From this, in 1836 N. F. Hyer falsely identified the Aztec homeland with a great mound center in Wisconsin, known afterward as Aztalan State Park, from an earlier transliteration of Aztlán. It was not the only place imagined as Aztlán. From early colonial times, Spanish missionaries and explorers had sought Aztlán in the deserts of what became the southwestern United States, and they also tracked legends across the region of a refuge where those Aztecs who escaped Cortez hid away the emperor’s treasures.
I’ll give you only one guess whether Chris Keefer (he of the “love of technology”) and Casey Keefer (“the history buff”) found either Aztlán or the Aztec imperial treasures in Utah during Code of the Wild. While this episode will not air for another week, the episode that aired this past Tuesday, which I did not review because it was not about archaeology or ancient history, brought in 437,000 viewer, nearly 200,000 fewer than the rerun of Expedition Unknown that preceded it.
In this episode, the brothers tell us that “all” the gold in Mexico, totaling $3 billion in today’s money, disappeared during the Conquest, and they might have hauled it off to Utah in order to hide it in the seven caves of Aztlán, from which they believed their people had emerged five centuries earlier. Rather than repeat myself, I will paste in my discussion of the Aztecs-of-the-Southwest claim from a few years ago:
Indeed, when we review the relevant literature, we find that indeed the Spanish historians of the 1700s had wrongly attributed the Gila ruins to the Aztecs, as the U.S. Department of the Interior reported in its official report on the Gila Ruins in 1913. The confusion occurred because the Spanish missionary who found Casa Grande in 1687, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, mistakenly believed Casas Grande was Chichilticalli, a semi-mythical city seen by Coronado and wrongly though to be the northern stronghold of the Aztecs (not their homeland). Later historians followed Kino and associated the Aztecs with Casas Grande, and thus also with similar Pueblo ruins across what was then the Mexican northwest, now the U.S. southwest. The U.S. government itself published what Rodriguez claims as his own “discovery,” that old Spanish and Mexican maps assigned the “Aztecs” to various Pueblo sites. By the time of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, there was apparently a wrongheaded idea that the Anasazi and Pueblo sites were the successive occupations of the Aztecs on their mythical southern journey from Aztlán.
The brothers Keefer meet with B. J. Orozco, the grandson of the late professor Dr. Cecilio Orozco from Fresno State University, who wrote a book attempting to prove that the Aztecs passed through Utah en route to Mexico. Orozco described himself as an expert on Mesoamerican calendars, though his academic work was actually in education. They examine the “Head of Sinbad” petroglyph in Utah, which is 3,000 years old, and Orozco and the Keefers claim the ancestors of the Aztecs created it because it is a “calendar.” They do not explain the connection (Is it because the Aztecs had a calendar, too?), nor do they attempt to reconcile the 3,000-year-old dating of the Sinbad Formation with the Aztecs’ own origin myth, which they themselves quoted, placing their origin around 1000 CE. Maybe this material made sense in the script, but as broadcast, it is confounding and confusing. The actual warrant for the connection is the elder Orozco’s speculative work, based on an article he had read in National Geographic, which held that the Sinbad Formation displays the same mathematical calculations as the famous Aztec Sun Stone calendar.
The brothers announce their intention to seek out the Aztec “origin caves” in Mexico, and they enlist Vicki Hooper, as “local Aztec expert” who has studied Montezuma’s Treasure for twenty years. They gawk at her piles of research, which seems to be made up of xeroxed newspaper articles and old tourist pamphlets, and then things start to get weird.
Hooper shows the brothers photos of rocks, and she claims that each of these natural formations is actually a gigantic Spanish carving of a turtle designed to point the way to the next turtle, all the way to the treasure, which she says the Spanish had found after the Aztecs deposited it. I cannot find any support for Hooper’s claim that turtles were a favorite symbol of the Spanish or used by the conquistadors to mark treasure. Hooper may have spent twenty years reading about Montezuma’s treasure, but I’ve spent 25 years reading European history, and I have never come across turtle symbolism. A review of the literature finds that this seems to be a folk story from Oklahoma, originally attached to gold mines in the twentieth century. I found it used in connection with Devil’s Canyon in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma in a book written by W. C. Jameson in 1989, and Jameson says the turtles were “long recognized by researchers” as a marker of gold and silver. That same year, another writer named Steve Wilson wrote of the same claim, which he attributed to “Jay Winters, of Altus,” who apparently invented the story of the turtles. Hooper appears to have relocated the story to Utah, following some twenty-first century fringe books that tried to create a giant turtle-based Spanish treasure landscape across the western United States.
A big chunk of the episode—about half—is devoted to the brothers walking around Utah hunting for a possible route the Aztecs could have walked from Mexico to the Sinbad Formation. Your enjoyment depends on how much you enjoy watching bearded men in parkas walk across barren landscapes and crawl through caves filled with guano.
For no good reason, the men decide that one particular cave filled with Native American rock art is actually an Aztec cave and that the Aztecs viewed it as a passage between the lands of the living and the dead. I tried to parse the logic of it, but I couldn’t do it. The brothers correctly understood other Native American rock art to be Native, so what led them to declare this rock art to be Aztec—even after being told it “could be” up to ten thousand years old—is beyond me. The men speculate that the cave dates from the “dawn of the Aztecs” and was their original home. At this point, I am not entirely certain that the Keefer brothers know anything about the Aztecs or have much of a grasp on the timeline of peoples who inhabited the Southwestern United States and Mexico.
Inside the cave, the Casey Keefer finds a small opening inside a standing rock in which carefully polished orange stones had been intentionally placed. He then ruins whatever archaeological value this offering may have had (though I wouldn’t guarantee they had been there all that long since they are shiny and suspiciously clean) by sticking his grubby hands inside and pulling them all out to gawk at them.
“Maybe it’s part of an Aztec ceremony or something, man,” Chris Keefer says.
The men were very excited to find these stones and, based on them, declare that they had found the Aztec “origin caves” and say, falsely, that they plan to “keep pushing” to find the other six caves and Montezuma’s treasure. The show then ends, and they trade their chance at three billion dollars to return to the Travel Channel to sell commercial time to reverse mortgage providers for substantially less. It’s almost like they don’t even want three billion dollars…
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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