history

The Way of the Mayans

The High Temple “pyramid” at Lamanai, Belize. Lamanai was once a major city of the Maya civilization, and was occupied for an amazing time span of over 3,500 years, from about 1600 BC to the 20th century AD. This rivals that of the Nile River Valley and northern China. It was immune from the general collapse of Mayan civilization that occurred in the 9th Century AD. And disinterest by Spanish and British colonists spared the Mayans in this city, though their culture had changed significantly from the ways of their ancient ancestors. Today many Belizeans, and in fact many others who live in southern Mexico and Central America, identify themselves as Mayan. In that sense it can be said that the Mayan civilization has never completely died out.

Much is known about the Mayans, and much is not known. What we do know is that the Mayan civilization began more than 4,000 years ago, in areas we now call southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. After 2,000 BC, they became advanced enough to build cities, and small city-states began to dominate the geopolitical landscape.

The view from the top of the High Temple at Lamanai, Belize. Our tour guide told us that Belize is the only country that continues to allow tourists to climb Mayan “pyramids”. Most of the climb is made by ascending wooden stairs behind the temple. Tourists are only allowed to ascend the top flight of the stone steps. These steps are so high and steep, they require you to climb bent over, using both your hands and feet. They force you, I guess, to humble yourself before the Mayan gods. As you can see from the viewshed, the topography is very flat. The New River flows in the background. We reached these ruins by traveling by boat over the New River.

The Mayans were pretty smart. They became the only native Americans to develop a full writing system before the arrival of Columbus. They also got good at math, and were the first in the world to use the number zero. The Mayan calendar was complex and accurate. And their architecture lives on today in famous ruins at archaeological digs such as Chichen Itza, Yaxchilan, Lamanai, and Tulum.

The ancient walled city of Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. It’s located on the Yucatan peninsula, about 80 miles south of Cancun. Occupied around 1200 AD, this was one of the last cities to be established by the Maya. It was conquered by the Spanish in the late 1500s.

These fuckers built great stone temples that are misleadingly called “pyramids”, and used them to sacrifice human beings. Sacrifices involved decapitation, heart excision, being shot with arrows, and other brutal methods for appeasing the gods and conveniently ridding rulers of potential rivals.

The temple of El Castillo, “The Castle”, Tulum, Mexico. Many a rival ruler, and a few supposed virgins, were sacrificed on this spot.

The Mayans attained the height of their glory in the 9th Century AD. And that’s when everything somehow fell all to hell. A widespread political collapse occurred at this time, with internecine warfare, and refugees spilling out of cities. Nobody knows exactly why this happened but there are many theories.

The Great Palace, Tulum, Mexico. Here is where the royal family lived. Sort of an ancient Buckingham Palace.

One theory is ecocide. At that time, the population was up to ten times the current modern-day population, in areas where the soil was poor and very difficult to cultivate. Mayan agricultural science was highly advanced. To this day, nobody knows how the Mayans figured out how to support such a large populace with such infertile soil. But somehow they managed. At least for a while.

The ecocide school of thought holds that in spite of their agricultural genius, they overused their natural resources, and mother nature finally gave out under the strain. This led to widespread famine and political destabilization.

Temple of the God of the Wind, Tulum, Mexico. This temple is situated near a high cliff that overlooks the Caribbean Sea. Tulum was a major trading hub, and archeologists speculate that a signal light was burned atop the cliff to mark the location of a break in the coral reef offshore. This guided trading canoes safely to shore.

Other theories include extended droughts, epidemic diseases, and foreign invasion. But none of these theories have been proven, and the rapid decline of Mayan civilization in the 9th century AD remains one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries.

Danze de los Voladores, or Dance of the Flyers. I just call it the Mayan Pole Dance. This is an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony for the purpose of ending droughts. In this version of the dance, the participants hanging upside down spin around the pole as they gradually descend to earth. Each dancer represents the four directions, and are depicting the recreation of the world, and the regeneration of life. This dance version is so dangerous, it has been banned by many villages in Mexico. Yep, sometimes they fall and die. And then we get no rain.

But the Mayan civilization rebounded, in a sense. Archaeological evidence indicates that after the 9th century AD, many Mayans emigrated from the lowlands of Central America to areas of southern Mexico. They expanded and built more city-states, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. But although their great civilization perdured, they never returned to their prior peak of glory.

The Cenote House, Tulum, Mexico. Below this structure lies a cenote. A cenote is an underground river. Most of the rivers in this part of Mexico flow underground, and can only be accessed through caves and sinkholes. The Mayan inhabitants of Tulum entered this cave, then descended a long rope ladder to the river below, to obtain their water. Something to remember the next time you open your tap, if you want to appreciate modern plumbing.

The arrival of the Spanish did them in for good. Their city-states were conquered one-by-one, mainly through the weapon of smallpox. The last Mayan city-state taken by force by the conquistadors was Nojpeten, in present-day Flores, Guatemala, in the year 1697. This occurred 800 years after the initial collapse that began the Mayan decline. This “officially” ended Mayan civilization, though some argue that it continues in a different form, to this day.

Temple of the Frescoes, Tulum, Mexico. This served as a solar observatory for Mayan priests. They tracked the movement of the sun, and used this information to determine the start of seasons for growing crops. A stuccoed figure of the Mayan “Diving God” can be found on this structure. And inside is a mural, though visitors are no longer allowed in to view this work of art.

A new theory is starting to emerge concerning that initial collapse. Archaeologist Rob Muller discovered thousands of small rocks containing Mayan hieroglyphics, which he calls “bleats”. These bleats apparently contain short messages inscribed by a Mayan king named Trumpamuckus, who appears to have tossed them out to the populace at random.

Muller continues to study the writing on the bleats, and has yet to issue a final report of his conclusions. But for now he claims that King Trumpamuckus rose to power around the year 816 AD. He also says that this king was highly controversial, and was accused by other Mayan leaders as having attained power with the help of the rival Aztec civilization, to the north.

The Jaguar Temple, Lamanai, Belize. Jaguars were revered by the Maya, and symbolized power and authority. Mayan rulers were often depicted wearing jaguar style attire. They also limited their travel exclusively to the use of a sports car purchased from a certain British auto manufacturer.

According to Muller, Trumpamuckus often denied some sort of alliance with the Aztecs, in his bleats. He also often proclaimed himself as the greatest king to have ever ruled anywhere on earth. And there were many stony missives that belittled warnings from Mayan scientists about impending ecological disaster.

Muller is trying to make sense of it all. It will be interesting to read his final report, and many are waiting with bated breath for the results. Perhaps it will contain lessons we can all learn.

And that would be good. So that we don’t go the way of the Mayans.

Temple of the Mask, Lamanai, Belize. Could this be a depiction of the greatest king to have ever ruled on earth? If so, it appears he is leering at a sexy Mayan celebrity lady. Because when you are that powerful, you can do anything you want.

Categories: history

13 replies »

    • I know. It can get kind of confusing.

      I like to think of it as a sort of totem pole, running from north to south. And I think you can throw the Puebloans in the mix also, of the civilized & semi-civilized tribes.

      So at the top of the totem pole would be the Puebloans, who lived in northern Arizona and New Mexico. Well below them were the Aztecs, who inhabited central Mexico, including Mexico City. Directly below the Aztecs were the Mayans, who inhabited southern Mexico, and areas of Central America. The Incas were way below the Mayans, whose empire included the western coastal areas of South America.

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    • I’m not sure we can know until Muller releases his final report. But in the meantime we can improve our chances by being wary of any rulers who cast stones, or who do anything that rhymes with “bleat”. Oh, and we can also listen to our scientists, except the ones who attempt steam-powered space travel.

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      • Oh Tippy – we have a Trump-like candidate running for provincial Premier in June. I cringe every time I see his face or hear that bleating voice.

        I’d like to know what dark space these cockroaches crawled out from … and more importantly, how do we get rid of them and all their ilk?!

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        • It’s unnerving, isn’t it? Maybe if you follow the money you can find out where they crawled out from. The latest leaks from the Trump investigation indicate some pretty massive corruption may have been going on. So perhaps take away their money, and they’ll go away?

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  1. Have you ever thought about leading tours? You have a keen knowledge of history and such a fresh, honest voice! “Right over here, folks, is the temple where the fuckers started sacrificing humans and the civilization went to hell in handbasket…” Nice! 🙂

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