Mysteries of the Mayans

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

The crowd at the base of the enormous bloodred pyramid has been standing for hours in the dripping heat of the Guatemalan jungle. No one moves; every eye stays fixed on the building's summit, where the king, his head adorned with feathers, his scepter a two-headed crocodile, is about to emerge from a sacred chamber with instructions from his long-dead ancestors. The crowd sees nothing of his movements, but it knows the ritual: lifted into the next world by hallucinogenic drugs, the king will take an obsidian blade or the spine of a stingray, pierce his own penis, and then draw a rope through the wound, letting the blood drip onto bits of bark paper. Then he will take the bark and set it afire, and out of the rising smoke a vision of a serpent will appear to him.

When the king finally emerges, on the verge of collapse, he reaches under his loincloth, displays a bloodstained hand and announces the ancestors' message--the same message he has received so many times in the past: "Prepare to go to war." The crowd erupts in wild cheers. The bloodletting has barely begun.

Who were the Maya, the people who built and later abandoned these majestic pyramids scattered around Central America and who enacted these bizarre rites? The question has piqued scientists across a broad swath of disciplines ever since an American lawyer and explorer named John Lloyd Stephens stumbled across something strange in the Honduran jungle. In Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841), Stephens impressionistically described what was later identified as the ruined Maya city of Copan: "It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction."

More than 150 years later, the Maya seem less inscrutable than they did to Stephens, the man who discovered, or rediscovered, what they had left behind. Archaeologists have long known that the Maya, who flourished between about A.D. 250 and 900, perfected the most complex writing system in the hemisphere, mastered mathematics and astrological calendars of astonishing accuracy, and built massive pyramids all over Central America, from Yucatan to modern Honduras. But what researchers have now found among these haunting irruptions of architecture may be, among other things, reasons for admonishing today's world: at a time when tribal fratricide is destroying Bosnia and farmers are carving through the rain forest, the lessons yielded by the Maya have a disturbing resonance.

The latest discovery, announced just this week, underscores how quickly Maya archaeology is changing. Four new Maya sites have been uncovered in the jungle-clad mountains of southern Belize, in rough terrain that experts assumed the Maya would have shunned. Two of the sites have never been looted, which will provide researchers with a wealth of clues to the still largely unsolved puzzle of who the Maya were--and the mystery of how and why their civilization collapsed so catastrophically around the year 900. Of course, considerable mysteries persist and always will. "I wake up almost every morning thinking how little we know about the Maya," says George Stuart, an archaeologist with National Geographic. "What's preserved is less than 1% of what was there in a tropical climate."

Such limited and often puzzling physical evidence has not deterred growing legions of archaeologists, art historians, epigraphers, anthropologists, ethnohis torians, linguists and geologists from making annual treks to Maya sites. Propelled by a series of dramatic discoveries, Mayanism has been transformed over the past 30 years from an esoteric academic discipline into one of the hottest fields of scientific inquiry--and the pace of discovery is greater today than ever.

Among the already addicted, Mayamania is easy to explain. Says Arthur Dem arest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist who for the past four years has led a team of researchers unearthing the remains of Dos Pilas, a onetime Maya metropolis in northern Guatemala: "You've got lost cities in the jungle, secret inscriptions that only a few people can read, tombs with treasures in them, and then the mystery of why it all collapsed."

The explosion of information has led to a comparable explosion of theorizing about the Maya, along with inevitable, often vehement, disagreements over whose ideas are right. Nevertheless, a consensus has begun to emerge among Mayanists. Among the first myths about this population to be debunked is that they were a peaceful race. Experts now generally agree that warfare played a key role in Maya civilization. The rulers found reasons to use torture and human sacrifice throughout their culture, from religious celebrations to sporting events to building dedications. "This has come as something of a shock to many Mayanists," says Carlos Navarrete, a leading Mexican anthropologist.

Uncontrolled warfare was probably one of the main causes for the Maya's eventual downfall. In the centuries after 250--the start of what is called the Classic period of Maya civilization--the skirmishes that were common among competing city-states escalated into full-fledged, vicious wars that turned the proud cities into ghost towns.

Among the first modern Westerners to be captivated by the Maya were the American Stephens and English artist Frederick Catherwood, who started in 1839 to bushwhack their way into the Central American rain forest to gaze at the monumental ruins of Copan, Palenque, Uxmal and other Maya sites. The book Stephens wrote about his trek was an enormous popular success and sparked others to follow him and Catherwood into the jungle and into musty Spanish colonial archives. Over the next half-century, researchers uncovered, among other things, the Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Quiche Maya tribe) and the Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, an account of Maya culture during and immediately after the 16th century Spanish conquest written by the Roman Catholic bishop Diego de Landa. By the 1890s, Alfred Maudslay, an English explorer, was compiling the first comprehensive catalog of Maya buildings, monuments and inscriptions in the major known cities, and the first excavations were under way.

With all this data, 19th century scholars began trying to decipher the hieroglyphic script, reconstruct Maya history and figure out what caused the civilization to fall apart. In the absence of any historical context, though, speculation tended to run a little wild. Some ascribed the monumental buildings to survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis; others insisted they were the work of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, or the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Chinese, or even the Javanese.

The first half of the 20th century brought more excavations and more cataloging--but still only scratched the surface of what was to come. By 1950 the field was dominated by J. Eric Thompson and Sylvanus Morley of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Both are still revered as brilliant archaeologists, but some of their theories have been overturned by new evidence. Among their now outdated ideas: that the city centers of the Classic Maya were used primarily for ceremonial purposes, not for living; hieroglyphic texts described esoteric calendrical, astronomical and religious subjects but never recorded anything as mundane as rulers or historical events; slash-and-burn agriculture was the farming method of choice; and, of course, the Maya lived in blissful coexistence with one another.

Morley and Thompson presumed that certain practices of the ancient Maya could be deduced from those of their descendants. Modern scientists are more rigorous; besides, they have the advantage of sophisticated technology, like radiocarbon dating, which can help test their theories.

Near the Mexican border of Guatamala, in the Maya city of Dos Pilas and the surrounding Petexbatun region, Arthur Demarest's excavations have put him at the forefront of the revisionists. He divides the history of the region into two periods: before 761 and after. Before that year, he says, wars were well-orchestrated battles to seize dynastic power and procure royal captives for very public and ornate executions. But after 761, he notes, "wars led to wholesale destruction of property and people, reflecting a breakdown of social order comparable to modern Somalia." In that year the king and warriors of nearby Tamarindito and Arroyo de Piedra besieged Dos Pilas. Says Demarest: "They defeated the king of Dos Pilas and probably dragged him back to Tamarindito to sacrifice him." The reason for the abrupt change in the Maya's battleground behavior, he suspects, was that the ruling elite had grown large enough to produce intense rivalries among its members. Their ferocious competition, which exploded into civil war, may have been what finally triggered the society's breakdown. Similar breakdowns, he believes, happened in other areas as well.

Arlen and Diane Chase, archaeologists at the University of Central Florida, believe their work at Caracol, in present-day Belize, also shows that escalating warfare was largely responsible for that ancient city's abrupt extinction. Among the evidence they cite: burn marks on buildings, the uncharacteristically unburied body of a six-year-old child lying on the floor of a pyramid, and an increase in war imagery on late monuments and pottery. "Of course we found weapons too," says Arlen.

While many Mayanists agree that wars contributed to the collapse, no one thinks they were the whole story. Another factor was overexploitation of the rain-forest ecosystem, on which the Maya depended for food. University of Arizona archaeologist T. Patrick Culbert says pollen recovered from underground debris shows clearly that "there was almost no tropical forest left."

Water shortages might have played a role in the collapse as well: University of Cincinnati archaeologist Vernon Scarborough has found evidence of sophisticated reservoir systems in Tikal and other landlocked Maya cities (some of the settlements newly discovered this week also have reservoirs). Since those cities depended on stored rainfall during the four dry months of the year, they would have been extremely vulnerable to a prolonged drought.

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

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