The Prodigious Skill of the Mayan Empire

With very limited resources and in a hostile environment, the Mayans reached the highest levels of civilization in all of pre-Columbian America

The roots of the Mayans go back in time as new discoveries take place. Norman Hammond, of the University of Cambridge, in Great Britain, demonstrated in 1975 that the wooden remains found by his team in Cuello, a town in Belize located 5 km from Orange Walk, together with ceramic remains corresponding to the formative period of the Mayan culture, dated from around 1020 a. C. Such a finding pushed back the known beginning of this civilization a thousand years.

Later discoveries aged her at least four hundred more years. Researchers are surprised by the increasing antiquity of the Maya, but also the unprecedented fact that their civilization had emerged and developed in the isolation of the jungle.

Magical practices come to be exercised by a group of priests who are supposed to be supernatural powers

No explanation of the origin of the Mayan civilization has obtained the general approval of scholars. Like the dense jungles of Guatemala, where the Mayans culminated their magnificent achievements, a thick forest of conjectures has barely left enough light so that, using the interpretation of the remains, dates and stages could be provisionally considered. At the moment a Formative Period, or Preclassic, has been established between the 10th centuries BC. C. and III d. C .; a Classic one, from the 3rd to the 10th century; and a Postclassic one, from the latter until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

The great adventure of the Mayans would begin modestly between the 2nd and the 1st millennium BC. C., when their anonymous ancestors decided to change their lives. Thus, agriculture was replacing and complementing hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. The oldest vestiges of agricultural production, with carved stone tools, are located at the beginning of this period. They still don’t have the Mayan seal.

Examples have been discovered in Victoria, a Guatemalan village on the Pacific coast near the Mexican border. There have also been found in this area female clay figures, of rough construction, with which it was – as it seems, as was the case with the Venus of the European Neolithic – to achieve the fertility of the earth by associating it with that of women.

Dibujo de mediados del siglo XIX de Uxmal.
Mid-19th century drawing of Uxmal. (Public domain)

Distinctive features

At the end of the Preclassic, between 800 and 300 a. C., the success achieved with the introduction of new techniques and agricultural products and the genetic improvement of corn – the traditional and current base of Mayan food – gives character to an incipient civilization, whose first expansionary movement reaches the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Fotografía del templo de Kukulcán en Chichen Itzá, tomada por Teoberto Maler en 1892.
Photograph of the Kukulcán temple in Chichen Itzá, taken by Teoberto Maler in 1892. (Public domain)

At the same time, the disquieting pantheon of gods begins to take shape, lacking a human face, they demand from their faithful the constant sacrifice of blood, under the threat of heaven falling on earth. In addition, influences of the Olmec culture appear, coming from the Atlantic coast, which reach the Pacific coast and the highlands of Guatemala. It is assumed, although without conclusive evidence, that the ruling group would have been sensitive to these references, presumably reflected in the use of the calendar and in the beginning of writing.

Some pyramids are built with elements from Teotihuacan, which suggests possible domination

The hieroglyphs in his writing – barely thirty percent deciphered today – suddenly appear, as if they had been invented overnight, and stelae and altars with names and figures of both gods and rulers appear everywhere. The important personages are buried with rich offerings of jade and ceramics, next to sacrificed servants, in the oriental way, to continue rendering service to their lord in the other world.

Chichen Itzá una de las ciudades más importantes en la región maya norte.
Chichen Itza one of the most important cities in the northern Mayan region. (Fruggo / CC BY 2.0)

Everywhere a huge number of buildings are built, platforms that support the multi-storey structure, palaces with dozens of rooms, luxurious tombs, ball games, stellar observatories … and imposing pyramids over 70 meters high. To obtain the favor of the gods, but also to show the supremacy of man over nature –constant Mayan obsession–, these enormous pyramids are raised in Tikal, in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle of Petén. Its superior temples reach the border line of the sky with the jungle. Its crests, which, like gigantic combs, go over that line in the same way, seem to say that a determined will overcomes all difficulties.

Páginas del Códice de París, que data del periodo Posclásico, uno de los pocos libros mayas que se conservan.
Pages from the Paris Codex, which dates from the Postclassic period, one of the few surviving Mayan books. (Public domain)

The process culminates with a new rebellion, of which, unlike the previous ones, there are already historical references. It happened in 1441, and caused the fall of Mayan and the extermination of the ruling family of the Cocom, despite the support provided by Mexican mercenaries. The plagues, hurricanes and epidemics that mention the chronicles told to the Spanish by the last generations of free Mayas made firewood from this fallen tree.

They were the same as in 1511, seventy years after the fall of Mayan, they sacrificed all the members, except two, of the Spanish expedition of Vivaldi, shipwrecked off the eastern coast of the Yucatan. These two strangers, from another world, will begin another story, which continues to this day, in which the Mayans will vehemently try, century after century, to regain a role that was violently taken from them.

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