The Jungle site of Palenque.
Every July the excellent University of the Third Age, which works to make sure we “third agers” don’t lose our marbles too quickly, puts on a Winter School series of lectures. One in the current series was particularly timely for me: the legacy of the Aztecs and Mayans. With my recent adventures in Mesoamerica still fresh a blog post on the marvellous Mayans was to be next cab off the rank so a refresher on their cultural achievements was welcome.
The Mayans have suffered a long-term image problem not helped by Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Yes, they were fierce warriors and their practices included human sacrifices, but they were also sophisticated craftspeople, gifted mathematicians, brilliant astronomers, and wily merchants who enjoyed a well-developed cultural life. Our lecturer described them as the Greeks of the Americas. They had a written language and books. At its zenith, in the classic period from around 300 to 900 AD, Mayan civilisation consisted of about 50 city states with several million citizens across today’s Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize.
Aspects of the Uxmal site, near Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Mayans had a sophisticated lifestyle. They bathed frequently, up to four times a day, and were very into body decoration including paint and tattooing. Women played an important role in society. Flattened heads and foreheads, and cross eyes, were regarded as signs of beauty. Apparently to achieve the cross eyes a stone would be tied around a baby’s forehead so that it hung in front of the eyes, thus encouraging the infant to look cross-eyed at the bauble. Mmmm….
In their busy economic lives the Mayans used contracts and credit and extended loans to clients in trading deals. They had a currency system. They presided over a healthy trade in salt, quetal feathers, obsidian, cotton, textiles, vanilla and high quality clay. It’s from the Mayans that we have the words chocolate – from chocol’ha – and cacao – from ka’kau’. Jade was prized. They used chewing gum.
Religion, based on their highly developed astronomy skills, played an all-encompassing role in Mayan culture and daily life. Their skills in mathematics enabled the development of astronomy. As early as the first century BC they had developed the concept of zero, and evidence exists of their working in sums to the hundreds of millions and producing accurate astronomical observations using no instruments other than sticks. They were able to measure the length of the solar year to a high level of accuracy.
The amazing observatory at Chichen Itza.
Earlier this year a 15-year-old Canadian schoolboy used the Mayan astrological charts to pinpoint a hidden temple complex in the Yucatan jungle he named K’aak Chi, or Mouth of Fire. William Gadoury from Quebec studied the astrological charts as well as satellite photos to locate the city after devising a theory that the Mayans built their cities so they lined up with star constellations.
All this Mayan collective cultural memory and invaluable knowledge went up in flames on when the Spanish Fransciscian priest Diego de Landa destroyed their books on the Night of the Fires in the late 1590s in the Yucatan Peninsula. Only four original Maya books, or codices, survive. The full extent of Mayan knowledge is hard to determine because of this thorough destruction.
An interesting – and obvious – point made by our presenter was that the Mayans, an estimated six million, are still with us today, happily represented by the colourful folk busily selling their craft wares in markets across the region. Or just ordinary citizens living their everyday lives in these countries. The Mayan language is the basis of many of the more-than 40 dialects spoken as first languages across Mexico, one of the hurdles that has to be jumped to bring universal education across the country.
Our travels through Mexico took us to Mayan sites in Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, a Yucatan Peninsula sites in the jungle at Palenque, and the amazing Chichen Itza, thought to have been the centre of the Mayan empire.
Views of Chichen Itza, thought to be have been the centre of the Mayan Empire, one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico.