Mayan pyramid at Uxmal
Hollywood Aside, What Do We Really Know About the Sudden Disappearance of Central America’s Mystery People?
BY FRANK JOSEPH
Director Mel Gibson’s new movie Apacalypto purports to be a fictional story set in the time of the Mayas, though the film’s ending— showing Spanish ships arriving off the Mexican coast—seems to place the tale in the time of the Aztecs, long after the Mayan civilization had vanished from the scene. And as strange and disturbing as the movie is, the real enigma of the Central American Mayas may be even stranger and more disturbing than fiction could ever convey. The Great Mystery of the Maya is: Why did their civilization suddenly shut down? And what became of them? These two questions have bedeviled archaeologists since the 19th century, and have remained unanswered even with the late 20th century translation of Mayan hieroglyphs.
After more than a thousand years of building city-states across Yucatan, the Maya abandoned them, never to return. But they left behind no evidence of plague, famine, or war to explain their disappearance. To be sure, their faulty agricultural system resulted in wide-spread hunger, even starvation. And the once idyllic image of the Maya as humane astronomer-priests more interested in celestial matters than murderous militarists bent on conquest was dispelled when their temple inscriptions were translated. They do indeed reveal a race of genius mathematicians, colorful artists and urban builders, but with a darker streak of inter-city fighting and human sacrifice. Some scholars conclude that this disappointing penchant for bloodshed rendered society no longer livable.
But the translations also show that warfare was part and parcel of the Maya world for the length and breadth of their history. They reveal that Maya society was in a virtually constant state of war punctuated by episodes of treaty-brokered peace during which opposing sides contracted new alliances and rearmed themselves for renewed conflict. Campaigns fought at the close of Maya greatness were neither more nor less bloody nor far-flung than those waged since its beginning. True, Yucatan experienced bouts of mass starvation due to poor agrarian practices. But these, too, were endemic to Maya agriculture from the start. In fact, crop production throughout Middle America was bountiful at the time civilization there winked out.
Neither incessant warfare nor failed crops can adequately explain why a vast population spread across the entire Yucatan Peninsula and beyond, north into Mexico and south into Central America, abruptly ceased to function, if only because the Mayas never exercised any central authority over these extensive areas. Shortly before A.D. 900, their cities everywhere were abandoned in concert, as though some kind of a call or order went out to terminate their society. When an entire culture suddenly ceases to be, the comprehensive, decisive event invariably leaves behind clear, abundant evidence of its overwhelming impact. The collapse of civilization in the Indus Valley graphically appears in the mass graves of its people slaughtered by invading Aryan hordes. The fall of Homer’s Ilios is clearly outlined in the stratum of burnt material at Hissarlik’s Troy VIIb level, on the Aegean cost of Turkey. The nuclear scars left by USAF bombers at Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be still clearly visible for centuries to come. But nothing of the kind appears anywhere within the Mayas’ former sphere of influence. Even their preserved remains show no extraordinary indications of disease, famine or warfare.
As their way of life evidenced little or no sign of development, progress or change from first day to last, so nothing suggests social decline leading to a fall, nor any event horizon that definitively brought their history to an abrupt close. Why, then, did they shut down their still-prosperous cities and abandon their country after more than a millennium of unrelieved greatness?
Only one cause can account for the Mayas’ mass-evacuation, in unison, of every city-state across the Yucatan and beyond. But to grasp its identity and universal power, something of the Mayas’ origins and mentality must be first understood.
Mainstream scholars believe the Maya arose during a Formative Period around 200 B.C., followed by population increase and social coalescence in an Early Classic Period. Ceremonial cities and pyramid-building sprouted with the Classic Period, reaching their florescence before A.D. 900 in the Late Classic. The professionals are unable to explain exactly why simple hunter-gatherers, after uncounted millennia of preliterate existence, suddenly decided to become hieroglyph- literate, pyramid-building Maya astronomers and mathematicians. Archaeologists can only guess that 3rd century B.C. tribes may have reached a certain population density, from which organized society possibly emerged as a matter of course. This baseless assumption is a hard pill for any rational person to swallow, and smacks of 18th century scholars who believed mice were formed from corner cobwebs. More importantly, it ignores the Mayas’ obvious inheritance from their predecessors.
The Olmecs built America’s first civilization, beginning in the Veracruz area of northeastern Mexico, along the Atlantic coast, but eventually spread into what would later become the Maya lands, as far south as El Salvador. They introduced pyramid construction, hieroglyphs (recently discovered), city-planning, sculpture, medicine, irrigation, and all the other arts of civilized arts associated with Mesoamerica. While their earlier culture differed stylistically from the Maya, material and chronological connections are nonetheless obvious. The Olmecs went extinct around 400 B.C., and while this date pre-dates the Mayas’ Formative Period by two hundred years, the archaeologists themselves appear to have miscalculated.
In 1978, they were shocked to learn that the Mayas’ largest ceremonial city was built centuries before such complexes were supposed to have arisen. Located in the north of the modern department of El Petén, in Guatemala, El Mirador, “The Look-Out,” flourished from about the 10th Century B.C., reaching its height from the 3rd Century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., with a peak population of perhaps 80,000 people. None of this, according to the experts, was supposed to have appeared until Classic, even Late Classic Times, many hundreds of years later.
El Mirador covers some ten square miles, and features a large, low, artificial platform topped with a set of three step-pyramids. One, nicknamed El Tigre, stands 180 feet high. But its companion, La Danta, is greater by fifty feet, making it the tallest structure the Maya ever built, this allegedly from the first day of their history, if not before. The sprawling platform on which it was perched is a base covering 74,000 feet of ground. Most of the structures at El Mirador were originally faced with beautifully cut stone covered by large, stucco murals depicting the gods and goddesses of the Maya, all here fully fleshed out in the otherworldly identities familiar to mythologists.
Dating the site prior to the presumed origin of Maya civilization are the remains of a wall that perhaps enclosed the entire location: the stones that went into its construction were reused from even earlier structures. El Mirador sits at the center of a series of ancient sacbeob, or raised, stone, pedestrian causeways, one stretching to another Maya ceremonial center at Nakbe, almost ten miles away. El Mirador’s age well overlaps the last few centuries of the Olmec, and its already advanced, even matchless construction affirm that the Maya not only inherited that earlier culture, but were, in fact, latter-day Olmecs, who carried on and developed the civilizing mission begun by their predecessors.
El Mirador is little known in the outside world, perhaps because its mere existence threatens to overturn the neat chronologies established by mainstream archaeologists. Indeed, the Maya themselves had nothing whatsoever to do with such academic timetables. As universally acknowledged mathematicians of unparalleled greatness, their understanding of their own beginnings is certainly worth more than the scientific guesswork of modern scholars. The Maya were, in fact, very exact, as they were in all things mathematical, concerning the precise moment of their coming into the world. In short, they believed their civilization was born on 12 August, 3113 B.C.
While archaeologists dismiss this date as impossibly contrary to modern understanding of Maya chronology, it coincides remarkably well with Olmec origins around 3000 B.C. Until the 1950s, the Olmec were believed to go back no earlier than two thousand, five hundred years ago. With the advent of radio-carbon techniques, however, a period circa 1200 B.C. became more acceptable, until improved testing pushed it back another three centuries. Most recently, research at the Olmec site of Jalapa revealed a late 4th millennium B.C. date, as confirmed by Dr. Pablo Bush-Romero, head of the National Archaeology Department for the Mexican government. It seems, then, that the Mayas were an outgrowth of Olmec culture, as they themselves suggest in their national birthday of 3113 B.C.
Like their predecessors, they worshiped numerous deities. But one mythic figure dominated their vast pantheon of gods and goddesses, nature-spirits and chthonic demons. The Mayas’ supreme being was Time. They realized that it created everything throughout the universe, destroyed everything, and restored everything in new forms. And the Great Omnipotence made its will known in the progress of celestial movement. Hence, the Mayas’ mastery of astronomy. Through attentive, accurate observation of the heavens, they learned what God expected of them. By putting themselves in accord with his celestial commandments, as expressed in the progress of the heavenly bodies, they fulfilled his plan for mankind, they believed. That was the spiritual basis for designing the Maya calendar. It came to absolutely rule their lives, and was consulted in all matters of state, as well as personal affairs. Marriages were contracted, children conceived, food eaten, burials conducted, wars waged, journeys undertaken, professions assigned, kings crowned, captives sacrificed— every human activity, high or low, was religiously regulated under the tyranny of time.
The lives not only of the Mayas, but of the high cultures that preceded and followed them, were absolutely overshadowed by this temporal god. The later Aztecs inherited his will in the form of the Tonalpohualli, a ritual calendar astrology, known as Tonalonamatl, used to plot the horoscopes of each member of the empire. The Tonalpouque were yet other priests who determined good and evil days. Merchants, sailors, traders and couriers could not begin their travels until the Tonalpouque had discovered the proper “One Serpent,” or Fortunate Day.
As the calendar had brought Mesoamerican civilization into existence at the end of the 4th millennium B.C., so it would ring down the curtain on the high culture of the Mayas at the proper moment. Their organic almanac was an abstract mechanism of intermeshing cycles strictly coinciding with the celestial patterns they observed. As the final Long Count ground to a halt, it signaled the end every Maya must obey. That moment arrived with the last gasp of the 9th century, when its universal recognition signaled a simultaneous evacuation of all ceremonial centers, including El Mirador.
Most of the Maya henceforward melded into the cultures of other, lesser peoples, losing forever their former identity and scientific greatness. A relative few traveled north, where they built the famous shining structures of Chichen Itza and Tulum.
Another contingent pushed beyond Yucatan and into the Gulf of Mexico, voyaging far up the Mississippi River into what is today known as western Illinois. There, across from Missouri’s “Gateway to the West,” the modern city of St. Louis, another, far older metropolis arose near the east bank of the Big Muddy.
Today, Cahokia is an archaeological park featuring the largest prehistoric earthwork in North America above the Rio Grande. Referred to as “Monks’ Mound” for the French Trappist monks who briefly occupied its one hundred-foot summit in the late 18th century before they went mad, its base of fourteen square acres is slightly larger than that of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, and comprises more than one million cubic feet of soil. During the zenith of the city’s far-flung influence one thousand years ago, its population topped thirty thousand residents. Surrounding the ceremonial center was a twenty-foot-tall stockade of plastered lime defended by hundreds of watch-towers more than four miles in circumference, and manned by a veritable legion of sentries.
Although conventional archaeologists are loathe to admit it, they cannot deny Cahokia’s unmistakably Maya features. If Monks’ Mound had been discovered in Yucatan instead of Illinois, they would have found it indistinguishable from any of the other step-pyramids raised by Mesoamerican construction engineers. True, none of the Maya temple platforms were made of earth, but ancient architects were no different than their modern counterparts, in that both were/are forced to build with the materials at hand; the area chosen for Cahokia has no limestone for quarrying.
In addition to striking, physical resemblances between Monks’ Mound and Maya pyramid design is something scholars call “Woodhenge.” One fifth of a mile from the great earthwork stands this formation of tall, red, cedar posts arranged in a circle. At its center, an observer sighted each one of the posts along the horizon to determine a wealth of celestial information—from the solstices and rising of the moon at its most northerly point (where it appears largest in the sky) to positions of specific constellations, with special emphasis on the Pleiades and Orion. This astronomical expertise was unique in the American Middle West and wholly unlike Plains Indian cosmology, but identical to the high science achieved by the Mayas.
As though to clinch the connection with southerly origins, Cahokia arose suddenly, without precedent, around A.D. 900, the same moment the Mayas abandoned their civilization in Yucatan. It seems clear they reestablished it in our country according to the will of Time, their chief deity.
But what became of the neo-Mayas after they re-created their culture in Illinois? That is yet another story.