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In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl

Zelia Nuttall and the Search for Mexico’s Ancient Civilizations

Merilee Grindle

ISBN 9780674278332

Publication date: 11/07/2023

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"What a woman! And what a fabulous life to unearth. Zelia Nuttall was incredibly smart, determined, a divorced single mother in a man’s world, a great scholar, and an original thinker—yet today she’s completely forgotten. Merilee Grindle has dug deep into the archives and uncovered her fascinating story."—Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature

"Zelia Nuttall comes alive in all her fascinating contradictions in Merilee Grindle’s capable hands...[This] biography challenges our modern smugness and reminds us that our roots as scholars are more complex than we often acknowledge."—Camilla Townsend, author of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

The gripping story of a pioneering anthropologist whose exploration of Aztec cosmology, rediscovery of ancient texts, and passion for collecting helped shape our understanding of pre-Columbian Mexico.

Where do human societies come from? The drive to answer this question took on a new urgency in the nineteenth century, when a generation of archaeologists began to look beyond the bible for the origins of different cultures and civilizations. A child of the San Francisco Gold Rush whose mother was born in Mexico City, Zelia Nuttall threw herself into the study of Aztec customs and cosmology, eager to use the tools of the emerging science of anthropology to prove that modern Mexico was built over the ruins of ancient civilizations.

Proud, disciplined, as prickly as she was independent, Zelia Nuttall was the first person to accurately decode the Aztec calendar stone. An intrepid researcher, she found pre-Columbian texts lost in European archives and was skilled at making sense of their pictographic histories. Her work on the terra-cotta heads of Teotihuacán captured the attention of Frederic Putnam, who offered her a job at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

Divorced and juggling motherhood and career, Nuttall chose to follow her own star, publishing her discoveries and collecting artifacts for US museums to make ends meet. From her beloved Casa Alvarado in Coyoacán, she became a vital bridge between Mexican and US anthropologists, connecting them against the backdrop of war and revolution.

The first biography of Zelia Nuttall, In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl captures the appeal and contradictions that riddled the life of this trailblazing woman, who contributed so much to the new field of anthropology until a newly professionalized generation overshadowed her remarkable achievements and she became, in the end, an artifact in her own museum.


  • This vibrant biography follows the complex, captivating figure of Zelia Nuttall, a self-taught scholar of ancient Mesoamerica and a pioneer of modern anthropology…Grindle paints an indelible portrait of a woman both charming and challenging, whose boldness could slip easily into imperiousness, and whose zeal could lead her astray.

    —New Yorker


  • Merilee Grindle is the Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development, Emerita, at Harvard University and the former director of its David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. She served as president of the Latin American Studies Association and has written or contributed to over a dozen scholarly books.

Book Details

  • 400 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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