The problem of origins. – The origin and primitive history of the civilizations found in bloom by the first Spanish conquerors of Mexico and rapidly destroyed by the invading culture, constitute a particular problem in the general problem of the origin and history of the indigenous cultures of the New World.
One cannot be isolated from the other. The terms of the general problem have been set forth elsewhere (see america). The study of indigenous monuments and historical documents of the time of the conquest, linguistics and ethnology, prehistory and anthropology cooperated in solving the particular problem of the ancient Mexican civilization: of the documents collected, is still practically unsolved. This is largely due to the fact that archaeological exploration has not yet led researchers to relics of much more archaic or much older cultures than the civilization known to Europeans in the century. XVI: Mexican archeology, in most of the places it explores, brings to light and reconstructs, against a monumental and grandiose city civilization, already perfect, and as long as it rummages in the ruins of ancient cities it has indeed so little chance of come across traces of the period of the origins, as much as classical or medieval archeology has here to discover, among the remains of ancient monuments, relics of the most remote prehistory. And, of course, the land covered by archaeological research is much less extensive in Mexico, and the application of systematic methods to research much more recent.
For the Mexican civilization there is not even an archaeological documentation of prehistory for a period of moderate depth, such as we have, p. for example, for the archaeological zone of the Pueblos or for the Peruvian one (in the waste piles of Ancón), outside the monumental zones. Another cause of the backward state of the problem of origins lies in the inadequacy of the investigations of ethnography and comparative archeology, for which the single elements of Mexican civilizations have not yet been systematically projected into the framework of the historical and prehistoric cultures of America or also of the closest external areas (Asia, Oceania) for a rigorous analysis of proximal affinities.
It has been possible in the past, but still happens with some frequency and insistence, that, on the basis of superficial analogies and similarities or on that, even more fallacious, of old ethnographic myths, a special and independent origin was sought for the great civilizations of ancient Mexico in Jewish, Phoenician, Egyptian or Chinese migrations; or in the ancient legends of Fu-sang (v.) and Atlantis (v.), or in the medieval ones of the Atlantic islands. We cannot say better about this literature than W. Lehmann: its abundance impressively demonstrates how in every age, writers prefer purely fantastic conjectures to solid scientific research. Not dissimilar, although apparently based on serious investigations and comparisons, the attempt made by the so-called ethnological school of Manchester (v., culture) to link Mexican or Mayan culture to the historical civilizations of Southeast Asia. It must be added, however, that the attitude of North American ethnologists and archaeologists is an obstacle to the fruitful continuation of comparative ethnology studies, who a priori exclude any external relationship, after the first population, to American cultures and have more or less imposed this concept, negative and sterile, to almost all Americanists.
A point of special importance in the elements common to the two aforementioned problems, general and particular, of the origins, concerns the first appearance, on American territory, of the major cultural arts: agriculture, ceramics, weaving, metallurgy. HJ Spinden rightly insists on the fact that these elements seem to constitute a single cultural horizon, having a particular geographical distribution with the clear indication of a diffusion center located somewhere in Mexican-Andean America and intermediate, in time, between the phase ( pre-archaic) of primitive nomadic cultures and that (post-archaic) of developed and specialized civilizations in certain regions, to which the Mexicans and Mayans also belong. It should also be remembered that this summary distinction of great cultural phases cannot in any way be compared with the periods of European prehistory with its stone and bronze ages, etc. The Mexican civilizations were, at the time of discovery, despite the grandiose development of architecture and some other arts or knowledge, in a Neolithic phase, or rather an Aeneolithic, since, alongside the lithic material, gold was worked for minor uses., silver and copper (but not bronze, at least in intentional alloys): a phase that ended for Western civilizations around 1500 BC. C., that is, three millennia earlier. But how long the Aeneolithic culture lasted in America, and the purely Neolithic precedent, no clue allows us to suppose: a conjectural scheme of Spinden traces the invention of the agriculture in the 4th millennium a. C., and places, in agreement with most of the authors, around the beginning of the Common Era the most remote historical date of the Maya, that is, that which currently appears to us as the greatest and most ancient of the disappeared American civilizations (v.maya). But there is no proof that this archaic phase lasted millennia or centuries, and how many of the one or the other. Archaeological exploration has just glimpsed the relics of this so-called archaic period in the regularly stratified deposits of Azcapotzalco and Colhuacán (Valley of Mexico), in the necropolis discovered under a formidable layer of lava (the Pedregal) in a suburb of Mexico City, in the excavations of Copilco, etc. The horizons have been established with sufficient precision: 1. archaic; 2. teotihuacano; 3. Toltec; 4. Aztec. The most interesting products of the pre-monumental or archaic period are certain crude terracotta figurines, which also give some insight into culture, show, for example, that fabrics and many objects such as atlatl were already possessed.(v.), various musical instruments, etc. To this characteristic art it has been possible to bring back many finds of an unknown age, discovered on various occasions in a large area of Central and South America; that is, it was possible to ascertain the extent of this archaic horizon and its homogeneity, which also gives us indirect proof of its relative antiquity, because it brings us back to a period in which the great American civilizations, although already in possession of essential, they were still almost undifferentiated. In some places in Mexico, moreover, this archaic art had continued in part up to the historical age (tarasca art, etc.).
Much more advanced is the knowledge of the development of culture and its various manifestations in the age that we can say historical. The relationships between the different cultural areas and between the activities of the different peoples who entered the historical horizon have been studied on the archaeological and literary sources and we now have systems worthy of consideration both on the chronological relationships between the different cultural areas of America (see, for example, Joyce’s scheme above), both on the ethnic phases and on the relations of culture in the interior of the Mexican archaeological area (see Marquina’s scheme). The Mayan civilization is extensively described and analyzed in the Mayan entry; here remains above all the study of the cultures of central Mexico and their bearers, among which the Nahua lineages (v.), the “Mexicans” in the proper sense, of the Aztecs and their Toltec predecessors emerge. There was an indigenous tradition in this regard, of a migration from the north and there is no doubt that the Aztecs were immigrants and knew it: but the legends relating to the migrations of the Mexicans have a purely local importance and cannot be given much weight until are not confirmed by archaeological evidence. On this ground, perhaps the most notable fact of the ethnology of the region is given by the linguistic connections of the Nahua with the Shoshone group (see utoazteche, languages), but it does not follow that the point of diffusion of these idioms and of the peoples who spoke them was in the far north, barbaric, rather than an intermediate area and much closer to the historic town of the Aztecs.
In conclusion, the question that logically must be asked when considering the height reached by any of the indigenous civilizations of America: whether it is the spontaneous fruit, reached the extreme maturity, of the indigenous cultures of the New World, or whether it is the its acceleration and ascension has contributed some occasional particular yeast from the outside, American archeology and ethnology are not able to give any answer yet: it can only be said that the signs of a special acculturation, from the outside, for the Mexican civilizations are completely lacking and that the solution of the problem still appears substantially founded in the general one of the origins of the American Neolithic and agricultural civilization.