Book: Yucatan Before and After the Conquest
Author: Diego de Landa

Yucatan Before and After the Conquest By Diego de Landa

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 242
Publication Date: This translation by William Gates, 1937

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In 1562, Friar Diego de Landa conducted an 'Auto de fé' in Maní where in addition to 5000 'idols,' he burned 27 books in Maya writing. The document translated here is his apology, and one of the few remaining contemporary texts which describe pre-conquest Mayan society, science, and art in detail. The translator, William Gates, provides background on de Landa, the decline of the Maya, and what is today known about their ancient culture.

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Yucatan is not an island, nor a point entering the sea, as some thought, but mainland. This error came about from the fact that the sea goes from Cape Cotoche along the Ascension passage to the Golfo Dulce on the one side, and on the other side facing Mexico, by the Desconocida before coming to Campeche, and then forming the lagoons by Puerto Real and Dos Bocas.

The land is very flat and clear of mountains, so that it is not seen from ships until they come very close; with the exception that between Campeche and Champotón there are some low ranges and a headland that is called Los Diablos. As one comes from Veracruz toward Cape Cotoch, one finds himself at less than 20 degrees, and at the mouth of Puerto Real it is more than 23; from one point to the other it should be over a hundred and thirty leagues, direct road. The coast is low-lying, so that large ships must stay at some distance from the shore.

The coast is very full of rocks and rough points that wear the ships' cables badly; there is however much mud, so that even if ships go ashore they lose few people. The tides run high, especially in the Bay of Campeche, and the sea often leaves, at some places, half a league exposed; as a result there are left in the seaweed and mud and pools many small fish that serve the people for their food. A small range crosses Yucatan from one corner to the other starting near Champotón and running to the town of Salamanca in the opposite angle. This range divides Yucatan into two parts, of which that to the south toward Lacandón and Taiza is uninhabited for lack of water, except when it rains. The northern part is inhabited.

This land is very hot and the sun burns fiercely, although there are fresh breezes like those from the northeast and east, which are frequent, together with an evening breeze from the sea. People live long in the country, and men of a hundred and forty years have been known.

The winter begins with St. Francis day, and lasts until the end of March; during this time the north winds prevail and cause severe colds and catarrh from the insufficient clothing the people wear. The end of January and February bring a short hot spell, when it does not rain except at the change of the moon. The rains come on from April until through September, during which time the crops are sown and mature despite the constant rain. There is also sown a certain kind of maize at St. Francis, which is harvested early.


This province is called in the language of the Indians Ulumil cuz yetel ceh, meaning 'the land of the turkey and the deer.' It is also called Petén, meaning 'island,' an error arising from the gulfs and bays we have spoken of.

When Francisco Hernández de Córdoba came to this country and landed at the point he called Cape Cotoch, he met certain Indian fisherfolk whom he asked what country this was, and who answered Cotoch, which means 'our houses, our homeland,' for which reason he gave that name to the cape. When he then by signs asked them how the land was theirs, they replied Ci uthan, meaning 'they say it,' and from that the Spaniards gave the name Yucatan. This was learned from one of the early conquerors, Blas Hernández, who came here with the admiral on the first occasion.

In the southern part of Yucatan are the rivers of Taiza (Tah-Itzá) and the mountains of Lacandón, and between the south and west lies the province of Chiapas; to pass thither one must cross four streams that descend from the mountains and unite with others to form the San Pedro y San Pablo river discovered by Grijalva in Tabasco. To the west lie Xicalango and Tabasco, one and the same province.

Between this province of Tabasco and Yucatan there are two sea mouths breaking the coast; the largest of these forms a vast lagoon, while the other is of less extent. The sea enters these mouths with such fury as to create a great lake abounding in fish of all kinds, and so full of islets that the Indians put signs on the trees to mark the way going or coming by boat from Tabasco to Yucatan. These islands with their shores and sandy beaches have so great a variety of seafowl as to be a matter of wonder and beauty; there is an infinite amount of game: deer, hare, the wild pigs of that country, and monkeys as well, which are not found in Yucatan. The number of iguanas is astonishing. On one island is a town called Tixchel.

To the north is the island of Cuba, with Havana facing at a distance of 60 leagues; somewhat further on is a small island belonging to Cuba, which they call Isla de Pinos. At the cast lies Honduras, between which and Yucatan is a great arm of the sea that Grijalva called Ascension Bay; this is filled with islets on which many boats are wrecked, especially those in the trade between Yucatan and Honduras. Fifteen years ago a ship laden with many people and goods foundered, and all were drowned save one Majuelas and four others, who seized hold of a great piece of wood from the ship, and thus went three or four days without reaching any of the islets until their strength gave out and ail sank except Majuelas. He came out half dead and recovered himself eating snails and shellfish; then from the islet he reached the mainland on a balsa or raft which he made as best he could out of branches. Having come to land, and while hunting for food, he came upon a crab that bit off his thumb at the first joint, and caused him intense pain.