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Travel Story

Time travel in the Yucatan

Mystery of the ancient Maya

By Jack Souther�

From the top of the Castillo, 91 stone steps above the floor of the Plaza, we have a priest’s-eye view of the once great Maya city of Chichen Itza – the Observatory, the Nunnery, the Temple of Warriors. In all the remains of 50 stone structures scattered over an area of six square kilometres. Beyond the ruins, the jungle-covered surface of the Yucatan Peninsula extends to the horizon in every direction.

The Castillo, where we are standing, is a magnificent four-sided pyramid topped by a small temple bearing the carved mask of the god of rain. It is 24 metres high and, like all of the other structures below us, constructed of closely fitted limestone blocks, each quarried, shaped, transported, and lifted into place by hand. But why here? The northern Yucatan Peninsula is a low, utterly flat limestone platform with only a thin layer of soil and no surface rivers. Even the jungle seems uninviting, a tangled mat of water-starved scrub trees and vines. Yet this is where the Maya people built, not only impressive stone monuments, but one of the richest and most advanced cultures in pre Columbian America.

Before our trip to Chichen Itza we spent a day exploring the walled ruins at Tulum, one of the few Maya settlements on the Caribbean Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The present paved road between the two ancient communities follows much the same route as that used by early Maya traders. Our air-conditioned bus took about three hours to cover the distance. How long, I wondered, did it take those early merchants to make the trip, on foot in the sweltering jungle heat? They had neither the wheel nor any domestic beasts of burden – everything had to be carried on the backs of human bearers.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have learned a great deal about the Maya culture which flourished in Middle America for over a thousand years, but much of its history is still shrouded in mystery. The first hunter-gatherers are believed to have moved into the Yucatan Peninsula about 11,000 years ago, when British Columbia was just emerging from the last ice age. By 1000 BC these people, who would later become the Maya, had learned agriculture and begun to build villages. They were strongly influenced by the Olmecs who inhabited the swampy lowlands of the Gulf Coast. The Olmec built the first great civilization to arise in Meso-America and it became the template for the structure and symbolism of Maya society.

Olmec influence was gradually modified and, during the Classic Period (AD 200-900), a distinct Maya culture evolved and spread throughout the Yucatan and adjacent parts of Middle America. Small tribal groups were organized into states that ultimately grew into kingdoms with highly stratified social structures. The kings, who called themselves "ahau," were regarded as living gods – divine shamans who operated in both the material and supernatural world. They surrounded themselves with a privileged class of priests and lords who held jurisdiction over thousands of lesser subjects in each of the city-states. At its height Maya civilization was organized into more than 50 independent kingdoms scattered over an area of 250,000 square kilometres. It was a world defined by religion and ritual where physical surroundings were seen as manifestations of the spiritual and supernatural.

Betty and I carefully descended the steep steps of the Castillo and followed a path to the Sacred Cenote, one of two nearby sink holes. Formed by collapse of the surface rock into underground solution caverns in the limestone, each circular Cenote is about 60 metres across and 20 metres of vertical cliff down to the water surface. They are clearly why the Maya chose to build Chichen Itza here in the bone-dry centre of the Northern Yucatan. One of the cenotes, the Well of Xtoloc, was used as a source of water for the city. The Sacred Cenote, dedicated to Chaac, the God of Rain and Water, was used only for religious, ceremonial, and ritual purposes.

To the Maya the cenotes were more than wells – they were portals to the supernatural Underworld. Their world had three layers: the starry arch of the sky, the rocky Middleworld where humans lived, and the dark waters of the Underworld below. All three layers were thought to be alive and interdependent – imbued with sacred power, and peopled with a plethora of gods and exotic creatures. Order in this strange cosmos was not accidental or distant from human affairs but required sacrificial blood to maintain life and harmony in the universe, a belief that fostered the darker side of Maya society.

Standing on the edge of the cliff looking down at the glassy green surface of water in the bottom of the Sacred Cenote I cringed to think of the many children who had been thrown into this pit as offerings to the God of Rain. From the small size of skulls archaeologists have recovered from the muddy bottom of his personal cenote it seems that Chaac preferred children.

A more common form of human sacrifice involved ritual bloodletting, which was seen as the ultimate act of piety. In its most extreme form the victim's chest was sliced open with an obsidian knife and a priest plucked out the living, beating, heart. Other rituals required the blood of royalty. For this males pierced or sliced their penis to produced a massive flow of blood. Females pierced their tongues. Weakened by a combination of blood-loss and fasting, the blood-letter lapsed into a trance, allowing him or her to communicate with and seek advice from the appropriate ancestor or god.

The concepts that lead the Maya to their bizarre religious rituals were the force behind some of their greatest achievements. They were a people obsessed with time – convinced that the events of their own lives, like the unfolding of the cosmos, were cyclical, recurrent, and predictable. Each day was associated with some deity who must be appeased. This required an accurate calendar, not to monitor the planting and harvesting of crops, but to trigger the appropriate ritual.

The Maya not only developed accurate calendars they devised a system of mathematics that included the concept of zero and basic computation. Their knowledge of astronomy was so sophisticated that they were able to predict the phases of the moon, eclipses, and the movements of Venus, Mars and Jupiter with astonishing accuracy. And they had a written language – a mix of pictographs and phonetic symbols known as cuneiform writing. Their texts were written on maguey fibre paper, animal skins, but most importantly on the walls of their temples and pyramids.

But despite all their remarkable social, intellectual, and artistic achievements the Maya remained a stone-age people. Except for a few ornaments, they never learned to use metal. Their ornately carved stone monuments were built and decorated using wooden hammers and stone chisels. Without the wheel or any domestic pack animals trade between their far flung city-kingdoms was conducted by human bearers following jungle trails. This disparity between social and technological development strikes me as one of the great paradoxes of Maya civilization.

An even greater mystery is why, after a thousand years of growth and prosperity, the Maya society suddenly collapsed. At the end of the Classic Period, around AD 900, the Maya began to abandon their once thriving cities. The exodus began in the south as people moved back to small land-holdings and villages, leaving the monuments and temples that defined their culture to be overgrown by the jungle. Some archaeologists see evidence of a popular uprising of the people – an overthrow of the ruling elite and rejection of their gods. But no one really knows why their great urban kingdoms collapsed and died.

A few cities in the northern Yucatan, including Chichen Itza, survived into the postclassic period but by AD 1200, more than 300 years before the Spanish conquest of Yucatan, Chichen Itza itself was abandoned.

Today almost 7 million descendants of the ancient Maya live in the area once ruled by the divine "ahau." Many have integrated into modern Mexican society, but many others retain a simpler life in the jungle. The monuments built and abandoned by their ancestors are now overrun by tourists – some have come to merely look, others to reflect on the power of the supernatural to influence the affairs of man.

The gods perceived by the Maya guided them to great achievement, unspeakable brutality, and ultimate annihilation. But perhaps there is some truth in their concept of recurrent cycles – of history repeating itself.