Wednesday, May 14, 2014
making stuff up
A friend, better known for his wit than his subtlety, once told me the difference between historians and anthropologists is that historians rely on facts; anthropologists just make stuff up.
I thought of him yesterday as I was trudging through the National Museum of Anthropology. If you have even a nodding interest in the wonders of pre-Columbian Mexico, this is your Nirvana.
When I decided to spend a week in Mexico City, I intended to spend two -- maybe three -- days in the museum. It is huge. With separate rooms for each of the major Mexican civilizations.
The museum is best consumed in individual slices. Either by multiple visits (my intended attack) or by sampling each room.
You would never know it by the number of photographs I took, but I opted for the Whitman sampler approach.
The curators have crafted informative introductions to each of the exhibits. I decided to digest each of the placards, and then find interesting pieces to represent each era.
I learned a lot -- even though Mesoamerican archaeology is an interest of mine. But I could not escape the nagging feeling that much of what I read was not factual.
There is, of course, a giant problem in obtaining historical facts about most of the civilizations. Even though most of them had calendars and were quite adept at astronomic observations, they had no written language. Or, if they did, subsequent civilizations destroyed what existed. The Spanish did not invent the technique of absorbing culture through its destruction.
As a result, an historian would say that we know very little about about the civilization that built Teotihuacán -- the monumental ruins northeast of Mexico City. We can marvel at the ruins.
But we really know very little about the people who built it. How they lived their lives. Why the civilization collapsed. Or even what they called themselves. The Aztecs made up the name for the place.
That doesn't keep the anthropologists from filling in the gaps with their guesswork concerning the purpose of certain structures, As a result, the theories are in constant flux. Usually there is no additional evidence, just new synapses firing away.
The perfect example are the Maya. The Maya had a very complex set of hieroglyphs that have only recently been translated. Even with that history, we do not know why the various city-states in the Maya world collapsed.
But that has not stopped the guesswork. Internal social collapse was once the chief theory. Then along came the "too much competition" theory -- that seemed to be a variation on the first argument.
The ever-popular foreign invaders theory had its advocates. As does the "ecological collapse" theory now popular amongst the green set. I would not be surprised if Obamacare isn't blamed before too long.
The problem is that, even as interesting as the theories are, there is scant evidence to support any of the theories, And what evidence there is usually does not consistently support the conclusions for which it is offered.
That is why some people still feel confident that this piece is a space ship piloted by an alien -- thus explaining the god myths.
And some anthropologists believed that the giant Olmec heads were proof that Africans sailed to Mexico and brought the technology of pyramid-building with them. With all of the soft racism that Indians could not possibly have developed the building techniques on their own.
Using that same logic, I would argue that the Maya were actually the product of a Simpsons episode gone bad.
The Anthropological Museum is often very clever in the way it presents these theories. The placards slip in a flurry of "maybe," "perhaps," and "it has been argued" to avoid crossing the river into the land of Prevarication. Other times, the placards toss out theories without any precatory language at all.
As a writer, I understand the dilemma. A good story is a good story. And that is what people want to hear. Lawyers and historians can suck the marrow right out of a good tale.
Of course, it is possible to spend a full day in the museum (as I did), and never have the historian-anthropologist divide come to mind (as I didn't). There are plenty of monumental pieces to leave you in awe of the civilizations that preceded the Spanish.
And there are even more small pieces to remind you that the people who lived in Mexico -- and their descendants who still do -- were people who found joy in life. Such as this container carved from a single piece of obsidian.
Well, I guess that proves only that the elite had some joy.
There are also enough pieces to let the viewer know that this was a Hobbesian world -- as ours still is. Where life could be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.