Historical Maps of Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan

Summer 2001
Curated by Paul Bary with the assistance of Bruno Lossi

The history of Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán is richly documented in maps; and this exhibit shows a representative sample of the Latin American Library's maps of the region featuring: 1) prehispanic settlements and migrations of the Mayan peoples, with one prehispanic manuscript map and three modern maps of archaeological sites and expeditions; 2) colonial era maps documenting the growth of Spanish-American civilization; and 3) maps illustrating the rise of the Central American nations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Prehispanic Settlements and Migrations

The Códice Fejérváry-Mayer, a 15th or early 16th Mayan manuscript map on deerskin, documents the cosmological and calendrical orientations of the Mayan people. The exhibit includes the following image:

Codex Fejérváry-Mayer

Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. Page 1 of 44. c. 1400-1521
This Mesoamerican painted manuscript divides the world into five parts. Holy trees symbolize the compass points: east at the top, west on the bottom, north to the left, and south to the right.
Facsimile co-published in 1994 by the Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico) and the Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt (Austria). LAL (rare oversize) F 1219.56.F45 C63 1994

This image from the codex featuring a cross with four corners, anchored by a special tree, which reflects the Maya belief in the cosmological significance of the cardinal compass points, and functions as a basic organizational principle for religious worship and social stratification. For more information about this image see “Los cuatro rumbos: los árboles cósmicos con sus aves [p.1],” chapter X in El libro de Tezcatlipoca, señor del tiempo: libro explicativo del llamado Códice Fejérváry-Mayer ; introduction by F. Anders, M. Jansen and L. Reyes García, v.2. (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994). The image is scanned from v.1, which is a facsimile of the codex consisting of 1 folded sheet (44p.).

The C.W. Clarke map of early Maya settlements and migrations in northern Central America and southern Mexico shows the home of the Huasteca Indians; the site of Tuxtla Statuette, the oldest dated Maya inscription; Uaxactun, the earliest Maya city with a dated monument; Copán, the next earliest Maya settlement and city, where the Leyden Plate, the second oldest Maya inscription, was found; the last home of the Maya at the time of discovery; the place where the Spanish first landed; and the probable line of migration from Copán north over the Yucatán Peninsula.

The Archaeological Map of the Maya Area, published by the Carnegie Institution in the early 1930s, shows the location of each of the known archeological sites of the Mayas in southern Mexico, British Honduras, Guatemala and northern Honduras. A second archaeological map in the exhibit, published in the late 1920s, shows the section of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, traversed by the Tulane University expedition to Middle America in 1925, including the principal towns and ruins, and the expedition's route through eastern Chiapas, Mexico, and western Guatemala. The expedition was led by Frans Blom, the first head of Tulane's Department of Middle American Research. The Department later became the Middle American Research Institute, as it is known today.

Colonial Period

The exhibit includes two fine maps from the colonial period, providing fascinating documentation of the growth of Spanish-American settlements in Central America and southern Mexico. The late 18th century Map of the Bay of Honduras: Shewing the Situation of the Spanish Town and Fort of St. Fernando de Omoa shows settlements in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and northern Nicaragua, as drawn by the British mapmakers John Luttrell and William Dalrymple. The map was published in London Magazine, in December 1779. The larger, green-framed colonial map ( Yucatán Conventus Iuridici… ) shows a more extensive area including southern and eastern Mexico, as well as Central America as far south as Costa Rica. The place and date of publication of this map are unknown, but its less accurately drawn coastline reveals that this is definitely an older map than the Map of the Bay of Honduras.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

The Latin American Library includes an extensive collection of modern maps of Central America, but this exhibit includes five representative examples. The lone 19th century map displayed here is the fascinating Carta Postal de la República de Costa-Rica, a postal map showing the mail routes traveled on foot, horseback, by sea, river, and railway in Costa Rica in 1885. The map does an excellent job of conveying some of the difficulty of mail delivery to rural areas in Costa Rica in the 1880s.

The 20th century maps include an early aviation map with red lines showing the air routes traveled by TACA (Transportes Aéreos Centroamericanos) through El Salvador, southern Guatemala, western and central Honduras, and northwestern Guatemala, published in Honduras in 1932; and a colorful map of Guatemala published along with a brief article on the geography and history of that country in Excelsior, the Mexico City newspaper, in 1929.

The great variety to be found in the Latin American Library's map collections is illustrated by the last two maps in the exhibit. Mapa de la Meseta Central y Regiones Circunvecinas highlights the geological features of the central mesa of Costa Rica and surrounding areas in the provinces of San José, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela. The map is inscribed by the mapmaker to the director of the DMAR library (now the Latin American Library), as follows: "Para el Director Arthur E. Gropp con simpatía y respeto de L. Arias Soto, San José, Costa Rica, Agosto de 1937." The Central America Rainfall Map shows the average annual rainfall in millimeters and inches, and its inset shows elevations throughout Central America.

As of July 2001, the Latin American Library's map collection includes approximately 4,000 individual maps. Areas represented most strongly are Mexico, Central America and Brazil, but all areas of Latin America and the Caribbean are represented in the collection. The maps are catalogued in a separate map database which is available in the library, but most of the historical maps are catalogued in volumes 3 and 4 of An Inventory of the Manuscript Collections of the Department of Middle American Research (LAL F1421.T955).

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