In the beginning, before the arrival of man, America was a land stretching vast and virgin between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Snow-covered mountain ranges, jungles, deserts, high plateaus and savannas, abounding in strange animals never seen before, were waiting for man. In time —the experts do not agree exactly when— men arrived. Some of them made their way from the steppes of Eastern Asia across the Aleutians and Alaska; others sailed across the sea from Oceania. Even today those Easter Island giants of stone stand guard looking toward their ancestral home.
The Agricultural Revolution had not yet occurred in the Fertile Crescent along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Thousands of years would pass before the Egyptian Pharaohs emerged. The arrival of the first Americans lies forever lost in the dawn of mankind’s history. When civilization came to Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, the early Americans were already living isolated and had to develop civilization from scratch. Agriculture and writing were invented without the benefit of the successful discoveries that preceded the Bronze Age in Asia and Europe, such as the invention of the wheel or, the taming of horses, cattle, and sheep.
The first Americans were hunters and fishermen but the descendants of those early settlers were great farmers. Potatoes, tomatoes, avocadoes, yucca, corn and many other farm products are the result their effort through centuries of patient and ingenious improvements. Year after year archeologists have been discovering how America’s civilizations progressed, improving agriculture, metallurgy, mathematics and astronomy. Talented engineers learned how to work stone with amazing precision. Dozens of peoples from the Venezuelan grasslands down to the farthest corners of the Paraguayan Chaco, from the jungles of Northern Peru as far as the island of Marajó, were gradually fostering the growth of the world’s richest forest in the Amazonian basin. Many of these civilizations have disappeared forever and we will never know what their kings were called, nor will we ever be able to listen to the sound of their language or songs. However, their legacy somehow survives in the ancient ruins left by them all over the continent. Huge Olmec sculptures perhaps representing people of African features, enormous man-made embankments on the Bolivian Beni, Machu Picchu —the impossible city tucked away among the clouds crowning the Andes, thousands of meters above sea level— the cities and pyramids of the Mayas and the Mexica, the large cities and villages of the North American nations which our archeologists are just beggining to explore… the legacy of these peoples is enormous and mysterious. All of these remnants of lost civilizations prompt us to ask: what happened to them? In Europe and Asia, Romans, Greeks, Slavs, Chinese, Egyptians, Persians lived on in one way or another. Despite history’s upheavals some peoples have managed to preserve part of their cultural heritage somehow. What happened in America? Why has so little has survived of those ancient cultures?
1492: the year we made contact
Many of the world’s religions declare that God speaks to us by means of His creation. To us, Catholics, history is not merely an meaningless series of battles, invasions, dynasties and empires. For us history is the wonderful scenario on which God enacts the creation of man, the fall, the struggle for survival in a hostile world and the redemption of the human race. On this grand stage, God presents to us the drama of creation, using ages, kingdoms, races, continents and an enormous assortment of majestic and impressive things, as is proper to the power of his divine will. History can be viewed as a hidden Gospel which proclaims the Glory of God both in a subtle and magnificent way. Only God can perform such great works in time and space.
The Americas were hidden from the rest of the world up until the arrival of Christopher Columbus—in modern-day Santo Domingo— in October, 1492. There had been previous contacts between Europeans and Americans. In the 12th and 13th centuries Norwegian sailors had already set up trading centers in Greenland, Terranova and Maine. Some of them seem to have explored the shores of North America, reaching as far as present-day Cuba and Florida. Additionally, archeologists have found some pieces of porcelain made in China, which could be evidence of contacts between Asia and America. In any event, contact with peoples overseas seems to have been very rare or infrequent until that morning of October 12, 1492 when the Genoese admiral Christopher Columbus set foot for the first time on Hispaniola Island.
Who was Columbus?
Here, we must digress for a moment to take a look at this man, Christopher Columbus, whose historical figure becomes more and more important as years go by. Cristóforo Colombo, was a native of Genoa, “the proud queen of the sea” as her citizens still call her. This city in northern Italy has been for many centuries home to famous bankers, traders, shipbuilders and sailors. Also, the region under the domain of Genoa, Old Liguria, was once the homeland of Italy’s royal family. Some historians claim that Columbus was a member of a devout Jewish family that had converted to Christianity. That’s what his name seems to indicate. In those days, converts to Judaism used to take some particular names (from trees, birds) to indicate where they were coming from and, therefore, to be able to recognize each other after their conversion. “Columbo” means “dove” in the Genoese dialect, while Cristóforo means “the Christ bearer”. That is also St. Christopher’s name, a very popular saint with Genoese people of all times.
It is widely claimed that the saints we choose to bless our baptism and confirmation imprint some of their virtues on our souls. This seems to be especially true regarding Christopher Columbus. In those days, St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers. His name Cristóforo or Christopher, means “he who carries Christ ” or “the Christ bearer”.
It is quite an amazing coincidence that Columbus should bear in his name the evidence of the Holy Spirit, traditionally represented as a dove and that he should have been entrusted to carry Christ across the Atlantic. Indeed, it is remarkable that his flagship should be the “Santa Maria” thus named after the Mother of God. That ship was bound to remain in the Americas since Columbus ordered to have it dismantled to build a small fort that he called “Santa Trinidad” (Holy Trinity) in honor of God Himself. Symbolically, Columbus brought in Mary, Jesus and the Holy Trinity to America and left them here as a seed for the faith of future generations.
Unforeseen consequences of the first contacts
The New World that Columbus opened up to the Europeans had been for many centuries cut off from the Old World. In 1492 Europe was entering the Modern Age, while the Americas were just reaching the Bronze Age. Yet, the clash of these two big blocs had such important implications that even today—five centuries later—there are many things we are just beginning to understand.
Population before and after the first contact
Both the Aztec and Inca empires could not have existed without the high numbers of people needed to run such complex societies. There is an obvious difference between the population of the Americas at the time of the discovery and the low population density at the time of the arrival of the European settlers. Cortez and Pizarro conquered very large territories for Spain with small armies of just a few hundred men. Once the natives were subdued, the Spanish crown never needed a standing army to keep the peace. That peace lasted from the early 16th century to the American wars of independence that, for the most part, broke out in the 18th century. Until very recently Historians estimated rather low population figures for all of the Americas around the time of the discovery but that estimation is being challenged now. In all likelihood, we will never know the exact number; but a rough guess puts it at several dozen million, probably in the vicinity of one hundred million. That was approximately the population of Europe at the time.
How do we arrive to these numbers? First, we have two large empires, the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Inca Empire in present-day Peru and Bolivia. We do not have exact population figures but we can calculate the approximate number of people needed to run those systems. As for the rest of the continent, countless tribes inhabited it. To the south and towards the north of Mexico, organized confederations were beginning to crop up, building enormous cities which disappeared a few decades after the Europeans first arrived. Again, the total number of inhabitants outside the organized empires is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless the low and high estimates seem to indicate that the population outside the organized entities was relatively high, perhaps comparable to their contemporary European populations. The fact remains that only a century or so after the discovery those populations had been decimated and entire cultures had disappeared from the face of the earth. How this disappearance came to happen is one of the most fascinating mysteries in history.
Not as savage as the invaders
In his book “1491”, journalist Charles C. Mann writes:
“Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.”
To get an idea of how important the disappeared American civilizations were in the 16th century, we can take a look at the size and functionality of their cities. Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, had running water and waste water systems. The streets were a model of cleanliness and tidiness maintained by a small force of organized workers. The citizens of Tenochtitlan lived in a much healthier and cleaner environment than did the king of France, whom centuries later had the Versailles palace built without a single bathroom. In those years, for that matter, the world’s biggest city was not Rome or Paris or London: it was Tenochtitlan and all over the continent there were—before the arrival of the Europeans—some huge cities. We are just beginning to discover some of those ruins: Cahokia, Calakmul and many others
Available to us are reports by Hernan Cortez, Francisco Pizarro and other explorers who got to see these vast empires in their last days. Many of them were astonished at the grandeur and vitality of these urban centers. Contrary to what is widely believed, the Spanish conquerors did not destroy these cities in order to seize their treasures. While certainly there was sacking and mistreatment, most damage done by Europeans was completely unintentional. Four centuries had to pass before scientists like Jenner and Pasteur created the science of microbiology so that we could understand the invisible forces that swept away America’s indigenous nations.
The French explorer René Robert Sieur De La Salle left us a clue of what happened to some of those huge urban centers. He traveled in 1682 through the same Mississippi area that Hernando De Soto had explored a hundred years before. De Soto had not been able to establish a colony in that part of the world since it was “full of a large number of fenced villages and many well-trained archers”. A century later, La Salle found the ruins of those villages but they were no longer inhabited. The civilizations that had supported them just two generations before had vanished leaving the cities intact. De Soto had a chance to see a few cities like Cahokia from the relative safety of the rafts he used to explore the Mississippi. He saw the cities intact and active, packed with people and heavily guarded. What happened in the years following his visit is one of the saddest chapters in American history.
When Columbus left the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he also left one of his sailors who had fallen ill and died of the pox. In a somewhat disproportionate exchange, one of his returning officers also caught syphilis that was common among the Taino people on that island. Syphilis would reappear in Europe from time to time in the following centuries, killing a few thousands. At this time some even dispute the American origin of syphilis. However the effect of European diseases on the American population was going to be monumentally more devastating than anything that could have affected the Europeans.
In the following years, the pigs that Hernando de Soto had left behind in Georgia, a French sailor suffering from viral hepatitis who was shipwrecked off the Massachusetts shores, and many other sources of infection added to Columbus’ first visit, casting a dark mantle of pestilence and death which—according to some estimations—annihilated a sizable portion of the population. We have some evidence available of how the epidemic diseases spread from the Caribbean progressing in wide waves westward, northward and southward. Here is a brief timetable to help us put the early contacts in perspective.
—1492 Christopher Columbus makes his first contact.
—1510 Diego de Velazquez settles in Cuba.
—1519 Hernan Cortez arrives in Mexico
—1531 Francisco Pizarro reached Cajamarca in Peru
—1540 the last expedition of Hernando De Soto lands in Florida.
—1597 the first English settlers reach the coast of Virginia.
—1620 the Pilgrims reach Plymouth, Massachusetts.
This completes a period of about 130 years. When the English settlers came to Massachusetts they found the coastal aboriginal populations completely decimated by the plague. That was probably viral hepatitis caught from a Frenchman that survived a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Cod and was rescued by the natives.
When Francisco Pizarro reached Cajamarca in Peru in the year of 1531 a pox epidemic had already swept through the Inca empire, killing approximately twenty per cent of the population in a few years. There are strong reasons to believe this was the consequence of the 1492 contact in Hispaniola.
Among the victims were Huayno Capac, the Inca and his heir Ninan Coyuchui. The resulting power vacuum brought about a civil war between Atahualpa and Huaskar—both likely heirs to the throne—adding to the hardships of the population that have barely survived the plague. Just a few days after overcoming his enemies and consolidating the kingdom’s peace, Atahualpa learned about Pizarro´s landing. By December of 1531 the Incas no longer ruled their vast empire. The end came rapidly to those civilizations that had thrived in South America for so many centuries. At their height they ruled from Ecuador to the south of Chile, from the Peruvian shores on the Pacific to the edge of the great Amazonian basin in what is now Bolivia and Brazil.
Had it not been for the diseases, which weakened all of the American societies without exception, the conquest of America would have been as impossible as the full conquest of China or Japan. History would have been entirely different. The Spanish, French and English who would eventually settle down in America, could do so because the native societies had been undermined by successive waves of smallpox, diphtheria, influenza, and other maladies, some of which still exist today. These facts seem to indicate that the original population of the Americas was indeed much higher before the discovery. It was the European diseases what decimated the aboriginal population. As the Europeans began to arrive in earnest—about a century after the first contact—they found a nearly empty continent. Yet, that was not the way it was before the discovery.
In December, 1531—at the same time Pizarro consolidated his conquest of Peru—at the other end of the American continent, the bishop of Mexico got a surprising report: The Virgin Mary had appeared to a modest native called Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on Tepeyac hill near Tenochtitlan. A series of remarkable miracles confirmed the apparition. This miracle was followed by thousands of conversions among the natives and about nine million American Christians were received into the Church in the years to follow. The conversions cover the territories extending between California and the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Thus began the evangelization of America guided by Mary of Nazareth.
Your brother’s blood
“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil!” (Genesis 4, 10)
Let us leave for a moment this year of 1531, which ends with the conquest of Peru and the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico. We shall go back to the year of 1398, one hundred and thirty years before the Virgin’s apparition on Tepeyac Hill. In that particular year, two children were born who were to be prominent in the history of the Aztecs. One of them was Moctezuma, the last emperor and the other one, little known to many of us but no less important: Tlecaellel, the architect of the Aztec empire. The Aztec historian Quauhtlehuanitzin says about him:
“There were many great, awe-inspiring kings and warriors among those peoples, near and far and all over the world. But the most courageous and distinguished of them all in the nation was the great captain, the great warrior Tlecaellel. It was he who ordered the worship of the demon Huitzilopochti, the God of the Mexicas.”
Tlecaellel was the organizer and founder of the Aztec empire that Cortez would discover a hundred years later. Tlecaellel lived for almost a century and during that period of time he implemented a master plan to strengthen the power of the Aztec emperors among the peoples in the region. He himself refused to be an emperor and chose instead to be the power behind the throne. He turned down the proposal to be a crowned king by saying: “I am already a king”. In promoting a large number of sacrifices to the demon Huitzipochtli, he set off a series of regional wars with the only purpose of capturing victims for the sacrifices he would offer up “like hot bread fresh from the oven, soft and delicious.” At the age of thirty-one in 1429, he emerged as a mighty military leader and appointed the three kings of the Triple Alliance by his own power. Indeed, he was the empire’s true ruler for seventy-seven years.
Perhaps the most macabre time in the macabre life of Tlecaellel occurred in 1487 when he was eighty-nine years old. In that year, the great pyramidal temple of Huitzipochtli was built right in central Tenochtitlan, a striking one- hundred ft. high building, containing a large complex full of apartments, corridors and sanctuaries where the god’s priests lived and worked. The two main “gods” in the Aztec pantheon—to whom most human sacrifices were made—were Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. Its ‘priests’ would paint their bodies black; their permanently uncut hair was always plastered with dry blood. Their sharp teeth tapered to a point. The new temple was erected and dedicated by order of Tlecaellel who decided, for that special event, to offer up the greatest sacrifice of human lives ever made in the empire’s history. Summing up the various accounts of that sad day, historian R. C. Padden described it as follows:
“Well before daybreak, legionnaires prepared the victims, who were put in close single file down the steps of the great pyramid, through the city, out over the causeways, and as far as the eye could see. For the average person viewing the spectacle from his rooftop, it would appear that the victims stretched in lines to the ends of the earth. The bulk of the unfortunates were from hostile provinces and the swollen ranks of slavery. On the pyramid summit four slabs had been set up, one at the head of each staircase, for Tlecaellel and the three kings of the Aztec Triple Alliance, all of them were to begin the affair as sacrificial priests. All were in readiness; the lines, of victims were strung out for miles, milling about like cattle, waiting their turn in the line that was about to move. Suddenly, the brilliantly arrayed kings appeared on the platform and silence fell all over the city. Together they approached Huitzipochtli’s chapel and made reverent obeisance. As they turned to join their aides at the four slabs, great snakeskin drums began to throb, announcing that the lines could now begin to move.”
The victims were readily arranged on the altar where the priest would tear their hearts out by quickly striking them with a huge obsidian knife. The operation was quick and accurate. Once the victims were sacrificed, they were sent tumbling down the steps where the assistants would quarter the bodies that would be cooked and eaten later. The ceremony went on for four days and we know that at least 80,000 individuals were sacrificed. Tlecaellel ordered that the event should be seen by all of the noblemen and their families. Horrified by that sight, most of them ran away in terror but although they could escape such horror, they could not escape the nauseating smell of human blood engulfing the entire city. The 1487 massacre is one of the most appalling chapters in the long list of horrors in the history of man.
What the participants and the hopeless victims in that massacre did not know was that that evil social order was soon to change forever. Before that sad generation was gone, the whole nation would be rescued by Christ’s love by means of very unprecedented, amazing events.
Save us from those who devour us
The phrase taken from Psalm 14 can be used to understand how God dealt with the anguish of the poor and downtrodden American peoples. God’s grace was to be dispensed to them in a way never seen before. Such grace came down especially on the poor Mexican natives truly like a refreshing rain. In those days, in the small town of Cusutitlan, not so very far from Tenochtitlan there lived a little boy of about thirteen years of age. By then, he was an apprentice tilma weaver, the traditional fiber ponchos that are typical among the Nahuatl people. He was a Macehualtin, that is, a low-class poor boy. He is likely to have attended the sacrifices on that horrible day, maybe out of curiosity. His name was Cuauhtlatouac, “the one who speaks like an eagle”.
Some forty years later, Cuauhtlatouac was baptized with the Christian name of Juan Diego and it was to him that the Mother of God appeared on the Tepeyac Hill right where the Aztec goddess Toniatzin was worshipped in the old days. In another of those remarkable coincidences in history, the apparition gave rise to the advocation of the Virgin who was called Our Lady of Guadalupe, just like the Virgin Mary was once called in Extremadura, Spain. Columbus had already given this name to one of the Caribbean islands, in appreciation of Our Lady for having helped him survive a shipwreck. That name is, like Fatima, derived from the Arabic “wadi-al-loub”, Guadalupe, that is, “the river of the wolves”. It is quite possible, in the words of the historian Becerra Tanco (1666), that Our Lady had used the Nahuatl name “tequantlaxopeuh”, meaning literally “she who saves us from those who devour us.” Oddly enough, both etymologies show clearly mystical coincidences that San Juan Diego would have understood perfectly well.
The Old Testament contains a passage that could be applicable to this part in the American history.
“God comes … Before him goes pestilence, and the plague follows in his steps. He pauses to survey the earth; his look makes the nations tremble. The eternal mountains are shattered, the age-old hills bow low along his ancient ways … In wrath you bestride the earth, in fury you trample the nations. You come forth to save your people, to save your anointed one. You crush the heads of the wicked, you lay bare their bases at the neck. You pierce with your shafts the heads of their princes whose boast would be of devouring the wretched in their lair. You tread the sea with your steeds amid the churning of the deep waters … (Habakkuk 3)
While the Tlecaellel generation was exceedingly bloodthirsty, the Aztecs were not the only ones that made use of human sacrifices to terrify people and to worship their gods. Evidence of human sacrifices among the cultures of the high Andean plateau has been found also. Other peoples on the continent practiced cannibalism and ritual homosexuality at different times in history. In my view, the horror of the poor slaves and prisoners is unimaginable. The remains of sacrificed children in the Inca Empire fill us with sadness and indignation and we agree to the divine punishment that fell upon these peoples when least expected. God stepped into the Americas as described by prophet Habakkuk, preceded by pestilence and death, melting the mountains with his might. We feel justified in thinking that today the continent is living its Christian destiny in us, its new inhabitants. Will God agree with us in fact, that better times have come for this continent?
The same old abominations in our times
It is nearly impossible to figure the exact number of people who were sacrificed by the predecessors and followers of Tlecaellel. It would be still harder if we attempted to estimate the number of human sacrifices perpetrated before the discovery. The truth is that the arrival of the Europeans in America did not put an end to exterminations or oppression. Many saints such as Bishop Zumárraga or San Francisco Solano, preached against the unfair practices to which some natives were subjected in the past five centuries. In recent years, one could affirm there has been a resurgence of ideas and practices so bloody, cruel and demonic as those of Tlecaellel—and even more vicious. Pro-abortion organizations have managed to alter the legal traditions and laws of many countries and in such places as the United States over forty-eight million abortions have been performed so far. Infanticide and euthanasia are already practiced silently among us. Some people are working to legalize these practices and have succeeded in some states. This seems to be just the tip of the iceberg in a series of abominations, some of which are inconceivably inhuman and satanic.
One cannot help asking in earnest: what is God going to do to stop this new generation of murderers? Truly, the infamous record of Tlecaellel and his cronies has been more than exceeded. It should not come as a surprise if the divine punishment for such crimes is greater than that received by our pre-Columbian forefathers. This is a sobering thought that should motivate faithful Catholics to evangelize the New World once again. Evangelization is—as it always has been—not a matter of choice but a matter of life and death both for nations and individuals. It is up to us to choose life for the future of all of the Americas before we run out of time.
The Wonder of Guadalupe, by Francis Johnston, TAN books, Rockford, Illinois, 1981.
Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness, by Warren H. Carroll, Christendom Press, Front Royal, Virginia, 1983.
1491, by Charles C. Mann, Vintage Books/Random House, New York, 2006.