The Maya

The Maya

The Maya

Today, more than seven million Maya live in their original homelands of Mesoamerica and in countries all over the world. Two thousand years ago, the ancient Maya developed one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas. They developed a written language of hieroglyphs and invented the mathematical concept of zero. With their expertise in astronomy and mathematics, the Maya developed a complex and accurate calendar system. Hundreds of restored ancient cities with temple-pyramids, palaces, ball courts, and grand plazas are studied by archaeologists, and are visited by millions of tourists from all over the world each year. Contemporary Maya live and work near many of these archaeological sites. Language, tradition, and a deep sensibility toward the land and the sky continue to shape their worldview. The Maya are guardians of their culture and actively work to rediscover their own past as they look towards the future.

"The Maya today today–we are the direct descendants of our ancient culture made up of expert builders, excellent astronomers, precise calendar keepers, and experienced artists. We give continuity to our traditions, our ways of thinking and our language, and we are worthy heirs of our origins. Weyano’one–we are here." José Huchim Herrera, Yucatec Maya, Archaeologist and Architect

Primary sources of Maya history – part one

The most extensive documentation for the native historical tradition in Mesoamerica comes from the Valley of Mexico and surrounding area. This is hardly surprising, for the main thrust of the Spanish Conquest was aimed at the Aztec empire and its capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. Other conquests followed in the Petén and Guatemala, but the spectacular Conquest of Mexico attracted many historians and chroniclers who recorded the event and what remained of Aztec civilization. Consequently, we have many native historical documents, as well as the works of colonial historians.

The situation is somewhat different for the Maya. The Classical period ended around A.D. 900 and the making of stelae, stone markers bearing historical hieroglyphic texts, ceased long before the Spaniards arrived. The decipherment of the Maya script, and hence the reading of the historical records left by the Maya themselves, was delayed for decades because of technical problems and scholarly disagreements over the nature of the Maya writing system.

The archaeological evidence for indigenous Maya history comes down to us in several forms. Stone stelae, or monumental time markers found at many Maya archaeological sites, at first were thought to represent priests and scribes endlessly engaged in the contemplation of Time, making the Maya like no other people anywhere in history. Later, Maya scholars aided by decipherment of the Maya script revealed the historical content of these stone markers. Stela 31 at Tikal is the most extensive record found so far at that site. In the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, sculptured stone wall panels give the dynastic history of Palenque, forming the longest continuous Maya text from the Classic period. Maya history was also inscribed on lintels, such as Lintel 21 at Yaxchilán, in paintings, such as those at Bonampak, and even on ceramics. Written in hieroglyphic form with accompanying portraitures, the historical texts are based on an early form of the Maya language, probably Chol.

Unfortunately, only four Maya codices survived the Spanish invasion and these are mainly ritualistic-calendrical in content rather than historical. These documents, written in an early form of Yucatecan Maya, are in the format of a screen fold that resembles a European style book. The scholarly controversy over one of these codices, the Grolier Codex, illustrates some of the pitfalls encountered in trying to reconstruct Mayan modes of thought from the evidence available. But the evidence seems to be in favour of its authenticity.

Written documents presuppose a post-Conquest date. In this article we shall focus on written sources in the native Maya tradition. The Yucatecan civilization was located in the Lowland Maya region of the Yucatán peninsula. The famous Books of Chilam Balam (Books of the Jaguar Priest) are associated with various towns and cities in that area.

Among the dozen or so surviving books, the Chilam Balam of Tizimin is the most historical in content. Collected by the parish priest of Tizimin it was sent to the bishop of Mérida in 1870 and is now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico city. The Tizimin contains an outline history of Yucatán from the 7th to the 19th century with reference to each katun (20 year period) from 1441 to 1848. Like other such historical documents it is based on the Mesoamerican concept of cyclical time. This is a kind of “prophetic history” in which the events of one katunwould be repeated in another katun of the same number. The result is a “non-lineal codification of reality” (to use Marshal McLuhan’s phrase). That is to say, the Maya did not think of time flowing in a straight line from the past through the present and into the future but rather in terms of vast cycles of time. M. Edmonson, a recent translator of the Tizimin, therefore fittingly entitled it The Ancient Future of the Maya.

The Tizimin is the story of the Itzá Maya, an elite family lineage in western Yucatán and Campeche in post-Classic and Colonial periods. They were later joined by the Toltec Xiu and together the Itzá and the Xiu agreed on the seating of the katun. Here we see the practical application of the cyclical concept of time. The city upon which this honour was conferred had dynastic and religious influence over the rest of the country for about 256 years, after which the city was abandoned and the katun moved to another site. But, as we now know, the Maya were not simply a race of star-gazers intent upon the passage of Time. The Xiu and the Itzá quarreled and in the early 16th century the ensuing “War of the Katuns” was further aggravated by the arrival of the Spaniards. Although the final chapter of Tizimin ends on a note of resignation at the ending of this final katun and the seating of the “Christian katun,” the author apparently believed that a new Itzá cycle was initiated as late as 1824, a testimony to the remarkable endurance and continuity of Maya culture.

I greatly admire Edmonson’s work, but he, like other “western” or European scholars, seems to feel the need to rearrange the Maya order of historical events in order to correspond to the European concept of linear time. He therefore reordered the sections of the Tizimin in chronological sequence. The rearrangement is based on the number of foreign words (Nahuatl and Spanish) found in each one hundred lines. A fairly constant occurrence of Aztec words through linear time contrasts with a dramatic increase in Spanish words “throughout the reordered text.” This is said to show the true sequence of recorded events in linear time, presumably on the grounds that Spanish loan words and intrusions would become more common in later chronicles.

This kind of stylistic analysis reminds me of certain classical Greek scholars who edited ancient Greek texts to fit their theories. In his edition of the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, E. Fränckel altered the text unnecessarily because he believed that there had to be so many interpolations per 100 lines. The printed text of Pindar, poet of the Olympic Games, is broken up unmercifully to show the underlying metrical patterns. I am sure this was not what Pindar intended or how his audience experienced the Victory Odes. The ancient Maya thought in terms of cyclical time. Therefore it is perhaps a distortion of reality, in this case Maya reality, to reorder the mode of thought of an ancient people to fit in with our own preconceptions or ideas of correctness.

The town of Mani, about 100 kms south of Mérida, Yucatán, site of the infamous burning of the books by Bishop Landa in 1562, was founded after the fall of Mayapán and about 70 years before the arrival of the Spaniards. It is likely, therefore, that the Chilam Balam of Mani was brought to Mani from Mayapán, the last Maya stronghold. The author and the sources of the Mani are unknown, but it is likely based on a long oral tradition. This book has been much used by recent historians of Yucatán. The preponderance of Nahuatl names in the opening account of the katuns (20 year periods) in Maya suggests a Toltec origin of the Maya, or at least of the princely family of the Tutulxiu.

From Chicxulub, just north of Mérida, we have The Chronicle of Chicxulub, a year by year account of the arrival of the Spaniards in Yucatán, the setting up of churches, and various encounters with the Spanish invaders. The author, Nakuk Pech, was placed in command of the district of Chac Xulub Chen. The history and chronicle of Chicxulub, which begins in the “fifth division of the 11th katun” (1511), tells us that the inhabitants were forced to pay tribute to the Spaniards. The date 1511 also refers to the shipwreck of Aguilar and his crew on the eastern coast of Yucatán, another important episode in late Maya history. It is through the piecing together of these bits of the historical puzzle that we are able to form a composite picture of Maya history from the viewpoint of the Maya themselves.

These are only a few samples from the Books of Chilam Balam. While they are not an infallible clue to the Classic Maya period, they do provide us with an insight into the thoughts and minds of the latter-day Maya.

A second main category for primary sources of Maya history comprises the detailed questionnaires formulated by the Spanish friars in their efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity. For the Aztecs it was Sahagún, whose Florentine Codex remains one of the most comprehensive and well organized accounts of Aztec life around the time of the Conquest. The Maya have only the Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, by bishop Diego de Landa, ironically the man who also did the most he could to destroy the religion and culture of the people about whom he wrote. Because of its eye-witness accounts and first-hand information, the Relación must be considered a primary source of Maya history. Of particular importance for our enquiry is the account of native history as Landa heard it directly from the lips of his Maya informants.

The lesson we learn from even a cursory glance at the Maya concept of history is that we cannot import alien standards of historiography or inappropriate forms of analysis into our study of Mesoamerican historical narrative if we hope to understand better the Maya point of view.

Mayan history

The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Mayan history starts in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., Mayan history rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize.

Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. Mayan history shows that they were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.

Many people believe that the ancestors of the Maya crossed the Bering Strait at least 20,000 years ago. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Evidence of settled habitation in Mexico is found in the Archaic period 5000-1500 BC – corn cultivation, basic pottery and stone tools.

The first true civilization was established with the rise of the Olmecs in the Pre-Classic period 1500 BC -300 AD. The Olmecs settled on the Gulf Coast, and little is known about them.

They are regarded as the inventors of many aspects of Meso-American cultures including the first calendar and hieroglyphic writing in the Western hemisphere. Archeologists have not settled the relationship between the Olmecs and the Maya, and it is a mystery whether the Maya were their descendants, trading partners, or had another relationship, that is white place in Mayan history.

It is agreed that the Maya developed a complex calendar and the most elaborate form of hieroglyphics in America, both based on the Olmec’s versions.

Maya had a complex society

(Classic period 300 – 900 AD)

Most artistic and cultural achievement came about during the Classic period 300 – 900 AD. The Maya developed a complex, hierarchical society divided into classes and professions. Centralized governments, headed by a king, ruled territories with clearly defined boundaries. These borders changed as the various states lost and gained control over territory. Mayan centers flourished in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. The major cities of the Classic period were Tikal (Guatemala), Palenque and Yaxchil n (Chiapas, Mexico), Cop n and Quirigua (Honduras). For most of this period, the majority of the Maya population lived in the central lowlands of Mexico and Belize.

The Northern Yucatan (where present day Cancun is located) was sparsely populated for most of the Classic period with only a few cities such as Dzibilchalt n (near M rida) and Xpuhil, Bec n and Chicann (near Chetumal). During the 9th century the population centers of the central lowlands declined significantly. This decline was very rapid and is attributed to famine, drought, breakdowns in trade, and political fragmentation. Fragmentation from large states into smaller city-states focused resources on rivalries between cities including not just wars, but competitions of architecture and art between rival cities. As the cities in the lowlands declined, urban centers sprung up in the Northern Yucat n, including Uxmal (near M rida).

Anthropologists used to contrast the “peaceful” Maya with the bloodthirsty Aztecs of central Mexico. Although human sacrifice was not as important to the Maya as to the Aztec, blood sacrifice played a major role in their religion. Individuals offered up their blood, but not necessarily their lives, to the gods through painful methods using sharp instruments such as sting-ray spines or performed ritualistic self mutilation. It is probable that people of all classes shed their blood during religious rites. The king’s blood sacrifice was the most valuable and took place more frequently. The Maya were warlike and raided their neighbors for land, citizens, and captives. Some captives were subjected to the double sacrifice where the victims heart was torn out for the sun and head cut off to pour blood out for the earth.

The Mayan civilization was the height of pre-Columbian culture. They made significant discoveries in science, including the use of the zero in mathematics. Their writing was the only in America capable of expressing all types of thought. Glyphs either represent syllables or whole concepts and were written on long strips of paper or carved and painted on stone. They are arranged to be red from left to right and top to bottom in pairs of columns. The Mayan calendar begins around 3114 BC, before Maya culture existed, and could measure time well into the future. They wrote detailed histories and used their calendar to predict the future and astrological events. Fray Diego de Landa, second bishop of the Yucat n ordered a mass destruction of Mayan books in 1562 and only three survived.

Post Classic Period – 1000 – 1500 AD

After the Classic period, the Maya migrated to the Yucat n peninsula. There they developed their own character, although their accomplishments and artwork are not considered as impressive as the Classic Maya. Most of the ruins you can see South of Cancun are from this time period and are definitely worth a visit.

Chichen Itza (near Valladolid), Uxmal (near Merida) and Mayap n (west of Chichen Itza) were the three most important cities during the Post Classic period. They lived in relative peace from around 1000 – 1100 AD when Mayap n overthrew the confederation and ruled for over 200 years. In 1441 the Maya who had previously ruled Uxmal destroyed the city of Mayap n and founded a new city at Mani. Wars were fought between rival Mayan groups over the territory until the region was conquered by the Spanish.

Chichen Itza was first populated between 500 and 900 AD by Mayans and for some reason abandoned around 900, the city was then resettled 100 years later and subsequently invaded by Toltecs from the North. There are numerous reliefs of both Mayan gods including Chac and the Toltec gods including Quetzacoatl. For some reason the city was abandoned around 1300. If the Spanish did not make it a policy to kill all of the Mayan priests and burn books when they arrived in Mexico, we would all have a few more answers.

Conquest and rebellion (1500 AD)

The Spanish colonization of the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba allowed them to launch exploratory forays around the Caribbean.

The Maya - History

Centuries before Europeans arrived, an advanced civilization flourished in Mesoamerica, a region extending from southern Mexico through Central America. The Maya mastered astronomy, developed an elaborate written language, built towering monuments, and left behind exquisite artifacts.

According to NASA archaeologist Tom Sever, the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica was one of the densest populations in human history. Around 800 A.D., after two millennia of steady growth, the Mayan population reached an all-time high. Population density ranged from 500 to 700 people per square mile in the rural areas, and from 1,800 to 2,600 people per square mile near the center of the Mayan Empire (in what is now northern Guatemala). In comparison, Los Angeles County averaged 2,345 people per square mile in 2000. Yet by studying remains of Mayan settlements, Sever found that by 950 A.D., the population had crashed. “Perhaps as many as 90 to 95 percent of the Maya died,” he said.

Title graphic image: The Rain God Chac appeared in one of the few Mayan texts to escape burning by the Spanish. (Image adapted from the Madrid Codex appearing on the NOAA Paleoclimatology Mirror Site, photo by David A. Hodell.)

For Sever, figuring out how the Maya flourished—but ultimately failed—in Mesoamerica is about more than simply solving a 1,200-year-old mystery. Since the 1980s, he has tried to understand the history of the Maya and their natural environment, a story that may hold important lessons for people living there today. Using satellite data and climate models, Sever and his colleagues hope to help governments and citizens throughout Mesoamerica ensure that the region can continue to support the people who live there. By learning from the Maya, modern humans may avoid sharing their fate.

Mayan Deforestation

Before its collapse, the Mayan empire stretched out from its center in northern Guatemala’s Petén region across the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. Pollen samples collected from columns of soil that archeologists have excavated across the region provide evidence of widespread deforestation approximately 1,200 years ago, when weed pollen almost completely replaced tree pollen. The clearing of rainforest led to heightened erosion and evaporation the evidence of the erosion appears in thick layers of sediment washed into lakes.

“Another piece of evidence,” explained Sever, “is the thickness of the floor stones in the Mayan ruins. They would have needed about 20 trees [to build a fire large and hot enough] to make a plaster floor stone that is about one square meter. In the earliest ruins, these stones were a foot or more thick, but they progressively got thinner. The most recently built ones were only a few inches thick.” Sever’s colleague, atmospheric scientist Bob Oglesby of Marshall Space Flight Center, calls the Mayan deforestation episode “the granddaddy of all deforestation events.” Studies of settlement remains show that this deforestation coincided with a dramatic drop in the Mayan population.

“After the Mayan collapse, this area was abandoned and the forest recovered. But as people have returned over the last three decades, the deforestation has returned,” Sever explained. Today, the regenerated forests of the Petén are the largest remaining tropical forests in Central America. While present-day deforestation in the Petén region hasn’t yet occurred on a Mayan scale, today’s technology could easily enable modern residents to surpass the Maya in cutting trees. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, deforestation in Guatemala averaged 1.7 percent annually between 1990 and 2000.

Besides a cautionary tale about what can happen to civilizations when they clear-cut surrounding forests, the long-gone Mayan civilization also offers clues to a more sustainable use of the landscape. Before their catastrophic decline, the Maya thrived in Central America for two millennia. “We want to know how the Maya used this landscape because we don’t know how to use it successfully today,” said Sever. Although the Maya’s secrets for success are harder to discern than their reasons for failure, Sever has at least one idea.

Before their sudden decline, the Maya built impressive monuments, including the pyramids of Tikal, Guatemala. (Photograph Copyright © Tom Sever.)

Populations in densely forested regions often rely on slash-and-burn agriculture. At first glance, this might seem like the approach the Maya used, but Sever doesn’t think so. “In slash-and-burn agriculture, people clear the land to plant corn, for instance,” he said. “They get 100 percent productivity the first year, 60 percent the next year, and something less than that afterwards. So in three to five years, the land is basically useless, and they have to move on.” In a sparsely populated region, slash-and-burn agriculture might work, but Mesoamerica around 800 A.D. was one of the most densely populated areas in the pre-industrial world. “Slash and burn wouldn’t have enabled a population to grow to that size,” he said.

Sever believes the Maya took a different approach to farming: effective water management. “The biggest threat we face doing fieldwork in this region is dying of thirst,” Sever explained. Even the rainforest experiences an annual dry season the trees hang on by tapping groundwater. “The Maya couldn’t use groundwater because it was 500 feet below them, and they had no technology to reach it, so they depended on rainwater.”

In the Petén region Sever studies, rainwater accumulates in swamplands, known as bajos, that cover about 40 percent of the landscape. Today, that rainwater evaporates before anyone can use it effectively, but excavations and satellite images have revealed networks of canals among the bajos, apparently dug during the time of the Maya. Sever suspects that the Maya used the canals to redirect and reuse the rainwater. This labor-intensive agriculture, which probably kept farmers working diligently all day, would have barely outpaced demand. If the Maya farmed the bajos, however, they took advantage of an additional 40 percent of the landscape, which would have made a significant contribution to food production.

Modern Mesoamericans consider the bajos worthless and ignore them. “We’re trying to understand how to control water and enable this landscape to support current populations, to reduce some of the stress on the economy and environment,” Sever said.

Climate Change

In the end, Oglesby speculated, the increased productivity the Maya gained by farming the bajos might have made them too successful. “Population pressure might then have led to their having to clear more and more land, both for settlement and for agriculture,” he said. Oglesby has used three-dimensional regional climate models to help visualize the Mayan demise, and what he has found so far is intriguing.

“If we completely deforest the area and replace it with grassland, we find that it gets considerably warmer—as much as 5 to 6 degrees Celsius,” Oglesby said. Sunlight that normally evaporates water from the rainforest canopy would instead heat the ground. Although his model paints a more extreme picture than what actually happened (the region was heavily, but probably not completely deforested), Oglesby suspects that deforestation contributed to a drought. Lake sediment cores indicate that the Mayan deforestation appears to have coincided with natural climate variability that was already producing a drought. “Combined with the land-use changes, the drought was a double whammy,” he said. By 950 A.D., the Mayan lowland cities were largely deserted.

Learning from the Mayan Legacy

Today, population density in Central America is only a fraction of what it was during the Mayan peak. In Belize, for example, population density may be as low as 26 people per square mile (10 people per square kilometer). Yet human pressure on the environment is still significant.

Archaeologist Tom Sever (left) and remote sensing specialist Dan Irwin (right) have pooled their skills to understand the Maya. (Photographs Copyright © Tom Sever.)

The effectiveness of modern tree-cutting technology became clear to Sever in the late 1980s. NASA and the National Geographic Society hired him to study the potential impact of a hydroelectric dam on the Usumacinta River in Guatemala. Sever, who had pioneered the use of remote-sensing data in finding archaeological sites, turned to satellite imagery once again. Using Landsat data, he produced an image showing part of the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Most political borders are invisible in satellite images, but this border was obvious. The rainforest—still intact in Guatemala—stopped abruptly at the Mexican border, where the landscape had been stripped.

Sever’s images stunned Guatemala’s president. “There had been tensions along the Mexico-Guatemala border for about 150 years,” said Sever. After seeing the satellite image, however, both nations’ presidents “decided that the environment must unite them.” In a ceremony on a river bridge between the countries, Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo and Mexican President Carlos Salinas shook hands and pledged to protect the dwindling rainforest. It marked the beginning of a larger effort to protect the environment in Mesoamerica.

Mesoamerican Biological Corridor

Dan Irwin, one of Sever’s colleagues, is a remote-sensing specialist who uses satellite data to study the environmental health of Mesoamerica. Regarding the image Sever showed to the Guatemalan president, Irwin remarked, “It may be the single most important image for conservation purposes that I know of on the planet, because it prompted Guatemala and Mexico to work together. More importantly, that one image was directly responsible for the Guatemalan Congress declaring the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala, which is the largest protected area in all of Central America.”

The Maya Biosphere Reserve is part of the larger Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Originally known as Paseo Pantera (Path of the Panther), the corridor is a network of protected areas extending from southern Mexico to Colombia, through Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The corridor preserves Mayan ruins, along with habitat and migration routes for wildlife. “Mesoamerica has less than half a percent of the Earth’s landmass, but it has over 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity,” said Irwin.

The razor-sharp border between Mexico and Guatemala, as seen in this 1988 Landsat image, shows the impact of high rural population on the rainforest. Guatemala’s sparsely populated Petén district stands in stark contrast to the stripped and tilled landscape of Mexico. This image prompted the leaders of Mexico and Guatemala to set aside long-standing tensions and focus on preserving the rainforest. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

Irwin began working with Sever in the early 1990s as an employee of Conservation International. “I planned to be in Central America for two months and came back five years later,” Irwin said. He distinctly remembers the moment he decided to stay and continue his work there, which occurred one evening when he showed some of Sever’s satellite images to a rural Guatemalan community.

Unlike their president, the villagers initially had trouble understanding the images. “They had never worked with maps or any type of spatial data,” Irwin said. “Part of the process was showing them, ‘This is a road near you’ and ‘This is a lake.’ All of a sudden, the light bulbs turned on and they became very interested.”

Once the villagers understood what they were seeing, they shared the Guatemalan Congress’s concern for the rainforest. “This society was an agricultural community, and the people had assumed that you could keep on developing more fields and bringing more people up, and the forest would last forever,” he said. “But I showed them that the Mexican border really wasn’t that far away, and that Mexico’s side had been completely deforested. It was an amazing moment that I’ll never forget. With that, I made the decision to continue on and do this type of work.”

Choosing a Sustainable Future

Remote sensing observations provided by NASA’s data centers have been critical for monitoring the health of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Through routine satellite observations, researchers can monitor important ecosystem vital signs, such as rainfall, vegetation productivity, cloudiness, and forest gains or losses over the entire area. Oglesby and his colleagues will be archiving the results from their modeling experiments on the climate impacts of the Mayan deforestation at the Global Hydrology Resource Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

While they hope Central American forests can be spared the kind of clear-cutting seen in Mexico, the researchers don’t want to stop all development in the region. “The purpose isn’t to discourage any development, but to encourage improved development,” Irwin said.

Remote-sensing data and modeling technology have already enabled natural resource managers in Mesoamerica to predict and avoid environmental damage. Irwin recalled a proposal to build a road through the middle of a reserve to connect two archaeological sites. Using data on how deforestation spreads outward from roads, the scientists developed a model that examined the road’s distance from water, the surrounding soil type, and other factors. “We made an animation of what the place would look like in one year, two years, four years, etc. That particular study was a factor in the decision to build the road around the reserve instead,” Irwin said.

Irwin is also encouraged by improved agricultural practices, such as shaded coffee. In a traditional coffee plantation, farmers typically cut down all the trees, a process that’s harmful to wild birds, including local species like macaws and quetzals, and migrating songbirds. By planting shade-tolerant coffee around existing trees, farmers can strike a balance. “You can find all kinds of birds on shaded coffee plantations. It’s a type of agriculture that goes along with the theme of the corridor,” he said.

Using Satellite Data to Study the Corridor

Sever and Irwin are now providing Mesoamerican scientists, policymakers, and land managers with direct access to satellite data and models. “The Guatemalan Minister of the Environment wants to replace his old topographic map with a plasma TV showing the latest data,” Irwin said.

To improve general access to remote-sensing data, NASA has partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the Central American Commission for Environment and Development, and several U.S. universities to develop the SIAM-SERVIR Website. The site offers a satellite data archive and distribution system for professional researchers, maps for more casual users, visualizations, and a decision support system that provides information to researchers and policymakers.

Animals that depend on the rainforest for habitat in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor include (left to right) hummingbirds, howler monkeys, quetzals, jaguars, and macaws. (Howler monkey image courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service, quetzal image courtesy of Cloud Forest Alive, other images from

The Website, initially developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, will ultimately be hosted in Panama, with nodes throughout Central America. “We’re proud of the decentralized control,” said Irwin. “Users can post data and make them available to anyone.” Another source of pride for Irwin is the rapid spread of remote-sensing expertise. “I’m the first to admit that there are people in Central America I’ve trained who know more than I do now when it comes to some of the imagery,” he said. “I have to read the book to keep up with them.”

Remote sensing and climate modeling have given today’s Mesoamericans a chance to understand their environment in a unique way—one that would probably have been as surprising to the Maya as it was to the Guatemalan farmers seeing the satellite photos of their surroundings for the first time. Archeological studies have likewise given modern Mesoamericans clues to Mayan success and eventual failure.

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor may give the region’s tropical forest ecosystems a chance to thrive despite increased population pressure. The environment around Petén recovered only after the Maya deserted, but scientists involved in the corridor hope to strike a balance between human needs and environmental health. “We’re trying to protect the forest to avoid what happened at the time of the Mayan collapse,” Sever explained. “This project shows how various organizations, researchers, and new technology can come together to make something productive, something that’s beneficial for everyone.”

Reliable information on the state of Mesoamerican environment and how it reacts to natural and human-produced change is fundamental to helping Mesoamerica’s modern residents recreate the Maya’s successes without repeating their mistakes.

The SIAM-SERVIR Website monitors wildfires, such as these fires burning across the Yucatán Peninsula. Click here for more information.

Discovering a New Pyramid

Thanks to LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, 60,000 structures belonging to the Mayans were discovered in September 2018 alone. One of the 60,000 structures discovered was a pyramid that is seven stories high. Before LiDAR, the large pyramid had simply gone unnoticed.

Researchers used the new technology to take images of an area measuring 800 square by firing pulses of lasers that registered 900,000 times per second. This created images of the topography so accurate that any man-made structures stuck out from the natural vegetation enveloping it.

Polychrome Stucco Figure of a Jaguar Warrior

One of the few known examples of large, three-dimensional stucco sculptures discovered with its original colors still preserved. The jaguar-masked figure is believed to represent a mythological feline being – either a high-ranking noble in the guise of a jaguar deity or one of the feline figures from the diverse pantheon of classic Maya deities. It measures over 9 feet long and 2 feet high (Height: 66 cm Length: 266 cm Width: 105 cm). Maya Lowlands, Peten, Guatemala, Early Classic period (ca. 250-600 CE). Fundación La Ruta Maya, Guatemala

Calendars and Religion

The Maya utilized complex mathematical and astronomical calculations to build their monuments and conceptualize the cosmography of their religion. Each of the four directions represented specific deities, colors, and elements. The underworld, the cosmos, and the great tree of life at the center of the world all played their part in how buildings were built and when feasts or sacrifices were practiced. Ancestors and deities helped weave the various levels of existence together through ritual, sacrifice, and measured solar years.

The Maya developed a mathematical system that is strikingly similar to the Olmec traditions. The Maya also linked this complex system to the deity Itzamna. This deity was believed to have brought much of Maya culture to Earth. A 260-day calendar (Tzolkin) was combined with the 365-day solar calendar (Haab’) to create a calendar round. This calendar round would take fifty-two solar years to return to the original first date. The Tzolkin calendar was used to calculate exact religious festival days. It utilized twenty named days that repeated thirteen times in that calendar year. The solar calendar (Haab’) is very similar to the modern solar calendar year that uses Earth’s orbit around the Sun to measure time. The Maya believed there were five chaotic days at the end of the solar year that allowed the portals between worlds to open up, known as Wayeb’.

A Classic period Maya calendar. Each symbol represents a specific day within the calendar. When the Tzolkin and Haab’ calendar’s are combined they create a fifty-two-year solar calendar.

These calendars were recorded utilizing specific symbols for each day in the two central cycles. Calendrical stones were employed to carefully follow the movement of the solar and religious years. Although less commonly used, the Maya also employed a long count calendar that calculated dates hundreds of years in the future. They also inscribed a lengthier 819-day calendar on many religious temples throughout the region that most likely coincided with important religious days.

Belize Maya Culture & History

Archeological records have dated the arrival of the Maya to what is now Belize to 2500 B.C. when they arrived in the Cuello area in the northern part of the country. Today, the descendants of that ancient people make up one of the distinct populations in Belize.

Scholars divide the period of the Ancient Maya into three categories. The Classic Period is when the Maya culture reach its zenith in the years between A.D. 250 and A.D. 1000. For unknown reasons, Maya city states began to disintegrate after that point. Archeologists have speculated that it as due to environmental causes, plagues, or widespread civil unrest but no exact cause has ever been determined.

Today, there are three distinct groups of Maya living in Belize. In the northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk lives a population known as the Yucatec Maya who originally migrated from neighboring Mexico. In the southern Toledo District of Belize live the Mopan Maya who originally migrated from the San Luis area of the Peten region in neighboring Guatemala. There is also a branch of the Mopan Maya clustered around the village of San Jose Succotz formed of a mixture of Maya from Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants. Also located in the southern Toledo District are the Kekchi Maya who migrated from San Pedro Corcha in Guatemala.

Mayan is not one language but the name given to an entire family of languages. Today, linguists have identified approximately 20 different mutually dialects of Mayan. In the northern, Maya speak a dialect known as Yucateco while the Maya in the south speak either Mopanero or Kekchi dialects. As citizens of Belize, most Maya speak English as well as their native language. Many Maya also speak Spanish as the result of long contact with the cultures in Mexico and Guatemala.

Today’s Maya are largely an agricultural people, growing and eating traditional foods like corn, beans, pork and fish. The Maya make up about 11% of Belize’s population. Most Maya live in traditional villages but some also live near the now-ruined cities of the Ancient Maya Empire. Maya Ruins like Altun Ha, Cuello, Lubaantun, Caracol, Lamanai and Xunantunich are popular tourist destinations today, serving as proud reminders of the long history of Maya civilization.

Located just minutes away by foot from the famous Mayan Royal Palace of Cahal Pech, the resort at Cahal Pech is the place to stay when exploring ancient Mayan ruins in Belize. Visitors will enjoy the panoramic view from atop an ancient Maya hill in San Ignacio, with easy access to other historic Mayan ruins like the famous Tikal site just across the border in Guatemala.

For more information about accomodations, or to schedule one of our guided tours of the area, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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