The Marvelous, Mysterious Maya
In 1511, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero found themselves shipwrecked off Jamaica. Along with their traveling companions, these Spanish men made their way to the balmy Yucatán, where they encountered the Maya. Some members of the party were assimilated into the Maya culture; others were ritually sacrificed. Guerrero eventually became a Maya military leader of some prestige and valor, aiding them in their defense against Spanish conquerors.
Later conquistadores—the ones revered as “explorers” in most history texts—were surprised to hear the Maya speak to them, upon first contact, of Castilla (one of the Spanish kingdoms) as someplace vaguely familiar. These were not the first fair-skinned, bearded seamen the Maya had encountered. Aguilar left the Maya to join the forces of Cortés upon his landing in 1519, his skills as a translator and intermediary proving essential in the rape of Tenochtitlán. Guerrero, though, refused to return to his Continental roots despite the best entreaties of Aguilar and others. He was delivered the following letter from a later expedition under Francisco de Montejo in 1528, as recorded by Fernández de Oviedo and reprised in a most interesting paper by Roland J. Romero:
Gonzalo, my brother and special friend:
I count it my good fortune that I arrived and have learned of you through the bearer of this letter [through which] I can remind you that you are a Christian, bought by the blood of Jesus Christ, or Redeemer, to whom I give, and you should give, infinite thanks.
You have a great opportunity to serve God and the Emperor, Our Lord, in the pacification and baptism of these people, and more than this, to leave your sins behind you, with the Grace of God, and to honor and benefit yourself. I shall be your very good friend in this, and you will be treated very well.
And thus I beseech you not to let the Devil influence you not to do what I say, so that he will not possess himself of you forever. . .
. . .Consequently you will come to this ship, or to the coast, without delay, to do what I have said and to help me carry out, through giving me your counsel and opinions, that which seems most expedient.
Oviedo writes that Guerrero scribbled the following in charcoal on the back of the paper and had it returned to Montejo as swiftly as it had come:
Sir, I kiss your Grace’s hands: As I am a slave I have no freedom, even though I am married and have a wife and children, and I remember God; and you, sir, and the Spaniards have in me a very good friend.
Several accounts offer differing versions of communications between Aguilar and Guerrero upon the earlier initiative of Cortés; and these conflicting stories have given rise to considerable controversy in the world of historiography. Whether Guerrero refused to rejoin the Spanish because of his societal and familial associations with the Maya or whether he was honestly unable to do so despite a genuine will is a mystery that will not be solved with finality anytime soon.
Having spent nearly two decades among the Maya, having fathered children by a Maya wife, and having been decorated as an officer of the Chief of Chetumal, though, seems ample enough impetus for a change of perspective, does it not? It is likely that Guerrero sensed the thinly veiled threats behind Montejo’s letter. Guerrero would have known what sort of business was meant by “that which seems most expedient,” and he quite conceivably felt that he had much to protect as best he could. His rhetorical kiss of his Grace’s hands might have been diplomatic flattery.
Among all the brutish conquests of European colonialism—the repercussions of which are still very much alive from Africa to the Middle East and East Asia—none seems quite as epically tragic as the wholesale obliteration of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Maya were, in practically all appreciable respects, the most culturally and technologically advanced of these. While most vestiges of Classical Maya civilization had been reclaimed by the rich tropical undergrowth at the time of the Spaniards’ arrival, the great majority of what phantasmal textual legacy remained was systematically destroyed by the Christian warrior-zealots in their quest to “pacify” these proud natives through various modes of beguilement, intimidation, humiliation, torture, and murder.
Even today, the Maya of old are recalled by the typical pop culture consumer as little more than perpetually warring, cannibalistic savages—after all, as some of the more colorful and less coherent cocktail party theories divulge, they could hardly have built those magnificent edifices or developed such powerful mathematics without the help of aliens, or at least the Egyptians. Mel Gibson’s powerful, entertaining film Apocalypto depicts a sacrificial ceremony in grisly detail, but does not explore so much as a single instance of the massive, murderous barbarism heralded by the arrival of the majestic galleons of the conquistadores. Gibson framed his story in a specific way for purposes of thematic expression, to be sure, and to his credit. But he also knew that, because that savagery is discretely linked to the Eurocentric Weltanschauung so prevalent among today’s Western literate, it is not the sort of history one likes to discuss over coffee or to relive as one munches, in the limelight of the silver screen, buttery, golden-popped kernels of the grain so sacred to the bludgeoned Mesoamericans, the grain from which they believed their very bodies had been made by the gods.
The fact remains that, as the loftiest branches of a cultural tree with its roots in the most ancient of known Amerindian societies, the various Maya cultures and subcultures were, at their apex, as accomplished as their Eurasian contemporaries (and often moreso) in mathematics, astronomy, calendrics, civics, literature, architecture, and other areas of culture. They developed the only fully functional written language in the pre-Columbian Americas, and the largest of their cities dwarfed the metropolises of Europe at that time. The existence of such unparalleled excellence absent any explicable ties to the cultural cradles of the Nile, of Mesopotamia, of the Indus or Yellow River Valleys is of an interest to scholarship which could scarcely be overestimated. We can at least be glad, then, that the forests of Central America had overtaken as much of its remnants as they had by the coming of European marauders armed with fierce weapons and strange diseases.
The history of the Maya civilization can be roughly divided into three periods:
- Preclassic (ca. 1500 BCE – 200 CE). During this period, the Maya emerged as a group culturally distinct from their Mesoamerican predecessors. Their first known ceremonial architecture, in the form of burial mounds, dates from about 1000 BCE. These Maya lived in small villages which sometimes confederated into larger quasi-urban population centers. They hunted, gathered, fished, and made pottery and some tools. Probably the great majority of Maya mythology had been established by the early Preclassic period, as much of it was inherited in only marginally modified forms from that of the Olmec and other earlier Mesoamericans.
- Classic (ca. 250 – 900 CE). This is the period in which the great Maya city-states began to appear and to flourish, with the largest and most developed of them in the densely forested southern highlands of the Maya region (present day southern Yucatán, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras). The age of the great city builders saw the most extensive developments in Maya art, literature, architecture, civics, and science, and also some of the most widespread warfare. The expansive nature of the Maya economic system forced many of these city-states into open conflict with one another; the fall of the great city of Tik’al to a neighboring dynasty is sometimes used to divide the Classic Period into ‘early’ and ‘late’ segments.
- Postclassic (ca. 1000 – 1450 CE). For reasons much debated and poorly understood, classical Maya civilization underwent an abrupt, widespread, and catastrophic decline during the 10th and 11th Centuries. Throughout the culturally rich southern region, monument building and the creation of texts and inscriptions effectively ceased and the great cities were abandoned. This gave rise to new shifting centers of power in the north (such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán), cities which came increasingly under the influence of non-Maya states like Teotihuácan and Tenochtitlán to the north and west. A few fragmented Maya states also remained in the southern highlands—the Quiché Maya, for instance, produced the Popol Vuh, considered the most complete extant Maya religious and historic text. But revolt and conflict due to increasing external influence also curtailed the growth of these newer kingdoms, so that, by the arrival of Spanish forces in the early 16th Century, the Maya states that remained were culturally dilute, politically in conflict, and representative only of mere shadows of the glory which once had illuminated the region.
Maya Civics and Economy
It is important to remember that the term “Maya” is a relatively late creation, and that the Classical Maya used no such clear blanket term for themselves. During the height of their civilization, the Maya existed as independent city states with distinct identities, unified by common cultural practices such as language and religious framework—classical Greece, with its well-defined city-states such as Athens and Sparta, is a good analogy. The Maya cities sometimes warred among themselves and created loose confederations and spheres of hegemony, but nothing we might recognize as systematic imperialism under a strong central government occurred until late in the Postclassic Period, when the city of Mayapán (from which the term “Maya” is likely derived) controlled the majority of the Maya cultural region for a short time.
The Classical Maya city, of which Tik’al, Kalakmul, and Copán are good examples, was an impressive urban center with many stone monuments and buildings and numerous broad plazas and causeways. The inner city was dedicated chiefly as a residence for the royal-priestly court and a space for religious and civic ceremony. Most of the population lived in satellite communities on the outskirts, or in countryside villages which were part of the city’s outlying territory.
The Maya exported jade, cacao, sea salt, cloth, and other commodities, any of which could be used as currency, along routes stretching as far away as the present-day southwestern U.S. Merchants were socially esteemed and governed by their own patron deities, but trade was never as crucial to the Maya economy as it would be to the Aztecs later. The Maya cities’ economies were based heavily on agriculture and construction, typically utilizing a slave labor base composed mostly of prisoners of war.
Maya society was stratified, with a priestly ruling caste overseeing the works of the lower classes. Religion was central to Maya personal and civic life, so there was little distinction between religious and governmental authority. The city-state was known as an ajaw, and had a proper name which was attached more closely to the identity of its ruling dynasty than to its geographical location. Its ruler, who was, by definition, also the central religious figure, was known as the ajawlil or k’uhul ajaw. The geographical extent of his kingdom was known as the ch’en (“land”). Tumult in the royal court often had dire consequences for living standards and social order throughout the state; the leader demanded large sacrifices from his populace in the name of the appeasement of the Maya deities and maintained a high degree of control over the economic, ceremonial, and aesthetic aspects of his subjects’ lifestyles.
Particularly in the highlands of the south, the Maya city-states relied mainly or exclusively on slash-and-burn agriculture techniques, though evidence of terraced fields and other less destructive practices does exist. The clearing of the forests would provide ready-fertilized fields for planting crops such as corn, but the soil was itself of poor quality and became steadily less fertile through the subsequent harvests. Destruction of the forests also meant the elimination of raw resources important to construction and to daily life and to the habitats of animals upon which the Maya depended. Stone buildings, for example, were usually covered with a lime cement mixed through a heat-intensive (and thus timber-intensive) process, contributing to inefficient use of natural resources. The overexploitation and misappropriation of natural resources probably factored heavily into the startling decline of Maya urbanization in the south.
It is thought that decadence and corruption among the leadership and quickly ballooning numbers of prisoner-slaves might also have contributed to this decline. While obviously effective to a wide extent, the Maya social structure was inherently unbalanced in certain respects.
Diet and Lifestyle
The “Three Sisters,” corn, squash, and beans, were central to the Maya diet. These items were supplemented with chile peppers, fruit, sweet potatoes, and spices including salt, oregano, and vanilla, among a regionally variable selection of other foodstuffs. Corn was of special religious significance to the Maya. It was practically always “nixtamalized,” or boiled in an alkaline solution, in order to release certain components of its vitamin content. Then it could be prepared and served in any of numerous ways.
Deer, tapir, turkey, and turtle were all hunted (and in some cases domesticated) for use as meat and for other purposes, though the diets of most Maya were chiefly vegetarian. The Maya living in coastal areas ate fish and shellfish as well. All in all, Maya cuisine shares a great deal in common with the food habits of other cultures of central America.
Most information about Maya lifestyle consists of what can be guessed from archaeological remains and inferred from what is known of other similar Mesoamerican cultures. The relatively small amount of classical texts and inscriptions which have survived are not generally personal in character, so direct firsthand data on daily life is somewhat scarce.
The Maya, while reliant on agriculture in the urban setting, and thus experienced toolmakers, were nonetheless proficient hunters and gatherers. Maya villages were made of close-knit family units. Religious rituals were central to family and community life, and practices such as body piercing, tatooing and branding, and even skull elongation, were ubiquitous. Literacy was not widespread outside of the elite classes, but a love of folklore certainly would have been common throughout Maya civilization, and most Maya had a strong appreciation for history and tradition coupled with an informed reverence of the natural environment, which they viewed with a mixture of empirical mastery and mystical adulation.
Some archaeological evidence indicates that, especially in certain of the Classical Maya polities, women were viewed as the civic equals of men. In the city of Tonina, a powerful figure known as Lady K’awil became ruler after the failure of two male leaders before her. Some of the elite tombs at Copán contain elaborate burials of females. In society generally, women were considered important both as mother-nurturers and as keepers of the household; gender roles for both sexes were, to some degree, codified by religious doctrine. While the men brought home raw materials, it was up to women to render them edible, and women were also crucial to the keeping of religious shrines and spaces.
A so-called “romantic movement” in Maya scholarship has traditionally held that the Maya were significantly more peaceful and sedentary than other Mesoamerican cultures. While they certainly were more culturally accomplished in many ways, a preponderance of evidence suggests to most contemporary Mayanists that warfare was prevalent in Maya society. In addition to his administrative and religious duties, the leader of the Maya village or city-state was also the war chief, usually commanding a force of paid mercenary soldiers. Warfare provided the means for one polity to gain control of the resources (including manpower) of another, and to control trade routes throughout the region. As a city-state exhausted its own resources, it sometimes became necessary to acquire the resources of a weaker neighbor. Like most facets of life, only perhaps even more so, war was governed by rigorous rituals based on mythology and astrology.
Technology and Architecture
The Classical Maya civilization can be classified as a neolithic (Stone Age) culture which made stunning achievements in engineering and logistics, but was constrained by a lack of draft animals and no widespread application of the wheel, and no experience in metallurgy, which did not begin to appear until about the time of the Spanish conquest.
This picture shows a Classic pyramid-temple at Tik’al. It is much taller and steeper than the pyramid known as El Castillo in Postclassic Chichén Itzá. Also it is less ornate.
Here is a geometrically decorated temple wall in Uxmal, one of the great Postclassic cities of the northern lowlands. This style of decor represents the Olmec and Aztec influence on the Postclassic Maya:
The American writer John Lloyd Stephens and the English draftsman Frederick Catherwood came to the Maya region in 1839 to investigate local reports of vast ruins hidden in the jungle. Their sketches and written accounts sparked an avalanche of interest through which the pre-Columbian Maya were revealed to the modern world, and many scientists and historians believe that a great deal of archaeological evidence remains to be discovered even today.
The common people lived in houses of wood, thatch, and adobe, sometimes arranged in groups on raised platforms. In most cases, only the wealthiest people lived in stone houses. For these and for their great administrative and religious structures, the Maya preferred limestone because it was easy to work with but sturdy once it was set in place. They used pulverized and burnt limestone for mortar and stucco. Large buildings were frequently decorated with inscriptions of dedication, purpose, and ownership.
While the Maya never became experienced metallurgists, they did extensively utilize obsidian, or volcanic glass, prized for its beauty, durability, and clean shear. Aside from spears and knives, the Mayans made obsidian-studded clubs and other simple tools of weaponry and husbandry.
Some of their great step pyramids were in excess of 200 feet (ca. 60 m) in height. They were topped by temples used in religious rituals, including rites of animal and human sacrifice. Recent evidence shows that the pyramids were also used as tombs for the most elite caste, but the crowning temples themselves contain no remains. These great monuments were built without the aid of wheels or pulleys, using massive amounts of manpower from extensive forces of slave laborers.
Cities were laid out on a north-south axis, and the important buildings were frequently oriented in astrologically meaningful ways. Large plazas were the foci of design, and interior architecture was not as well developed. Some city sites have revealed to archaeologists what appear to be elementary sewage systems extending over large areas. Large-scale structures apart from the pyramids included palace complexes, walls, structures some anthropologists believe served as astronomical observatories, ball courts for use by the privileged, and homes for the wealthiest functionaries.
Defensive structures were more developed and prominent in Postclassic Maya architecture of both north and south, due to increased contact with the Toltec and other peoples to the west and escalating turbulence between the Maya states themselves. The architecture and design in cities such as Chichén Itzá and Mayapán reflect a substantial measure of Toltec influence and do not represent the more distinctive style of the Classical highland structures.
The corbeled arch is a trademark of Maya building. Lacking a keystone, it is a kind of “false” angular arch which supports less weight than a true one.
Mythology and Folklore
Maya religious traditions developed from earlier Mesoamerican precedents, but each of the Classical city-states evidenced elements which were in some way unique to it. A wide array of gods governed everything from specific calendar days to particular cities to rain, earthquakes, and the over- and under-worlds. Ah Puch, pictured, was the underworld king and the god of death and decay—here he is shown as a skeletal figure ornately adorned with bells.
These deities had many forms. The concepts of North, South, East, and West were pivotal to cosmology, and many gods—such as Chac, the rain deity—had discrete forms governed by each of these directions. The gods could also exhibit dualistically opposed forms based on the ideas of night and day or life and death. They sometimes combined with one another in complex ways.
The Maya priests prophesied that some deities required the tribute of human blood—particularly that of conquered enemies and sometimes even of children (for their purity)—although human sacrifice was probably not as extensive as in some other Mesoamerican societies.
Especially of interest were the cyclical aspects of nature: the movements of heavenly bodies, the life cycles of plants and animals, the seasons of the solar year, and so on. Although obviously capable of conceiving of time as a linear progression, the Maya, like other Mesoamericans, were inclined to view it as something epically cyclical.
Tepeu and Kukulkan were the “forefather” creators in Maya mythology. The latter is equivalent to the serpent-deity Quetzalcoatl famously worshipped by the Aztecs. Harnessing the power of the storm-being Huracan, these gods attempted several times to create humans, which is how the existence of animals, trees, and other natural phenomena was often explained. Only when the gods thought to construct their worshippers from corn were they finally successful and satisfied.
In one common myth supposed to closely succeed the act of creation, the heroic brothers Hunahpu and Xbalanque are sent to the underworld to defeat its lords (cf. the Roman myth of the brothers Romulus and Remus). They perish in battle, but are later reborn, in a metaphor for the yearly harvest cycle.
Belief in an afterlife was universal. The Maya conceived of thirteen layers of “heaven” and nine of “hell,” but the polarity between the two realms was not as stark as in Abrahamic mythology. The strong, cohesively moralistic component of monotheistic religions was absent in the polytheistic and partially pantheistic religions of Mesoamerica.
Art and Literature
Mayan artwork included pottery, sculpture, frescoes, murals, and other paintings. The scenes were people-centric, and showed aspects of courtly life, the accomplishments of rulers, and mythology. The Maya wrote on a form of paper using ink, and their pictographic calligraphy is an art form in itself.
Music was ceremonially important among the Maya. The funeral rites of nobles were sometimes accompanied by flute and drum, with the instruments often broken and thrown into the tombs just prior to sealing.
Jade, a favorite stone for sculpture, was worked into intricate detail even though the Maya had no metal tools. Jewelry was made from other precious stones and from shells as well.
The stela is a large stone, usually freestanding, covered with carvings. In some Maya cities, these stelae featured pictures and biographies of the state’s great rulers from generations present and past.
Bookmaking was common; while the Spanish governors of Yucatán ignorantly and indignantly ordered a great deal of the surviving texts burned as artifacts of heresy, a very few codices did survive the inquisition. These books, written in black ink with red and cyan highlights, describe Maya calendars, ceremonies, deities, and astrological tables.
The Dresden Codex (page nine of which is pictured here) and the Popol Vuh are two of the best known Maya literary texts. Thought to have been written shortly before the Spanish conquest, the Dresden Codex is a collection of ritual and astronomical instructions and data some thirty-nine pages in length. The Popol Vuh is a Quiché Maya religious document detailing a creation myth, some other religious folklore, and a genealogy of local rulers. It was written down in romanized Maya during the early decades of the Spanish presence and is apparently based on several preceding sources.
Some anthropologists believe that the Maya would not have understood the concept of “art for art’s sake,” that their works of art served exclusively the practical and metaphysical needs of the priestly rulers and the glorification of Mayan deities and officials. Others have written that there seems to be a definite posterity element to some creations, particularly those of a scientific or narrative nature. The Maya were responsible for a copious amount of artwork, only a portion of which managed to survive both the urban decline and the later colonization by Europe.
The Maya languages do not come from the same family as the Olmec, Toltec, and Aztec tongues. This tells scholars that, while Maya culture was shaped and informed by contact with western and northern neighbors, the proto-Maya predecessors who first migrated to the region were ethnically distinct from the ancestors of the central Mexican peoples contemporary to them.
There are many dialects of Maya, of which Yucatec is among the most common. These dialects have been distinct language entities since Preclassic times, in many instances. They are differentiated by variations in phonetic values and some grammatical conventions, while largely sharing the same idiomatic features and basic vocabulary. As many as six million Maya in central America or abroad continue to utilize these dialects today.
It was the Maya who developed the only writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas, which they immortalized in monumental inscriptions, sculpture and pottery, and in paper scrolls known as codices.
Their script was logophonetic, meaning that there were characters which represented concepts and words but also component characters which were phonetic. These logograms are known as glyphs, and are visually distinctive and morphologically flexible and versatile. The elements of a glyph could come together in different ways to form several different spellings of a given word, each of which might have a different connotative meaning. Here is a diagram showing different logograms and their syllabic components:
This orthography is visually distinctive, to be sure. It lacks the dominance of straight lines and angles so characteristic of Chinese pictograms or Sumerian cuneiform, and is not as angular and formally rigid as the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was the world’s only known distinctively American script, and exhibited many motifs drawn from the local flora and fauna.
With regard to the romanization of Maya phonology, there still exists considerable confusion: one will see Tikal and Tik’al, haab and jaab’. The conventions of the earliest European scholars are slowly being replaced by standardizations from the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala. The older practices tend to closely follow the orthography of Spanish, so that j represents an aspirated ‘h’ sound, and x an ‘sh’ sound. An apostrophe represents a glottal stop, as in the native pronunciation of Hawa’ii or the Arabic Qur’an.
In the notation of numerals, the Maya, like other Mesoamericans, utilized a base-20 system (the numerals 1-20 are shown at left). In the Eurasian system, based on powers of 10, there is of course a ones place, a tens place, a hundreds place, and so on; in the positional notation of the Maya, rather, there was a ones place, a twenties place, a four hundreds place, et cetera. There was also a football-shaped placeholder, and this concept could well have predated the use of the sifr, or zero, in the Old World. With this numerical system, the Maya could compute extraordinary sums and manage calendar systems of peculiar complexity, as we shall see below. They also made use, for some formal purposes, of a more calligraphic, glyph-based numeral notation.
Astronomy and Calendrics
The planet Venus was the most important astronomical object to the Maya, even moreso than the Sun or Moon. They employed a calendar which specifically tracked its 584-day synodic period (from morning to evening “star” and back again), and this calendar may have governed warfare and certain aspects of civic ritual, such as the coronations of rulers.
Much of the information on Maya astronomy which is available to scholars is derived from the Dresden Codex mentioned above, which is composed mostly of astronomical data. Exactly how astronomical observation was incorporated into Maya religion and metaphysics is unclear, but it is certain that an advanced knowledge of the heavens was critical to successful agriculture on large scales. Like the Aztecs later, the Maya attached special significance to the passage of celestial bodies—especially the Sun—through the zenith of the sky.
Anthropologists naturally differ in their interpretations of some of the more ambiguous architectural structures, but it is generally acknowledged that many buildings and even entire cities were oriented in ways that were astrologically significant. A number of sites are aligned with the Pleiades cluster or with seasonal solar events, and the positional relationships between some buildings at a given site strongly imply their use in observational astronomy.
If Maya astronomy was the vine, then the dizzyingly complex array of calendar systems employed by them constitute its fruits. Like the Zapotec and Olmec cultures before them, the most important calendar to daily life among the Maya was an abstract 260-day cycle which did not bear any specific relation to astronomical phenomena. The Maya called this calendar the tzolk’in, and it is still used by some of their descendants today. They also employed a 365-day solar calendar known as the haab. Because the least common multiple of 260 and 365 is 18,980, which divided by 365 is 52, these two calendars would align every 52 haabs to complete one cycle of the “calendar round.” The completion of such a cycle was a particularly auspicious event according to Maya mythology, a time at which the people asked the gods for cosmic renewal, that they might be granted another 52 years of fertile vitality.
The tzolk’in is interesting in its composition of two nested cycles. Each of its 260 days has a unique name that is a combination of a numerical designation from 1 to 13 and one of twenty names.
The haab was built of 18 months of 20 days each, plus a period of five “unlucky days” at year’s end called the wayeb. The first day of each of these solar months was numbered 0 and referred to as the “seating” of the month. The wayeb was a necessary compromise to prevent the solar calendar from rapidly accumulating errors in falling out of step with the seasons, akin to the Roman development of the leap year. The Maya believed that, during these five days, the barriers which normally prevented underworld deities and other malevolent spirits from interfering in earthly life were removed; they avoided leaving their homes and even combing their hair during this period.
Because of the interface between these two calendars, each date within the 52-year calendar round was unique in its relationship to the cycle as a whole. This calendar system expressed the Mesoamerican metaphysical conception of time as something more cyclical than linear.
The calendar round was adequate for most common purposes, since the lifespan of the average Maya would not typically have exceeded 52 years. But an entirely different calendar system called the “long count” was used to date events in relation to one another and to describe dates far in the past or future. The long count calendar, like the tzolk’in, is not astronomically calibrated. It consists of five nested cycles of increasing size, and dates were written in a kind of positional notation. Dates inscribed on buildings and stelae usually include the long count, haab, and tzolk’in notations. Most anthropologists agree that the long count date 0 corresponds to the Gregorian date August 11, 3114 BCE, and that the last date expressible in the same iteration of the long count will be December 21, 2012. Among New Age and occultist circles, much portentous fanfare has been made of the correspondence of this terminal date with some sort of impending global cataclysm.
In short, most of the fundamentals of Maya calendrics were inherited from the practices of earlier cultures, but the Maya made refinements which elevated datekeeping to new heights of precision and complexity.
Spanish conquest of the Maya, and the Maya today
As elsewhere in “New Spain,” the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán was an exercise in economic plunder and sociopolitical hegemony disguised by Christian rhetoric. Overall, the Maya proved much more resistant to Spanish rule than the Aztec, largely because of the lack of a great population and civic center (such as Aztec Tenochtitlán) whose capitulation would have been of particular moment.
The first Europeans known to have come into contact with the Maya were a boatload of castaways which included the aforementioned Aguilar and Guerrero. They had sailed from Panama for the island of Santo Domingo in 1511, but were beached on shoals off Jamaica and were carried west in a lifeboat to the Yucatán coast, where they were captured by the Maya. These few people brought with them the seeds of an epidemic which would plague the non-immune Maya to the point of decimation.
Francisco de Córdoba and Hernando Cortés explored the Yucatán from 1517-1519. They were greeted favorably by some of the coastal cities and with hostility by others. Their superiors were disappointed in the apparent poverty of precious metals as compared with central México, but were intrigued by tales of a powerful savage state to the west.
It was Francisco de Montejo (pictured) and his son who would make the first profitable attempts at conquest beginning in 1527. In 1526 the elder Montejo was granted permission to attempt military conquest of the Yucatán. Having heard news of Cortés’ bloody subjugation of Tenochtitlán, many Maya chiefs acceded to Montejo’s demands of loyalty to the Spanish crown; but the Spanish forces met great resistance in the interior of the peninsula, some of which is thought to have been expertly orchestrated at least partially by the expatriate Guerrero. Montejo was forced to return to México to gather a larger army with which he successfully conquered the Maya port of Campeche in 1531, gaining the first secure colonial foothold in the peninsula.
His son established a provisional capital at Mérida in 1542, from whence he based his own attempts to subdue the Maya states. An alliance with the powerful Xiu Maya of the western Yucatán proved most helpful to this end; their chief converted to Christianity and aided the Spanish forces in bringing down the minor states. As elsewhere in colonial warfare, the pitting of native against native and the exploitation of existing conflicts was essential to success. By 1546 the Spanish conquest was more or less complete, though widespread revolt would continue until approximately 1700, when the last remaining Maya state was crushed.
Two contrasting figures in early Spanish-Maya relations are the bishops Diego de Landa and Bartolomé de las Casas. Landa we can hold responsible for much of the gratuitous destruction of Maya cultural artifacts and for the visitation of much cruelty, including torture and murder, upon the persons of his indigenous subjects. Those Maya who were not ready and willing to convert to Christianity or submit to Spanish hegemony were often punished by “hoisting,” in which they were suspended in mid-air, sometimes with stone weights tied to their ankles, and fiercely whipped. At other times, they were simply executed without ceremony. Diseases brought by the invaders, of course, proved the most efficient weapons in their arsenals.
On July 12, 1562, Landa presided over an auto da fe in which a disputed number of Maya books (anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred) and over 5,000 “idols” were burned. Of this disturbing display of cultural ignorance, he later matter-of-factly wrote:
We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which [the Maya] regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
Bartolomé de las Casas (pictured) was appointed the first Bishop of Chiapas after having served as a missionary among the Arawak in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean. While at first a willing and enthusiastic colonialist from all appearances, he soon became appalled by the brutality and disrespect with which the Spanish overlords treated their unwilling subjects in the New World. He wrote the Brevísima relacíon de la destrucción de las Indias in 1552, which presented a realist’s grim view of the policies and practices of the conquistadores against the Maya and many other indigenous Americans. He participated in debates on policy—debates in which the colonial hegemonists too frequently persevered, given the copious and virtually unfettered wealth they were funneling into Iberia. De las Casas’ writings were important to later philosophers and political theorists for a number of reasons, including his then-revolutionary observations that the overzealous expansion of empire tends to contain the seeds of its inevitable disintegration.
Even after the formation of México as an independent nation, the Maya of the Yucatán were aggressively protective of their cultural identity. From 1847 to 1901 a protracted conflict known as the Caste War dominated life in the region, with Maya-descended Mexicans protesting violently the economic and political dominance of the peninsulares.
Today, approximately 6 million people can claim direct or partial Maya descent, with most of them living in México, Guatemala, and Belize. Maya languages and cultural practices are still important to these peoples’ way of life, even though a great many of them are practicing Roman Catholics. Maya art, literature, and history continue to inform and enrich contemporary culture and will likely continue to do so for many generations to come, despite the best efforts of the self-righteous oppressors of centuries past.
- Maya civilization
- Maya mythology
- Maya calendar
- Gender in Maya society
- Spanish conquest of the Yucatán