New Internationalist

History

Issue 349

People of wood

The Mayan gods were bored and wanted company, and they decided to create us. It wasn’t a bad idea. So we were born from the multi-coloured flesh of corn, and here we are. But before that happened, other attempts at creation ended in disaster.

One of those clumsy moves was to fashion people out of wood. The gods carved a few tree trunks into dolls that looked perfect. But they were stiff. The men and women of wood talked but said nothing, and lived without passion or pleasure or pain. They weren’t shaken by doubt, because their certainties, like themselves, were made of wood. They had no nightmares, because they had no dreams. They never got discouraged, because they had never known courage. Their hearts didn’t break, because they had none. They never fell, because they didn’t walk.

Mayan tradition says the gods did away with the men and women of wood, and nary a one remains. I’m afraid they missed a few.

The Hunt

Look, Papa! Oxen!’ Marcelino Sautuola tilted his head back. In the light from his lantern he saw them. They weren’t oxen. On the roof of the cave deft hands had painted bison, elk, horses and wild boars.

Not long thereafter, Sautuola published a pamphlet on the paintings he’d found, thanks to his daughter, in a cave at Altamira. They were, he claimed, prehistoric art.

From all corners came archaeologists, anthropologists, speleologists: none of them believed him. They suspected the paintings were done by a Frenchman, an artist friend of Sautuola’s or some other practical joker from Europe’s aesthetic élite.

Not one could grasp, or even imagine, the possibility that our simple-minded Palaeolithic ancestors were capable of art. Art, privileged creature of civilization, lay far beyond the limited reach of the savage hordes.

Later on, it came out. Those long-ago hunters didn’t only pursue their prey. As a spell to ward off hunger and fear, or for the pure and simple joy of creating, those Picassos of 15,000 or 20,000 years ago pursued beauty in flight. And they caught it.

The Frontiers of Time

Six centuries after the founding of Rome and a century-and-a-half before Christ it was decided that the year would begin on the first of January.

Before then, years were born on 15 March, the day the two consuls who were to run the empire were elected. When one of the two had to march off urgently to war, the date was shifted.

Spain was burning. The city of Numancia lay at the centre of the rebellion. The uprising against imperial rule went on for many years until Numancia was finally besieged and burned to the ground.

At the edge of the Duero River its remains lie on a hill surrounded by fields of wheat. Nothing, or practically nothing, is left of the city that changed the calendar of the world forever.

But when we raise our glasses at midnight every 31 December, even if we don’t realize it, we drink to her: may people, like the new year, continue to be born free.

Punishment

The city of Carthage was the queen of the African coast. Its warrior ships reached the very doors of Rome, the rival, the enemy, and came close to crushing it under the hooves of their horses and the weight of their elephants.

A few years later, Rome took revenge. Carthage had to surrender its arms and warships and accept the humiliation of conquest and the obligation to pay tribute. Carthage hung its head in resignation. But when Rome ordered the people of Carthage to abandon the sea and head inland to live, far from the source of their arrogance and their crazy daring, they refused. Not that, never that. Then Rome damned Carthage and condemned it to death. Off marched the legions.

Besieged from land and sea, for three years the doomed city resisted. Not a speck of grain was left in the granaries and even the sacred monkeys in the temples were eaten: forgotten by their gods, inhabited by ghosts, Carthage fell. For six days and six nights the fire raged. Then the Roman legionaries swept away the smoking ashes and sowed the land with salt to prevent anything from ever growing there again.

On the coast of Spain the city of Cartagena is the daughter of old Carthage. Granddaughter of Carthage is Cartagena de Indias, born much later on the coast of America. One night, in a low voice, Cartagena de Indias told me her secret: if one day they oblige her to move far away from the sea, she too will choose death, just as her grandmother did.

Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America’s foremost writers. He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, and his latest book Upside Down is published by Metropolitan Books, New York.

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