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.