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Sacred island near Silbituk. Photo by Teobert Maler.
Lake Peten Itza

[Note: It wasn't until 1546 that the Spanish managed to conquer the Yucatan, and at that point one group of Maya still held out. The powerful Itza had moved to an island in the center of a lake in the Peten and established a new capital to replace Chichen Itza. They were able to hold out against the conquistadors for another 175 years.]

In 1618 two Franciscan missionaries, Bartolome de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita, set out from Merida to convert the Itza to Christianity. Six months later they arrived at the stronghold of Tayasal, where the Itza ruler received them hospitably. Lord Canek refused to renounce his own religion however.

As Sylvanus Morley explains in The Ancient Maya, "The fathers were shown a large idol in the form of a horse, called Tzimin Chac, the "thunder horse." When Cortes had visited Tayasal, he left a lame horse with the Canek of that day, promising to return for it himself or to send for it. After Cortes's departure, the Itza treated the horse as a god, offering it fowl, other meats, and flowers, on which diet the horse died. The Itza, terrified at the death of a god on their hands, made a stone idol of the horse, which they worshiped in order to prove they were not responsible for its death. When Father Orbita saw this image, he became so infuriated at the idolatry that he smashed the image into bits."

Maler writes, It is not my intention to sketch the history of the Itzae, since the two chief works treating of this little nation must be accessible to most readers. The Fifth Letter to Emperor Charles V. describing the expedition of Cortes to the coast of Honduras is contained in "Cartas Y Relaciones de Hernan Cortes al Emperador Carlos V.," published by Pascual de Gayangos. Paris, 1866. The military expedition of Urzua is described in "Historia de la Conquista de la Provincia de el Itza y de la de el Lacandon." J. Villagutierre y Sotomayor. Madrid, 1700.

Indeed, a true history of the island realm cannot be written, since the Spaniards destroyed all documents relative to national history in the small, unimportant Peten-Itza, as well as in the great and splendid centers of civilization of Yucatan in general. I shall limit myself, therefore, to a few brief remarks for the better comprehension of the works here named.

The name Itza (Itsa) sounds more like an Aztec word and, I think, should therefore not be translated from the Maya but from the Nahuatl language. Itstli means agave thorns or little obsidian knives with which blood (etstli) was drawn in self-torture and therefore these two ideas were connected by the Aztecs. After the blood-letting they went to the water (atl) to wash themselves; hence itsatl and etsatl occur in Aztec place names, e.g., Etsa-tlan, "place of water where one cleanses one's self from blood."

The thorough exploration of Chichen Itsa (Tsitsen-itsa), the splendid capital city, which I undertook in 1891, left no doubt that it must have had a thousand years of slow and continuous architectural development. As in structures of a later date, and there are frequent evidences that elements of older, torn-down buildings have been used again. It should by no means be assumed that this magnificent architectural city--which must have had a minimum population of 300,000 souls--was occupied in some periods and abandoned in others, but it is extremely reasonable to suppose that its powerful and highly civilized inhabitants sustained relations, commercial and otherwise, with distant countries. At all events, this centre of Maya-Toltec civilization was known and famed far and wide.

The bas-reliefs on the columns and walls of the temples indicate and intelligent, advanced race of people with pleasing, harmonious features, without artificially receding foreheads. Whether these people were true Mayas or were descendants of Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs, it is difficult to decide. At all events, there was a ruling class, nobles as it were, and a lower class, the masehualtin, who tilled the soil.

It is improbable that the whole vast lake, to its east end, should have been under the rule of the Itzae. According to Padre Fuensalida, the settlement of the islands in the great Lake of Peten and the coastlands along its western shore, by a certain party, which had become discontented in ancient Chichen, is said to have taken place in uaxac-ahau, or the eighth series of years, about a century before the arrival ofthe Spaniards, or about the end of the fourteenth century. It is possible that the exodus of the Itzae, which could have been only a partial one, occurred during the wars of King Chac-Xib-Chaac (Tsac-sib-tsac) and his successor, Ulmil, against Hunac-Eel, king of Mayapan. But since all the historical documents of these people were burned by the Spaniards, no details are known regarding these events. We do not even know whether the leaders of this exodus belonged to the house of the Cocome (dove-kings) nor do we dnow their names. Let me say here that all the figures of kings on the bas-reliefs of Chichen have the green dove attached to the front of the helment, if they belong to the Cocome family. When there is no dove on the helment, the wearer is not a Cocom. (In Nahuatl, cocotli, cocome means dove, doves.)

Attention should be called to the fact that as yet not a single sculpture has come to light in the island city or in its remotest environs which displays a more or less close kinship with the characteristic sculptor's art of Chichen.

The Itzae of Peten first came in contact with the Spaniards when Hernan Cortes undertook his rash and bootless expedition from Mexico to the coast of Honduras, or, as they said at that time, "Las Hibueras," in the year 1525.

In 1523 Cortes sent Cristobal Olid with cinco naves y un bergantin, four hundred Spaniards and thirty horses, to the distant coast of Honduras, for the purpose of joining this territory also to the Spanish monarchy. But at so great a distance from Mexico, Olid emancipated himself from the authority of Cortes, and this prompted the angered Cortes to undertake an expedition to Honduras by land. Cortes left Mexico on October 12, 1524, intending to go to Espiritu Santo, on the Cuauhtzacualco. He had two hundred and fifty Spaniards, half of whom were mounted, and three thousand Mexicans. From Espiritu Santo he followed the seacoast at first, but later went inland. He reached Tisatepetitlan, the first frontier town of the little commercial kingdom of Acallan, and then went on to Teoticcac-Palenque. On the march occurred that deplorable event--the assassination of Cuauhtemoc, the last king of the Mexicans, and the princes accompanying him, some nine persons in all. From Teoticcac he went to Itzancanac on the left bank of the Usumatsintla. This tract of country, situated below Tenosique, still bears the name Canitzan, which seems to be only a transposition of the name as given by Cortes. Here the Usumatsintla was crossed, el primer Domingo de Cuaresma del ano de 1525.

At this point, about half the distance from Lake Peten, began the domain of the flourishing little kingdom of Masatlan, land of the deer, whose Maya name Keh-acho has the same meaning. Ceh, which is pronounced keh (but giving k its usual sound) means deer. This little country probably has no stone cities, but strongly fortified villages, with well-built houses of paling with palm-leaf roof.

After a march of four days through an uninhabited wilderness, Cortes reached the first frontier town of Masatlan, the name of which is, however, not given, But he says that it was on a rocky hill, en un penol alto, where a deep brook entered a great lake. This lake is probably the modern La Laguna de Coba. Seven leagues beyond, Cortes came to a still larger place named Tiac or Tiacil. This is pronounced Tiakil, but the k has its usual sound. The name means "at the tortoises," ac (tortoise). The third place was called Yaxuncabil, which means "green country." The high opinion, which the Masateca held of the Itzae, is interesting: que aquella era mucha gente y muy e jercitada en la guerra, a quien todas aquellas provincias comarcanas temian...

Emerging from the Masatlan country, Cortes had to lead his army five days through an uninhabited wilderness consisting chiefly of rocky, mountainous country. In his fifth letter Cortes states that he travelled over a mountain pass, the rock of which consisted of alabastro muy fino.

Incidentally let me say, that in frequent conversations with monteros, who had come to Peten from Tenosique by a short cut through the wilderness, I received information concerning certain not very important ruins which they had found here and there, and I found that nothing is now known of the existence of a Sierra de Alabastro. Cortes was very likely in error here. This mountain of rock probably consisted of the whitish limestone, which very generally occurs in this region. In the future development of the department of Peten, it would indeed be extremely interesting if the statement make by Cortes should be confirmed and strata of white marble should come to light in the mountains west of Lake Peten.

Still another question arises in reference to Itsimte, the ruined city of considerable importance, which I hastily explored on my return from Peten in the beginning of July, 1905. Was this place the architectural capital of a Maya realm lying south of Masatlan, or was it the capital of Masatlan itself? In the latter case Cortes, with his little army, must have passed through only its border villages and not through the heart of the country. No mention at all is make of this city with its pyramid-temples, palaces, sculptured stelae and sacrificial altars. Meanwhile all that can be said is, that the whole region around Itsimte and Sacluk consists of vast savannas which now, as formerly, are grazing-ground for deer, which do not like the dense virgin forests. The name Masatlan would suit this region extremely well.

Cortes emerged at the west end of Lake Peten, where he camped and sent messengers to the Canek in the island city, two and one leagues distant, inviting him to an interview. As a matter of fact, on the next day the Canek, with a small retinue, came in canoes to the camp of Cortes, where he was celebrated with musical accompaniment of chirimas y sacabuches, very much, it is said, to the edification of the Canek and his retinue, as we can readily imagine. The theatrical performance over, material wants received attention and the Canek dined with Cortes. The meal ended, Cortes, accompanied by only twenty of his men, proceeded in the company of the Canek to the quite distant island city, while his little army, marching mainly between milperias, pushed on along the south shore to the modern Playa de San Benito. Passing the entire day in the agreeable society of the Canek, receiving also advice and guides for the continuance of his journey to the trading-posts "Nito y Naco," on the coast of Honduras, at nightfall Cortes crossed over to the camp of his men, who meanwhile had arrived in the district lying southward, opposite the island.

At that time, i.e., as late as the sixteenth century, the Itzae maintained an extremely brisk trade with the coast of Honduras, and had many houses for shelter and storage on the road thither. This trade was entirely destroyed after the expansion of Spanish authority.

On the next day Cortes was ready to continue his march to Honduras. A horse, which had become useless, had to be left behind in these maize plantations on the south shore, and this trivial incident later furnished the Spanish "historians" with so much entertaining material.

After surmounting great difficulties and crossing steep mountains and losing half his horses, Cortes finally reached Nito where he fell in with Gil Gonzalo de Avila and a small Spanish detachment. As yet no archaeological investigation has been made of the flourishing cities which Cortes found on his march to the coast of Honduras, or of those surrounding the great Laguna de Izabal. In view of the present depopulation of these regions and the impossibility of procuring suitable men, expeditions thither would meet with great difficulties. I have been so much occupied with the peninsula of Yucatan, the Usumatsintla basin, and the Department of Peten, that I have not been able to find my way to these forgotten cities.

It may be assumed that during the epoca colonial after that famous march of Cortes with his army through this region, the populous cities lying in the more extended vicinity of Peten-Itza were depopulated by the breaking out of epidemics and by being abandoned in the fear of roving bands bent on conquest. Their imposing ruins and their sculptures which have elucidated many an obscure question, I have already explored in great part. There is no tradition of a war of extermination having been waged against them, The Itzae who were settled on these wind-swept islands and coastlands probably remained exempt from epidemics. During the 16th and 17th centuries they were troubled no more by the Spaniards, whose power of expansion had reached its limit, after overturning so many American dominions. This little Maya realm continued to flourish forgotten by the world, while the country all around it was reclaimed by the wilderness, and the Spanish-Indian population, settled beyond the latter, attained to some degree of order and prosperity.

According to Villagutierre, for a long time during the colonial period, "Tipu" (doubtless Tubusil) in Yucatan, was said to have been the nearest inhabited place to the country of the Itzae. I will remark here by way of parenthesis, that Villagutierre confuses the lakes lying between Tubusil and Lake Peten, i.e., Silbituk, chanlaguna or others, with those lying east of Lake Peten, i.e., Sacpeten and Yaxha.

In the year 1618, the two Franciscan monks, Fuensalida and Orbita, pushed forward from Merida via Tipu (Tubusli) to Peten-Itza, and visited the Canek. On this occasion Padre Orbita had the audacity to demolish the stucco image of the horse which was left behind by Cortes on the south shore. This image had been set up in one of the temples and was regarded by the monk as an abominable idol.

The Itzae, who had no desire to wage war with the Spanish Colonial Government over the image of a dead steed, behaved on this occasion with great moderation. The stupid and imprudent act of the ignorant Padre Orbita was, however, much criticised and not approved of in Merida. This proves that there were at that time a few sensible people in Merida, notwithstanding the stultifying influence of the preists.

In 1623 a Padre Diego Delgado went to Peten-Itza with the Batab of Tipu (Tubusil), Don Cristobal Na, and thirteen Spanish soldiers of the detachment of Captian Mirrones, who was tyrannizing over the people of this district. All were massacred. Since on other occasions the Itzae had always received Spanish visitors in a friendly spirit, this calamity was considered due to the rash deed of Padre Orbita.

Although the Itzae, naturally, did not go forth on expeditions of conquest and strove only to remain in peaceful possession of their little island realm, the continued existence of this tiny Maya kingdom was a thorn in hte eye of the Spaniards and Halfbreeds. From Merida, in particular, intrigues were ceaselessly set on foot against the free Mayas and false charges of marauding expeditions were raised against them. Even Villagutierre, in his work mentioned above, insults these excellent people, who loved their independence and were true to their gods, by describing them as... indios barbaros, infieles, idolatras y apostatas, carniceros lobos de cuerpos humanos, etc. The worst intrigues against the continuance of the Itza kingdom were instigated, however, by Martin Urzua, who was afterwards governor of Yucatan. Concealing his true feelings of hatred and envy, Martin Urzua offered his services to the central government in 1692 "to open up a road from Yucatan to Guatemala," where upon Carlos II. issued the cedulas, appointing him commander of the expedition against the Itzae.

Roque Soberanis, who at that time was governor of Yucatan, did not view this undertaking favorably; either because he knew ther was not human material enough for profitable colonization of that distant region, which had been mostly reclaimed by the wilderness, or because he foresaw that, though Yucatan would be the base from which the conquest of El Peten would be accomplished, owing to its remote situation it would be controlled later by the Audiencia of Guatemala and not by the Audiencia of Mexcio.

When, after laborious marches, Urzua's expedition reached the lake of Peten-Itza, he hastened to have un bergantin y una piragua built, in which vessels the attacking detachment was transported to the island city. After only a brief resistance, perceiving that they could not fight against soldiers equipped with firearms, the Itzae fled in haste from the island. The island city of the Itzae fell on May 13, 1697. The first deed of "civilizing activity" on the part of the Spaniards, after the quite bloodless taking ofthe island city, was Urzua's order to his men to demolish all images in the temples and elsewhere. This "work" lasted from half past eight o'clock in the morning until half past five in the evening, or for nine hours. When Urzua's heroes had somewhat appeased their savage thirst for destruction, their leader came to the conclusion that a land without people was of no use. Accordingly, he sent messengers to the inhabitants who had fled to the coasts, inviting them to return and promising them every possible guarantee. Some of the fugitives reluctanly returned. The Canek and the Kincanek, or high-priest, also presented themselves, whereupon Urzua, who did not keep his word in a single instance, had both imprisoned, and even had the barbarity to subject the Kincanek to algun tormento, quite after the manner of the first conquerors of two centuries earlier. Later, about 1699, Urzua sent both priests as prisoners to Guatemala.

Villagutierre usually calls the island city Tyasal, a name which should be pronounced in the Maya language, Tany axhal (Tanyashal) "in the midst of green waters." The great lake he calls "Haltuna." Since the idea of water is expressed in the first syllable hal (from ha, hail) it does not seem probable that the name was pronounced Haltunha, for in that case the idea of water would be repeated. It is more probable that the name was Haltunna, "lake with houses." The feminine article x or ix (s, is) can be prefixed to this work, thus X-haltunna.

Canek was originally a family name, derived fro the name of a mother Can (snake) and a father Ek (black, also star). This name became a title of royalty. It may be written also Can-Ek. Kin-canek would therefore mean "priest-king".

The numerous Americanists of our day deeply deplore the untimely fall of the last Maya kingdom, and the insatiable thirst for destruction of the part of the Spaniards, a nation which was still producing Landas and Zumarragas at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the dawn of a better era was breaking over all Europe, for it is thought that the Itzae of Tanyaxhal (if this name really belongs to the island city) used the Maya hieroglyphic writing as late as the end of the seventeenth century. It is even considered possible that many documents of ancient time, even some brought hither from distant Chichen-Itza, may have been preserved in the temples of Tanyaxhal. These documents might have supplied keys to all the remains of Maya antiquity, their calendrical system, their religion, habits and customs.

The description given by Villagutierre, page 394 of the analte (Pio Perez writes anahte) of the Itzae (or of the Mayas in general) agrees perfectly with the Dresden Codex.

If the Maya writing had actually still been in use during the last years of the seventeenth century among the Itzae--i.e., among the members of the royal family, the priests and a small number of scholars--then, since they would not all be likely to die out at the same time, it may be assumed that a few very aged men who could have transmitted to posterity the secret of the decipherment of this difficult, but perfectly developed, system of writing.

At the present time there is no trace of ancient documents in Peten, even memory of analte has died out. It is deplorable that Urzua's troops did not contain a single man of sufficient enlightenment to take an interest in the history of the country. As for the Spanish "Historiadores" in general, they offer as a substitute for the true Maya history, which they destroyed, impossible miracles, prophecies made after the event, and finally the trash of which the lame horse left behind by Cortes on the south shore of the Haltunna was the innocent cause, all of which has no interest at all for the modern man of education.

A real substitute for what was lost through the ignorance of that period can be found only in hte stone witnesses of these past civilizations, which meet the gaze of the archaeological explorer in the midst of the most luxuriant virgin forests, or in the magnificent sculptures buried deep under the ruins, which he brings to light again. Much welcome material of this character for the study of Maya antiquities had been secured by my journeyings through these wildernesses.

* Excerpted from Explorations in the Department of Peten Guatemala and Adjacent Region: Motul de San José, Peten-Itza. Reports of Explorations for the Museum. Memoirs 4(3). Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. (Maler 1910:164-170)

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