Ancient History & Civilisation


Lines drawn from Chichén-Itzá, in northern Yucatán, south to Copán in Honduras, and from Tikál and Ixkún, in Guatemala, west to Palenque in Chiapas, bound the area covered by the Mayan culture. It was this territory that the Englishman Alfred Percival Maudslay explored between 1881 and 1894, some forty years after Stephens.

Maudslay accomplished more than Stephens. His function was to pave the way for a program of exploration systematically pursued. In the course of seven expeditions into the jungle he gathered a vast amount of data. He brought out many drawings of Mayan architecture, original pieces of sculpture, and many expert plaster-of-paris castings and paper stereotypes of reliefs and inscriptions. His collection went to England, and was eventually moved from the Victoria and Albert Museum into the British Museum. Once the Maudslay Collection became available for general study, scholars enjoyed the advantage of having a variety of original material to work with in determining cultural age and origin.

This phase of Middle American archæology brings us back to the manuscript entitled Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, written in 1566 by Diego de Landa (1524–79), Bishop of Yucatán, and discovered in the Royal Library of Madrid in 1863. The bishop must have been a man in whom religious and intellectual impulses conflicted. The zealot in him won out. Diego de Landa, faithfully playing his part as man of God, had all Mayan documents within his reach collected and burned as the devil’s work. But the other Diego de Landa could not resist the temptation of cultivating the acquaintance of one of the surviving Mayan princes and recording the strange tales he and others had heard of Mayan gods and battles. Nnot only did Diego de Landa act as amanuensis for the Mayan Scheherazade; he also made sketches of the hieroglyphs used to designate the days and months.

Mayan hieroglyphics of months of the year.

Interesting enough, one might say, but what particular value did such information have? Thanks to these few sketches from the hand of Diego de Landa, the weird hieroglyphic ornamentation of the Mayan monuments suddenly acquired life and meaning for archæologists of later generations.

With Bishop de Landa’s drawings as reference material, and armed with the newly won understanding of Mayan hieroglyphics to which these drawings had already signally contributed, the archæologists stood before temple, stairway, column, and frieze and saw:

That everywhere in this Mayan art, in buildings that had been raised tier on tier in the jungle without the aid of draft animals or carts, in sculptures executed in stone with stone tools, there was not a single ornament or relief, animal frieze or sculptured figure, that was not directly related to some specific date. Every piece of Mayan construction was part of a great calendar in stone. There was no such thing as random arrangement; the Mayan æsthetic had a mathematical basis. Apparently meaningless repetitions and abrupt breaks in the conformation of the gruesome stone visages were, it appeared, occasioned by the need for expressing a certain number or some particular calendrical intercalation. When the ornamentation on the ramp of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán was repeated some fifteen times, this was in order to express that number of elapsed leap years. The seventy-five steps in the stairway, it was discovered, stood for that number of elapsed intercalary days. This calendrical correlation of Mayan art and architecture was unique. And as research pried ever more deeply into calendrical mysteries—scholars dedicated whole lifetimes to the Mayan calendar alone—a further surprise was in store: the Mayan calendar was the best in the world.

It was differently constructed from any calendar familiar to us; and at the same time it was more accurate. Leaving out of account various fine points that even today are far from being explained, the structure of the Mayan calendar is roughly as follows. It consists of a series of twenty different day-glyphs, or pictographs, to which may be prefixed any of the numbers 1 to 13. The numbers and day-names together provide for a series of 260 in the tzolkin, or count of days (in Aztec, tonolamatl). This tzolkin is the sacred, as distinguished from the true, calendar year. The true calendar year—that is, the one corresponding to solar movements—is made up of 18 months, each with its glyph, and each consisting of 20 days, pieced out with a 19th month, this one of 5 days. In Mayan this calendrical year of 365 days is called the haab. The enmeshment of sacred year and calendar year—that is, of tzolkin and haab—yields what has been called in English the calendar round. This calendar round is the period required for the coincidence of a particular date in one system and a particular date in the other system to recur. This period covers 18,980 days, or 52 years of 365 days each. The calendar round, as we shall see, was of critical importance in Mayan life. Finally, the Mayas also used an “initial series,” or long-count, calendrical system, based on a date arbitrarily selected as a calendrical point of departure. The starting point of Mayan chronology was “4 Ahau, 8 Cumhu,” which corresponds, if we dare venture a cautious comparison, with our own way of using the base date of the birth of Jesus Christ. It must always be borne in mind that the similarity here is purely functional and does not imply correspondence in time.

Mayan hieroglyphics for days.

By means of these interlocking systems of reckoning time, methods so complicated and highly developed that their detailed description would require a whole book in itself, the Mayas achieved greater calendrical precision by far than any other people in the world. It is a mistake to assume that our own calendar, the one in common use today, is the best possible solution for keeping track of time. All that can be said for it is that it represents an improvement over its lineal predecessors. In the year 238 B.C., Ptolemy III corrected the old Egyptian time count; Julius Cæsar adopted the corrected system, which until 1582 was known as the Julian calendar; after which it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, the further correction of Pope Gregory XIII. If we compare the length of a year in these various calendars with an absolute year as sidereally determined, we see that the Mayan calendar offers the best approximation. For the year according to the

Julian calendar is

365.250,000 days

Gregorian calendar is

365.242,500 days

Mayan calendar is

365.242,129 days

Sidereal reckoning is

365.242,198 days.

And yet the Mayan people, though able to make quite exact astronomical observations and handle a fairly complex mathematics, in other respects were in thrall to the worst form of mysticism. Having produced the world’s best calendar, these otherwise rationalistic Mayas became its slaves.

Three generations of archæologists have labored to unravel the mysteries of the Mayan calendrical systems. This effort dates back to the first attempts to explain de Landa’s material on the Mayas. Initial successes were achieved by using the Maudslay collection, and the work continues into the present. Many names are prominently identified with the translation of the Mayan hieroglyphs, including those of calendrical import. Among these names are those of E. W. Förstemann, a Germanist to the core, who was the first to write a commentary on the Codex Dresdensis; and Eduard Seler, at one time a teacher, later head of the Berlin Völkerkunde Museum, whose Abhandlungen, or Treatises, is one of the richest sources of Mayan and Aztec material. Other important figures in the field of Middle American archæology and cryptology are E. H. Thompson, F. T. Goodman, Franz Boas, P. Preuss, Oliver G. Ricketson, Jr., Walter Lehmann, Charles P. Bowditch, and Sylvanus Griswold Morley, Alberto Ruz, and William Coe. Yet any selection of names is bound to slight the memory of countless others who also ventured into the jungle to copy inscriptions or who labored in their studies deciphering and impressing order on loose detail. The science of American cultures is a cooperative achievement. The supremely difficult step from calendar to chronology was accomplished by a community of effort.

Mayan hieroglyphics for numbers of the Mayan vigesimal system.

The calendrical lore of the Mayas was more than an end in itself. It had social utility, and it served an æsthetic purpose. The hideous faces that were the hieroglyphic signs for the names of the month, day, and period were scattered everywhere on the façades, columns, friezes, and stairway ramps of temple and palace. Every building, as it were, had its birth-date stamped on its forehead. The archæologists had to understand these hieroglyphs in order to group Mayan works in proper chronological order and define stylistic changes from group to group—in short, in order to reconstruct Mayan history.

Reconstruct what history?

The history, to be sure, of the Mayan people. The answer appears to be self-evident, and yet the question is not quite so pedantic as might appear at first sight. For all the data at the archæologists’ disposal lay within the Mayan historical frame and no other. Mayan dates, in other words, showed no correlation whatsoever with our own reckoning of time. In view of this, it was no easy matter to reconstruct a true history of the Mayas, since history unrelated to other history is meaningless.

Archæology was faced with a problem unknown in Old World cultures in such difficult form. To make the essential difficulty easier to understand, let us imagine a European analogy to the Mayan situation. Let us assume England had never been historically linked with the Continent, and that English calendrical reckoning was not based on the birth of Christ, but on some unknown arbitrary point. Everything in English chronological records is dated in terms of this unknown point of temporal reference. Then Continental historians suddenly discover England. They clearly recognize the historical relationship between Richard the Lion-hearted and Queen Victoria. Lacking a fixed point of reference common to both Continental and English reckoning of time, however, they still have no idea whether Richard the Lion-hearted was a contemporary of Charlemagne, or Queen Victoria of Lucrezia Borgia.

This analogy exactly sums up the Mayan problem. In fairly short order the archæologists were able to tell, for example, how many years older the buildings of Copán were than those of Quiriguá. But as for determining in which century according to Christian reckoning these two cities were built, they were completely lost.

Clearly the next task was to establish a correlation between the Mayan chronology and our own. But as progress was made in this direction, increasingly precise datings brought another problem to light, this entailing one of the most mysterious happenings in the history of a great people—the mystery of the abandoned cities.

During the past century the Books of Chilám Balám were found in various places in Yucatán. These books were Mayan chronicles from the post-conquistador period, colorful and filled with stories of political intrigue, and valuable in that they derived, at least in part, from much earlier Mayan documents.

The most important manuscript in this collection was found in the 1860’s at Chumayel, and came into the hands of Bishop Crescencio Carillo y Ancona, the historian. Later the University of Pennsylvania issued a photostat of the manuscript. Upon the bishop’s death the manuscript landed in the Cepeda Library, in Mérida. And there, in 1916, it vanished without a trace. Quite apart from its checkered career—it was, of course, still preserved in photostat—the book was a curiosity. It was written in the Mayan language as transposed, under Spanish influence, into Latin script. But unfortunately the Mayan priests, when they used Latin letters to express Mayan sounds, had paid no attention to Latin punctuation and word division. Some of the Mayan words were broken up, others were fused together, minus the proper affixes or suffixes, into monster words. Again, certain Mayan sounds that had no analogues in Spanish had been represented by arbitrary combinations of Latin letters whose exact phonetic value had been lost. The decipherment of the Books of Chilám Balám, it is plain, was an arduous task, additionally complicated by the cabalistic nature of much of the content.

The discovery of these books, however much appreciated in view of the paucity of correlative material, occasioned further difficulties when it was found that a method of reckoning time was used in them that had been quite unknown in the old Mayan kingdom. This was the “count of the katuns,” called by students of Mayan the “short count,” in contradistinction to the “initial series,” or “long count.” Although research rather quickly established the fact that the “count of the katuns” was merely a simplification of the “long count,” it was obvious that a correlation would have to be worked out not only between the “long count” and Christian chronology, but also between both and the “count of the katuns.”

This distasteful prospect was mitigated, to some degree, however, by the gradual realization that the labor of achieving a three-way correlation yielded a great deal of information on the last period of Mayan history. Slowly a picture took shape, came to life, and became actually datable. Whereas previously everything that we had known about the old Mayas had been alien and remote, frozen in architectural monuments, at least this last piece of history was like any other—that is, a succession of raids, wars, betrayals, and revolutions. In other words, it was typically human.

We hear about the families of Xiu and Itzá, who warred to see who would have dominion over the common people. In the Books of Chilám Balám we learn about the splendors of Chichén-Itzá, the metropolis, and about its public buildings, which, when compared as to size and style with those of the older cities of southern Yucatán, show a strangely alien influence. We learn, too, about Uxmal, where the buildings have a monumental simplicity characteristic of what may be called the Mayan architectural renaissance (seePlate XXVIII), and of Mayapan, in which both early and late styles were found. We are told of a league of cities, comprising Mayapan, Chichén-Itzá, and Uxmal, called the League of Mayapan, which was betrayed into ruin. The armies of Chichén-Itzá assembled to do battle against the forces of Mayapan. The leader of the army of Mayapan, Hunac Ceel, or Ah Nacxit Kukulcan, as he is less commonly known, made use of Toltec mercenaries from Mexican garrisons kept at Xicalanco. Chichén-Itzá was conquered. Its princes were brought to the court of Mayapan as hostages and later set up as vice-regents. But the driving force of the League meanwhile had been permanently weakened. In 1441 there was an uprising of the oppressed elements, led by the Xiu Dynasty of Uxmal. Mayapan was taken, and the League completely collapsed, and with it the kingdom of the Mayas. The Xius, however, founded another city, called Mani, which meant “it is passed” in the Mayan language. When the Spaniards arrived, Mani fell more easily than Mexico City had fallen to Cortés.

These new insights into the Mayan past—that is, into the New Empire phase of Mayan history—greatly stimulated research. We must not imagine, however, that the results gained from the Books of Chilám Balám unfolded in an orderly, chronological fashion. A great deal of labor had to be expended before the historical events could be arranged in their actual relationship according to thesis and antithesis. Brooding over the Books of Chilám Balám, the archæologist made use of some odd fact brought to light by a colleague’s excavations thirty years before, tied in this fact with another discovered ten years before by an expert in the Mayan language, and correlated the two facts with results gained by some calendrical hieroglyphist. Never in actual research did revelations of this lost culture proceed in an orderly, step-by-step fashion. Rather the picture was gradually filled in by supplying details here and there according to archæological circumstance.

It was in a piecemeal manner, then, that the total picture of this unique cultural interlude achieved its ultimate richness. But even today Mayan history remains to be explained with a clarity beyond challenge.

The term “New Empire,” as opposed to “Old Empire,” has just been used, and here I have anticipated a little. But now that we have learned a little about Mayapan, Chichén-Itzá, and Uxmal, the most important cities of the New Empire, I shall take the liberty of playing a little question-and-answer game with the authorities on Mayan chronology.

Why do you call these settlements in northern Yucatán the “New Empire”?

They reply: Because these settlements were founded very late in Mayan history, some time between the seventh and tenth centuries; and because this New Empire in all its typical modes of expression—in architecture, sculpture, and calendrical reckoning—is clearly differentiated from the Old Empire.

But what do “settlements” mean in this case? Normally a new imperial form grows out of an older form, does it not?

They reply: This case departs from the norm in so far as the New Empire was actually settled in virgin jungle territory. That is, absolutely new cities were established. The Old Empire was located in the southern part of the Yucatán peninsula, in present-day Honduras, Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco.

Then are we to understand that the New Empire was colonized by pioneers from the Old Empire?

They reply: No, not at all. The whole Mayan people had a hand in building the New Empire.

Do you mean to say that one day the whole Mayan people abandoned its nicely arranged empire, including all its solidly established cities, and built a new empire in the north, in the midst of virgin jungle?

And the archæologists smile this time as they reply: That is exactly what we mean. We realize that it sounds improbable, but none the less it is a fact. For example …

Now they present us with a series of dates. And we must remember, in this connection, that the Mayas had developed the world’s best calendar and become slaves of their time-reckoning system. The Mayas, in brief, did not raise their great structures solely for reasons of utility or art, but in part because their calendar itself dictated the construction. Every five, ten, or twenty years they erected a new edifice, which they supplied with an appropriate birth-date. Often they built another pyramid around one already standing if a new intercalation had to be memorialized. They did this for hundreds of years with impeccable regularity, as shown by the dates chiseled into the stone. Only during times of catastrophe or migration was this calendrically governed activity interrupted.

Accordingly, when we see building activity in one city broken off at a definite date, to be resumed at approximately the same date in another city, the only possible inference is that the population of the first city suddenly quit the place and settled elsewhere.

A local event of this sort, although it may raise a whole series of difficult questions, at any rate can be explained. About A.D. 610, however, something happened in the Mayan kingdom that seems to defy reasonable interpretation. For at this time a whole people, city-dwellers, packed up and abandoned their comfortable homes, their familiar streets and squares, their temples, and palaces, and migrated into the wild country farther to the north. Not a single one of these pilgrims ever returned. The forsaken cities crumbled, the jungle crept into the streets, plants grew over stairs and sills, forest seeds sprouted in the cracks of the masonry in wind-packed bits of earth, and the vines, as they grew larger, split apart the stone blocks. No man ever again trod the courtyard pavement or climbed the pyramid steps.

Suppose a modern nation like the French, let us say, with a thousand years of history behind it, suddenly moved in a body to Morocco: one must imagine the people streaming en masse out of Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyons, Nantes, taking to the long, weary road, finally reaching the distant coastland—only to set to work putting up replicas of their abandoned cities, with the cathedrals and palaces, in their new home. We would surely find such behavior extremely puzzling. When the historical fact of its occurrence among the Mayas was established, explanations came thick and fast. The most natural one was to assume that invaders had driven out the Mayas. But who could these invaders have been? The Mayas were at the peak of their social development and were militarily superior to any of their neighbors. This explanation is also inadequate on another ground. There is not a trace of foreign intrusion in the abandoned cities.

Was the migration caused by some natural catastrophe? But here again we must ask where are the marks that it surely would have left, and moreover, what kind of catastrophe it could have been that would have made a whole people set to work building a newkingdom instead of returning home once the danger had passed.

Could there have been a severe epidemic? There is no indication that the Mayan population suffered any heavy losses before the exodus began; on the contrary, the people who built up such new cities as Chichén-Itzá were extremely numerous.

Did the climate, perhaps, suddenly change, making further existence impossible? No, the distance as the crow flies between the center of the Old Empire and the center of the New Empire was only 240 miles. Any climatic change—and there are in any case no vestigial signs of such an event—drastic enough to bring about the complete collapse of a whole society would surely have also been effective 240 miles away.

What other explanations are there left?

The right answer, it would appear, has been found only in recent years. It must have more cogency than any other, in view of the fact that more and more archæologists are acknowledging its pertinence. The theory was formulated by Sylvanus Griswold Morley, an American, and by him impressively defended. To get at the roots of this interpretation we must take a look at the history and social structure of the Mayan people.

We shall assume, for synoptic expediency, and also because the actual dates suggest a division of this sort, that the so-called Old Empire of the Mayas consisted of three temporal segments.


The Old Empire, according to correspondences assumed by S. G. Morley between Mayan building dates and Christian dates, lasted from some undatable time to A.D. 610. (See the Mayan chronology for other interpretations.)

THE EARLY PERIOD is undated until A.D. 374. The oldest city appears to be Uaxactún (none older has been found), which lies on the northern border of present-day Guatemala. Tikál and Naranjo arose not far from Uaxactún. Meanwhile, in present-day Honduras, Copán was founded, later Piedras Négras on the Usumacinta River.

THE MIDDLE PERIOD lasted from A.D. 374 to A.D. 472. During this century Palenque was founded. This city lay on the boundary between Chiapas and Tabasco, and also on the temporal boundary, so to speak, between the Early and Middle Periods. Often it has been identified with the Early Period. Later Menché was built in Chiapas, and finally Quiriguá in Guatemala.

THE GREAT PERIOD lasted from A.D. 472 to A.D. 610. During these years the cities of Seibal, Ixkún, Flores, and Benque Viejo were constructed. At the end of the Great Period the exodus began.

If we examine the geographical area where the cities of the Old Empire were settled, we see that it forms a triangle, the three points of which are Uaxactún, Palenque, and Copán. We see, too, that the cities of Tikál, Naranjo, and Piedras Négras lie either along the sides of or just within the triangle. And now we see that the cities that were founded last, and that had the shortest lives (with the single exception of Benque Viejo) all lie well inside the triangle, these cities being Seibal, Ixkún, and Flores.

These locations bring to light one of the most amazing historical phenomena on record. The Mayas may be the only people in the world whose kingdom, or living space, developed centripetally rather than centrifugally.

The Mayan complex was an imperialism growing toward its own center, a process of growth beginning with the limbs and ending at the heart. For actual growth and expansion were involved. The Empire was not compressed by foreign powers, as there was no political power superior to the Mayas. The process reversed all logic and historical experience, and this without the action of outside forces.

The Mayas were an urban people in the limited sense that all European peoples have been town dwellers for the past five hundred years. In essence, all sovereignty, all culture, all spiritual activity, and all good breeding have come out of the towns. Yet the cities, Mayan or European, would not have been viable without the farmers to support them with the fruits of the land, and especially with a staple grain supply, which in the case of the Mayas meant Indian corn, or maize. Maize provided nourishment for the ruling classes in the Mayan cities. The whole culture was kept alive by this wonderful grain. Maize-growing even created the cleared spaces where the Mayan culture was deployed, for the cities were built on land that had been burned off to make cornfields.

But the Mayan social structure was fraught with harsher contrasts than any we know of, despite the seeming leveling tendency of urban dependence on agriculture. A good idea of the Mayan social pattern can be gained by comparing a Mayan city with one in modern Europe. The modern city is a structure in which the social contrasts, to considerable degree, are not visible to outward view. And though there are striking peripheral contrasts, these are softened by a dozen intermediary stages and by innumerable interrelationships and transitions linking the harsh contrasting situations. Extremes of social status in a Mayan city, on the other hand, stand out vividly. The palaces of the nobility and the temples of the priests were built mostly on high ground, and formed enclosed areas of almost fortresslike character. In fact, they must have often been used for military purposes. About the stone city were clustered the thatched wooden huts of the common people. There were no intermediate social estates. The Mayas were divided into a steadily dwindling ruling class and a correspondingly increasing mass of ruled.

The gap separating the two classes was almost inconceivably great. A median bourgeois class appears to have been completely absent from the Mayan pattern. The nobility was extremely exclusive. The nobles called themselves the almehenob—that is, “those who have fathers and mothers,” meaning those who could boast of a genealogy. This noble class included the halac uinicil, or independent native Mayan rulers or hereditary princes. The words halac uinicil mean “the true man,” “the real thing.” The priesthood was also part of the ruling class, and its members were recruited from the nobility. The common folk labored for the few “who had fathers and mothers.” The farmer gave a third of his harvest to the nobility, a third to the priest, and kept only the other third for himself. (It will be recalled in this connection that the medieval tenth, or tithe, was felt to be an intolerably excessive tribute and ultimately led to social revolution.) Between sowing and harvest the farmer appeared with all his slaves to engage in building-construction. The blocks of stone were hauled to the site without use of carts or draft animals. The wonderful sculpture and reliefs were chiseled with nothing but stone implements; iron, copper, and bronze were not yet used. Yet the results attained by these Mayan craftsmen were not inferior to those achieved by the Egyptian pyramid builders; indeed, they may have been superior.

A social organization of such oppressive inspiration—the tyrannical arrangement apparently did not change for a full thousand years—carries within itself the seeds of decline. Of necessity the high culture and superior knowledge of the priesthood became increasingly esoteric. No leavening came into the ruling class from below; there was no exchange of experience. The keen minds of the Mayan savants were preoccupied ever more exclusively with the stars. The priests forgot to lower their eyes to the farm lands from which, over the long run, they drew their strength. The Mayan leaders neglected to invent means of averting impending social catastrophe. Despite their impressive technical and artistic achievements, the Mayas were unable to invent the most important, yet one of the simplest, of artifacts: the plow. This default can be explained only by the incredible intellectual arrogance of the nobles and the priesthood.

Throughout their whole history, agriculture among the Mayas remained on a level of unexampled primitivity. The system, still practiced in much the same form today, is known as milpa agriculture. The jungle trees and bush are cut down, allowed to dry out, then burned shortly before the onset of the rainy season. The corn is planted with the use of pointed planting sticks, several seeds being dropped in each hole. After the fields are worn out, the farmer moves to another clearing. No fertilizer is used except the natural manures available near settled places, and worn-out land must remain fallow for a long time before it can be replanted.

And now we approach what may be the real reason why the Mayas were forced to abandon their cities after such short stays.

The available land supply simply became exhausted. The fallow period needed for a field to become once more overgrown with trees and bushes, after which it could be recleared by burning, steadily increased. A necessary consequence was that the Mayan farmer had to go farther and farther into the jungle to find suitable woodland to clear for cultivation, and so farther and farther away from the cities it was his duty to nourish, which could not live without him. A wide belt of burned and worn-out steppe appeared between the arable farm lands and the cities. The great culture of the Old Empire of the Mayas collapsed as the agricultural fundament slowly proved inadequate. Though it is possible to have culture without techniques, there are no viable cultures without the plow. The pangs of hunger finally drove the Mayas to migrate, after the cities were completely surrounded and ultimately linked together by areas of dry, grassy steppe.

And so the people departed, leaving cities and ruined land behind. While the New Empire was gradually taking shape in the north, the jungle slowly crept into the forsaken temples and palaces. Fallow wasteland again became forest, and green things grew over the buildings, hiding them from view for a thousand years. Such may well be the explanation of the mystery of the abandoned cities.

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