Did You Know: Marcos De Niza Inscription At South Mountain Is Not Real

February 21, 2014

(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
A close-up of the inscription on the stone at South Mountain.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
Eduardo Pagán stands in front of the Marcos de Niza stone carving protected behind iron bars.

In 1539, a Spanish advance party was set to explore the Southwest. The leader of that expedition is believed to have walked through Arizona, and there are markings that many believed were made during that trip, but there are experts who say the inscription is not authentic.

The stone inscription at South Mountain reads, "Friar Marcos de Niza corona todo el Nuebo Mexico a su costa ano de 1539." It translates to, "Friar Marcos de Niza crowned all of New Mexico at his expense in the year 1539."

It is believed the Spanish priest inscribed them himself to mark his expedition through the Valley. Did You Know those markings are not authentic? 

“You know there was some controversy over its authenticity, and I wanted to be able to establish its veracity," said Eduardo Pagán, a historian and an ASU professor.

He is also one of three experts who were part of a PBS Show "History Detectives" that researched the stone in 2009.

“When we started out this investigation for History Detectives, I wanted to find out that it was true. For all sorts of reasons right, not only because I’m just a native Arizonan and wanted this thing to be accurate, but it would help us then pinpoint Marcos de Niza’s journey," said Pagán. 

Pagán and his fellow historians said there is no way the markings on South Mountain could have been made in 1539. They said the words "New Mexico" were established after the mid-1500s. Also the carving on the stone is written in Western World Style, from left to right.

“The more that I studied all the inscriptions, all of the way to the 1700s still kept this cubic style without any spaces between letters or worlds, and I went back and I looked at the Marcos de Niza inscription. and it looked so linear to me, it looked so modern," said Pagán.

Lastly and the most convincing evidence is the rock itself. Petroglyph experts tested the stone minerals within the carvings and found it predates the Automobile Era and post dates the Little Ice Age, which ended in the mid 19th century. Ultimately the inscription is a forgery. They determined the carvings were most likely made sometime after the turn of the 20th century.

“So shouldn’t that be preserved as well, even though it might be a fraud it’s a historic fraud, it’s a historic inscription. So, it becomes a very interesting story now," said Pagán.

Pagán said the writing may have been carved by someone who admired Marcos de Niza and decided to pay homage to the friar. He said proving the inscription a forgery could also be proof that he never really traveled through the Sonoran Desert.

The Marcos de Niza stone inscription has been protected behind iron bars since it was discovered in the 1920s, a way to keep vandals from destroying it.  Interestingly that in that same area, are authentic Hohokam petroglyphs. Pagán said they are easily thousands of years old, yet those petroglyphs are not protected, and there are signs they have been vandalized.