in shallow waters, and gradually covered with a layer of thin dry soil by the slow weathering of the coral rocks. But the sur-face is not so uniformly level and monotonous as it appears on most maps; for, although there are scarcely any running streams, it is diversified here and there by a few lacustrine basins, of which Lakes Bacalar and Chicankanah are the largest, as well as by some low isolated hills and ridges in the west, and on the east side by the Sierra Alta, a range of moderate elevation, traversing the whole peninsula from Catoche Point southwards to the neighbourhood of Lake Peten in Guatemala.
Climate. There are thus no elevations sufficiently high to intercept the moisture-bearing clouds from the Atlantic, while those from the Pacific are cut off by the Sierra Madre. Hence the climate is necessarily dry, with a deficient and uncertain rainfall, especially in the central and northern districts. Here also the tropical heats are intensified by the neighbourhood of the Gulf Stream, which in its passage through the Yucatan Channel flows much nearer to the coast of the peninsula than to that of Cuba. Still, the climate, although "hot of the hottest " (Ober), with a temperature ranging from 75° to 98° Fahr. in the shade, is comparatively healthy, owing to its great dryness and to the cool breezes which prevail night and day throughout a great part of the year. The atmosphere is also occasionally purified by the fierce temporales or "northers," which sweep across the Gulf freely over this open low-lying region. Yellow fever, however, periodically visits the Campeche coast, while ague is endemic in the undrained swampy districts towards the southern frontiers. Like most regions lying entirely within the tropics, Yucatan has two seasons only, which are determined by the alter-nations not so much of temperature as of atmospheric moisture. The dry season lasts from October to May, the wet season for the rest of the year ; the hottest months appear to be March and April, when the heat is increased by the burning of the corn and henequen fields on the plateau. Vege- All the northern districts, as well as the greater part of the Sierra table Alta, are destitute of large trees ; but the coast-lands on both sides produc- towards Tabasco and British Honduras enjoy a sufficient rainfall iions. to support large forest growths, including the mahogany tree, several valuable cabinet woods, vanilla, logwood, and other dye-woods. Logwood forests fringe all the lagoons and many parts of the seaboard which are flooded during the rainy season. The chief cultivated plants are maize, the sugar-cane, tobacco, cotton, coffee, and especially henequen, the so-called Yucatan hemp or Sisal hemp, which, however, is not a hemp at all, but a true fibre. It is yielded by Agave sisalensis, which grows everywhere, and is used chiefly for the manufacture of coarse sackcloth, cordage, and hammocks. In 1880 as much as 40,000,000 lb of this article, valued at £350,000, was shipped at Progreso. The yearly maize crop is estimated to be worth over £1,000,000, and the whole of the agricultural produce about £2,000,000. But a comparatively small area is under tillage, owing largely to the prevailing system of vast haciendas (estates), which the owners have neither the necessary capital nor the energy to administer. Hence symptoms of decay are everywhere visible ; the whole country is "mainly a wilderness" (Ober); and there is probably much less land under cultivation than at the time of the Spanish conquest.
Towns. Of the state of Yucatan the capital is Merida (40,000 inhabitants in 1882), which is connected with its port of Progreso, on the north-west coast, by a railway 25 miles long, the only line in the country. The state of, Campeche has for its capital the town and seaport of the same name (16,000), on the west coast. Other towns in the peninsula are Tikul, Ixmal, and Valladolid in Yucatan, and the port of El Carmen on an island in Lake Terminos in Campeche. According to the official returns, there are at present (1888) in Yucatan altogether 7 " cities," 13 towns, and 143 villages, besides 15 abandoned settlements and 333 haciendas. But scarcely any of these places have as many as 10,000 inhabitants, while the popu-lation of the great majority falls below 1000. Condi- The contrast is most striking between the picture conveyed by tion at these returns, which also include 62 "ruined cities," and the state Spanish of the country at the time of the Spanish conquest, as revealed by con- the innumerable remains of towns, cities, temples, palaces, and quest. other public buildings dotted over the plateau, being especially numerous round the now desolate northern and north-eastern shores of the peninsula. The whole of the northern section of Yucatan,
which is now destitute alike of running waters, of dense vegetation, and almost of inhabitants, was at that time thickly peopled and full of populous cities remarkable for the great size, splendour, and artistic taste of their public monuments. For Maya, as the land was then called, was the chief centre of the wide-spread Maya-Quiche power and culture, which rivalled, and in some respects excelled, those of the Peruvian Incas and of the Aztecs on the Anahuac plateau. Although the Maya nation had at that time already entered on a period of decadence, it was still strong and vigorous enough to resist the conquistadores for a period of fully twenty years (1527-47), the reduction of this barren region costing " the lives of more Spaniards than had been expended in wresting from the Incas and the Montezumas the wealthiest empires of the western world " (Bancroft).
Wonder has been expressed that such a bleak, arid, and almost Mayan streamless land could have ever become the seat of empire and the irriga-home of a flourishing civilization. But the absence of rivers on the tion plateau appears to be due not so much to the deficient rainfall as works to the extremely porous nature of the calcareous soil, which absorbs the waters like a sponge and prevents the development of surface streams. Beneath the surface, however, the waters accumulate in such abundance that a sufficient supply may always be had by sink-ing wells in almost any part of the tableland. What the present inhabitants neglect to do was systematically practised by the former populations, whose aguadas or artificial lakes and under-ground reservoirs must be reckoned amongst the most remarkable monuments of Maya culture. " Intelligence, much skill in masonry, and much labour were required to construct them. They were paved with several courses of stone laid in cement, and in their bottoms wells or cavities were constructed. More than forty such wells were found in the bottom of one of these aguadas at Galal, which has been repaired and restored to use. In some places long subterranean passages lead down to pools of water, which are used in the dry season. One of these subterranean reservoirs is 450 feet below the surface of the ground, and the passage leading to it is about 1400 feet long" (Baldwin, p. 145). Thus the Mayan, like the Peruvian, the Egyptian, and the Babylonian culture, was based on a well-planned and carefully executed system of waterworks, specially adapted to the peculiar physical conditions of the country.
The monumental remains which must be assigned to the Maya- Buined Quiche, as distinguished from other native civilizations, are spread cities, over a great part of Central America, but are mainly comprised within the triangular space formed by connecting Mitla in Oajaca, Copan in Honduras, and the north coast of Yucatan above Tizimin by three straight lines. But of the "sixty-two ruined cities" of Yucatan proper the most important, or at least the best known and most fully described, are Izamal, Mayapan, Ake, Acanceh, Uxmal, Tikul, and Kabah, all centred in the north-west corner of the pen-insula round about Merida, which itself stands on the ruins of Tihu; Chiehen-Itza, about midway between Tikul and the east coast; and Labna, Nohbecan, and Potonchan in the Campeche district. Most of these places were described and illustrated by Stephens and Catherwood over forty years ago, and have recently been re-visited and re-described by M. Desire Charnay. The structures especially of Uxmal, Ake, Kabah, and Chichen-Itza rival in magnitude and splendour those of Palenque in Chiapas, of Coban and Lorillard (the " Phantom City ") in Guatemala, and of Copan in Honduras. There is nothing comparable to them on the Mexican tableland, and in the New World they are surpassed in architectural skill and artistic taste only by the beautiful edifices at Mitla in Oajaca and some of the monuments of Peruvian culture.
Mayapan ("El Pendon de los Mayas," or "Banner City of the Maya-Maya Nation ") was already in ruins at the time of the conquest, hav- pan. ing been overthrown during a general revolt of the feudatory states about a century before that period. Yet its ruins, overgrown with vegetation, still cover a considerable space, and include a huge artificial mound which from a distance looks like a wooded hill. But Uxmal stands altogether unrivalled for the magnitude of its Uxmal. buildings, the richness of its sculptured facades, and the almost classic beauty of its statuary. Conspicuous amongst its edifices are the so-called " nunnery" and the famous Casa del Gobernador or governor's palace, the latter with a wonderful frieze, 325 feet long, "having a row of colossal heads divided in panels, filled alternately with greeques in high relief" (Charnay). The nunnery, which con-tained eighty-eight compartments of all sizes, forms a vast quad-

rangle, with one front 280 feet long and enclosing a court 258 by 214 feet. Here Dr Le Plongeon discovered in 1881 a surprisingly beautiful statue, surpassing anything of the kind ever found in Central America. But this object he again carefully hid away to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Mexican authorities, who had seized another remarkable statue previously brought to light by this industrious explorer (Ober).
Ake. Conspicuous amongst the crumbling monuments of Ake, which
lies ten leagues east of Merida, is a huge pyramid, with an immense flight of steps, presenting some extraordinary features different from anything elsewhere discovered in Yucatan. This strange monument is surmounted by thirty-six pillars (twenty-nine still standing), each 4 feet square and from 14 to 16 feet high, disposed in three parallel rows 10 feet apart, the whole supported by a platform 212 feet by 46 and approached by steps from 4J to 6 J feet long and from 1 to 1J
Izamal. feet high. At Izamal, a few miles east of Ake, stands another great pyramid, with a base of nearly 650 feet, besides three others, and a colossal head 13 feet high, not, however, a monolith, but built up * of rough stones coated with mortar. But the gigantic face described and reproduced by Stepihens had disappeared at the time of Char-nay's visit to Izamal.
Chichen- To this explorer we are indebted for the first detailed account of
Itza. the wonderful remains of Chichen - Itza, which include another nunnery, a tennis-court, several temples, and other buildings pro-fusely embellished with rich friezes, statues, pillars, reliefs, and the like, the whole grouped round a central pyramid of great size, known as the Castillo, from the beautiful structure still standing on its summit. Chichen-Itza, which was certainly inhabited at the time of the conquest, was the eaprital of the Itzaes, one of the most powerful Maya nations, who ay>pear to have afterwards migrated southwards to the neighbourhood of Lake Peten, where tribes of this name are still found. They constituted one of the eighteen semi-independent Maya states, whose incessant internecine wars at last brought about the dismemberment of the once potent theo-cratic empire of Xibalba (Palenque ?) and the destruction of the Maya civilization.
Kabah. Scarcely less important than those of Chichen-Itza are the monu-ments of Kabah, which lies about 12 miles south of Uxmal. The two places were formerly connected by a pilastered causeway, traces of which are still visible, and Kabah must have been a very large city, for its ruins are scattered over a considerable area. Amongst them are comprised lofty pyramids, vast terraces, and sumptuous palaces or temples, with elaborate ornamentation, sometimes almost completely disguising the architectural features of the edifices.1 Charnay mentions " triumphal arches," but adds that he sought in vain for the unique specimen of this kind of monument in America which is mentioned and figured by Stephens, and which bears such a striking resemblance to the triumphal arches of the Roman type. Many other remains have either disappeared or crumbled away almost beyond recognition since they were first sketched by Cather-wood.2 But, on the other hand, numerous buried cities and monu-ments probably still remain concealed amid the rank tropical vege-tation, especially in the almost unknown territory of the unreduced Lacandons and Itzaes towards the Guatemala frontier. But enough has already been surveyed fully to justify Maudslay's general re-mark, that Yucatan is thickly covered with the ruins of great build-ings "even superior in some respects to those found in other parts of Central America." Inscrip- Like those of Palenque, Lorillard Town, Tikul, and Copan, many tioas. of these buildings are covered with inscriptions, the key to the deciphering of which has not yet been discovered. Notwithstand-ing certain divergences, seen especially at Lorillard, all belong ob-viously to the same writing system. But whether that system is purely ideographic, phonetic, or intermediate cannot be asserted with any certainty, although Holden, who has attacked the problem from a fresh standpoint, declares emphatically that they are not phonetic, "except in so far as their rebus character may make them in a sense phonetic." He claims by his system to have fixed the order in which the inscriptions are to be read (in lines left to right, in columns vertically downwards), and fancies he has determined the meaning of three characters representing Maya divinities. But Holden is ignorant of the Maya-Quiche language, of which a few manuscripts have been rescued from the fury of the early Spanish iconoclasts. One of these documents, the Popol-Vuh, written or copied about 1558 from an older Quiche book, has been edited and even translated by Brasseur de Bourbourg. This uncritical writer
1 On one of the,palaces "two salient cornices form a frame to immense friezes which in tlieir details would compare favourably with our proudest monuments" (Charnay). On others are sculptured some remarkable bas-reliefs, which represent Maya warriors receiving the swords of kneeling Aztec captives, the nationalities of the ligures being clearly identified by their respect-ive costumes. The significance of records of this sort has either been altogether overlooked r.r else strangely misinterpreted by most writers on Central-Ameri-
an antiquities.
2 In 1841 Stephens was assured by the cura of Santa Cruz del Quiche that the palaces of that place, then in a dilapidated state, were quite perfect thirty years before, and that the now deserted city of Utatlan in the province of Vera Paz was then almost as perfect as when its inhabitants had abandoned it. lie had himself walked in its silent streets amid its colossal buildings, which were as entire as those of Santa Cruz.
makes use of a so-called Maya-Quiché alphabet preserved by Diego de Landa, first bishop of Yucatan, in his Relación or history of the Mayas. But the alphabet in question is admittedly extremely defective and inadequate to interpret the native writings, and has even been pronounced '' a Spanish fabrication " by Dr Valentini, a view which Holden appears to endorse. The puzzle thus remains still unsolved, and no safe inference can be drawn beyond the fact that the inscriptions and manuscripts are composed in a highly conventional form of writing, and probably in more than one Maya-Quiché dialect.
Other difficult questions connected with the origin and antiquity Origin of the Maya culture, and the nature of its relations to that of and an-Mexico, will be found discussed under MEXICO (j.tf.). But, since tiquityof that article was written, fresh materials have been collected and Maya published which help to throw some further light on these obscure culture, subjects. Unfortunately M. Charnay, who since the time of Ste-phens and Catherwood has undoubtedly contributed most to our knowledge of the Central-American remains, has revived in an ex-aggerated form the old views of MJbrelet, Orozco y Berra, and others regarding the Toltec origin of all these monuments. This observer sees everywhere the clearest evidences, not merely of Toltec influ-ences, which are obvious enough, but of the Toltec institutions themselves, of the Toltec religion, architecture, and civilization, to the exclusion of all others in Central America. He even boldly traces on the map the lines of a twofold Toltec migration, from Tula along the Atlantic and from Toluca along the Pacific side, to their junction at Copan in Honduras, some few centuries before the discovery of the New World. But our faith in the soundness of these views is greatly shaken when we find M. Charnay identifying the Toltecs themselves somewhat wildly with Malays, Indo-Chinese,, and other Asiatic races. Some of the present populations of Yucatan are even pronounced to be "a cross between the Malay and the-Chinese," and all the exploded theories are thus revived of an Asiatic origin of the civilized inhabitants of the New World and of their cultures. But, as Ober well remarks, the evidence is cumu-lative in favour of the independent evolution of these cultures. Late contact,—that is, contact since the remote Stone Age,—with the inhabitants of the eastern hemisphere has been either of the most casual nature or else as shadowy as the Atlantis itself, which is, seriously referred to in this connexion by otherwise sane writers, but which was obviously as pure an invention of Plato as the Utopia was of Sir Thomas More.
An essential condition of the Toltec theory is the assumed recent, or comparatively recent, date of all the Central-American monu-ments, and Charnay has certainly dispelled the extravagant ideas at one time prevalent regarding the hoary antiquity of some of these remains. He has shown in particular that no argument in favour of great age can be drawn from the size of the trees by which many of them are overgrown. By actual experiment he has proved that the concentric circles of these trees correspond, not. to so many years, as had been supposed, but rather to so many months, if not even to shorter periods of growth. Thus collapse the extravagant estimates of 2000 years (Waldeck) or 1700 (Lorainzar) assigned to the buildings on this assumption. At the same time-some of the cities were already forgotten ruins at the time of the _ conquest, and many of the structures date evidently back to a period prior to the Toltec migrations southwards. The bas-reliefs, of Kabah also clearly show that these Toltecs, probably of Nahua stock and closely related to the Aztecs, already found the land occupied by a civ 'lized people, able to record on stone monuments , their triumphs over the northern invaders. Some of these monu-ments themselves equal, if not surpass, in artistic taste and work-manship anything the Toltec builders are known to have produced on the Anahuao plateau. They also present many distinctive features, especially in their design and decorative parts, while the inscriptions are altogether different from those of the Aztecs as, seen in extant manuscripts. The conclusion seems inevitable that the Maya-Quiché culture was an independent growth, brought in later times under Nahua influences, the relations being perhaps somewhat analogous to those existing between the Grieco-Bactrian and Indian or the Moorish and Spanish in the Old World.
At the time of the conquest a great part of Central America was Classifr-found to be occupied, as it still is, by peoples related, at least in cation oif speech, to the Maya inhabitants of Yucatan. The numerous Maya-branches of this widespread family ranged from Tamaulipas (about Quiche the Tropic of Cancer) southwards to north Honduras and San Sal- nations vador (14° N. lat.). But the chief divisions were the Mayas of Yucatan and the Quichés of Guatemala, whence the compound term Maya-Quiché collectively applied to the whole race. Owing partly to the uncertainty of their mutual affinities, but mainly to the confusing and inconsistent nomenclature of the early Spanish an I later writers, the classification of the various Maya-Quiché nations presents serious difficulties, some of which have not yet been over-come. In the subjoined scheme are embodied the results of the researches of De Bourbourg, Berendt, Stoll, and others in this intricate branch of ethnology :—

MAYA GROUP.—Buastcca, Vera Cruz and Tamaulipas; Totmiaci)), north part of Vera Cruz ; Maya proper, throughout Yucatan ; Choi (Cholti, Colchi), between the Salinas and Mondaguas rivers, Gua-temala ; Mopan, north of the Chols ; Chontal, Tabasco, distinct from the Nicaraguan Chontales ; Tzental (Cendal), Ocosingo dis-trict, Chiapas ; Tsotzil (Zotzil, Zotzlem), San Cristobal, Chiapas ; Chanabal, Comitan district, Chiapas.
QUICHE GROUP.—Cakchiquel (Kacchikil), Tecpan to Sta Lucia and the Pacific ; Tzutujil (Sotojil, Zutuhil), Aitlan district, Guate-mala; Quiche proper (Kiché, Utatlica), Cunen and Kabinal districts, and thence south-west to the Pacific, Guatemala ; Uspanteca, San Miguel Uspantan, Guatemala.
POCONCHI GROUP.—Poconchi proper (Pokomchi, Pacomchi), Tac-tic district, Guatemala ; Quekchi (Caechi, Aquacateca), Coban district, Guatemala ; Chorti (Lenguaapay), Zacapa and Chichimula, and thence eastwards to Honduras ; Pokomam, Jalapa, and thence to San Salvador.
MAMS GROUP.—Maine proper (Mem, Zakloh-pakap), throughout south-western Guatemala ; Ixil, Cotzal district, Guatemala ; Agita-catecas (Sinca, Xinca), throughout south-eastern Guatemala; Ala-giulac (?), San Cristobal, Chiapas. Modern Yucatan is still almost entirely inhabited by the same Maya inhabit- race that was found in possession of the land at the time of the ants. discovery. Aboiù five-sixths of the population are of nearly pure Maya stock and speech, the Spanish and mestizo elements being mostly confined to the large towns. The mestizos are said to be the handsomest on the continent, while the full-blood natives are perhaps the least characteristic of all the aboriginal populations. They have the coarse black and straight hair, the arched nose, and the reddish-brown complexion common to most of the primitive in-habitants of America. But they can be readily distinguished from all of them by their regular features, low cheek-bones, small mouth and ears, straight jaws, frank expression, and a certain air of refine-ment betraying descent from a highly cultured people. " It would be difficult," says Charnay, "to find among the rural classes of Europe men of a better build, or with more intelligent and open countenances." Although generally peaceful, patient under oppres-sion, and even somewhat indolent, their history since the conquest (1547) has not been wholly uneventful. After more than two centuries of passive resistance, there was a general revolt in 1761, brought about by the intolerable misrule of the Spanish adminis-tration. The declaration of independence (1821) was followed in 1824 by the union with the Mexican confederacy, which continued without interruption till 1840. In that year an independent re-public was set up in Yucatan, which, however, was suppressed in 1843. Then came the general uprising of the natives in 1846, when Mexico was engaged in a disastrous war with the United States. To quell the revolt, the ruling classes were obliged to call in the aid of the Mexicans (1847-53), whereby the peninsula again lost its autonomy, and was divided (1861) into the two federal states of Yucatan and Campeche. But the rebellion was not entirely suppressed, and many of the natives, withdrawing eastwards to the coast-lands beyond the Sierra Alta, have hitherto defied all the efforts of the authorities to reduce them.
Bibliography.—D. L. Cogolludo, Historia de Yucathan, Madrid, 1C8S; Diego de Landa, Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, ed. by Br. de Bourbourg, Paris, 1864 ; Brasseur de Bourbourg, Hist, des. Nations Civilisées du Mexique et de l'Amérique Centrale, Paris, 1857-59, and Études sur le Système Graphique et la Langue des Mayas, Paris, 1869-70; Lord Kingsborough, Antiquities of Mexico, London, 1831-48 (vols. ii. and iii.) ; H. H. Bancroft, Native Races of the Pacific States, New York, 1875, and Hist, of the Pacific States (vols. iv. and v.), San Francisco and London, 18S2-87 ; J. L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan,
new edition, New York, 1858 ; E. G. Squier, Travels in Central America, New York, 1853, and Notes on Central America, New York, 1855 ; J. D. Baldwin, Ancient America, New York, 1872 ; Marquis de Nadaillac, Prehistoric America, London, 1885 ; Désiré Charnay, The Ancient Cities of the New World, London, 1887 ; P. A. Ober, Travels in Mexico (bk. i., Yucatan), Boston, 1SS4 ; A. P. Mawlslay, " Exploration, &e., of Copan," in Proc. Roy. Geogr. Soc, September, 1886 ; E. S. Holden, "Studies in Central-American Picture-Writing," in Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, 1879-80. (A. H. K.)


Previous estimates assigned 32,650 square miles to Yucatan and

Yet the term Yucatan occurs in the very earliest Spanish records, although clearly originating in a misunderstanding, of which several versions are given by Bancroft (Hist. Pacific States, iv. p. 11). It appears even on the very oldest maps, on which, however, the country figures as an island, and is spoken of as such in conjunction with Cozumel ("the islands of Yucatan and Cozumel") in the commission (1526) granted to Francesco Montejo the elder to occupy and settle those lands (op. cit., i. p. 154).

Or, according to other interpretations of the confused national traditions, by the people of Chichen-Itza some three centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards.

In a paper read before the American Antiquarian Society, 28th April 1880..

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