The ancient civilization of the Mayas has been receiving considerable attention recently, but how much do we actually know about it?
Archaeologists tell us that this civilization took root around 2000 B.C. in what is now Mexico. By 250 A.D., it had spread across the Yucatan peninsula and as far south as Guatemala and Belize. A sophisticated society with strong religious beliefs, it developed complex systems of astronomy, mathematics and hieroglyphic writing. Yet by the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, this civilization had disappeared.
The remains of the great cities the Spaniards discovered had been all but forgotten by the Mayan descendants. Clearly in awe, Franciscan Bishop Diego de Landa Calderon (1524 –1579) reported that “There are . . . many edifices of great beauty . . . they are all built of stone and finely ornamented, though there is no metal found in the country for this cutting”. He would have been more awed had he known what we know today, that the Mayans constructed these magnificent cities without use of the wheel!
Imagine a thirty-metre high pyramid precisely constructed so that at the spring equinox, the afternoon sun would cause the shadow of a huge serpent to descend from the sky and play along its side. This shadow represented the Mayan god Kukulcan, and the people of Chichen Itza witnessed the event every year. Also, according to American acoustical engineer David Lubman, when you clap your hands at the base of the pyramid, it chirps a reply in the voice of the sacred quetzal bird. A sacred sinkhole, known as a cenote was found at the site, containing gold, jade, pottery and human remains that were consistent with sacrifices to this god.
At the city of Copan, they found a central plaza with an adjoining acropolis of step pyramids and palaces, as well as elaborately sculpted stelae representing some of the finest remaining Mayan art and hieroglyphic texts. The first Spaniards reached this city in 1576 but their account was lost until 1860. American Juan Galindo (1802 – 1839) was the first modern explorer to publish a description of the jungle-covered ruins in 1835.
Spanish Dominican Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada was the first European to publish a report of his visit to the ruins of Palenque in 1567. However, he completely missed the pièce de résistance – the vaulted tomb of king Pacal the Great, who ruled from 615 to 683 A.D. Archaeologist Alberto Ruiz Lhuillier discovered the tomb beneath the Temple of Inscriptions in 1952. The elaborately sculpted lid of the stone sarcophagus shows a barefoot Mayan man sitting upon a plumed or feathered throne and seeming to operate mechanical devices inside a chamber. While most experts on Mayan history agree this is a spiritual representation of Pacal’s departure to the netherworld, some believe it suggests an association with extraterrestrials or flying vehicles.
Tikal, the largest ruined Mayan city, spanned 60 square kilometres. Although home to 100,000 to 200,000 residents, it had no water supply other than rainfall saved in underground storage facilities. Among the thousands of structures there were six temples, many palaces and seven courts for playing the ritual Mesoamerican ball game of pitz. This game was no friendly sporting event, however, but a ritual match symbolizing battles between the gods in the sky and the lords of the underworld. On occasion, it is believed, members of the losing team were sacrificed to the winning deity. Talk about playing like your life depends on it!
The Mayans recorded their myths and traditions in codices which were books written on paper made from tree bark, laminated with white lime and folded like an accordion. Sadly the Spanish, in their fervour to convert the pagan natives to Christianity, destroyed most of these codices, and by 1697, only four remained. No one at the time could read Mayan hieroglyphics. The script remained undeciphered until the work of Russian linguist Yuri Knorozov (1922 – 1999) resulted in the translation of much but not all of the existing texts.
– Dresden Codex: Probably written between 1200 and 1250 A.D., this 78-page book turned up in Vienna in 1739 and is now held in the state library in Dresden, Germany. It contains an eclipse table, a Venus table that predicts the times when Venus appears as the morning star, and a Mars table that records the times when Mars goes into retrograde motion.
– Madrid Codex: At one time separated into two parts, this 112-page book was reassembled in 1888 and is now kept in the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain. It contains almanacs, astronomical symbolism, zodiac and eclipse symbols.
– Paris Codex: First appearing in 1832, this 22-page codex is kept in Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale. It contains prophecies and what appears to be a Mayan zodiac.
– Grolier Codex: While there is some dispute over its authenticity, this 11-page fragment found in Mexico in 1965 is believed to date from the 13th century. It is currently kept in a Mexican museum and appears to contain a Venus table and illustrations of gods or heroes.
The Mayans religiously followed the paths of the sun, Mars and Venus (which they considered the embodiment of the aforementioned god, Kukulcan). They believed the Earth was flat with four corners, each representing a cardinal direction. The Milky Way was for them the “World Tree’, as well as the mystic road that souls walked on after death to get to the underworld. They used the concept of zero, unknown in most early civilizations.
It would seem that The Mayans were obsessed with the measurement of time. The lunar month was calculated to 29.53020 days, within 34 seconds of its actual length, and the year to 365.2420 days, slightly more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use today. They developed not one but three separate but interlocking calendars.
– Haab’: A 350 day solar calendar consisting of 18 periods of 20 days with 5 extra days at the end.
– Tzolk’in: A 260 day ceremonial calendar, consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, possibly based on the Venus cycle or the average length of a woman’s pregnancy
– Long Count: A non-repeating cycle used for historical purposes, broken down as follows:
20 kin = 1 uinal
18 uinal = 1 tun (360 days)
20 tun = 1 katun (19.7 years)
20 katun = 1 baktun (394.3 years)
After 13 baktun, (5126 years) the cycle begins again.
The Long Count calendar’s beginning (day 0.0.0.0.1) has been calculated back to August 11, 3114 B.C. The last day of the present cycle (day 18.104.22.168.0) will occur on December 21, 2012. Much has been made of this date, which the Mayans associated with the possibility of both catastrophe and enlightenment, and the beginning of a new age. In an incomplete inscription on Tortuguero Monument 6 in Chiapas, Mexico, it is indicated that something important will happen that day, and in the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, it functions as a base date from which other dates are calculated. Happily, there is no mention of the end of the world, as some disaster-mongers would have us believe.
The Mayans also measured much longer time spans that are not part of the Long Count:
20 baktun = 1 pictun (7885 years)
20 pictun = 1 calabtun (158,000 years)
20 calabtun = 1 kinchiltun (3 million years)
20 kinchiltun = 1 alautun (63 million years)
We can only wonder what compelled them to do so . . .