The Voyage to Atlantis:
The Lost World of the Maya

photo of Mayan temple

Courtesy of Discovery Online

The Maya have always held a special fascination for me. I was lucky enough to have lived in Guatemala and Honduras and have visited a number of the great Maya sites in Mexico.

The Maya are all the more fascinating to many because so little is known about them compared to some of the other ancient societies. Much of our understanding of the Maya is fairly recent. In fact, the "code" to the written language was only cracked 20 years ago and many sites, both major and minor, are still being excavated. It is a tragedy of civilization that so much of the written evidence of the Maya was destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. The early accounts of these cities by the Spanish explorers went largely ignored and many sites only began to be rediscovered in the 19th century. Part of the reason may have been that the Maya did not use or value gold to the same extent as the Europeans, which combined with their lack of easy accessibility must have been a disincentive for the early explorers. Most of these explorers tried to understand this society in the context of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, somehow searching for a link when there was none. Padre Bartolome las Casas, a voice of conscience and human rights, argued that the Maya compared very favorably with Greco-Roman civilization, were eminently rational beings and fulfilled every one of Aristotle's requirements for the good life. He further argued that the Greeks and Romans were inferior to the Maya in a number of important areas.

Mayan society originated about 2600 B.C in parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Central America. The Pre-Classic (1500 BC-300 A.D) and Classic (300-900 A.D) phases of Maya history saw the rise of great city-states. The Maya were recognized as the dominant civilization of the time. Despite local differences, Mayan culture appears to have been remarkably consistent throughout the region. A centralized empire under a single monarch would have been impossible due to the lack of an infrastructure of roads or waterways to connect such an empire, though substantial trade networks allowed their cities to flourish. Their cities were not generally fortified until the Post-Classical period in the northern areas, giving rise to the idea that war was a minor concern. The discovery of the murals at Bonampak in Mexico indicated that the Maya were much more concerned with war than previously thought. An interesting find is the site at Tonina, which was ruled by a more warlike leader, and supposedly served as a center for execution of prisoners of war. The Mayan city-states appear to have been organized into regions dominated by major cities like Palenque, Chichen Itza and Copan, with smaller cities presumably serving more specific functions. Their decline and disappearance remains a mystery. Starting in 900 A.D. the southern cities were suddenly abandoned. Some of the northern cities survived into the 16th Century partly because they were assimilated into the Toltec empire. It is known that by the time of the first contact with the Spaniards the Maya had already been in decline, though no compelling explanation for their disappearance is generally accepted.

The Temple of the Warriors-Chichen Itza
Mayan Photo Adventures
©1997 by John C. Mureiko
Used by Permission

Maya society appears to have been organized along fairly rigid class divisions. At the top was the king, who ruled absolutely and was considered a god on earth, whose responsibility it was to assure the successful functioning of the universe. The King lived a luxurious existence. Below the king was the ruling elite. A third strata in Maya were the priests, nobles and warrior classes. The "middle class" was composed of the the artisans, traders and artists. The lowest rung were the slaves, peasants and farmers who provided the city with its daily needs. Maya cities were primarily urban centers with their centerpieces being the temples and pyramids and ballcourts.

temple of the Sun at Palenque
Temple of the Sun-Palenque

There is evidence that writing systems and an understanding of astronomy and the calendar were common throughout Mesoamerica before the Maya, though it is agreed that the Maya developed these and other forms of knowledge to their highest expressions. The influence of the Olmecs (1800 BC-300 AD) appears to have been substantial, particularly in art and architecture, though they were also known to have had a calendar system similar to the Mayas.

Chichen Itza
Courtesy of GORP

Maya society was notable for its intricate art. Mayan glyphs and sculptures on temple walls are challenging to say the least. These often appear as a mass of unconnected shapes. The explorer Maudsley was the first to separate different motifs in artwork into an understandable whole. The feathered serpent, for example, is one of the most common motifs in Mayan art, however, it is often difficult to recognize the serpent as such due to the modifications made by the artists. Painting seems to have been less common than sculpture, however the Maya were also accomplished in producing high quality ceramics. One art that survives to this day is weaving, which can be seen throughout southern Mexico and Guatemala.

The Maya made substantial achievements in the sciences. Their religious practices and daily life were based on a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, astrology and mathematics. Their calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar used today. One of their calendars was based on the earth's rotation around the sun and had 365 days divided into 18 months with 20 days and a month with 5 days. The other major calendar was based on the cycles of the constellation Pleiades. These determined most events in their lives, from major ceremonial events to the more common events like planting season. They were also able to correctly predict eclipses and the exact occurence of the spring and autumn equinox. The Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, for example, allows for tricks of light to appear during the equinox, giving the appearance of a serpent descending the stairs. They were also skilled astrologers and mathematicians, known to have understood the concept of "zero." Evidence suggests that the first sighting of Venus on the horizon was an indication that war was imminent. Interestingly, the architecture was deeply influenced by their concepts of time and astronomy.

The Maya burial practices appear to have been remarkably similar to the Egyptians. Both used pyramids and intricate crypts. Likewise, both the Egyptians and the Incas used mummies. It is tempting to think that these civilizations might have had some sort of contact but there is no evidence to suggest that. Much like the discovery of the treasures of King Tutankhamon earlier in the century, the intact crypt of Pakal was discovered at Palenque in 1952. Like the Egyptians, the Maya used death masks for their rulers and included a number of daily articles to accompany the ruler into the underworld. The burial chambers in both societies have a large number of vaults and crypts leading to the actual sarcophagus of the leader with outer rooms for bearers. Like the Egyptians, the burial chambers also contain large amounts of sculptures, ceramics and exquisite artwork. Also found at Palenque was the crypt containing what is thought to be the remains of the queen or grandmother of the ruler. By contrast with the tomb of Pacal, her tomb is relatively simple, neither as ornate nor luxurious, giving rise to questions about the status of women within the nobility. New finds of similar magnitude include the discovery at the tomb of Ak Cacao, one of the wealthiest Maya rulers in the Pyramid of the Grand Jaguar in Tikal (Guatemala). There have also been important discoveries at Copan in Honduras. The Maya valued jade above all other precious materials, for them it symbolizes life and immortality. Common people appear to have been buried beneath their houses.

El Cenote-Chichen Itza
Ritual sacrifice well
Mayan Photo Adventures
©1997 by John C. Mureiko
Used by Permission

The ritual practice of human sacrifice offers a fascinating glimpse into their world. Human sacrifice, though common to the Maya, was not nearly on the same level as their more bloodthirsty neighbors, the Aztec. More common, however, was the practice of bloodletting involving various forms of piercing, cutting and other non-lethal practices usually part of complicated religious rituals required of the king to satisfy the gods. These rituals were required for important events like birth and marriage, all political events and most major life events.

Ballcourt ring at Uxmal, Mexico
Courtesy of MesoAmerica
©Luis Fernando Oviedo Villavicencio

Another intesting aspect of the Maya is the ballgames they played. The above photo is from the ballcourt at Uxmal. Only important cities had ballcourts. There is some doubt as to whether the ballgames were mainly for sporting purposes or just a death ritual. Some have compared it to the modern basketball game. Two teams of seven men tried to get the heavy rubber ball through the ring using only their elbows, hips and knees. The captain of the winning team, and sometimes the entire losing team, was sacrificed in a ritual following the game.

The descendants of the Maya survive today in parts of Guatemala and Mexico. It is interesting to note that many aspects of their ancestors way of life have survived. Though their writing system is different today, Mayans speak some 30 different languages, any of which would have been understood by their ancesters. Their housing, crops and many agricultural techniques remain in use today. Like many other people throughout the world, traditional Mayans have had to adapt their religious practices in order to survive and though what is practiced today is a hybrid of Christianity and the old religion, much of it survives. Most discoveries have focused on the lives of the kings and nobility, however, the recent discovery of Joya del Caren, in El Salvador, is yielding some of the best information so far on the daily life of the common man in the Maya world.

The idea that the Maya were basically scholar-kings was destroyed by both the discovery of Pakal as well as the discovery of the site at Bonampak, with its detailed murals showing a more warlike society than had been previously thought. Clearly, the Maya were not driven by war to the same extent as the Toltecs and Aztecs to the north were. Toltec influence in the Maya city of Chichen Itza can be seen in some of the artwork which is most likely a result of the city allying with the Toltecs in order to survive the decline of the Maya. The Toltec influence can also be seen in some of the other northern cities in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo due to the presence of fortifications, which traditional Maya cities did not have.

The Mystery of Quetzalcoatl
Maya Adventure
Mayan Glyphs and Architecture
GB Online's MesoAmerica
El Mundo Maya
The Maya Astronomy page
Ancient Mayan Ruins
Photos of Chichen Itza by John C. Mureiko
Daily life of the Maya
Maya Archeology
The Lords of Copan

Voyage to Atlantis
The Voyage

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Last Updated-September 10, 1999

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