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When the territories of the Mayan civilization were conquered in Mesoamerica, the European priests burnt all the books and references they could find about the Mayan culture.

It was not until 1839 that American traveller John Lloyd Stephens rediscovered their civilization and made it popular with his best selling book.

His work — or was it his fascination? — seems to have originally made people think the Mayans were a very peaceful, cultured and civilized people.

Prehispanic archeology professor Paul Gendrop even said about them (translated from French by yours truly):

Who never heard, for instance, of an ancient Mayan empire, true golden age during which hard-working and eminently peaceful people, in the calmness of cities protected by dense forests, merely devoted themselves to contemplating stars?

So what led to this rather romantic (yet wrong, as seen in this question) idea of who the Mayan people actually were?

  • Was it the remarkable artistic, cultural or archeological findings?
  • Was it the myth and mysteries that a fallen civilization still had to unfold? (like e. g. Atlantis)
  • Was it Stephen's book who romanticized the Mayan people and made this poetic vision widespread?
  • Was it the era? After all, the XIXth century was marked by Romanticism and the idea may have been similar to the one explorers had of Ancient Egypt?
  • Was it a mix of all of the above or something I might be missing?
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Interesting. I only heard the "too gruesome to believe" version described in the linked question. –  CodesInChaos Apr 23 at 18:52

2 Answers 2

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The following passage from Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan would lend some credence to the first two explanations of remarkable discoveries of a fallen civilization:

The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.

Keep in mind that Stephens' books were the among the first western studies of Mayan sites and the first to gain wide circulation. On top of that, Stephens is quite a talented writer and writes in the style of similar works in during the period. Given that (as you point out) most earlier books and references had been systematically destroyed, these books would have been about the only point of reference to draw from. The books themselves read more like travel literature or real-life adventure than an anthropological or archaeological study - he was out to sell books and doesn't hide the fact, for example:

My object has been, not to produce an illustrated work, but to present the drawings in such an inexpensive form as to place them within the reach of the great mass of our reading community.

So likely, the answer is likely a combination of all of the things you mentioned, combined with a very healthy dose of not knowing much of anything about the Maya beyond brief examinations of the ruins. In fact, Stephens wildly underestimates the age of some of the sites:

I am inclined to think that there are not sufficient grounds for the belief in the great antiquity that has been ascribed to these ruins; that they are not the works of people who have passed away, and whose history has become unknown; but opposed as is my idea to all previous speculations, that they were constructed by the races that occupied the country at the time of the invasion by the Spaniards, or of some not very distant progenitors.

As for where Gendrop came up with the notion that the Maya were an "eminently peaceful people", it probably wouldn't have been from Stephens. Much of the impression that Stephens forms of the Maya implies a strong cultural continuity with the Aztec, and he acknowledges the accounts of Cortez as historically accurate, including his references to human sacrifice and territorial conflicts.

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Romanticism combined with the need of the Mexicans to have some sort of moral superiority to claim over their northern neighbours.
Wouldn't do to give the Americans in the Mexican-American war (and the Texas war of indepence from Mexico, and the other conflicts between them) a ready made image of hordes of bloodthirsty savages intent on cutting the hearts out of their conquered foes to use as propaganda.
And the romantics that formed the bulk of 19th century historians were quite eager to help create that image of the "noble savage", even when the evidence stared them in the face in the form of mass graves, altars with carved imagery of people brutally slaughtered, etc. etc.

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Interesting, any sources on that matter? (American-Mexican war propaganda) –  Arlaud Pierre Apr 23 at 13:19
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Uncited and inflammatory, and worse, speculative and ahistorical. –  RI Swamp Yankee Apr 25 at 19:27

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