When Europe was entrenched in the dark ages the Maya civilization was at its height. While Europe slept, the Maya culture soared. The year was 900 AD.
North America would remain unknown for another 600 years, and not till three and a half centuries after that would the first explorers of the Yucatan, John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood, stumble upon pyramids known to be Maya, in Copan, Honduras. It was 1839.
But why did the Maya remained steeped in mystery? Almost zero was known about this civilization and when Stephens’ first book about their explorations was published in 1841—Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan—the world went wild for any and all information about the Maya. The book was so popular it had 12 printings in its first year of publication and made John Lloyd Stephens something unheard of at the time – a best selling author.
But just as it looked like the Maya, who had remained anonymous for so long, would have their ceremonious debut on the world stage, in 1847 the Caste War of Yucatan started. This uprising closed the peninsula for nearly a century to any person not of color. The Maya swore they would kill any interlopers on sight. After decades of abuse, the remaining descendants of the Maya revolted against the Spanish landowners who had subjugated them, made them indentured servants and had stolen their land and water rights.
It wouldn’t be until 1935 that a half-hearted truce was signed, and only a handful of explorers dared take the risk of entering the Yucatan before that time, in fear of encountering a Maya with a machete.
One of those risk takers was explorer Sylvanus Morely, who began excavating Chichen Itza in the 1920s, and dug there for 23 years making it the most excavated site in world. Chichen Itza is now one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Morely and his star pupil, J. Eric Thompson, came to believe the hieroglyphics on the pyramids related strictly to astronomical calculations and the spiritual side of the Maya. But that was not what modern archeologists and iconographers discovered as the code began to be broken in the early 1970s.
Modern research proved that what Maya scribes had written on Maya stellae (a stellae is a large limestone slab roughly six feet high by four feet wide by six inches wide) described historical dates and functions, accession of kings, births and deaths, and success in battle.
So who were the ancient Maya? Were they astronomers? Mathematicians? Pyramid builders? Lords of the jungle? High priests and shamans?
Like all indigenous American peoples, the Maya’s predecessors were nomadic hunters who followed large game animals across the Bering Land Bridge in migratory waves. As hunter-gatherers they populated the Yucatan Peninsula and the southern highlands since 11,000 BC. It’s guessed their origins lay with the Olmecs.
Their civilization is divided into three stages: pre-classic (1500 BC-200 AD), classic (200 AD to 900 AD) and post classic (900 AD to 1200 AD). Their rise to power, around 600 AD, lasted the length of one of their baktuns, a Maya time measurement of 400 years, in which all major classic sites were built, including Copan, Tikal, Palenque, and Quiriguá.
In the classic era they epitomized the best of civilization. They had organized cities, a complex religious system, an advanced calendar, trade routes, dynastic leadership and a writing system. They began farming 3000 years ago and the cycle of maize became a metaphor for Maya life.
They had no metal, yet they created artistic carvings using stone tools and obsidian. They had no animals to carry cargo, so humans became their beasts of burden. They had no wheel, yet they invented the concept of zero.
They had 28 calendars in all, but two were used on a regular basis: the tzolkin, a 260-day calendar, and the haab, a 360-day calendar, to coordinate with the earth’s rotation cycle around the sun. Five days, called unlucky time, were added at the end of the haab, to make up a full 365-day sidereal cycle.
Their long count calendar of 5,125 years , the one we’re all focused on today, makes up 13 four hundred-year cycles called baktuns. This is the 13th baktun, an auspicious time for the Maya.
Time was cyclical to the Maya. For us, time is something that passes. For the ancient Maya, time was something that repeated. Their calendars constantly repeated and their pasts always returned in endless cycles and repetitive patterns so they could read their future through their pasts.
As naked eye astronomers, they had an observatory on each site. They kept records of eclipses and calendars for the synchronization of the cycles of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. Year after year, decade after decade– they configured the minutiae of cosmological events, and recorded thousands of them in paperbark books called codices. But a Spanish zealot burned all but three–the Madrid, Paris and Dresden Codices–and on discovery, these helped archaeologists to break the code.
The Maya believed in sacrifice and bloodletting and royals pierced ears, tongues and genitals, allowing blood to collect on paper in a sacred bowl. They burned the paper and at times created a “vision serpent” to communicate sacred knowledge from their ancestors and their gods.
At their height, 800 AD, they supported millions of people. It has been recorded that they had as many as 50 independent states and encompassed more than 100,000 square miles of forest and plains. Around 830 AD they began to desert their major ceremonial centers. And the last hieroglyphs inscribed at any pyramids sites, discovered to date, were in 910 AD.
Known today as the collapse of the ancient Maya, the exact reason remains unknown, but speculation abounds, ranging from peasant revolts, epidemic, foreign invaders, drought, resource reduction, and overpopulation.
The classic Maya were long gone by the time the Spanish arrived in 1527 and not a force to be reckoned with. They disappeared almost as soon as they were “discovered.”
So why did the Maya civilization remain steeped in mystery for so long? Firstly, the Caste War of Yucatan hindered most explorations until the 1930s. Secondly, the Spanish’s burning thousands of paper bark books deterred breaking the code, leaving just a small portion of what was once a treasure trove of artifacts. Thirdly, infighting amongst early scholars was rampant. No agreement could be made on what the Maya were trying to say in their hieroglyphs until the 1970s when scholars and students met at the famous Mesa Redonda Roundtable Talks in Palenque, Chiapas.
From that point on, things moved swiftly towards deciphering not only the glyphs, but the mind set of the Maya. For decades, scholars thought they were a spiritual civilization that reigned for one thousand years in peaceful conditions, with neither wars nor sacrifice. But once the code was broken, archaeologists realized the Maya civilization was made up of many warring tribes who commonly used sacrifice and ritual.
Today, 90 percent of the Maya hieroglyphs have been read by iconographers, but many of the pyramid sites are far from fully excavated. This ancient civilization, though a staple in the news, is still cause for mystery. Who knows what yet lies in wait for those traipsing through Central American jungles, in search of the Maya.
(Who Were the Ancient Maya and Why Have They Remained Steeped in Mystery? © is by Jeanine Kitchel. Jeanine writes about Mexico, the Maya and the Yucatan. She is the author of two non-fiction books: Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy, and Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya. Both are available in paperback and digital format, at Amazon.com, iTunes and Nook. Check out her website at www.jeaninekitchel.com, or contact her through her email, [email protected] and check out her Top Ten Myths About December 21, 2012).
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