Whether you’re a student of history, wannabe archaeologist, or a sunburned beachgoer looking for a break, the Maya ruins in Mexico are a unique and fascinating sight to see.
They’re a walk through history that tell you a good deal about the culture. But, even the most attentive visitors may miss a few important particulars about the people and the time.
1. Are you a chocoholic? Thank the Maya.
The Maya were famous for incredible cultural advances, but you choco-hedonists out there might also be interested to know that they introduced cocoa and all its delicious derivatives to the world. They made a chocolate drink that was flavored with chili peppers, spices, vanilla, and sweetened with honey (Are you listening Starbucks?).
And it was serious business too. They cultivated and roasted cocoa beans for drinks, and even used the beans as currency. Like me, the Maya believed it was a sacred gift from the gods, and the divine Ek Chuah kept an eye on the crop. Spaniards, knowing a good thing when they tasted it, took cocoa back to Europe and the rest, as they say, is history.
2. The Maya lost their heads at ballgames – literally.
Pick your favorite sport, and if it involves a ball and a team, its origins go back to the Maya. According to art historian Caitlin C. Earley of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the evidence of the first ball game was discovered in Guatemala and dates to 1400 B.C. If you’re wondering how important ballgames were in Maya life, look no further than the 1,500 ball courts that have been discovered in Mesoamerica.
The recently completed World Cup seemed serious no doubt, but it was mere child’s play compared to the Maya game (ironically called pitz) where the losers lost their salary, contract, and head – literally. I suspect the coach had no problem motivating a bunch of prima-donna players.
3. Honey, I Squished the Kids’ Heads!
First a disclaimer. I loved this title so much I had to steal it, but all the credit goes to Robert D. Martin, Ph.D. from his article about cranial deformation in Psychology Today.
I have a good deal of respect for the ancient Maya, but for me, the practice of cranial deformation falls in the makes-no-sense category. Experts can guess, but the reality is they don’t know exactly why they did it, other than to give the appearance of a higher social class.
Who knows? Maybe this is where the phrase “having the big head” comes from. I wonder if the Maya had bigger headaches too?
Corn constituted 70% of the Maya diet! As a health-conscious adult who tries (ofttimes unsuccessfully) to eat a balanced diet, this statistic seems astounding to me. Let’s think about the realities of this food regimen in real-life terms: three meals a day, for one week totaling 21 meals – of which about 15 will have maize, in some form, as a main course. It’s no wonder chili peppers were on the menu as well.
5. The Maya did it the hard way.
As a culture, there’s no denying that the Maya were advanced. They excelled at agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, calendar-making, mathematics, and architecture. But given all these impressive achievements, it’s surprising that they didn’t have the wheel, metal tools, or large domesticated animals to carry loads. All their towering temples and monuments were constructed, start to finish, with stone and wooden tools using human muscle power alone. In some ways they worked “smarter not harder.” In others … not so much.
6. The Maya lived in mini-kingdoms that never became an empire.
Unlike the Inca, whose empire spread over much of western South America, the Maya civilization was never unified. At its height, it consisted of 40 city-states each governed by a local king. And like big families throughout history, some of these siblings got along and some knocked heads from time to time.
Interestingly, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond posits that one of the primary reasons that these mini-kingdoms couldn’t spread their tentacles across all of Maya land was their reliance on corn as a primary food source and the lack of draft animals. Human porters have a limit of how much and how far they can carry a heavy load of corn, and if soldiers can’t eat, the army can’t fight.
7. The Maya were the New World’s first math geeks.
We normally give math a wide berth here at Gallivance (except for Pi), but this time, there’s no avoiding it.
According to Science News magazine, number 4 on the Mathematical Innovation Top 10 List is the concept of zero. Most historians agree that the idea of zero originated in Babylon, but it was independently developed on the other side of the globe by the Maya in the fourth century. “For what may have been the first time ever, there was a number to represent nothing.” Maya math geeks … who knew?
8. The great-great-great … grandmother to all the Maya has been located.
On a normal day 13,000 years ago, a teenage girl wandering the grassy savannah on what is now the Yucatán peninsula accidentally stumbled into a cenote (sinkhole), and was killed.
In 2007, a team of divers swimming in a one-kilometer passage discovered her fossilized skull and long bones. What this discovery means is that this unfortunate young hunter-gatherer is one of the oldest human inhabitants in the Americas, and the great-great-great … grandmother to the Maya, and in fact, most other Mexicans as well.
9. The Maya wrote it down, and the Spanish burned it up.
As we said earlier, another innovation of the Maya was their writing system. Their complex script had 800 distinct hieroglyphs and was ideally suited for communication, record-keeping and books. So where is all this writing, and why do we know so little about their culture?
Thanks to the overzealous Spanish monk Diego de Landa, most of it went up in smoke. To eliminate “lies of the devil”, at least 40 Maya codices (folding, bark-paper books) and 20,000 Maya religious images were burned. Luckily, four of the remaining books are in museums around the world, and a few additional ones have been excavated at Maya sites.
10. Even though their cities are deserted, the Maya are alive and well.
Historians haven’t been kind to the Spanish conquistadores that invaded the New World – and for good reason. But one thing the invaders didn’t do is destroy the Maya and their culture. In fact, many of the great Maya cities were in ruins long before the arrival of the Spanish, and exactly why they collapsed is one of archaeology’s great mysteries.
However, the people didn’t disappear, and as many as 7 million Maya are alive and well living in the Yucatán of Mexico, as well as Belize and Guatemala. Like many indigenous people in the the Americas, they have endured repeated cycles of oppression, but many still hold on to their cultural identity, and in fact, still speak one of the Maya dialects as their primary language.
Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche’ Maya and Nobel Peace Prize winner said it best:
“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos.
We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”
The Maya had one of the preeminent ancient cultures in the Americas, and for many travelers, particularly North Americans, the ruins scattered around Mexico and Central America are easy and pleasant places to visit. Pick out a few and make it happen. You won’t be sorry.
James & Terri
Photo Credits: All via Wikimedia Commons
1, 14. Simon Burchell
3. Internet Archive Book Images
4. Arqueología Mexicana
9. John O’Neil
12. Bryan Derksen
13. Mark Whatmough