Here and There in Yucatan/Pygmies, Real and Fictitious


In almost every country pygmies figure either in history or tradition. Tradition always has some foundation; man only weaves fiction from facts, and the best novelists are close observers of human nature. How many things long regarded as fables have been proved true! Herodotus, the father of history, who lived B.C. 484 years, was once called the father of lies, yet many of the stories told by him have been proved correct. Marco Polo, who in 1274 went with his father to Tartary, China, different parts of India, Persia, and Asia Minor, though an illustrious traveler and writer, was considered very untruthful: nevertheless the more we learn of those countries, the more accurate his accounts appear.

The stories of the "little people," fairies, sprites, and elves, must have originated from the existence of an extremely diminutive race, a vague recollection of which has passed from generation to generation. Fable makes the pygmies two feet high. The Greeks, having known of giants, as if to make a contrast, pictured to themselves these pygmies, getting the idea from certain inhabitants of Ethiopia, called Pechinies, who were very small; perhaps the ancestors of the Dokos of the present day. Swift made Gulliver find men six inches high in the Isle of Lilliput; but Cyrano de Bergerac, in his imaginary voyage to the sun, found people not bigger than his thumb.

Among the many ludicrous stories told of pygmies, is that of a certain King of Bavaria, who, at his wedding-feast, was served with a pie from which a tiny dwarf, armed with lance and sword, jumped out on to the table, to the great astonishment of all the guests.

Apart from such extravagant tales, there are proofs that very dwarfish people have lived and do live, in different places. Some years ago, on the banks of the river Merrimac, twenty miles from the Isle of St. Louis, a number of stone tombs were found arranged in symmetrical order; none of them were more than four feet long, and the human skeletons within them only measured three feet, though the teeth showed that they were adults; the skulls were out of proportion with the rest of the body.

Aristotle, who was a great naturalist, said that trustworthy witnesses testified to the existence of minute men; that they lived in caves washed by the waters of the Nile. Pliny even gives various details regarding their habits, and the geographical position of the places where they dwelt. On the banks of the upper Nile, where the Greeks located the pygmies, modem travelers have found whole tribes of dwarfish men.

In Russia and Turkey, until quite lately, great sympathy was felt for dwarfs, they being generally considered keen-witted and often talented. In Germany, in the eighteenth century, a dwarf was regarded as a necessary appendage to every noble family. In this present century there have been isolated cases of extremely small people, as, for instance, Richebourg, who died in Paris in 1858 at the age of ninety; he was twenty-three inches high. During the revolutionary period he is said to have passed in and out of Paris, as an infant in the arms of a nurse, with dispatches very dangerous to carry, wrapped in his baby clothes.

In Mexico, especially in the State of Yucatan, and adjacent islands, there are many stories current about dwarfs. If the natives are questioned concerning the builders of the old ruined edifices found in those parts, they invariably say, "The Aluxob (pygmies) built them." In the islands of Cozumel and Mugeres there is a firmly rooted belief that "little people" wander around at night; many solemnly protest that they see them, and accuse them of disturbing their slumbers by hammering on benches and shaking their hammocks.

On the east coast of Yucatan there are various places, such as Nisucte and Meco, that any traveler may visit, though he must go armed, and keep a sharp look-out for Indians, who may fall upon him at any minute. There can be seen vestiges of ancient cities, all the houses made of stone, but not large enough for people more than three or three and a half feet high to occupy with any comfort.

In Cozumel Island there exist well-constructed triumphal arches only nine feet high; sanctuaries, and temples of worship, built of carefully hewn stones; the doorway of the largest three feet high, one foot six inches wide. The entire building measures, outside, but nine feet in height, fourteen in length, and twelve in depth. The Indian who accompanied us to them affirmed that he always saw the "little people" at night, but they never spoke to him. He said: "They are very small, and wear big hats. Once, at the entrance of a cave in the forest, I found a clay figure. It was an enchanted dwarf, and he was reading a book. I picked it up to carry it home, then felt afraid and put it down again. Next day I returned to look for it, because I wanted to have the alux (dwarf), but could not find the place again."

It is affirmed that very diminutive people still dwell among the hills in Honduras and Guatemala; but no one seems able to say exactly where. This would lead to the belief that if there are any still living, as so many assert, they must be very few, and successful in hiding. Nevertheless, it is related that one day, in the year 1825, woodcutters, wandering along the banks of the Moho river, British Honduras, in search of mahogany trees, were startled, upon reaching a place called Meditation Fall, by a strange little being that suddenly emerged from the bush, stared wildly at them, and fled.

The men pursued, overtook, and brought the odd creature to their camp. It was a dark-skinned girl, about eighteen years old, not quite three feet high. She had no other covering than her hair—thick, black tresses that reached to her feet, nearly covering her. She was very wild, but not stupid. Finding that they did not harm her, she talked to the wood-cutters in the Maya tongue, which they also spoke, that being the language of the Indians in those parts.

As the weather was cool one of the men gave her a red flannel shirt, which clothed her from head to foot. For a day or two she refused to eat, but afterwards seemed contented. She said all her people were the same size as herself; that they were then living near Meditation Fall, where they had a cornfield, though generally they dwelt three or four miles away in a deep valley.

When she had been in the camp about ten days, some of the men proposed to go and see her people. She manifested delight, and offered to guide them to the spot. Reaching the place where they first met her, she led them into the forest. Soon she motioned to them to stop and be silent. A hubbub of voices reached their ears; the girl whispered to them that she would go and announce their coming, otherwise her folks would be afraid, run off, and hide on hearing footsteps. Away she darted; and soon all was hushed as death.

The men waited patiently; their diminutive guide did not return. Convinced that she had very cunningly eluded them, they went forward, and in two minutes found themselves in a cornfield. There were embers in three or four places, and small piles of corn prepared for transportation. The ground had been much trodden, but there was no living creature in sight. They searched in vain, even among the boulders, and remained some time in the field, hoping that the owners would return for their corn. They, however, never saw the girl again, nor any of her kin.

One of those very woodsmen gave us this account. Similar stories have been told by others; they might all be doubted were it not for the ruins of diminutive houses that bear witness to their having once existed.

  1. Published in "Scientific American."