A Brief History of the Maya

The Maya are a group of Native Americans who share a common language and cultural tradition. Their home range covers parts of several modern countries including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. They are considered to be part of a larger cultural and geographic region known as Mesoamerica, which includes all the above areas and most of Mexico south of the northern desert regions with the Valley of Mexico, where Mexico City is today, being the center of that region. Trade and the exchange of cultural and religious icons and practices between these two main groups was frequent and regular throughout the Pre-Conquest era.

The History of the Ancient Maya is usually divided into three main time periods: Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic, with three or four sub-divisions of each, with a further geographic breakdown into; Highland, Southern Lowland and Northern Lowland areas. The Pre-Classic period starts sometime around 1000 B.C. with the first identifiable Maya villages being founded in the Copan Valley of Honduras. During this era most of what becomes the Maya cultural complex is created and put in place, such as writing, carved and dated monuments and large cities with central plazas, and perhaps most important of all the institution of Kingship is formulated. The achievements of this era are most impressive and the cities rivaled anything that came later; for example El Mirador, a city in the northern Peten region of Guatemala, was huge with it's Danta Complex rising over 230 feet (the tallest Maya structure known). El Mirador, like it's Classic cousins, was mysteriously abandoned in 50 A.D.

The Classic Era

The Classic Era begins in the Second Century A.D. with the first decipherable dated objects and "stela"; large elongated stone markers usually containing important dates of wars or the accession of Kings. This era truly begins the written History of the Maya for they had a fully functional written language, using hieroglyphic elements both pictographic and phonetic in nature, which we are now able to read and translate. This is the period of the florescence or height of the Maya culture with cities like Tikal, Caracol , Palenque and Copan reaching their peak of power and wealth. The rulers of these city-states have exotic names like; Curl-Snout and Stormy-Sky of Tikal, Lord Water of Caracol, Pacal the Great of Palenque and 18-Rabbit of Copan among others. Thanks to the record in stone they left us we can now read their stories with fixed and precise dates of their deeds. These cities were as large or larger than any others of their time with populations at Caracol in Belize reaching 120,000 and those at Tikal in Guatemala in excess of 60,000. They were often connected by raised roads called "sacbes" stretching for miles which can still be seen from airplanes to this day. With a population that large their agriculture was equally impressive and intensive with raised fields called "milpa" and complex irrigation techniques. They traded with the Valley of Mexico over 800 miles away and up and down the coast in huge canoes laden with obsidian, flint, food stuffs, cacao (which was used as money), Quetzal feathers and most important Jade; which they valued above all else. This civilization was centered in the Southern Lowlands and gradually spread north into the Yucatan and the Highlands of southern Guatemala. The cities were ruled by Divine Kings who were thought gods themselves and without whose direct efforts and intervention with the "Otherworld" the people would surely perish, the rains would not come and the corn would not grow. It was the King and his royal blood that was the medium between the Gods and Earth. This is the World View which caused what is the best known aspect of their civilization, Human Sacrifice. There were many other "bloodletting" rituals as well performed by the kings on themselves and their wives. The king would pierce his penis with a sting ray spine or sharpened obsidian blade (depicted in their art and known to us as the "Perforator God") and their wives would draw a cord with thorns through a hole in their tongues, this blood would be dripped into a bowl containing bark paper and then set ablaze so the smoke could carry the message into the sky and to the waiting gods. This rite was performed in public at prescribed times often relating to astronomical events or before any important undertaking such as war. In the early Classic period this need for human sacrifice and blood was the prime motivation for war, the capture of victims for sacrifice, preferably the opposing city's king or nobles called "Ahau" in Mayan. The Maya also excelled in astronomical calculations, one could say they were obsessed by, if not outright controlled, by these cyclic periods. Especially the synodic period of Venus (584 days) marking it's first appearance as the Morning Star and then it's reappearance as the Evening Star, both events being considered full of omens and meaning especially relating to Warfare. They kept precise records of and could predict with precision many other astronomical occurrences. The Maya calender was equally precise and recorded the passage of time as a procession of days each represented and influenced by it's own god and going on forever in exact repeating and predictable cycles of time; with of course the aid of the blood of humans and especially their king's. The Maya calendric system is both fascinating and complex. In keeping with their cyclical nature they had two day counts which were never ending repeating cycles, the first cycle called a "Tzolkin" was a ceremonial calender made up of 13 numbers and 20 day names which would advance together and complete a 260 day cycle. The other known as "Haab" or Vague Year lasted 365 days and was divided into 18 months of 20 days each with one month (Uayeb) of 5 days at the end which was considered very unlucky. A particular day would be written as a combination of these two counts such as: 9 Ahau 8 Kankin, January 1, 2000 in our calender. Once every 52 years both of the counts would again return to their starting dates at the same time and is referred to as a Calender Round, no doubt a big event to these time junkies. This dating system is also refered to as a Calender Round date by archaeologists. In addition to this system they had what we call a "Long Count" calender which counted individual days from a fixed starting point, August 11, 3114 B.C. for the current cycle in our system. A Long Count date is written like this:, with each number representing, from right to left, days(kin), months(uinal) of 20 days, years(tun) of 18 uinals, katuns(20 tuns) and baktuns(20 katuns) whose highest number was 13 before a new cycle began, this date is also January 1, 2000 in our's. This cycle lasts for over 5000 years before beginning again, it ends on December 23, 2012 A.D. This is the date that New Agers like to quote as the end of the world, but fear not the Maya of Coba (a large city in the Yucatan) inscribed a long count date continuing time into the future for more billions of years then even Carl Sagen can comprehend. The Classic Maya also excelled in the Fine Arts of sculpture and painting and as is quite obvious architecture; which especially impressed the Spanish even in ruins. They recorded their knowledge not only in stone but also on numerous illustrated folded books called "Codices", of which only three or four are known today thanks to the Spanish Friars, one Diego de Landa being particularly fond of playing with matches.

The Collapse

By the late Eighth and early Ninth centuries Maya society began to unravel in the Southern Lowlands as the great cities were abandoned one by one. Archaeologists usually use the last recorded long count dates at the cities to indicate when things had gotten really bad and the system of government was no longer functioning and the people were leaving. Palenque was the first with the last date inscribed in 799 A.D., followed by Caracol in 859 A.D. and Tikal in 879 A.D. What caused this collapse is still unknown for sure and probably always will be. Many theories exist including; increased and more destructive forms of warfare, drought in some areas and to much rain in others, environmental degradation combined with severe over-population and destructive farming practices used to feed the population explosion of the late Classic. All these physical things no doubt played a part, but examined in the context of the Maya world view where everything was alive, inanimate or otherwise, and imbued with great power by the constant inter-play between this world and the "Otherworld", with the Kings as the portal or conduit for this power, when things got bad and stayed that way long enough I believe there was a major crisis of "Faith". The linchpin on the axle of their reality was gone. The royal blood was no longer sufficient to gain the favor of the gods and you had better get out of there fast or suffer the consequences. Why else would these people, who had worked for generations to raise up these great cities with their magnificent buildings, just up and split forever over a very short period of time? The places were, as we would say, "cursed" and full of evil demons and great power which when not controlled by the King was very dangerous and unpredictable. This, judging from the Maya obsession with predictability, is what they feared most, a random world. There is evidence for this in the Maya practice of ritually "killing" buildings or statues by defacing them and there by nullifying their inherit power. This is why so little is known of the Pre Classic era due to the common practice of destroying parts of and using as fill the existing structure and then building on top of it, burying it so to speak.

The Post Classic

As the cities in the Southern Lowlands disintegrated during the 9th century those in the Northern Lowlands continued to prosper and grow for another three or more centuries, trading extensively with the Valley of Mexico and the Toltec Empire. In this area the government was not as centered on one King, linchpin, which may help explain why they did not collapse as their sisters in the south did. Power here was frequently shared by small groups of nobles who referred to each other as "brother", and perhaps they did not suffer the same kinds of destruction caused by the numerous dynastic wars of the south. Here also, in the northern Yucatan, the Maya lived in large cities such as Coba, Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Their art and astronomical observations continued, with a some what different style from the south and showed increasing influences from the Toltecs of Mexico; especially at Chichen Itza which was to become the dominate power center for nearly two centuries before it to, along with many others, was abandoned by 1200 A.D. Following the abandonment of Chichen Itza the Maya coalesced into one final Pre-Conquest Empire centered on the city Mayapan founded in 1250 A.D. By classic standards this was a rather small and shabby place whose rulers maintained control, it is thought, by requiring the other Maya city lords to live there in a large compound. Mayapan was also surrounded by a defensive wall, which, if it they were used at all in the Classic era of the south, was a last ditch effort by a besieged populace. Mayapan, too, was over thrown eventually by the other lords, as is recorded in their History because it's rulers (the Cocom Maya) had become to tyrannical. There are even stories claiming the usurpers (the Xiu Maya) used mercenary Toltec soldiers. In any event Mayapan was abandoned in 1451 A.D. and the Maya polity was splintered into numerous small city-states. So that when the Spanish began to arrive 50 years later the Maya were unable to mount a unified defense and were finally subjugated by Francisco de Montejo in 1542 using the old divide and conquer routine which seemed to work so well for them. However, the last independent Maya kingdom was not finally conquered until 1697, when a small group of Itza Maya at Tayasal, not far from Tikal, in northern Guatemala finally gave up and accepted Christianity, following yet another Spanish blood bath.

Post Conquest

The Maya never "disappeared" or left their homeland, they reside there today in numbers of over 4 million. They do still, however, suffer from prejudice and economic exploitation by the ruling "white" elite of Spanish decent. Their lands were originally taken from them by the Conquistadors and divided among themselves in "encomedias", which included the Indians living on those lands in a form of serfdom. The Spanish frequently built their towns and churches on top of the existing Maya towns and temples and mined the ruins for building blocks. Hundreds of years later and a couple of "Revolutions" the Maya still suffer in abject poverty and political exclusion in supposedly democratic nations. There is again a rising tide of dissatisfaction and rebellion; as there was in the mid-1800's during what are known as "The Caste Wars" in the Yucatan, among the Maya in the form of the Zapotista Movement for land reform and a measure of self-determination. The indomitable spirit of the Maya lives on in their continued adherence to many of their ancient customs and art work, especially weaving, and their ancient religion; I have personally seen evidence of this at the ruins of Coba, though the Maya have learned to keep this secret and away from of the eyes of foreigners. The Maya "day keepers" and "shaman" still count the days and practice the ritual healings of their ancestors. Their land is still one of magic and great beauty and the people are, despite what they have suffered, surprisingly friendly and one can see in their faces those of their ancestors which are cut into the stones of the ancient buildings. Follow along now as CyberWorld Journeys takes you on a trip across the Northern Lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula and into a place of great power and wonder in La Ruta Maya: Lords of Time.

La Ruta Maya