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Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: A Critical Edition

Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: A Critical Edition


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In 1799, Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland set out to determine whether the Orinoco River connected with the Amazon. But what started as a trip to investigate a relatively minor geographical controversy became the basis of a five-year exploration throughout South America, Mexico, and Cuba. The discoveries amassed by Humboldt and Bonpland were staggering, and much of today’s knowledge of tropical zoology, botany, geography, and geology can be traced back to Humboldt’s numerous records of these expeditions.
One of these accounts, Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, firmly established Alexander von Humboldt as the founder of Mesoamerican studies. In Views of the Cordilleras—first published in French between 1810 and 1813—Humboldt weaves together magnificently engraved drawings and detailed texts to achieve multifaceted views of cultures and landscapes across the Americas. In doing so, he offers an alternative perspective on the New World, combating presumptions of its belatedness and inferiority by arguing that the “old” and the “new” world are of the same geological age.
This critical edition of Views of the Cordilleras—the second volume in the Alexander von Humboldt in English series—contains a new, unabridged English translation of Humboldt’s French text, as well as annotations, a bibliography, and all sixty-nine plates from the original edition, many of them in color.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226865065
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/25/2013
Series: Alexander von Humboldt in English
Edition description: Critical
Pages: 664
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Vera M. Kutzinski is the Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of English, professor of comparative literature, and director of the Alexander von Humboldt in English project at Vanderbilt University. Ottmar Ette is chair of Romance literature at the University of Potsdam, Germany, and the author of many books on von Humboldt. Together, they are the editors of Alexander von Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Island of Cuba: A Critical Edition, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


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ISBN: 978-0-226-86506-5

Chapter One

Bust of an Aztec Priestess

I have placed at the head of my picturesque Atlas the precious remnants of an Aztec sculpture. It is a bust in basalt preserved in Mexico City at the home of an enlightened amateur, Mr. Dupé, a captain in the service of His Catholic Majesty. This educated officer, who developed a love for the arts while in Italy as a young man, has made several trips to the interior of New Spain to study Mexica monuments. He has drawn with special care the reliefs of the pyramid of Papantla, on which subject he may one day publish a very interesting study.

The bust, depicted in its original size and from two sides (Plates I and II), is especially striking for a kind of headdress that bears some resemblance to the veil or calantica on the Isis heads, the Sphinx, the Antinous, and a large number of other Egyptian statues. One must nevertheless observe that in the Egyptian veil, the two ends that extend below the ears are most often very slight and folded crosswise. In a statue of Apis at the Capitoline Museum, the ends are convex in the front with vertical pleats, while the back section, which touches the collar, is flat, not rounded as it is in the Mexica headdress. The latter exhibits the greatest similarity to the pleated drapery covering the heads embedded in the capitals of the columns of Tentyris, as one sees in the faithful renderings that Mr. Denon included in his Voyage en Égypte.

Perhaps the fluted bourrelets that extend toward the shoulders in the Mexica bust are, in fact, a hair arrangement similar to the plaits on Isis in a Greek statue in the library of the Villa Ludovisi in Rome. This unusual arrangement is especially striking on the back of the bust in the second Plate, which shows a very large bag attached in the middle by a knot. The famous Zoëga, of whom death has recently robbed the sciences, assured me that he had seen a perfectly similar bag on a small bronze statue of Osiris at the museum of Cardinal Borgia in Velletri.

The Aztec priestess's forehead is adorned with a line of pearls edging a very narrow headband. These pearls have not been observed on any Egyptian statue. They confirm that contact occurred between the city of Tenochtitlan, the precursor to Mexico City, and the coasts of California, where pearls were then harvested in large quantities. The collar is draped in a triangular neckerchief, from which hang twenty-two small bells [or tassels] in almost perfect symmetry. Like the headdress, these small bells are found in a large number of Mexica statues, bas-reliefs, and hieroglyphic paintings. They recall the tiny apples and pomegranates that were attached to the robe of the high priest of the Hebrews. On the front of the bust and at a height of one-half decimeter above the base, we notice a set of toes on either side, though the lack of hands is a sign of the infancy of the art. From the back, it seems that the figure is seated or even squatting. There is reason to be surprised that the eyes are without pupils, even though we find them indicated in the bas-relief recently discovered in Oaxaca (Plate XI).

The basalt of this sculpture is very hard and of a lovely black color; it is true basalt, with a few grains of peridot [green gemstone], not Lydian stone or the grünstein-based porphyry that antiquarians generally call Egyptian basalt. The folds of the headdress, and especially the pearls, have a very smooth finish, although the artist, lacking steel chisels and likely working with the same kinds of copper and tin tools that I brought back from Peru, must have had a difficult time perfecting them. This bust has been very accurately rendered by a student at the academy of painting in Mexico City, under the supervision of Mr. Dupé. It is 0.38 m high and 0.19 m wide. I have retained the title that the locals use: Bust of a Priestess. It may well be, however, that it represents some Mexica deity and that it was originally classed among the household Gods. The headdress and the pearls, which are also found in an idol discovered in the ruins of Tetzcoco [Nahuatl: Tetzcohco] and deposited in the cabinets of the King of Prussia in Berlin, justify this conclusion: the ornamentation on the collar and the non-monstrous form of the head make it more likely that the bust simply represents an Aztec woman. If this assumption is correct, the fluted bourrelets that extend toward the chest could not be plaits, for all the virgins who devoted themselves to the service of the temple were shorn by the high priest or Tepanteohuatzin.

A certain resemblance between the calantica of the Isis heads and the Mexica headdresses, the many-terraced pyramids, similar to those in Faiyum and Sakkarah, the frequent use of hieroglyphic painting, and the five supplementary days added to the end of the Mexica year (which recall the epagomenal days of the Memphian year) constitute remarkable points of similarity between the peoples of the new and the old continent. We are nevertheless quite far from espousing theories that would be as vague and as unsubstantiated as those by which the Chinese have been turned into a colony of Egypt and the Basque language into a dialect of Hebrew. Most of these similarities fade once we examine the facts in isolation. For example, despite its epagomenal days, the Mexica year differs completely from that of the Egyptians. A great geometrician, who was gracious enough to examine the fragments that I brought back with me, has observed, using the Mexica intercalation, that the length of the Aztec tropical year is almost identical to the length determined by the astronomers of Al-Ma'mun.

If we venture back to the earliest times, history shows us many centers of civilization, the mutual connections of which are unknown to us, such as Meroë, Egypt, the banks of the Euphrates, Hindustan, and China. Other sources of enlightenment, even more remote, were perhaps situated on the central Asian plateau; and it is to their glint that we are tempted to attribute the beginnings of American civilization.

Chapter Two

View of the Main Square of Mexico City

The city of Tenochtitlan, capital of Anahuac, founded in 1325 on a small group of islets situated in the western part of the salt lake of Texcoco, was completely destroyed during the siege that the Spanish laid to it in 1521, which lasted seventy-five days. The new city, which counts nearly one hundred and forty thousand inhabitants, was built by Cortés upon the ruins of the former, following the same street pattern; but the canals that crossed these streets were filled in little by little, and Mexico City, radically refurbished by the viceroy, the Count of Revillagigedo, is today comparable to the most beautiful cities of Europe. The main square, depicted on the third Plate, is the site formerly occupied by the great temple of Mexitli, which, like all the teocalli, or dwellings of the Mexica gods, was a pyramidal building, similar to the Babylonian monument dedicated to Jupiter Belus. On the right-hand side, we see the palace of the viceroy of New Spain, a building of simple design originally belonging to the Cortés family, which is that of the Marquis of the Valle de Oaxaca, the Duke of Monteleone. In the center of the engraving is the cathedral, one part of which (el sagrario) is in the ancient Indian or Moorish style commonly called Gothic. Behind the cupola of the sagrario, where Indio triste runs into Tacuba street, lies King Axayacatl's palace, where Montezuma lodged the Spanish when they arrived in Tenochtitlan. Montezuma's own palace was to the right of the cathedral, across from the present viceroy's palace. I felt it necessary to indicate these locations since they are not without interest to those who study the history of the conquest of Mexico.

Since 1803 the Plaza mayor, which must not be confused with the main market of Tlatelolco (which Cortés described in his letters to Emperor Charles V), has been adorned with the equestrian statue of King Charles IV commissioned by the viceroy Marquis of Branciforte. This bronze statue is of great stylistic purity and beautifully made: it was designed, modeled, cast, and put in place by the same artist, Don Manuel Tolsa, a native of Valencia, Spain, and director of the sculpture class at the fine arts academy of Mexico City. We do not know what we should admire most: this artist's talent or the courage and perseverance that he displayed in a country where everything was yet to be created, and where he had many obstacles to overcome. This beautiful work was a success from the first casting. The statue weighs nearly twenty-three thousand kilograms; it is two decimeters taller than the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the Place Vendôme in Paris. They had the good taste not to gild the horse and were content to coat it with a brownish olive-colored varnish. As the buildings that border the square are generally low, we see the statue projected against the sky, which, on the ridge of the Cordilleras where the atmosphere is a very deep blue, produces a most picturesque effect. I assisted in the transfer of this enormous piece from the site of its casting to the Plaza mayor. It crossed a distance of around sixteen hundred meters in five days. The mechanics that Mr. Tolsa employed to raise it up on a pedestal of exquisite Mexican marble are quite ingenious and merit detailed description.

Today, the main square of Mexico City is of an irregular shape since, contrary to Cortés's plan, they built the square that housed the Parian [set of shops at the southwest corner]. To make the square look less asymmetrical, it was deemed necessary to place the equestrian statue, which the Indians know only by the name of the great horse, in a special enclosure. This enclosure is paved in porphyry tile and is more than fifteen decimeters higher than the adjacent streets. The oval, whose major axis is one hundred meters long, is surrounded by four fountains and, to the great dismay of the natives, is closed off by four gates with bronze-decorated grating.

The engraving that I include here is the faithful copy of a drawing made, on a larger scale, by Mr. Ximeno, a distinguished artist who directs the painting class at the academy of Mexico City. In the figures placed outside the enclosure, this drawing shows the dress of the Guachinangos, the Mexican lower classes.

Chapter Three

Natural Bridges of Icononzo

Among the majestic and varied scenes of the Cordilleras, what most inspires the imagination of the European traveler is the valleys. The enormous height of the mountains can be fully grasped only from a considerable distance and from a vantage point on the plains that extend from the coasts to the foot of the central range. The plateaus that surround the glacier-covered summits are, for the most part, at an elevation of two thousand five hundred to three thousand meters above sea level. To some extent, this circumstance detracts from the impression of grandeur that the colossal massifs of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, and Antisana produce when viewed from the plateaus of Riobamba and Quito. But what goes for the mountains does not go for the valleys. Deeper and narrower than those of the Alps and the Pyrenees, the valleys of the Cordilleras contain some of the wildest sites, which fill the soul with both awe and dread. The bottoms and the edges of these crevices are adorned with vigorous plant life, and their depth is often so great that Vesuvius and Puy-de-Dôme could be placed in them without their summits rising above the curtain of the neighboring mountains. The interesting travels of Mr. Ramond have given a clearer idea of the Ordesa valley, which descends from Monte Perdido and has a mean depth of nearly nine hundred meters (four hundred fifty-nine toises). Traveling on the ridge of the Andes from Pasto to the Villa de Ibarra and descending from Loja toward the banks of the Amazon, Mr. Bonpland and I crossed the famous clefts of Chota and Cutaco, which have a perpendicular depth of more than fifteen hundred and thirteen hundred meters, respectively. To give a more complete idea of the immensity of these geological formations: the bottom of these crevices has an elevation above sea level that is only one-quarter less than that of the St. Gotthard and Mont Cenis passes.

The valley of Icononzo (or Pandi), part of which is shown on the fourth Plate, is less remarkable for its dimensions than for the extraordinary shape of its boulders, which look as though they were carved by human hands. Their dry, barren peaks contrast delightfully with the clusters of trees and shrubs that cover the edges of the cleft. The little torrent that has cut its path through the Icononzo valley bears the name Río de la Sumapaz. It descends from the western range of the Andes, which, in the kingdom of New Granada, separates the Magdalena river basin from the vast plains of the Meta, the Guaviare, and the Orinoco. This torrent, confined within a nearly inaccessible bed, could not be crossed without great difficulty had nature herself not created two rock bridges there, which are rightfully seen in the country as one of the sights most deserving of travelers' attention. In September of 1801 we crossed these natural bridges of Icononzo en route from Santa Fé de Bogotá to Popayán and Quito.

Icononzo is the name of an ancient Muisca Indian village set on the southern edge of the valley; only a few scattered huts remain of it. Today, the inhabited place closest to this remarkable site is the small village of Pandi or Mercadillo, at a distance of one-quarter league toward the northeast. The road from Santa Fé to Fusagasuga (lat. 4° 20' 21" north, long. 5° 7' 14"), and from there to Pandi, is one of the most difficult and most poorly cleared that one finds in the Cordilleras. One must passionately love the beauties of nature not to prefer the regular road that leads from the Bogotá plateau toward the natural bridge of Icononzo, through the Mesa de Juan Díaz, to the banks of the Magdalena, to the perilous descent from the Páramo de San Fortunato and the mountains of Fusagasuga.

The deep gorge through which the torrent of the Sumapaz gushes is at the center of the Pandi valley. Near the bridge, the gorge maintains its east-west direction for more than four thousand meters. There are two spectacular waterfalls, one at the point where the river enters the chasm to the west of Doa and another where it emerges in its descent toward Melgar. It is quite likely that this crevice resulted from an earthquake: it resembles an enormous vein from which miners have extracted the gangue. The surrounding mountains are of sandstone with clay cement: this formation, which rests on the primitive schist (thonschiefer) of Villeta, stretches from the rock salt mountain of Zipaquirá to the Magdalena river basin. It also contains the coal strata of Canoas or Chipa, which are mined near the great Tequendama waterfall (Plate VI).

The sandstone in the Icononzo valley is composed of two distinct kinds of rock. A very dense quartziferous sandstone with scarce cement and almost no stratification fissures rests on finely grained schistose sandstone (Sandsteinschiefer) divided into infinite strata, which are small, very thin, and nearly horizontal. We may believe that at the time when the crevice was formed, the compact and quartziferous bed resisted the force that tore the mountains apart, and that it is the uninterrupted continuation of this bed that serves as a bridge for crossing from one part of the valley to the other. This natural arc is fourteen and a half meters long and 12,7 meters wide; it is 2,4 meters thick at the center. A number of carefully conducted gravity experiments with a Berthoud chronometer gave us 97,7 meters for the height of the upper bridge above the level of the torrent waters. Prior to our arrival, Don Jorge Lozano, an enlightened person who owns a pleasant estate in the beautiful valley of Fusagasuga, had measured this very height by means of a sounding line; he found it to be one hundred twelve varas (93,4 meters). The torrent's mean depth appears to be six meters. For the safety of travelers, who are quite rare in this deserted land, the Indians of Pandi have built a small parapet of reeds that extends toward the path leading to the upper bridge.


Excerpted from VIEWS OF THE CORDILLERAS AND MONUMENTS OF THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF THE AMERICAS by ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Art of Science: Alexander von Humboldt’s Views of the Cultures of the World
An Introduction by Vera M. Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette
Note on the Text
Dedication page from the first French edition, Paris, 1810–1813
Introduction by Alexander von Humboldt

Picturesque Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas
Plates I and II: Bust of an Aztec Priestess
Plate III: View of the Main Square of Mexico City
Plate IV: Natural Bridges of Icononzo
Plate V: Quindiu Pass in the Cordillera of the Andes
Plate VI: Tequendama Falls
Plate VII: Pyramid of Cholula
Plate VIII: Detached Section from the Cholula Pyramid
Plate IX: Xochicalco Monument
Plate X: Cotopaxi Volcano
Plate XI: Mexica Relief Found in Oaxaca
Plate XII: Genealogy of the Princes of Azcapotzalco
A Trial Document in Hieroglyphic Script
Plate XIII: Aztec Hieroglyphic Manuscript Preserved in the Vatican Library
Plate XIV: Costumes Drawn by Mexica Painters in Montezuma’s Time
Plate XV: Aztec Hieroglyphs from the Velletri Manuscript
Plate XVI: View of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo
Plate XVII: The Peruvian Monument of Cañar
Plate XVIII: Boulder of Inti-Guaicu
Plate XIX: Inga-Chungana near Cañar
Plate XX: Interior of the Inca’s House at Cañar
Plate XXI: Aztec Bas-Relief Found in the Main Square of Mexico City
Plate XXII: Basaltic Rocks and the Regla Waterfall
Plate XXIII: Basalt Relief Showing the Mexica Calendar
Plate XXIV: The Inca’s House at Callo in the Kingdom of Quito
Plate XXV: Chimborazo Viewed from the Tapia Plateau
Plate XXVI: Epochs of Nature According to Aztec Mythology
Plate XXVII: Hieroglyphic Painting from the Borgia Manuscript of Velletri and Day-Signs from the Mexica Almanac
Plate XXVIII: Aztec Ax
Plate XXIX: Aztec Idol Made of Basaltic Porphyry, Found under the Cobblestones of the Main Square of Mexico City
Plate XXX: Río Vinagre Falls near the Puracé Volcano
Plate XXXI: Mail Service in the Province of Jaén de Bracamoros
Plate XXXII: Hieroglyphic History of the Aztecs, from the Great Flood to the Founding of Mexico City
Plate XXXIII: Rope Bridge near Penipe
Plate XXXIV: Cofre de Perote
Plate XXXV: Mount Iliniza
Plate XXXVI: Fragments of Aztec Hieroglyphic Paintings from the Royal Library of Berlin
Plate XXXVII: Hieroglyphic Paintings from the Borgia Museum in Velletri
Plate XXXVIII: Migration of the Aztec Peoples; Hieroglyphic Painting from the Royal Library of Berlin
Plate XXXIX: Granite Vase Found on the Coast of Honduras
Plate XL: Aztec Idol in Basalt, Found in the Valley of Mexico
Plate XLI: Air Volcano of Turbaco
Plate XLII: Volcano of Cayambe
Plate XLIII: Volcano of Jorullo
Plate XLIV: Calendar of the Muisca Indians, the Ancient Inhabitants of the Bogotá Plateau
Plate XLV: Fragment of a Hieroglyphic Manuscript Preserved at the Royal Library of Dresden
Plates XLVI, XLVII, and XLVIII: Hieroglyphic Paintings from the Mexica Manuscript Preserved in the Imperial Library of Vienna, Numbers 1, 2, and 3
Plates XLIX and L: Ruins of Miguitlan, or Mitla, in the Province of Oaxaca; Survey and Elevation
Plate LI: View of Corazón
Plates LII and LIII: Dress of the Indians of Michoacan
Plate LIV: View of the Interior of the Crater of the Peak of Tenerife
Plates LV and LVI: Fragments of Paintings from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Plate LVII: Fragment of a Christian Calendar from the Aztec Manuscripts Preserved in the Royal Library of Berlin
Plates LVIII and LIX: Hieroglyphic Paintings from the Raccolta di Mendoza
Plate LX: Fragments of Aztec Paintings from a Manuscript Preserved at the Vatican Library
Plate LXI: Pichincha Volcano
Plate LXII: Plan of a Fortified House of the Inca on the Ridge of the Cordillera of Azuay; Ruins of a Part of the Ancient Peruvian City of Chulucanas
Plate LXIII: Raft from the Guayaquil River
Plate LXIV: Summit of Los Órganos Mountain at Actopan
Plate LXV: Columnar Porphyry Mountains of El Jacal
Plate LXVI: Head Engraved in Hard Stone by the Muisca Indians; Obsidian Bracelet
Plate LXVII: View of Lake Guatavita
Plate LXVIII: View of the Silla de Caracas
Plate LXIX: Dragon Tree of La Orotava
Letter from Mr. Visconti, Member of the Institut de France, to Mr. von Humboldt, on Some Monuments of the American Peoples
List of Plates from the Original Edition
Humboldt’s Library
Editorial Note
Index of Names
Index of Subjects
Index of Toponyms

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