Mysteries of the Mayans Continued

Unraveling the mystery of who the Maya were, how they lived--and why their civilization suddenly collapsed.

Overpopulation was another problem. On the basis of data collected from about 20 sites, Culbert estimates that there were as many as 200 people per sq km in the southern lowlands of Central America. Says Culbert: "This is an astonishingly high figure; it ranks up there with the most heavily populated parts of the pre-industrial world. And the north may have been even more densely populated."

One inevitable consequence of overpopulation and a disintegrating agricultural system would be malnutrition--and in fact, some researchers are beginning to find preliminary evidence of undernourishment in children's skeletons from the late Classic period. Given all the stresses on Maya society, says Culbert, what ultimately sent it over the edge "could have been something totally trivial--two bad hurricane seasons, say, or a crazy king. An enormously strained system like this could have been pushed over in a million ways."

What sorts of lessons can be drawn from the Maya collapse? Most experts point to the environmental messages. "The Maya were overpopulated and they overexploited their environment and millions of them died," says Culbert bluntly. "That knowledge isn't going to solve the modern world situation, but it's silly to ignore it and say it has nothing to do with us." National Geographic archaeologist George Stuart agrees. The most important message, he says, is "not to cut down the rain forest." But others are not so sure. Says Stephen Houston, a hieroglyphics expert from Vanderbilt University: "I think we should be careful of finding too many lessons in the Maya. They were a different society, and the glue that held them together was different."

Just how different the Maya were is clear from their everyday lives, on which archaeologists are increasingly focusing. From the contents of graves and burial caches, the architecture of ordinary houses, and scenes painted on pottery, Demarest and others are learning what an average Maya day was like.

The typical Maya family (averaging five to seven members, archaeologists guess) probably arose before dawn to a breakfast of hot chocolate--or, if they weren't rich enough, a thick, hot corn drink called atole--and tortillas or tamales. The house was usually a one-room hut built of interwoven poles covered with dried mud. Meals of corn, squash and beans, supplemented with the occasional turkey or rabbit, were probably eaten on the run.

During the growing season, men would spend most of the day in the fields, while women usually stayed closer to home, weaving or sewing and preparing food. At the end of the day the family would reconvene at home, where the head of the household might perform a quick bloodletting, the central act of piety, accompanied by prayers and chanting to the ancestors. Days that were not devoted to agriculture might be spent building pyramids and temples. In exchange for their toil, the people expected to attend royal marriages and ceremonies marking important astrological and calendrical events. At these occasions the king might perform a bloodletting, sacrifice a captive or preside over a ball game--the losers to be beheaded, or sometimes tied in a ball and bounced down the stone steps of a pyramid. Like modern-day hot-dog vendors, craftsmen and farmers might show up for these games to set up stands and barter for pots, cacao and beads.

The Maya also had a highly devel oped--and to modern eyes, highly bi zarre--aesthetic sense. "Slightly crossed eyes were held in great esteem," writes Yale anthropologist Michael Coe in his book The Maya. "Parents attempted to induce the condition by hanging small beads over the noses of their children." The Maya also seemed to go in for shaping their children's skulls: they liked to flatten them (although this may have simply been the inadvertent result of strapping babies to cradle boards) or squeeze them into a cone. Some Mayanists speculate that the conehead effect was the result of trying to approximate the shape of an ear of corn.

The Maya filed their teeth (it's unclear whether they used an anesthetic), sometimes into a T shape and sometimes to a point. They also inlaid their teeth with small, round plaques of jade or pyrite. According to Coe, young men painted themselves black until marriage and later engaged in ritual tattooing and scarring.

Information about the Maya has come not just from physical objects but also from the elaborate hieroglyphics they left behind. Indeed, the study of Maya writing has become a coequal--and sometimes competitive--path of inquiry. For some reason it has attracted more than its share of amateurs. In the early 1970s, "discoveries came at the pace of a raging prairie fire," writes Coe in his latest book, Breaking the Maya Code. Former University of South Alabama art teacher Linda Schele burst into the epigraphical world. On a 1970 visit to Mexico, she was mesmerized by the ruins at Palenque. Three years later, she was accomplished enough to collaborate with two others in a mind-boggling feat of decipherment: during a conference at modern Palenque, the trio took a mere 2 1/2 hours to decode the history of Palenque and its rulers from the beginning of the 7th century to its fall around the late 8th century--and got it right.

How was this possible? Because, say the professionals, deciphering glyphs depends as much on intuition and instinct as it does on knowledge of a given writing system. Insight can strike like lightning. Says Schele, now an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin: "These moments of clarity are just extraordinary. The greatest thrills of my career came in those moments when the inscription becomes clear and we suddenly understand the humans who created this legacy for the first time."

The Palenque decipherment work began an epigraphic revolution. Since then, the field has been blessed with a number of young, gifted epigraphers, including Stephen Houston, 34, and David Stuart, 28, who began his career as a child. The son of Maya archaeologists George and Gene Stuart, he made his first trip to Maya ruins at the age of three, and by 1984, at 18, was so skilled at deciphering glyphs that he became the youngest recipient ever of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Stuart's next project is nothing less than cataloging every known Maya inscription, a task he guesses could take him the rest of his life. "There is at least another century of work; it will go on long after I'm gone," he says.

Like most official records, glyphs undoubtedly contain a healthy dose of propaganda. Imagine, argues Richard Leven thal, director of UCLA's Institute of Archaeology, that you tried to understand the Gulf War by reading Saddam Hussein's pronouncements. Says Arlen Chase: "You get this real warped view of what Maya politics and Classic society look like if you just use epigraphy. It's important, but archaeology is the only way to test it." Observes Houston: "Of course it's propaganda, but to jump from that to a blanket dismissal is preposterous."

The argument over how to interpret Maya writing--along with arguments over just about every other aspect of Maya archaeology--won't be resolved anytime soon. New discoveries are constantly reinventing the conventional wisdom. At Ca racol, for example, the Chases have uncovered an unprecedented 74 relic-filled tombs; their location, in living areas, supports the idea of ancestor worship, and the number of burial chambers provides evidence, the Chases think, that the Maya had a large, prosperous "middle class."

In Dos Pilas, Arthur Demarest is turning his attention to garbage piles. "Those are the most important finds," he says, "not the tombs, because you find everything they ate, their tools--a real cross-section of life, in really good preservation." A colleague plans to study the chemical composition of ancient soil and pollen samples and exhumed human bones to learn more about the Maya diet, common diseases, agricultural practices and even what the climate was like.

As they excavate deeper into the Maya past, archaeologists and other scientists are still struggling to make sense of this legacy of triumph and self-destruction. And there usually comes a point when a Mayanist has to decide how to draw joyful inspiration from the culture's destiny. "It's a very rare thing for the past to be a source of deep-seated pessimism," says David Freidel, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University. So Freidel has come up with this way to think of the Maya: "When I see the past, what I see are not just the failures of human effort, of human imagination, but that unquenchable desire to make of life a meaningful thing."

Mayan Civilization
Mayan Cultural Survival
Where did the Maya Empire Go
Mystery of the Mayans
Mystery of the Mayans Continued

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