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by Edward Herbert Thompson (1860 - 1935)

      [Editor's Note: This brief paper is a republication of Chapter IX of Edward Thompson's famous book from 1932 describing his career activities exploring the Yucatan1. The map is on the inside front cover and first page of the 1932 edition1b. This legend apparently is a so-called 'true' story told to many visitors by the Yucatanean Maya. The Establishment has made very few comments on this diffusion-laden legend!]

In the legends and folklore of a race, the history of the race is written, if we could but read it. It is true that the grain of fact is generally hidden beneath a wealth of imaginative chaff, but it is there nevertheless. During my long career in Yucatan I was fortunately able to prove the truth of certain tales that had passed as legendary for generations and I will touch upon these matters later. But back of tales such as these are many ancient Maya traditions, none the less fascinating because they are as yet incapable to proof, and obviously containing the elements of history. Among these ancient legends none is more 'alluring' to the student, nor more baffling, than that which concerns the landing of the Chanes.

In a previous chapter I referred to the fact that the Mayas had their Plymouth Rock as had the Puritans who followed them to the continent of America many centuries later. That is, the legends of the primitive races of Yucatan and of portions of Mexico tell of the coming in ships of a fair-skinned race of men who became the rulers and the leaders of the dark-skinned aborigines. To explain this occurrence as the arrival of some of the survivors of the catastrophe in which the storied 'Lost Atlantis' disappeared is unsatisfactory to the scientific mind, and this is putting the matter mildly. The Atlantis theory itself remains to be proved. But a tradition so widespread and a legend so persistent must have some basis in history, and it is legitimate for us to hold as probable that at some time in the remote past a group of people representing a civilization of which we have lost all trace made their influence felt upon the races indigenous to Mexico and Yucatan.

I wish that I might impress upon the readers of this book the fact that, despite all that is said, done, or written to the contrary, most of the sciences are today in a state of flux. If this be so even with what we have hitherto regarded as the 'exact' sciences, how much more it must be the case with those which are acknowledged to be yet in their swaddling clothes -- archćology, ethnology, and the other'ologies' that follow in the wake of anthropology.

Time was --and that in the not distant past -- when six thousand years ago was considered to have been the Alpha of the earth's life. Then came an upheaval of these supposed facts or fixed ideas. Only a few months ago George Grant MacCurdy, professor of anthropology at Yale, showed me an arrow-point of crystal taken by him from an Old-World deposit of artifacts, objects fashioned by human hands at least one hundred thousand years ago. Still more recently -- and this time on our own hemisphere, almost at our door, in the gypsum deposits of Nevada -- have been found arrow- or dart-points of stone and the charcoal of human campfires, mingled with the bones of fossil sloths that were evidently killed and eaten by the human hunters of more than twenty thousand years ago. Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History and one of America's noted scientists, has placed on public record his belief that man as such has existed on this earth for more than five million years.

Bearing these facts in mind, it behooves us to be very open-minded in the matter of chronology and chronological estimates, and this may be taken here to apply especially to the strange happenings chronicled by the traditions of widely separate peoples concerning the mysterious appearance on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico of the Chanes - The People of the Serpent.

These traditions tell us, and carvings on ancient walls and stone columns sustain them, that unknown ages ago there appeared strange craft at the mouth of what is now known as the Panuco River in the State of Vera Cruz. The sides of these vessels shone like the scales of serpent' skins, and to the simple natives who saw them approaching they appeared to be great serpents coming swiftly toward them.

In these craft were light-skinned beings, and some of the traditions have it that they were tall of stature and blue-eyed. They were clad in strange garments and wore about their foreheads emblems like entwined serpents. The wondering natives who met them at the shore saw the manner of their coming with the symbol of the Sacred Serpent, which they worshipped, on their brows, and knew the strangers to be their gods come down from their home in the sun to teach and guide them

Who were these fair-skinned people, tall of stature and strangely clad, sailing through unknown seas to an unknown land? The answer to this question has been lost in the passing of the ages and the destruction of the ancient records, and now we know only that they came and that until after the arrival of the Spaniards, the place where they landed was known as Tamoanchan, which means, in the native language, the place where the People of the Serpent landed. It is near Tuxpan in the Tampico district.

The dark-skinned race too the light-skinned people to be their guides and teachers and all went well with them. Under the sage counsels and wise teachings of the Chanes, the indigenous race was raised from an almost brutish, savage condition to the status of thinking, reasoning people.

In the passing of time -- and much time must have passed to have brought all this about -- these wise men, the people of the Serpent, separated, probably in the furtherance of a concerted plan. Some went north and some went south, each with a band of dark-skinned followers. Those who went north were known as the Chichimecas and even more northerly peoples, the savage tribes among whom they worked and taught and whom they left enlightened, as Tultecas -- 'teachers' or 'builders.'

Those who went south, the tradition tell, forded rivers, lived under the shadows of great forests, and in cave darknesses suffered all things that man may suffer and live. Ever they moved onward, teaching and uplifting into the light the savage peoples among whom they tarried when the met them. They conquered, not by force and strange weapons, but by binding the primitive peoples to them by force of their power and wisdom. Among these races, they were known as Ulmecas -- the Rubber People. It is known that they used rubber extensively and this is probably the derivation of the name. The leaders of the Ulmecas were known as Chanes, or, among the Mayas, as Canob -- Serpents' Wise Men -- or Ah Tzai - People of the Rattlesnake.

It is impossible from any sources as yet available to reconstruct the details of that pilgrimage of the Ulmecas, drawn out over not man knows how long a span of time, but at last they came to a favored site by two great wells. There they rested finally and there they built Chichén Itzá - the City of the Sacred Well.

Meanwhile a roving branch of the Tultecas, lost brothers of the Ulmecas, had turned southward and gone first to the ancient parting-place of the two groups of the Chanes. Through the slow-growing centuries they had become near kin in manners, thoughts, and language to the peoples they had neighbored in the north. They drifted along the ancient trail of the Ulmecas, down to the capital of the Ulmeca Mayas, Chichén Itzá. This was the so-called Toltec invasion, which occurred but a few centuries before the coming of the Spaniards and when all the races of the region merged into one people under the name of Maya.

Thus, in barest outline, with many breaks and dubious places, runs the history of this ancient race of Chanes -- People of the Serpent -- and the peoples they led from darkness into light, from the landing at Tamoanchan down to the Conquest.

  1. Edward Herbert Thompson, People of the Serpent, Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1932, 301p; reprinted by Capricon Books, New York, 1965.