Book Report

The Complete Illustrated History Of The Aztec & Maya. Charles Phillips, with consultant Dr. David M. Jones. Metro Books, New York. 511 pages.

Since moving to Mexico, the colorful history of the country (which I never learned about in my Illinois school) has fascinated me, and inspired a sense of awe. This heavy coffee table book, with 24 chapters of slick pages and 1,000 photographs, paintings and maps, is a wealth of surprising facts and stories.

Mesoamerica has a history of 22,000 years of human activity and culture, and this book does a great job of describing the rise and fall of many Mesoamerican empires and civilizations. It covers more than 3,000 years of ancient history and societies, and details the Maya and Aztec civilizations long before their conquest by Cortez. It is theorized that the first hunter/gatherers arrived in this area about 21,000 B.C. The Olmec, Zapotec and Mayan people were likely descendants of prehistoric Siberian hunters who migrated to North America.

The sections in the back of the book give us information on their ancient art, and you must check out the sacred symbols on page 492 and the murals on page 498. For an overview of what happened and when, there is a timeline on pages 270 and 271 that can help you put it all in perspective. The alphabet used in ancient writings, a form of picture writing that used syllables and not the ABCs we know, is also shown.

There are also portraits of the holy kings of the Mayan city states, and battle victories, important religious sacrifices (including slaughters of rival kings) and more has been chronicled for us in the photos of detailed stone carvings. Other fascinating historical facts include bits on the “jaguar kings.” Jaguars were important symbols of power and royalty to the Maya. Serpents were important religious symbols as well, and many of them are depicted in complex drawings in Mesoamerican art.
The book also includes interesting facts about Aztec life in the home, what their clothes and hairstyles looked like and the stern rules set forth for their games. Also, you might want to read about the theater of that time period, and the festivals honoring ancestors, palaces, temples, and architecture. The bewildering number of gods and divinities in Mesoamerica, including Tonantzin, the Earth Mother; the Olmec cult of Jaguars; and, of course, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent), are all described in the book, too.
The author, Charles Phillip, is a historian who was key writer on Time-Life's Myth and Mankind series. I found the diversity of topics explained in his book to be a good starter for all who are interested in learning more about the history of Mexico. It is also a useful resource for those who already know some of the history but want to learn even more. I read a few comments by critics who said they found some of the facts contradictory to what they learned in school, but almost all the reviews that I saw gave this book four or five stars.
You can find this book at, both new and used, in a range of prices. No matter what you pay for it, it has a wealth of information I've not found elsewhere, and that makes it worth any price.

Jeannine Perez is the owner of El Caballo Blanco bookstore in Loreto. If you’re looking for a book, or want a good book recommendation, stop by the store or email her at ,