The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.
They Are Surprising to Other People
I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”) And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.
The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.
A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:
“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.The Magnificent Maya, p. 22
They Got Romanticized
In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.
Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read. Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,
… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.The Magnificent Maya. p. 33
Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound). As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.
They Were Shockingly Cruel
First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed. (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)
But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.
Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.
If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.
The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140). Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.
Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95). This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.
Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”
They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart
And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.
The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year. Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.
All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:
As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:
“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162
Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”
“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)
Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.
The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012. It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.
Bottom Line, the Mayans are People
I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.
So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.
Humans are smart.
Humans are evil.
Humans are wonderful.
Humans are everywhere.
Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.
Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.
Time-Life books, editors, The Magnificent Maya. 1993, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia.