Origin of the Maya...or where did those dudes come from anyway?

When the Spanish arrived in the New World in the sixteenth century they were stunned by the astonishing beauty of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (now the site of Mexico City). The architectural and engineering achievements were compared to Venice and other great cities of Europe. Later, as the Spanish explored the continent they encountered the long abandoned cities of the ancient Maya, which proved to be even more impressive. The problem for the Europeans was how to explain the high culture of the New World in terms of what was known about their own history. There was an incredible European conceit that the pagan, godless people of the New World could not have possibly built these magnificent cities without some sort of inspiration and guidance from the Old World. Consequently, the first attempts to explain the achievements of the ancient people of the New World were couched in terms of what was known at the time about the rise of civilization in the Old World. Of course, the source available to the scholars of the day, namely the priests of the Catholic church, was the bible.

In searching for an explanation as to how the New World became populated, reference was made to the Lost Tribes of Israel. It seems that around 700 B.C. or so, the Syrians made life very unpleasant for the Israelis to the extent that three tribes (really large extended families) disappeared altogether. Whether they were annihilated in combat or absorbed into the dominant Syrian culture will probably never be known, but thereafter, reference was made to the "Lost Tribes" and scholars in the sixteenth century believed that they would someday be found intact in some remote part of the planet. Now here were the inhabitants of the New World who physically bore a striking resemblance to people from the eastern Mediterranean, so hey, they must be the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Further investigation revealed that the Lost Tribe deal wasn't going to fly. For example, it was eventually revealed that the Native American languages bore absolutely no resemblance to the languages of the Old World. Moreover, the people of the New World lacked many of the things common to their European counterparts such as a utilitarian wheel, the use of metals, sailing craft, etc. The notion of the Lost Tribes, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has been kept alive to the present day by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.

The Book of Mormom, sort of the Mormon Bible, holds that there were a series of migrations from the Old World to the New, the first following the collapse of the Tower of Babel, around 2500 B.C. These visitors were supposed to have shown the local savages how to build pyramids and get right with the correct religion. Evidently the interlopers from the eastern Mediterranean left all of their cultural baggage on the beach around Veracruz somewhere. Eventually Jesus Christ himself visited Mesoamerica after his resurrection, en route to heaven. Now regardless of what one chooses to believe or not believe about the Book of Mormon, there isn't one shred of evidence in the archeological record to even suggest European contact with the New World prior to 1492 A.D.

As early as the sixteenth century, at least one Spanish priest suggested that the Maya and their counterparts all came from Atlantis, the fabled continent in the Atlantic Ocean that was supposed to have been a highly advanced civilization that disappeared in a great earthquake and volcanic eruption many thousands of years ago. If there was such a sunken continent beneath the waters of the Atlantic, you can bet your last pair of tennis shoes that the United States Navy Submarine Service would know all about it.

More recently it has become fashionable in certain circles to favor extraterrestrial origins for not only the ancient Maya but just about every Precolumbian culture in the New World. Little green men in flying saucers have been held responsible for everything from the lines in the desert in Nasca, Peru to the huge substructural pyramids at Tikal. Somehow that conceit that plagued the sixteenth century Europeans is alive and well. It is difficult for many people today to accept the fact that the people of the New World evolved independently and achieved a greatness that eclipsed the European culture of the time. It is a very sobering fact to realize at the zenith of the Maya experience, say around 800 A.D., London was a small Roman outpost and my ancestors in northern England were running around naked and living in trees.

So if the Maya didn't take a boat from Europe or wander into the continent after being lost in the desert of the eastern Mediterranean, where did they come from? The reality is every bit as exciting as the UFO from Mars and says a great deal about the determination and courage of the human race. Next week we will trace the Maya to their origins.

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