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.
Zelia Nuttall was the first anthropologist to accurately decipher the Aztec calendar stone. In this first published biography of the pioneering social scientist, Merilee Grindle examines the then-new field of anthropology, which employed few women. She explores how Nuttall’s dogged research contributed to our understanding of the history and culture of ancient Mexico.
[A] fascinating biography of Mexican-American anthropologist Zelia Nuttall…[whose work] helped shape the field of archaeology and the scientific study of the history of humankind in the Americas…Defying her cultural constrictions, she exerted a significant impact on the values and methodologies of institutions.
Grindle combines a rousing tale of archaeological discovery with an incisive description of how institutional marginalization occurs, tracing how Nuttall’s legacy was ignored by subsequent generations of anthropologists. This enjoyable account restores to prominence an influential figure in her field.
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.
Zelia Nuttall comes alive in all her fascinating contradictions in Merilee Grindle’s capable hands. Nuttall came of age in the nineteenth century and thought nothing of removing Mexico’s antiquities, or supporting Porfirio Díaz. But she was also a world-traveling single mother who studied Nahuatl with a native speaker, convinced Franz Boas to take Mexican students, ferreted out a previously unknown pre-Columbian codex, made a leap forward in our understanding of the Mesoamerican calendar, and chose to spend her declining years in her beloved Mexico, her mother’s native country. Grindle’s biography challenges our modern smugness and reminds us that our roots as scholars are more complex than we often acknowledge.
Zelia Nuttall was a major figure in the rediscovery of ancient Mexico, yet today she is barely remembered. Merilee Grindle has marshaled an impressive amount of evidence to tell Nuttall’s story afresh and restore her to her rightful place in the annals of anthropology.
As a teenager on a seemingly endless grand tour of Europe, Zelia Nuttall described her globe-trotting Californian family as ‘wanderers in the highway of nations.’ In Merilee Grindle’s deft telling, we see Nuttall grow into a brilliant and focused interpreter of the secrets of ancient nations, a founder of the modern science of anthropology, a bold female traveler on time’s highway whose life story illuminates our twenty-first-century struggle to apprehend the ravages of civilization.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.