Ancient Mayan Civilization

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The Ancient Mayan Civilization 


(all rights reserved. 2000)



     After a large Asian migration came across into Alaska, down through western Canadasouthward through the United States (for the Clovis and pre-Clovis people click on this web address ) and into present day Mexico, the Mayan Civilization had its beginnings around the year B.C. 2,000.   Its earliest origins point to the Yucatan Peninsula of present day Mexico.  They really began to show advancement around A.D. 250 in Southern Mexico, through all of Guatemala,  present day western Belize, and northwestern Honduras.

       The Mayan civilization was exactly that, a civilization, or a culture.  The Mayans were not a “tribe”.  In the strictest sense it was a “nation”, as one would consider an indigenous “nation” today.  That is to say that the Maya culture was made up of various groups of indigenous peoples who shared a common religion, practiced it’s rituals, shared a common calendar, and to some degree, a common writing system, although the ability to read one type of hieroglyphics does not mean one can read the writings from all Mayan geographical areas.  Just as the Mayas spoke several distinct dialects, their hieroglyphics also depict this difference.

     They did not suddenly appear on the scene from nowhere.  Apparently, they evolved from the older OLMECS who inhabited the area from perhaps B.C. 1200-900. The Mayans are noted for the first conduit drainage system on the continent and perhaps the discovery of the concept of the zero.

     During the classical period the Mayan culture greatly advanced.  This is shown by the further development of their religion, the founding of Mayan cities, the advancement of their sciences such as an in depth knowledge of astronomy, their system of mathematics, development of a writing system, the invention of the calendar, and engineering feats such as the construction of pyramids.  Not to be taken lightly is the fact that the Mayans built aqueducts.  Perhaps the mere mention of an aqueduct spawns a mental image of an overhead Roman aqueduct, supported by columns.  Although at least one of this type was built and is still visible in the Guatemalan capital near the International Airport,  the majority of their aqueducts were constructed at ground level.  The use was to bring water to and throughout the city.  They were constructed in the form of a “U”, made with rock, and were relatively small.  Those seen today just inside the entrance of the ruins of  Copán are about 12 to 14 inches wide, and about a foot deep.


     Around B.C. 300 Mayan kingdoms evolved, ruled by kings and nobles.  Their city-state structure continued to develop until it reached its apex, somewhere between A.D. 850 and 900.   It was a society where farmers surrounded the urban areas, much like many small towns today.   Their lives, the planting, and the harvests were all deeply based in their religious system.  They believed that as one takes from the earth, one must also give something in return.  From this belief came the ritualistic practice of  bloodletting.

          Around A.D. 800 to 900 the Mayan culture of northern Mexico began to decline.  By A.D. 1200 they had been absorbed into the militant TOLTEC culture. They built their capital city of Tula about A.D. 950.  Until today, no one knows for sure exactly why the  Mayans of the South left the region, nor where they went.                                                                  


     By around A.D. 600, the area of southern Guatemala, Belize, and Northern Honduras,  encompassing some 37,000 square miles, had grown to an estimated Mayan population of about 22,000,000 people.  That is some 6,000 people for every 10 square miles (3.1 miles by 3.2 miles).  This is only an estimate; and perhaps a high one.  Without an enormous amount of external trade, this would not leave enough free land to support such a population.  Two hundred and fifty years later, an estimated two-thirds of the populous had disappeared.  The theories of disease or warfare are very weak principally because of the lack of grave sites.    Perhaps the land did stop producing sufficiently for the population.  Maybe it was depleted of its nourishment because of the centuries of the slash and burn technique of farming.  Maybe, just maybe, little by little, the people left the area, such as the great City of Copán in Honduras.  This had to have happened little by little because archaeology does not support a sudden massive migration appearing in any given area.   Worthy of note is that recent archaeological evidences confirm that Caracol, in western Belize was at its peak around A.D. 900 when Copán, to the south, virtually ceased to exist.  It is now known that Caracol (the shell) was involved in either an all out war, or a very heavy internal conflict.  Is it possible that the king and nobles from Copán attempted to exercise their influence too greatly over Caracol?

       All of the Mayans did not disappear; although millions did vanish, all at once, about 1,200 years ago, in the ninth century AD.  There are many, many Mayans living today, principally in Guatemala.  There are approximately 5 million Mayans living today in Guatemala and southern Mexico.  There are approximately 20,000 of them living in southern California.  These fled the Guatemalan persecution by the army in the 1980's.

         More recent investigations into the mass disappearance in the 9th century presents fairly conclusive data that this is what happened to millions of Mayans:   In the Tikal area of Guatemala, there are relatively no rivers or lakes.  Careful examination of this city shows that the area surrounding the temples and the plaza is slopped,  sending the rain "run off" into deep reservoirs, one of which is about 125 feet deep.  First, meteorologically,   it has been determined that when the northern Atlantic area turns extremely cold, that the normal tropical rain band of Central America is pushed further south, into the northern part of South America.  Secondly,   scientific investigations of the ice in the far north, using ice

"coring" techniques have shown that the deep core corresponding to the 9th century A.D. shows an extremely low ammonia content, which indicates a time of extreme cold in the north Atlantic.  Thirdly,  three geologists taking "core" samples from a lake bottom in the Yucatan area of Mexico, found a white colored band which indicated a time of extremely low moisture.

      Fortunately, within the white band, a seed was found.  This seed was sent to be "dated".  Its date showed it was 1,200 years old; the 9th century AD; the exact time when millions of Mayans disappeared, and their construction stopped.  What happened to the Mayans?   The answer seems to be that a prolonged draught resulted in no drinking water, nor water for plants and animals.  Millions of them died of thirst and hunger.

        Their majestic culture, along with the building of further great pyramids stopped.  The Spanish explorers and colonists did not cause the destruction of the Mayan kingdom.  It had virtually collapsed some 600 years before Columbus arrived.  There was still a remnant of the Mayans.  With this remnant, the Spanish dealt harshly.  The Catholics destroyed all of their religious books they could find, claiming heresy.  The Spanish massacred the indigenous people, and they continue to do so today, killing entire villages of Indians in northern Guatemala, and across the border in southern Mexico.  This is carried out by both the Mexican and Guatemalan Armies of today.  There are pockets of resistance such as Chiapas, Mexico.     

               Indigenous people are looked down upon by the Hispanics of today in Mexico and throughout Central America. When one gets mad and wants to curse someone, the word used  is usually, “Pendejo!” or “Indio!”(Indian).  It was somewhat amusing to me that on one of my numerous trips to Guatemala (one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen),  two indigenous men were arguing.  One called the other “indio!”.  The other replied, “Yes, but pure, not mixed like you!.”  

     People that our history books hold up as heroes were some of the worse marauders such as Hernán Cortés.  In 1524, he organized a military group that went into Guatemala’s Petén area  with the goal of conquering the Mayans.  This area was the highest concentration of Mayan population.  He either killed or made slaves of the Indians.  The most defensive stronghold of the Mayans did not fall until 1697.  It was the group known as the Itzá.  It’s capital was called Tayasal, and was located on an island in Lake Petén-Itzá.  After a difficult and bloody battle, the Spanish Crown finally "liberated" Meso-America.   As late as 1761, Indian insurgents revolted and the Spanish felt indignation because one of the Indians named Canek was declared “king” by his people.

          The same thing happened in Honduras.  The indigenous leader there was Chief Lempira.  The Spanish killed him and in recent days declared him a hero and put his

picture on their paper money, called the Lempira.   As someone recently said: “the Mayan war began almost 500 years ago and has never stopped”.                                               

        Their traditions, rituals, colorful dress for both men and women, permeate Guatemala today.  They are hard working people.  Many make beautiful handcrafted articles such as blankets, leather goods, belts, shirts, woven baskets, a hand-woven cloth.  Those in the vicinity of the capital, bring their goods to Guatemala City.  They principally sell them near the “trebol”, in the city artisans market, and in surrounding towns such as Antigua, and villages near the capital. 

        In the interior of Guatemala, one finds a “syncretism” or combination of  Catholicism and Mayan religion.   As a theologian and archaeologist,  I find it difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.  There were many similarities between the beliefs of the ancient Mayans and Catholicism.  Thus there was a smooth transition, or in actuality, a smooth mixture.   For example, I have stood on the elevated porch of the famous Catholic Church of “Santo Tomas” (Saint Thomas), in Chichicastenango, and observed the Quiché Mayas coming up the steps to the porch level, walking slowly through clouds of smoke coming from the incense burners that the priests (who are Quiché Mayas) are swinging, in order to purify themselves (Mayan belief) before entering the Catholic church.   Even today, in a funeral service of the Kiché,  during the funeral procession, they will stop by either an oratory or the Catholic Church where they turn the coffin three times to the right and four times to the left in order to confuse the soul, so that it won’t be able to find its way back to this life of suffering and misery.

        The Mayan/Toltec culture came to an end in the latter part of the 1100’s.  But before that, around A.D. 950, the Toltec/Mayan king named Topiltzin, bestowed upon himself the name “Feathered Serpent”, which was known as a gentle god.  The Aztecs called him  Quetzalcoatl.  The Mayans called him Kulkulkán.  Legend says he was later banished by an opposing group.  Kulkulcán promised that some day he would return and save his people.  This promise was not so much like the World War II promise of General McArthur when he said, “I shall return!”  It was more like the promise of Christ who said he will return and save His people.  The Aztecs claim to be descendants of the Toltecs.

     The last powerful center of the Mayan civilization retreated northward to the Yucatan.  Chichén Itzá became the center of power.  Later and finally, the only Mayan strength remaining was in Mayapán.  This was no doubt the last place on the planet earth where the center of a society was it’s culture and not its politics.  The last chapters of the great Mayan civilization were written between A.D. 1100 – 1200.  Then the book was closed except for an occasional post script .

     It is calculated that in Honduras, in the late 1500’s, the population consisted of about 200 Spaniards and  200,000  indigenous  peoples.