The last building constructed at Altun Ha, half way between today's Orange Walk town and Belize City the port was built around 850 A.D. to 875 A.D., or about 1,121 years ago. Building still went on at Altun Ha until 1100 A.D. about four hundred years before the Spanish arrived in Yucatan.
The city states in the Peten were disintegrating at this time with their political organization. One of Tikal's old subordinate kingdoms still thrived and declared it's independence. This was the city state of Uaxactun and they were still erecting tree stones of their history in 889 A.D., or 1, 107 years ago. Yet the city state of Lamanai in northern Belize was still vibrant in 950 A.D., over a thousand years, and continued until the Spanish conquistadors came to invade from their northern Yucatan conquests.
There is a lot of speculation of what happened in the Peten. Was it because of overpopulation, destruction of the rain forest changing the local climatic cycles, reduced soil fertility, the two hundred year drought? This long drought affected even Bolivia and Lake Titicaca which dried up forcing the people to abandon the city of Tiahuancaco. Even California has records of cycles of long 200 year droughts. Could it have been the immigrant waves of Putun Maya coming up the rivers from the Tobasco region of Mexico to mingle and mix with the Chol Maya changing the systems of agriculture and management? No one is sure, but we do know that Belize did not suffer. Belize is also close to the sea and would have enjoyed local convection and rainfall of some kind, even if the Peten had been deforested by overpopulation.
The greatest part of the Mayan history for which we have records from stelae, temples and other engravings was the four hundred year period of the tenth baktun. Yet we know from the archeological record, that though the carving stopped, the people still lived on and around these areas a hundred years later.
We know that Lubaantun a city state located in the highland hills of southern Belize was intensely occupied between 580 A.D. and 800 A.D., (1,196 years ago) , during the worst of the Peten wars. This area of southern Belize in the Toledo District seems to have been a self sufficient one. It is unlikely they saw any warfare with the'Peten as the terrain and travel is very difficult. There is commerce by Maya traders even today between villages over in Guatemala and those in the Toledo District of Belize. There is a trail, a very muddy one, going along the hills into Guatemala and in 1960 I met a traditional Maya trader carrying his bag of goods to sell, near Golden Stream. He carried a chicle waterproofed canvas bag with a head band tump line on his back. His goods were decorated woven village cloth for skirts and blouses to identify the village and clan you owed allegiance to and the milpa grinding stones used to grind corn by hand.
In modern terminology, the Maya practiced then and still do today, real democracy, with decentralized government and regular elections of different official posts, unlike our country of today which uses the inherited Roman model of the class, cast, elite system used to financially benefit a few at the top.
Mr. Owen Lewis the Indian Officer in British Honduras for this district in the 1950's took this muddy trail, on an exploration and came out to the road in the Peten running from Flores to Puerto Barrios. There is also a trail over the mountains to the north, which in olden times would have connected to Actun Balam on the north side of the mountains and then onward to Caracol and minor centers in the Forest Reserve of the inner basin of today's Belize.
This southern area of Belize was a fairly isolated regional area caused by geographical conditions. There are mountains to the north and west, the Caribbean Sea to the east and a large swampy river area drained by the Temash River on which the modern day Maya village of Crique Sarco lies and the Sarstoon River further west, still dividing present day Guatemala and Belize. People would have to be funneled through a relatively small opening in the Maya mountains to travel east and west. The population of the Toledo District probably never exceeded 100,000 people. The Maya understood some things that we today have not yet learned and that is the healthy living is to be found in the hills above the coastal plain, away from where insects carry debilitating diseases.
During the nineteenth century the Toledo District coast often boasted immigrant populations larger than that of today in the last decade of the twentieth century. Yet, because they lived on the coast, such settlers were decimated frequently by plagues of yellow fever, malaria and cholera.
The principal diet of the Maya throughout known history has been corn, or maize. People who live on this diet are usually short and compact of skeletal structure. The average Mayan diet was about 1200 calories a day. A person of European, or African descent would starve on that amount and need a minimum of 1800 calories a day. Maize is prepared in many different ways and is basically unchanged to this day. The maize is used to make various kinds of food and drink. The women leave the maize to soak overnight in lime and water so that by morning it is soft and partially prepared. This makes it easier to separate from the grain. Then they grind it on a curved stone with a stone roller. For traveling, they make balls of this half ground maize and these balls of ground grain last several months. These balls will become sour, but do not go bad. At home using a calabash they make a maize gruel with the maize and drink it themselves and feed it to guests. The fine ground maize can be squeezed to produce a milky substance, which they thicken over the fire place into this porridge or gruel. They will also toast and grind the maize mix it with a little hot red peppers and cacao, which makes a healthful drink.
When the Maya had meat, which they tried to do once a week, they made a stew. Sacrificed prisoners and slaves to the Gods were also eaten by the population of olden times and an excellent way of getting concentrated protein from an environment that had no large game animals. Since all meat is broken down into basic amino acids by the stomach during digestion and reconstituted by the body into new muscles there is nothing really wrong with this practice. The taboos of today were imported and perpetuated by scientifically ignorant Europeans usually on some vague religious ground, yet these same Europeans accepted the foulest methods of torture against live innocent helpless victims. Cannabilism, was a common practice worldwide in most places. Wild turkey, small deer, armadillo and other small game are common in the jungle. The men usually ate separate from the women. If they did not have much in the way of food, because of weather and seasonal fluctuations, the Maya could do with very little sustenance for long periods of weeks. The Maya tattooed their bodies for beauty and decoration. Swimming and bathing in the local stream, or cenote once or twice a day was a regular bathing practice and they are a very clean people, unlike Europeans.
Wine was made from honey and water and certain tree roots. Celebrations and festivities with this kind of partying would produce a lot of drunken men. The women would watch with stoicism and be there to carry the man home after the celebrations were over and the men so drunk, they did not know what they would be doing. Like all drunken people, some of the Maya would get into fights, create quarrels, sneak out to sleep with somebody else's wife and have a great spree. Usually they would spend everything they had acquired through months of hard work in a few days of such drunken festivities.
The Maya had various musical instruments. There were drums of different types, some played by hand, others by using hollow sticks against another, some sticks were padded by chicle balls and they had thin trumpet like instruments made of hollow wood with large gourds on the end to give resonance. Another instrument was the cleaned turtle shell which was beaten in rhythm with the bare hand.
There were whistles and flutes made of wood, reeds and shells. The Maya had several dances that were favorites for gatherings. These were usually line dances and nobody would stop, not even for food and drink, which would be served while they danced for hours. Men did not dance with women.
There were people who specialized in certain skills. There were potters, carpenters, surgeons, herbal doctors and merchant traders. One of the major items of trade from northern Belize was the taking of food, salt and sometimes slaves. You could become a slave by breaking certain laws of the community. In the region of Tabasco everything would be exchanged for cacao and stone beads which could be used for money. Some beads used for money were precious stones and shells which they carried in bags of netting.
There was an active commercial and financial market and the Mayan merchants gave credit and made loans without charging interest as we do today. The majority of the people worked their milpas, in which they stored their corn in cribs, or storage sheds, sometimes in caves and granaries to sell in the off season someplace else where there might be a shortage. Work at milpa time is done today the same as three thousand years ago. There is a village, or community leader and council freely elected and they decide after consultations when public work projects will be carried out and organize the clearing of the land and planting in groups of twenty until everyone had their land cleared and planted. Planting is done by carrying the seeds in a little pouch and using a stick to make a hole to place the seeds. visiting between Maya is always accompanied by gifts. Respect for rank is shown, but also first names would be used freely. Visitors would be offered a drink and in the evening food by the host and if a traveler was on the road it was compulsory for anyone he met to offer them food and drink even if it meant doing without themselves.
The headman, or Lord of the village would decide punishments for breaking the law, or quarrels between people. If the Lord was unable to find a satisfactory solution he would confer with a council of respected citizens. Satisfaction would be demanded by grieved parties in a dispute, such as when somebody might be killed in an accident, or a wife, or husband killed themself through the interference of another person, or perhaps a fire got out of control and damaged a neighbor's goods, such as maize plants, beehives, or storage places for maize.
Adultery was punished by binding the guilty man to a pole and handing him over to the man who had been offended. He could do whatever he liked, or let him free. To kill him, the custom was to drop a large stone on the adulterers head. Husbands usually left the guilty wife and she would be disgraced in the community. Death of another person, either accidental, or deliberate was usually death, or blood money to the offended relatives.
A person caught stealing was made a slave. If the thief was noble or elected official, the thief would be forced to undergo cruel tattooing all over his face and head.
The young had to respect their elders. Juvenile delinquency was punished by execution. It was a zero tolerance system for teenagers. Young men usually had their own meeting house for amusements. Here they played games and slept when not working, until their parents arranged a marriage. Some girls practiced prostitution, but they had to handle a very large clientele and were held in low esteem by the villagers even though they were paid for services and might enjoy themselves. The Spanish when they finally arrived in the Yucatan made mention of the common occurrence of incest. While the Spanish in Europe also practiced incest, they made -religious laws declaring it a sin and brought this religious concept to the Yucatan. The Maya on the other hand recognized that incest would occur and while there would be some condemnation of the practice by community group leaders, they also understood that the man who planted the seed should also have the right to taste the first fruit. Such practice was usually done in a loving and affectionate atmosphere and only forced sex was frowned upon by the Mayan customs. The Spanish concept of religious sin about incest was foreign to the Maya.
Young men often painted themselves black until they married.
Children wore no clothes until about five years of age. Girls eventually wore small skirts. Breast feeding of children could occur up until the age of four. Young children played freely, bathed frequently and used toy bows and arrows. A sloping forehead was considered a thing of beauty and young babies would be bound between two boards to compress the bone into shape before it took solid formation. Many children died from this, because of the pressure breaking the skull.
Mayan women liked to have a piece of amber in the center of the nose for jewelry. Teeth were filed sharp by older women using stones and water. They wore earrings by piercing their ears. Tattooing of the upper torso was common for women. Liquid amber they called iztahte was sweet smelling and used as a perfume. Unmarried girls usually wore plaits of two or four braids. The hair was long, black and beautiful. When traveling, the women wore a kind of wrap that was open at the sides and tied around the waist. It was the custom of the Mayan women not to look strange men in the eye, they cast their eyes down on the ground when passing, or turned their backs. Young girls were scolded and taught to behave, by pinching them on the ears and arms. Pepper would be rubbed into the eyes and the genitals. Mayan women were very jealous of their men, as it was the expected custom to show jealousy, even if they hated their husband. Besides taking care of the home fire and meals, the women would help in the fields during needy seasons. The villagers had various tame birds and deer and the women would weave cloth. It was not unknown for women to get drunk when they had their own gatherings.
873 YEARS AGO,(1,123 A.D.)
Soon the villages of Chetumal Bay would be free from Itza rule and control of the trade routes. The Yucatec may would be back in charge of their own destiny, he thought. His village ( Corozal was better than most and it would be good to get back to the old ways without these domineering braggarts and rulers pushing them around from far away. Maybe they could re-establish the trade routes south along the barrier reef islands and coast, that his great, great grandfather had told tales about before the Itza had come to the area and taken over. He would like to see those lands of mountains ten days paddle to the south that people talked about.
THE YEAR 1346 BY THE EUROPEAN RELIGIOUS
Slowly, she walked back to the small dugout canoe. There were five of them to paddle back up stream to their village and the way was long and hard. The river current would be against them and the trip should take two days. She knew the rest of the girls were impatient, because they needed to get past the flatlands of the coastal area before sunset arrived, otherwise insects, botlass flies, and night flying blood sucking bats would give them a very miserable night on the river. If they could get far enough up river to the first camp, they could expect food and shelter and there would be smoke to keep away the mosquitoes.
The men who guarded and escorted them were camped on neighboring islands and would see them leave and soon follow. This was a womans island and not for men.
AZTEC SPIES EXTEND THEIR NETWORK TO BELIZE IN 1487
He grinned a rueful smile, squared his shoulders and prepared to meet another bunch of uncouth primitive village farmers. The trade wind blew sweet, warm and fresh across the waters of Chetumal Bay from the east, blowing the smoke filtering from thatched houses along the sandy shoreline away inland.
It was a nice quiet place to live, he thought. A pity the water was not clear and blue like the coast. At least he would eat fish and shrimp tonight, he thought, that would be different from boring maize gruel.
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