Machetes and sketchbooks introduced the Maya to the world

In the 1840s, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood studied Maya civilization with the best technology the 19th century had to offer: compelling words and captivating artwork captured during a jungle expedition.

Local lore says the 90-foot-high Pyramid of the Magician was built in one night by a dwarfish sorcerer. The structure soars over the Maya city of Uxmal, Yucatán, which Stephens and Catherwood visited on both of their journeys.
DMITRI ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES

Today's archaeologists have amazing technology to guide their work in the search for the past, but in the 1830s, explorers had to rely on different methods of collecting data. Despite ruling an empire that included swathes of Central America, King Philip II of Spain never crossed the Atlantic. His insights into his New World realms came to him in the form of detailed reports, such as one penned in 1576 by Diego García de Palacio, a senior official in Yucatán:

The first place in the province of Honduras [is] called Copán; there are ruins there, with vestiges of what had once been a great population, and of magnificent buildings [including] mounds that seem to have been made by hand, and in them many things to note. Before reaching them, there is a large figure of an eagle in stone . . . containing certain letters of a language unknown.

In 1839 two archaeologists, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, carefully pored over these words to Philip to help them in their journey to Copán. Although it, and other sites, were not exactly “lost,” a fog of ignorance still obscured European and American notions of Mesoamerican culture. Some early 19th-century authors—guided by racist assumptions about the indigenous inhabitants of the area—even argued the monumental ruined cities of Central America must have been built by Egyptians. Aided by the scant documentation on the site, including García de Palacio’s letter, Stephens and Catherwood set out to change these opinions and reawaken interest in these ceremonial centers, now swallowed by the jungle. (See also: Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya "Megalopolis" Below Guatemalan Jungle)

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet