MAYAN CIVILIZATION

12 May

Europeans may have caught glimpses of the Maya during the last voyage of Columbus in 1502, but they learned almost nothing about this civilization until 1517 when a storm drove three Spanish ships towards the northeastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. Survivors of this voyage brought back stories of mysterious cities with temples containing great treasures. The encounter between Spaniards and the Maya was recorded by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (ca. 1492–1581), a Spanish soldier who par- ticipated in the conquest of Mexico and Diego de Landa (1524–1579), who served as Bishop of Yucatan.

Studying the Maya in his attempt to convert them, Diego de Landa collected and destroyed many Mayan codices. After the Conquest, Mayan converts to Christianity recorded historical and religious traditions that had been passed down orally or in hieroglyphic records. Doubts have been raised about the authenticity and reliability of post-Conquest Mayan texts, but some of the stories in these texts seem to be corroborated by inscriptions found in ancient Mayan temples. Members of the Mayan linguistic and cultural group occupied tropical areas that are now parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. At its height, Mayan civilization could boast of magnificent cities, temples, pyramids, monuments, ceremonial centers, hieroglyphic writings, complex calendrical computations, elabo- rate irrigation systems, prosperous markets, and an extensive system of paved stone roads. Mayan civilization flourished for almost a thousand years before entering a period of general decline. By the time the Span- ish arrived in the early sixteenth century, the ruins of many Mayan cities were lost in the jungles of Guatemala and southern Mexico. Some Mayan communities in remote and inaccessible areas preserved their language and culture long after the Conquest. Anthropologists and his- torians have gained insights into the history of the Maya by studying the culture of their descendants.

Recent studies of artifacts and carved stone monuments in the ruins of ancient cities have challenged previous ideas about the timing of the early stages of the classic Maya period. For example, the ruins of Cival, an ancient city in Guatemala, revealed all the characteristics of classic Mayan cities: complex architecture, pyramids, palaces, ceramics, and writings inscribed on stone. Surprisingly, Cival was prob- ably occupied by 600 B.C.E. and reached its peak about 150 B.C.E. Archeologists previously assumed that the classic Maya period began about 250 B.C.E. Other cities, once considered preclassic, have also revealed very early evidence of a highly developed culture. The classic period of Mayan civilization ended in the ninth century with the mysterious collapse of major Mayan cities. Although many fac- tors—overpopulation, malnutrition, epidemics, war, climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, drought, and crop failures—must have con- tributed to the decline of Mayan civilization, warfare and climatic change were probably especially significant. A century-long succession of severe dry spells began about the seventh century. The presence of numerous human skeletons in cenotes and caves sacred to the Maya suggests that in response to the devastating droughts, the Maya offered more and more sacrifices to the gods as their appeals for rain grew increasingly desperate.

Eighteenth-century explorers imagined the Maya as highly civi- lized, urban, and peaceful people who were presumably obsessed with art, cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, and complex calendrical cal- culations. Classic Mayan civilization was thought of as a confederation of peaceful, cooperative city-states dominated by powerful priests and wealthy nobles, supported by hard-working peasants. But as archeolo- gists explored more sites and began to decode Mayan art and inscrip- tions, a very different portrait of the Mayan Empire emerged. New evidence indicates that the Maya lived in a state of almost constant war- fare; captives taken in battle were tortured and sacrificed to the gods. Most Mayan inscriptions are chronicles of specific rulers, gods, myths, and rituals, but some provide insights into beliefs about health and disease, as well as bloodletting rituals and human sacrifices.

As depicted in Mayan artwork, bloodletting was an important part of religious and political ceremonies. Kings and aristocrats were expected to perform the rite of self-sacrifice with the most frequency and enthusi- asm, because their blood was particularly prized. Anesthetized by religious enthusiasm, and perhaps drugs, they would pierce their tongue, penis, or earlobe and pull a rope through the wound. The blood was col- lected and offered to the gods. One carving depicted a ceremonial occasion in which a noblewoman pulled a thorn-studded rope through her tongue, while her blood dripped into a basket at her feet. Violent rivalry between states might have been reflected in rituals that were apparently enacted against buildings and their inhabitants.

In many ruined temples and palaces throughout Central  America, archeologists have found puzzling collections of smashed ceramics, figurines,  tools,  ornaments, and  other  artifacts.  Scholars  suggest that ritualized  feasting  might  have  preceded  violent  ‘‘termination  rituals’’ in which buildings and their contents were ceremonially destroyed, presumably  to represent  the physical and spiritual  defeat of an enemy. The debris  found  in the wreckage of Mayan  buildings  was previously attributed to  squatters   and  vandals  who  might  have  occupied  such building after they had been abandoned by kings and nobles. Historians and archeologists  are trying to develop a more balanced view of Mayan civilization,  presumably  somewhere  between  the  discarded  myth  of a peaceful Mayan  world and a new one that might overemphasize  cruelty and violence.

Studies   of  the   ethnobiological  doctrines   of  Mayan   speaking peoples  have  provided  insights  into  ancient  Mayan  life, cultural  con- cepts, and botanical  knowledge. Mayan  concepts of plant  classification have been of particular interest  to modern  pharmacological scientists. Mayan   remedies  included  the  usual  array  of  local  medicinal  herbs, minerals,  and animal  parts  and products,  as well as many concoctions involving  tobacco.   Europeans  first  observed   a  custom   they  called

‘‘tobacco drinking’’ among  the Aztecs, but  they discovered even more

exotic uses for tobacco  among  the Maya.  One recipe included tobacco and a remarkable extract made by soaking live toads in a herbal liquor. Tobacco  was a key component of remedies for pain,  flu, colds, sores, toothache, abscesses, fevers, fatigue, and the bites of poisonous  snakes. Women took tobacco to prevent miscarriage, to expel the placenta,  and so forth.

Tobacco  mixed with coca and  lime made  from  burning  seashells

was used as a stimulant  or intoxicant.  In addition  to fighting  fatigue, such preparations were said to offer protection against snakes and other poisonous  animals. During  healing rituals,  shamans  and medicine men often  consumed  large doses of tobacco  in order  to  douse  the patient with  tobacco-enriched saliva.  Tobacco  intoxication  was said to  allow the shaman  to see inside the patient.  Tobacco,  mixed with other herbal intoxicants,  was also taken  by way of enema  syringes, as depicted  in Mayan  art.  Tobacco  drinking  and  tobacco-smoke enemas  were soon adopted  in Europe.  Although  some European physicians  condemned the use of tobacco,  others praised its purgative,  soporific, and intoxicat- ing properties.

European physicians were also somewhat ambivalent  about  cocoa, another  interesting  product  used as a food  and  a tonic  by the Maya. Cocoa powder and chocolate were made from the seeds of the cacao tree (also known as the chocolate tree). Recent studies suggest that the Maya used cocoa in beverages as early as 600 B.C.E.,  about  a thousand years earlier  than  previously  thought.  Spanish  explorers  noted  that  Mayas

liked to pour  cocoa  mixture  from  one vessel to another  to generate  a froth.  Cocoa  was  probably   roasted,   ground,   and  mixed  with  spices and  water.  This  ancient  beverage  might  have  been  energizing,  but  it must  have  been  rather   bitter.  Cacao  was  exported  to  Spain  in  the

1520s, but the exotic new beverage did not become popular  in Europe until  the  seventeenth  century.  Even  though  many  regarded  chocolate with suspicion, others praised  its alleged medical virtues.

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