Funny bit of business in Arthur Demarest’s(1) description of the mid-19th century burst of fascination with Mayan archaeology. The early Spanish who first saw the spectacular Mayan ruins seem to have understood them to have been the product of an indigenous society, but by the time of the great “travel writers” of the 19th century, such roots were gone:
Le Plongeon, James Churchward, and many others attributed the origins and achievements of the Maya and other New World civilizations to lost tribes from the Old World or from sunken continents. Unfortunately, such fantastic speculations are very effective in capturing public interest. Just as this epoch of popular antiquarian writings had launched modern scientific archaeology, it also seeded the development of the lunatic fringe of Maya archaeology (who even today besiege archaeologists with letters and emails on extraterrestrial influences, Atlantis, and the lost Semitic tribes!).
1. Demarest, A. (2004) Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK).