July 20, 2010

Discovering the Maya

Chichén ItzáAny trip to the Yucatán Peninsula will inevitably involve the Maya people. There are Maya ruins to visit; Maya food to eat; Maya heritage in the museums; Maya art in the shops; Maya crafts in the market; and Maya rides in the theme parks. The very name Yucatán is Mayan! If nothing else, then the world owes a debt to the Maya for messing around with the seeds of cocoa trees and inventing xocoatl in the sixth century. We know that better as chocolate. The Maya called it 'the food of the gods'.

Some people might even be visiting Mexico for the first time, lured here by considerations of the Maya Long Count calendar coming to an abrupt finish. The internet abounds with scare stories that this also means the end of the world. There was even a blockbuster Hollywood film about that, '2012'; and if the Maya knew about the end of the world, then maybe they also worked out what to do about it?

So after all this talk of the Maya, it might be worth discovering them in modern Mexico.

How do you pronounce Maya?

Maya is pronounced MY-er. This refers to the people, the lands and, indeed, everything except the language. The language is Mayan, pronounced MY-an.

'I would also point out here that the adjective 'Mayan' is only conventionally used... when referring to languages. Otherwise plain 'Maya' is employed both as a noun and adjectivally, singular and plural. Thus we talk here of Maya art and Maya people, not the 'Mayas' of long ago.'
'The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings' by David Drew

Who were the Maya?

The Maya arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula around 3114 BCE. Their own history says that they sailed to Mexico from a location '150 days westward'. There have been various theories about where they might have come from. A strong contender is Sri Lanka, where the central region, in ancient times, was called Maya. There are also a lot of linguistic, religious and architectural links between Sri Lanka and the Maya, not least the fact that the Maya carved elephants into their temples. Mexico isn't known for its elephants. (Gene D Matlock has written about the Sri Lankan connection here.) Other historians have offered places such as Russia, Turkey or various countries in the Mediterranean for the homeland of the Maya.

Maya men

Whatever the truth is, they were certainly in Mexico making ceramics by 2000 BCE. This is known, because we've found the pottery. They went on to found a civilisation that was, at its peak, one of the most densely populated and advanced of its age, in comparison to anywhere else in the world. They were the first people in the Americas to develop writing, which they carved into stone slabs, meaning that we can still read them today. They had fully fledged mathematical and astronomical systems. Their art and architectural influence has been discovered miles away in far flung countries; and, of course, they created a calendar, which still accurately counts the days today. That's better than Western calendars, which, even today, have to rely upon leap years to remain on track.

We should have had a fully written history, explaining all of those details which have now become mysterious, such as the meaning behind the Long Count. However, when the Spanish arrived, they began a wholesale evangelism program. Their aim was to convert the Maya into Christianity. In order to achieve this, many of the Maya records were destroyed. One of the biggest examples of this occurred on July 12th, 1562, when the acting Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa Calderón, oversaw the burning of 5,000 cult images (stele), as well as all of the Maya sacred books.

Dresden codice

Following this program of cultural destruction, only three Maya books (codices) and the fragments of a fourth remained. They were scattered around the globe. Today, the three full books are in Paris, Dresden and Madrid, hence a bit of travelling is involved in order to compare their contents. The fourth underwent some restoration work in the 1920s, so it was able to shed more light on the story.

However, these four sources are just a drop in the ocean of what could have been available. Imagine walking into a library today and picking out just four books at random. Then imagine that, a few centuries down the line, those four books had to inform people of the whole of your nation's cultural, social, economic and linguistic history. Wouldn't you really hope that the right four books had been saved?

Since the majority of the books and steles went up in Spanish flames, the story of the Maya has had to be pieced together from their own oral history; the archaeology in their cities; any steles that have remained buried; and the evidence from other cultures. A great deal was written by the Spanish conquistadors, but this obviously included a lot of bias. The conquistadors were writing to sound like heroes back home, not to provide a sound academic thesis on those they were conquering!

Where were the Maya?

The Yucatán Peninsula is only the heartland of the Maya world. They lived throughout a vast area, which also covered the modern Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, as well as extending into today's Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Western Honduras.

Maya world

What happened to the ancient Maya?

For centuries, the Maya lived in small, coastal communities, exporting jade, obsidian and cocoa along the trade routes of the Caribbean Sea. Then, around 250-900 CE, they became wealthy enough to found magnificent cities, build pyramids and start trading even further afield. This was also the age of great intellectual advances and an explosion of art.

Following this was a huge disaster, the basis of which has never been fully explained. Theories include prolonged drought or the Maya strip-farming their resources and therefore running out of supplies. Either way, the Maya left their southern lands and congregated in the northern part of their empire instead. This included the Yucatán Peninsula, which experienced a massive boom in building and trade. Chichén Itzá and Cobá became truly huge cities, as their populations swelled with incomers.

So why isn't the area still ruled by the Maya now?

In 1511 CE, the Spanish arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula. There were only seventeen of them and they were quickly captured by the Maya. Their number were divided between the local chieftains and used as slaves or human sacrifices. Only two men survived, in different communities. One later made it back to the Spanish and became an advisor against the Maya. The other opted to stay with the Maya and advised them in strategies to defeat the Spanish. Unfortunately for the Maya, this first landing had also brought with it smallpox, which killed them off in huge numbers.

There were a couple of expeditions over the next decade, but they were inconsequential. TulúmThe Spanish had been lured by stories of gold in the Maya lands. They brought Christianity with them. They left again without much gold and with very few religious converts. The Spanish conquest didn't begin in earnest until 1527, but that failed when the Maya deserted their towns just ahead of the Spanish troops, then doubled back and repopulated them once the Spanish had moved on. The prospective conquistadors gave up.

Between 1531-1535, the Spanish were back and this time did succeed in briefly taking Chichén Itzá. Local resistance sent them packing again. They returned in 1540 and, two years later, managed to conquer the Maya city of T'ho. This was renamed Mérida and is now the capital city of Yucatán. The lord of nearby Maní converted to Christianity and this was the great turning point in the Spanish Conquest, as the Xiu people there allied with the Spanish and helped subdue their Maya neighbours.

Nevertheless, it took until 1697 for the whole of the Yucatán Peninsula to come under Spanish control.

Where are they now?

The Maya are still where they've always been. In the Maya area, the descendents of this great empire still speak the Mayan language and continue many of the cultural traditions. They are just harder to see, as the majority live in modern houses and are indistinguishable, at a glance, from other Mexicans. There are Maya people who still live in their traditional villages and these may be visited.

Maya lady

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

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