Riddles of the Distant Past
By Scott Corrales
Mystical Travel Latin America Correspondent
While many may find the concept of sunken lands a trifle disturbing (or as an old college instructor of mine would say, when questioned about Atlantis, "continents made of granite don't sink into tectonic plates made of basalt"), the need to explain many of the ancient features of the American continent almost inevitably leads to the realization that older, advanced civilizations may have flourished on both landmasses earlier than anthropologists and ethnographers are willing to accept, or that such features could be the remains of more advanced visitors from the Old World...or a world that no longer exists.
Abel Hernández Muñoz, a member of the Sociedad Epigráfica Cubana (Cuban Epigraphic Society) has drawn attention throughout Latin America and Spain to the highly curious "Taguasco Dolmen", located near the village of the same name in the Cuban province of Sancti Spiritus, close to the island's geographic center.
The Taguasco Dolmen is, in fact, a tower made of superimposed megaliths containing a small chamber running in an east-west direction. According to Hernández, the eastern opening of the chamber points toward a tiny circle of stones or Cromlech, consisting of one central stone and two menhirs standing some 10 feet tall. The overall style and composition of this monument is disturbingly similar to the megalithic alignments of the Balearic Islands (off Spain's eastern coast), giving rise to all manner of speculations by its very appearance.
But as if the mysterious structure's aspect weren't controversial enough, the Taguasco Dolmen bears on its surface some very curious inscriptions which Cuban epigraphers have associated with Phoenician script employed in their Mediterranean posessions around the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., respectively. Other inscriptions appear to correspond to the Irish Ogham script which according to experts, was not in use prior to the 10th century of the Christian Era.
Regardless of the obvious descriptions, the Ogham inscription reads "B-L", which has been interpreted as "BEL" or "Bel", the name of the solar deity of the sea-faring Phoenicians. If correct, this identification would match similar instances of "B-L" found in North America. The other inscription is rendered as "Q-B" and vocalized as the word coba, an old Arabic word describing a turret or small watchtower. Could this, Hernández speculates, be the source of the word Cuba, which identifies the largest of the Greater Antilles?
The epigraphical findings can be corroborated by archaeological ones, such as the discovery of a clearly female European skeleton in a Taino/Siboney burial yard, and the existence of a Celtiberic-Phoenician sanctuary near Cuba's world-famous Varadero Beach.
Traces of Phoenician involvement in the Caribbean go beyond Cuba, appearing in the the strange "bearded" petroglyphs of the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. These images show strange figures of bearded men, often wearing turbans or thoroughly non-Taino Indian headgear. Revisionist historians have often used the existence of these stone carvings to launch theories of Phoenician visits in antiquity to these islands; In a paper presented to the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y El Caribe, scholar Roberto Marínez Torres points out the existence of 17th century historical references to unusual divinities visiting the islands that form part of the oral traditions of the Carib indians of the isle of Tortuga: these white divinities taught the Caribs the building of huts, agricultural techniques and the manipulation of poisonous yucca to make cassava bread. This last indication proves both troubling and interesting, given the absence of yucca and similar tubers in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, might we not assume that Phoenician traders frequenting West Africa (as demonstrated by Hanno's expedition to the Senegal region) would have encounters similar roots and learned how to use them? Curiously enough, the Spanish conquistadores learned the making of cassava bread quickly enough, turning it into a regular staple on their maritime explorations in the New World.
A Mystery of Painted Stone
Brazil, best known in occult circles for its UFO cases, high strangness events and candomblé rituals, also holds it own when it comes to strange landmarks which point uncomfortably to origins that perhaps are at odds with scientific dogma.
The best known of these is Pedra Pintada ("Painted Rock") a series of blocks and rock walls protruding from the ground and overlooking grassy plains of the Brazilian state of Roraima (on the border with Venezuela). The rock compled presents an array of rhomboidal shapes, triangles, what appear to be suns, and crudely drawn figures. In 1838, German explorer Richard Schomburgk ventured up to the Amazon headwaters and was among the very first Europeans to ever gaze upon Pedra Pintada. His native retainers informed him that Pedra Pintada was considered by their folk to house the spirit of Macunaima, one of the heroes of the Carib tribes dwelling in the northern end of the South American landmass.Archaeologists have ascribed the Pedra Pintada petroglyphs to the "Rupununi phase" of the Guayanas and dated them between 2000 and 1000 BCE. Contemporary native tribes often express a certain amount of fear about these carvings and claim not to know their significance.
The belief that these manifestations could be far older has always been expressed, much to the consternation of academia. While Chilean anthrolpologist Juan Schobinger assures us that the question of "ancient vanished civilizations" being the responsible for this work has been put to rest, others insist that the question remains quite open and valid.
The best-known challenge to academic auctoritas came from Marcel Homet, a French explorer and scholar whose expedition to discover the remains of lost civilizations in 1949 is chronicled in the book The Children of the Sun. Homet's Amazonian guides regaled him with stories of ruins far up the course of the Uraricoera River, and the researcher himself faced a number of perils (carnivorous plants, etc.). Homet's work has been largely discredited, but his observations on Pedra Pintada deserve to be commented upon. He considered the odd, egg-shaped stone to be an enormous book containing samples of all of the ancient languages of mankind -- old Egyptian hieroglyphs and samples of Mesopotamian symbols. Homet couldn't emphasize enough the rock's importance as a "glyptolithic library" on humanity's past.
Chile's Bewildering Past
The living have always had a morbid fascination with the process of mummification. Surely ancient hunter/gatherers in the world's deserts were quite used to the prospect of natural mummification due to exposure in extremely dry and stable climates. Mummies have become an indispensable fixture in literary horror stories about Ancient Egypt and in not-quite-so literary motion pictures such as 1999's The Mummy. Yet the fulsome and complicated techniques by means of which the Egyptians disposed of their dead have always seemed unique to that part of the world, although some adventurous souls have claimed that it was handed down from lost Atlantis. The sunken continent aside, what are we to make of the mummification practices which took place in the Americas, which were just as complex and far older than any Egyptian ones?
In 1917, when anthropologist and explorer Max Uhle discovered the burial sites of what he called "the Arica Aborigines", scholars believed that these non-Egyptian mummification dated to 3000 B.C.E or thereabouts, but contemporary researchers have discovered that it is at least two millenia older than the date first put forth (5000 B.C.E.). Mummification in Egypt can be dated back to 2400 B.C.E.
The ancient Aricans mummification techniques consisted in skinning and eviscerating the corpse, removing the muscles of the bones and legs, then setting the insides to dry by means of hot coals. All cavities were filled with substances ranging from dirt and wool to feathers and natural fiber. The face was generally painted white, black or red while a wig completed the ensemble.
Curious similarities to the mummification traditions of the Canary Islanders soon emerged. Paleopathologist Michael Allison notes that the Chilean mummies "...were collected in family groups of three to eight people, men, women and children, and kept upright through the use of the rods employed to reinforce them. These families were perhaps personages, healers or shamans, or great hunters, having special powers transmittable to the living even after death as long as their bodies remained present." The custom in the Canary Islands, roughly six thousand miles away, prescribed that the new tribal leader be "advised" by the mummified body of the deceased leader, who was kept at hand.
A Canarian historian, Héctor Gonzalez, believes in the possibility that "Atlantis" is source for the commonality of funeral practices. González has conducted a detailed analysis of the descriptions of mythical continent given by Plato in his writings and has checked them against existing maps and atlases. He suggests that there was never, in fact, a "lost continent", and that Atlantis is in South America--located in the still-unexplored Guyana Highlands.
The descriptions given by the Greek philosopher, says González, match the physical features of the Panama Isthmus, the Matto Grosso region and the bordering Andean range. As contradictory as this conclusion may seem, the Canarian historian has argued that at no point do any of the classical sources refer to Atlantis as "a continent", but rather a massive expanse of land surrounded by water.
The simultaneous creation of inventions and the discovery of new concepts in separate locations is nothing new, and certainly the primitive inhabitants of the salt flats of northerh Chile were bright enough to come up with their own mummification techniques, owing nothing to an improbable "mother civilization". But why engage in exceedingly and exceedingly complex and grisly task when their very environment would take care of the job for them? The dryness of the atmosphere was a key factor in preserving another set of very ancient and sensational burials which have become known as the "mummies of Urumchi" -- the remains of a tall, caucasian group of tribesmen dwelling in what is now Western China. The complex mummification practices of South America must be included, therefore, into our continent's gallery of mysteries.
A Forgotten Kingdom Speaks
An Aztec map would probably have portrayed the area currently known as Northern Mexico in the same terms used by Medieval cartographers for the vast uncharted lands on their portulans: terra incognita. Indeed, while the Aztecs were clearly aware of having come from a place called Aztlan somewhere in North America, their own idea of where it could be was quite sketchy. Spanish friar Diego Durán, writing in the late 1500's, notes that Aztec monarch Moctezuma Ihuilcamina ordered his wise men to engage in what we would call a "fact-finding" mission on the origins of their people. The scholar in charge, Coauhcoatl, informed his king that Aztlán meant "whiteness" and had been a land filled with all manner of waterfowl, fish and riverine vegetation, but that little else was known about it. The Spanish conquest of the region occupied by the state of Querétaro (just slightly to the north of Mexico City) were aided by other native tribes who had knowledge of what lay beyond, given the Aztecs' geographic shortcomings.
Despite the fact that the Mexican highlands had sustained commercial relations with the mysterious city of Paquimé (part of the Casas Grandes culture of the desert), northern Mexico beckoned as a place of great mystery and even high strangeness. It's allure caused even the most ruthless of all the conquistadores, Nuño de Guzmán, to push his bedraggled band of soldiers ever northward into modern Sinaloa, hoping to find "the country of the Amazons".
Had his desert-weary troops not rebelled against him, Guzmán may have reached the mountainous dwelling places of the Tarahumara Indians, which some believe to have direct ties to forgotten Atlantis.
It would fall to an artist, not a warrior, to share this significant experience. In 1936, the surrealist French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud visited northern Mexico consumed by a burning desire to see the Tarahumara peoples and, in his own words, to "seek the roots of a magical tradition which can still be found in their native soil" (Voyage Au Pays des Tarahumaras, Parisot, 1944) Artaud's quest took him through the bottom of Copper Canyon and some of the most perilous landscapes on the continent, always on horseback and led by a native guide. He eventually reached the heart of the Tarahumara mountains in the state of Chihuahua only to witness a native ceremony that amazed him beyond words--the ritual slaying of a bull which was identical to a similar ceremony described in Plato's Critias.
The first of Plato's two dialogues on Atlantis describes how the Atlantean rulers would gather together at sunset before a freshly-killed bull while their servants butchered the animal and collected its blood in goblets, chanting dirges well into the next day. They would subsequently cover their heads in ashes and the dirge would change pitch as the circle around the sacrificed animal grew closer. Artaud would later write: "The Tarahumaras, whom I consider to be direct descendants of the Atlanteans, still pursue this magical ritual." The poet goes on to describe the rictus of indescribable pain on the animal's mouth, the natives gathering its blood in pitchers, and dancers in mirror-studded kings' crowns, wearing triangular aprons similar to those worn in Freemasonry, encircled the bull. Musicians engaged in repetitive, hypnotic strains on fiddles and an assortment of percussion instruments. "They then sang a mournful chant, a secret call from some unimaginable dark force, an unknown presence from the hereafter..." writes Artaud, who would for the rest of his life be troubled by nightmarish images of his experiences among the Tarahumaras, particularly due to his use of the sacred hallucinogen known as peyote.
Many cultures have rituals in common which originated separately. For example, adherents of the Mithraic cult of late Roman times practiced the taurobolia--a veritable baptism in the blood of a freshly-slain bull. Was Artaud's experience pure coincidence coupled to the artistic genius's volatile temperament, or one of the most astonishing discoveries of our time?