Where did the Maya Empire Go

By GUY GARCIA PALENQUE--With reporting by Laura Lopez/San Cristobal de las Casas

A tour guide at the legendary ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, likes to tell the story. A tourist, after staring in awe at the towering pyramids, turned to the guide and said, "The buildings are beautiful, but where did all the people go?" "Of course, she was talking to a Maya," the guide says, shaking his head at the irony. "We're still here. We never left."

The exchange illustrates a living paradox at the heart of the Maya puzzle: even as scientists continue to investigate the mysterious eclipse of the classic Maya empire, the Maya themselves are all around them. An estimated 1.2 million Maya still live in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and nearly 5 million more are spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and the cities and rural farm communities of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Ethnically, they are derived from the same people who created the most exalted culture in Mesoamerica. Yet the thousands of visitors who come each year to admire the imposing temples of Palenque might be shocked to know the ignominious fate of the Maya's modern-day descendants.

Centuries of persecution and cultural isolation have turned the Maya into impoverished outcasts in their own land. At best, they are often reduced to tourist attractions; for a little money, Mexico's Lacandon Indians, for instance, will display their traditional white cotton shikur and long black hair. But condescension is the mildest of the abuses suffered by today's Maya. In a 1992 report on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Amnesty International cited dozens of human-rights violations carried out by Mexican authorities against the Maya people of Chiapas: they include an incident in 1990 when 11 Maya were tortured after being arrested during a land dispute, and another one two years ago when 100 Maya were beaten and imprisoned for 30 hours without food or medical attention. In Guatemala's 30-year-old civil war, it has been the Maya who have been the primary victims of the military's antiguerrilla campaigns in the highlands, which have left 140,000 Guatemalans dead or missing. In some cases, government troops have burned entire Maya villages.

The systematic subjugation of the Maya dates back to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century, when Catholic missionaries outlawed the Maya religion and burned all but four of their sacred bark-paper books. Indians who were not killed in battle or felled by European diseases were forced to work on colonial plantations, often as slaves. Bands of Maya rebels, known to be ferocious fighters, resisted pacification for almost 400 years, first under the Spanish occupation and then under the Mexican army after Mexico became independent.

Despite this history of defiance--or maybe, in some cases, because of it--the Maya continued to be targets of abuse even after being incorporated into the family of Central American nations. As recently as 20 years ago, Maya peasants carrying chickens or peanuts to the town market in San Cristobal de las Casas were in danger of having their wares snatched away by non-Indian women, or "Black Widows." And though the town's economy depended on trade with the Indians, Maya found walking the streets at night would be thrown into jail and fined.

Today, despite government decrees that guarantee equal rights for Indians and the new presidency in Guatemala of human-rights champion Ramiro de Leon Carpio, indigenous peoples like the Maya remain at the bottom rung of the political and economic ladder. In Chiapas, where the natives speak nine different languages, literacy rates are about 50%, compared with 88% for Mexico as a whole. Infant mortality among the Maya is 500 per 1,000 live births, 10 times as high as the national average. And 70% of the Indians in the countryside lack access to potable water.

In these sorry conditions, many Maya have seized on their old ways to make sense of their modern lives. In the remote highlands of Guatemala and Mexico, where the rugged terrain has held the outside world at bay, contemporary Maya still practice many of the same rituals that were performed by their ancestors 4,000 years ago. Maya weavers embroider their wares with diamond motifs that are virtually identical to the cosmological patterns depicted on the lintels of ancient temples at Yaxchilan and other Maya sites. By marking their clothing with the symbols of their ancestors, the Maya artisans build a material link to pre-Columbian gods--and the indelible spirit of their cultural past. "Depictions of everyday life do not occur in the weaving," notes Walter F. Morris Jr., a Seattle-based anthropologist and author of Living Maya. "It's always something supernatural, something dreamt, something you can only see in dreams."

Chiapas, Yaqui Indians follow two brothers who, guided by the spirit voices of macaws, retake the high country from the Hispanics who scorn and oppress them. In Alaska, a Yupik woman knows how to down airplanes by hexing television sets with a fox pelt. Near Tucson, two half-breed witches, elderly twin sisters, import cocaine to undermine the enemy and buy guns to store at their fortified ranch. Wherever it is shown, the white society is murderous, corrupt, mad with greed and hideously perverted. Among the white characters, and quite typical of the rest, are a federal judge who has sex with his basset hounds and a reptilian homosexual who steals the baby of a drug-soaked stripteaser for use in a torture video.

The ruling society has gone septic and sterile. Lecha, one of the twin witches, who can find lost objects and dead bodies, notices that "affluent, educated white people...sought [her] out in secret. They all had come to her with a deep sense that something had been lost...lottery tickets, worthless junk bonds or lost loved ones; but Lecha knew the loss was their connection with the earth." Later an Indian orator picks up the theme. Spirit voices direct white mothers "to pack the children in the car and drive off hundred-foot cliffs or into flooding rivers...The spirits whisper in the brains of loners, the crazed young white men with automatic rifles who slaughter crowds in shopping malls or school yards as casually as hunters shoot buffalo."

The author's sentences have a drive and a sting to them. But the receptacle of her crowded, raging, enormously long book swirls with half-digested revulsion, half-explained characters and, a white elitist must add, more than a little self-righteousness. The novel's long first half is a dull headache, because most of the dozen or more narrators, none of whom knows what is going on, are drunk, doped or crazy.

Yet angry prophets can't be expected to write neat, button-down denunciations. Old Indian legends, the author relates, say that after a very long time, the cruel and greedy white conquerors will weaken and vanish. Her intention is to bring readers to the point at which this is about to happen, and her success is far more troubling than her failure.

Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, are not threatened by native Lacandon practices but by the more commercial agricultural practices of encroaching peasants, according to James Nations of Conservation International in Washington. Many indigenous farmers in Asia and South America manage to stay on one patch of land for as long as 50 years. As nutrients slowly disappear from the soil, the farmers keep switching to hardier crops and thus do not have to clear an adjacent stretch of forest.

Westerners have also come to value traditional farmers for the rich variety of crops they produce. By cultivating numerous strains of corn, legumes, grains and other foods, they are ensuring that botanists have a vast genetic reservoir from which to breed future varieties. The genetic health of the world's potatoes, for example, depends on Quechua Indians, who cultivate more than 50 diverse strains in the high plateau country around the Andes mountains in South America. If these natives switched to modern crops, the global potato industry would lose a crucial line of defense against the threat of insects and disease.

Anthropologists studying agricultural and other traditions have been surprised to find that people sometimes retain valuable knowledge long after they have dropped the outward trappings of tribal culture. In one community in Peru studied by Christine Padoch of the Institute of Economic Botany, peasants employed all manner of traditional growing techniques, though they were generations removed from tribal life. Padoch observed almost as many combinations of crops and techniques as there were households. Similarly, a study of citified Aboriginal children in Australia revealed that they had far more knowledge about the species and habits of birds than did white children in the same neighborhood. Somehow their parents had passed along this knowledge, despite their removal from their native lands. Still, the amount of information in jeopardy dwarfs that being handed down.

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

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