History Of Mesoamerica & The Ancient Maya - 07/13/15 10:58 AM
The Maya did not evolve in isolation. They made up one of the cultures of mesoamerica. Their neighbours were people like the Zapoteca, Huaxteca, Tolteca, Tlaxcalans, Mexica (Aztecs) – these peoples were all contemporary with the ancient Maya.
The Teotihuacanos were one of the first civilisations. The Olmec civilisation who lived in the Gulf Coast of Mexico had organised civilisation which began about 1500BC to about 600BC, then they were absorbed as a culture into the larger culture that Mesoamericans will pursue after 600BC.
It is wise to state the chronology of Mesoamerica here:
10,000BC – 7000BC The Paleo-Indian Period
7,000BC – 2,000BC Archaic Period
2,000BC – 300AD Pre-classic (Formative Period)
300AD – 900AD Classic Period
900AD – 1,500AD Post Classic Period
1,500AD – Present Historical Period
The Maya, lived within this vast land which is mesoamerican in simple, quiet village life in places like El Baul for example.
Between 900 and 300 BC, there is great trade going on within groups in the mesoamerican area. Scholars have deciphered that between 300BC and 300AD is when the Maya civilisation develops most of their sophistication – at least about the birth of Christ.
Certainly, all the information we know today about these great people was not originally shared by scholars. In fact, we think it is important to make a note of the history of the research of the ancient Maya. We add this below:
Spanish Travellers: (1520-1759)
Spanish Explorers: (1760-1840)
Major Scholars: (1920-1970)
Problem Oriented Period: (1970-Present)
Later in the writing, we will come back to the table above and go into detail for the dates applied. What we certainly want to share, because like us, the earliest people wanted to know the origins of these people who were claiming that their ancestors were the ones to build the buildings these explorers were consistently finding in one of the most unforgiven jungles in the world. We will now add a list of ideas that people were suggesting to have been the origin of the ancient Maya civilisation:
- Lost Tribes of Israel
- Aliens (Yes, from outer space – diffusionists/hyperdiffusionist theories)
- Native (In situ, Local)
Dr. Paul Kirchoff.
The term mesoamerica was first coined by anthropologist Paul Kirchoff. In 1943 anthropologists attempted to differentiate culture areas – cultures that shared characteristics that were found in the middle part of the America’s. These characteristics were monumental architecture and other important developments such as:
Knowledge of Astronomy
Reliance on corn, bean, squash
THE HISTORY OF RESEARCH
The Spanish Travellers:
This is the period that will eventually lead to the conquest of the Maya. As we have probably heard or read somewhere in history, Christopher Columbus made 4 voyages to the America’s. On his 4th voyage he came to the Bay of Honduras (The area toward the southern end of Belize where it meets with Guatemala and Honduras). he claimed he met some people (Maya) on some dugout canoes – large enough for 25 men and cargo.
By 1520, several events began to happen with the earliest travellers and the ancient Maya:
- Shipwrecked Spanish swept to coast of Northern Belize and Southern Mexico
- The Maya started to sacrifice them except 2 of them
- The two who were Guerrero and Aguilar who were adopted by the Maya
- Guerrero marries the daughter of Nachan Kan, who was the ruler of Chactemal (Santa Rita ancient Maya City today)
- At the same time deeper in the heart of Mexico, one Valdivia convinces Hernan Cortez to mount an expedition – they subsequently march into the ancient city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico city)
Elsewhere in Mexico, a Spanish priest Fray Antonio Bienvenida became one of the first to visit Tihoo, which is todays Merida in the Yucatan. Fray Bienvenida, absolutely impressed with what he witnessed. He wrote to Spain – “…there are fine buildings here built before the birth of Christ”, certainly, he was wrong because the buildings the ancient Maya had built there were built after the birth of Christ.
Another Bishop arrives in 1549. The world will soon never forget him. Bishop Diego de Landa becomes the new bishop of the diocese of Merida. In 1562 he decides to have an event which in history was called ‘Auto Da Fe’ in Mani a city in Merida. This is when he destroyed the ancient Maya idols and all their books.
Bishop Diego De Landa
Of the tragic misdeeds this particular bishop organised and oversaw, one thing he decided to do which, even though wrong, helped us understand the Maya writing was, attempting to work on the Maya alphabet. He also wrote a book he called, Las Relaciones De Las Cosas De Yucatan between 1562-1563. This book was not found until 1863.
THE HISTORY OF RESEARCH
The Spanish Explorers
King Charles lll, Picture Credit: thedreaemstress.com
Towards the end of the colonial period, Charles lll became king of Spain. His interest was getting to know more about native cultures in Central America and Mexico. Certainly the Spanish were bringing back to his motherland great wealth in the natural resources they were taking from the indigenous of America. He commissioned one Ordonez to fins out some more of the cultures. Ordonez visited Palenque. He was in such disbelief of the wonders of its architecture that he made certain he told the king that it was the Romans who had to have built that city! King Charles was amazed at that news. To reconfirm that, he sent another person, Antonio Del Rio to Palenque but unfortunately for Del Rio, he was hijacked by the British and his commentary never reached King Charles lll.
The next thing we know is that Jean Frederick Waldeck publishes this Del Rio report in England. How interesting isn’t it?
The Major Scholars
Soon after Spain’s colonies started to get their independence, John Lloyd Stephens, an American from Boston, Massachusetts travelled to the Middle East where he met a gentleman by the name of Frederick Catherwood, an artist. They both travelled to Belize City then to Honduras where they visited Copan. Stephens fell so much in love with that ancient City that he bought it for USD$50.00!!! Not long after Stephens publishes his first volume of Incidence Of Travels In Central America.
Frederick Catherwood. Picture Credit: www.famousbirthdays.com
John Lloyd Stephens. Picture Credit: www.antarticaedu.com
John Lloyd Stevens spends some time in Chiapas and in the Yucatan. It is important to note that John Lloyd Stevens is the first non-cleric to suggest that the ancient Maya glyphs and carvings were the actual writing by the people that lived there.
Charles Etienne De Bourbourg. Photo Credit: www.doyenne-ldo.fr
Charles Etienne Brassieur De Bourbourg came to America and in Merida he discovered Fray Diego De Landa’s Relaciones. Apart from this great informative work he also discovered the Madrid Codex and the Rabinal Achi – the first piece of Maya drama.
The Madrid Codex. Photo Credit: www.lib.uci.edu
Fray Francisco Ximenez discovered the Popol Vuh (The Sacred book of the Quiche Maya) around 1800.
Some of the great scholars who have invested heavily on our learning of the ancient Maya are people like: Alfred Maudslay, Theobert Mahler, Edward Thompson, Desiree de Charnay, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Pollock, Berlin,
Alfred Maudslay in a palace room where he lived in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo Credit: history.com
The Institutional Period
The institutional period refers to the first time when universities become interested in the Maya area. For example, the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane university, The Peabody Museum. These universities and museums produced some of the first courses on the Maya. Teachers such as Alfred Kinner, Alfredo Caso, Cobarubias and J. Eric S. Thompson – who wrote more books than any one of his colleagues at the time. In addition, Gordon Wiley was another prolific writer on the Maya, he worked in the Cayo District, Belize at the Melhado site and Lubaantun, to name two sites.
THE ORGINS OF THE PEOPLE OF MESOAMERICA
Where in the world did these early Americans come from? This was the huge question Europeans attempted to answer. Certainly, it is human nature to want to know some answers to some questions like: Why are we here? What are we here for? Where are we going after this life? This is the kind of curiosity which drives all people to organise, culturally, their responses.
There are these two great land masses which have disappeared from the centre of the Pacific Ocean and the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. The people who inhabited these land masses were known as the Mu people from the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantean’s from Atlantis on the Atlantic Ocean. These two places have never been found.
Other people have suggested that the Phoenecians were the ones who brought civilisation to the America’s, however, there is no proof of this culture on the American continent.
There are other people, scholars included, who suggest that the Africans brought culture to the America’s. One of the most significant proof they have organised for the argument are the “elephants” found on friezes (art) on the walls of buildings, for example the ones at Chichen Itza, Yucatan Mexico. While this is intriguing, archaeologists have learned that the art pieces claimed to be elephants by some people are truly Chaac masks – the >Maya Rain god.
Another interesting origin of the Maya was Egypt. This argument has been organised via the pyramidical shapes of the ancient Maya temples and the pyramids of the Egyptian kings. Impressively, there is a major difference that has been discovered between Maya pyramids and Egyptian pyramids. The Maya kings used their pyramids during their life times and eventually, they were buried in the floors. The Egyptian pyramids were built for one purpose only – to bury their kings.
There are people who suggest that it was Jesus, the Christ who introduced civilisations to the Americans.
Eric von Daniken suggested that aliens came from outer space and interacted with humans. He believed that aliens were the creators of the beautiful architectural designs the ancient Maya had on their buildings. None more so convincing than the cover of King Pacal’s sarcophagus from the ancient city of Palenque in Chiapas Mexico.
The truth is, Native Americans developed their own culture. Whether you argue that the culture spread via diffusion (started at one place and from their spread to other places) or different places created their own cultural traits independent of other places, there is seemingly just not enough evidence of the origins of these mesoamericans to have evolved from the suggested origins mentioned earlier in this essay.
WHY DID THE MAYA DEVELOP CIVILISATION?
Theories As To Why The Maya Developed High Civilisation
What is most incredible about the ancient Maya is the fact that they did not evolve in isolation as a civilisation. There were other cultures next to them and around them. None developed such high civilisation as the Maya. This certainly was an incredible accomplishment.
There are 2 interesting ideas that we do not agree with in as far as what points to why the Maya developed such high culture. The first is the Hyper Diffusionist Theory. This theory suggests that an external culture came into America and help develop the Maya, such as the Phoenicians and/or the Egyptians. The second is Local Diffusion. This suggests that there was a mother culture in America (Cultura Madre), such as the Olmec, Zapotec or Teotihuacan cultures, from which the ancient Maya developed.
We believe that the ancient Maya developed their culture based on a combination of diverse factors or several things made them develop their culture the way they did.
The great scholar and Mayanist Dr. Robert Sharer suggests three important factors as to why this culture stood out in the American mainland. They are listed below:
- Ecological adaptations – mesoamerica is such an ecologically diverse area of the world that there was enough resources to fire up a fantastic economy. For example, salt and cotton in the Yucatan; granite on the Maya Mountains and Jade in the Motagua River Valley of Guatemala.
- There was unity of the elite subculture: The Maya elite shared requirements – they encouraged interaction and trade and they adopted all innovations learned through trade.
- With the rise of the population, first simplistic management arose then more sophisticated government became the way of life.
With all this organisation, amazingly, the ancient Maya achieved a few amazing scientific achievements such as: mathematics, astronomy, writing, monumental architecture, long distance trade, art, non-monumental architecture, a complex social and political system and an incredible religion and world-view system.
What was certain was that the Maya shared temporal and spatial diversity. They spoke many different languages and as mentioned before, the elite were unified.
They also shared a network where much interaction occurred. They were certainly not isolated and they were always at a juncture with other mesoamerican regions.
Later in the history, certainly from the 500’s AD there is evidence of conflicts between big and small cities. But for sure, by 800AD it would seem that the entire Maya area of mesoamerica was either at war or at least planning to go to war. The competition for resources and economic control certainly was one of the major ‘dominoes’ that toppled the entire civilisation.