Your guide to ancient Maya: from the writing system to the truth about ‘human sacrifice’
Professor Matthew Restall of Pennsylvania State University answers key questions on the ancient Maya civilisation
Is it correct to say Maya or Mayans? Or could we use either?
It's Maya; Mayan only applies to the language they speak. So, it’s the people of the Maya or the Mayas with an ‘s’, but they are not the Mayans.
Who were the Maya?
I love that question because it gives me a chance to rephrase the question. It must be ‘Who are the Maya?’ There are six or seven million Maya alive today, defined more or less as people who speak Mayan. Most are still in the Maya area, but there has been the Maya diaspora so many are in Mexico, the United States, parts of Central America, and Europe.
Alternatively, you could add a word to the question: ‘Who were the ancient (or pre-Colombian) Maya?’ Now we’re talking about the civilisation of the ancient Maya, which is usually what people mean.
The short answer is the Maya are an ethnic group who built a spectacular civilisation and have been around for thousands of years. In terms of area, their civilisation geographically comprises loosely of southern Mexico and northern Central America (all of modern-day Guatemala and Belize, much of Honduras, parts of El Salvador, and a big chunk of Mexico, including the Yucatan peninsula).
When was the start of the Maya civilisation?
Archaeologists debate and constantly change the date as they discover more about the early Maya. But we can agree, more or less, on somewhere around 1000 BC, when peoples developed a lifestyle and culture that we can start talking about as being Maya, and some of the other hallmarks of who the Maya were – like their calendar and hieroglyph writing system.
But that date tends to get pushed further and further back as archaeologists dig deeper, both literally and metaphorically.
What are some common misconceptions about the Maya civilisation?
I think the obvious one is that the Maya don't exist anymore, and not only that, but that they disappeared in some mysterious way. Another is that they were very violent.
Misconception 1: the Maya disappeared
Over the last hundred years or more, people have come up with increasingly outlandish explanations as to what happened to them. One is kind of fringe and crazy (but you'd be amazed at how much you can find it repeated): the Mayans were aliens, and the reason they were able to create spectacular cities and a beautiful writing system, and could understand the movement of the planets to create an advanced calendar and mathematics was because they'd come from outer space. What happened to them? Where did they go? They went back to the planet they came from. You can see the appeal of this theory. It does kind of wrap up all these questions in a nice, tidy bow.
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Misconception 2: the Maya was a violent society
Whether you have seen the Mel Gibson movie Apocalypto or not, you’re perhaps still going to have an impression – the same impression that many people have about the Aztecs – that they were very violent, and that their culture was oriented around what we love to call ‘human sacrifice’.
I have a real problem with the phrase 'human sacrifice'
I have a real problem with that phrase. This is where I will get into arguments with other historians, anthropologists and archaeologists. When people in early modern Britain or Spain were burned at the stake for political and religious reasons, we don't talk about that as human sacrifice. It’s only ritual political and religious executions by other peoples that we place in this ‘other’ exotic category.
The fact is: the Maya were no more violent than any other civilisation or culture, nor were they any less violent. But they did not practice ‘human sacrifice’ on any kind of massive scale. Were people ritually executed? Yes. Were offerings made to deities? Yes. But the vast majority were not human, not even animals. It was plants, herbs and incense.
There were self-sacrificial rituals where a person might cut themselves to let some blood, which would go on a sacred piece of paper, or something like that. The ritualised execution of a human being happened relatively rarely, and I would argue probably less often than was happening in Europe during the same period.
What is the Maya writing system and how was it deciphered?
The process of deciphering Maya hieroglyphs was done by a series of brilliant epigraphers over the course of many decades. There's a wonderful book by the late Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, where he tells that story in great detail. The main message is that this was a team effort by scholars all over the world, including a couple in Soviet Russia who couldn’t leave and go to conferences for years.
A possible Rosetta Stone was a manuscript discovered in the late-19th century written by a Franciscan friar, Diego de Landa, in Yucatan in the 16th century. But it turned out to be false: the way it was written with hieroglyphs and then Spanish letters was completely misleading, and threw many scholars off for decades.
Also, there was an Englishman called J Eric Thompson who was both famous and infamous because he had certain ideas about hieroglyphs that were wrong, and supposedly blocked publications of other scholars who disagreed with him.
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So, understanding the Maya hieroglyphic system was a gradual process, and how it was not simply pictographic. The glyphs aren't pictures that allow you to identify what the word is (though there is an element of that), nor were they phonetic, like our alphabet. They were a combination of the two, and the system comprises about 800 glyphs. It’s incredibly complex, sophisticated and visually stunning.
That speaks to the amazing reputation of the Maya civilisation: theirs ranks as one of the great writing systems in human history. There was nothing comparable to it anywhere else in the Americas. Other peoples in Mesoamerica, like the Aztecs, wrote glyphically, but they had variants on a system that was not the fully developed 800-glyph Maya system.
What purpose did ancient Maya structures like Chichén Itzá serve? Was it similar to the Egyptian pyramids?
The comparison between Maya pyramids, or pyramids anywhere in Mesoamerica, and those in Egypt is an interesting one. Some Maya don't like the use of the word ‘pyramid’ because they think it evokes an Egyptian pyramid with a peak. There are no Maya pyramids that had peaks – and it was thought for a while they weren't tombs at all, and that was an important difference to Egyptian pyramids.
In fact, the more that Maya pyramids have been excavated and tunnels been dug, the more it turns out that they are very often tombs. They were built, then expanded, and then rebuilt as tombs again. But that's just one part of what their purpose was.
Since Maya pyramids had steps, they were always designed to be walked up, and the most important thing was the building at the top. In most cases, these were temples. These pyramids also faced onto plazas and often other pyramid-like buildings. Some had palaces or residential complexes on these pyramidal platforms. These plazas had common elements in all Maya cities, but were all slightly different. There would have been something distinctive about the architecture in each place, from Chichén Itzá to Palenque to Tikal.
Although the buildings we can see now are all grey, these plazas would have been stuccoed and painted. They would have been brightly coloured, covered in art, portraits of rulers, glyphs, and texts about those rulers – when they lived, their connection with the gods, their marriages, and their great victories in battle. It would have been a sensory overload, in a way.
In front of these structures, the plazas would have been full of people. There may have been political rituals or religious ceremonies taking place, and there were markets often adjacent or spilling over into these areas. When you think about somewhere like Chichén Itzá, compared to Egypt, the first thing to do is try and make this huge leap of imagination, to imagine it full of people, colour, art and so on.
What did the Maya eat?
Maize was the staple of their diet, and it was so important that they thought of it as a sacred substance. They believed that corn had been provided to them, or for them, by the gods – and it plays a really important role in Maya creation mythology.
It's reasonable to make a generalisation that all Maya were corn farmers. It was a prestigious activity that everybody got to participate in. There are even suggestions that elite Mayas engaged in corn farming as well, even though they didn't have to. There was nothing demeaning about them going out and working in their fields; that's how important it was.
In addition to maize, the Maya ate squash, beans, chilli peppers (and peppers of all kinds) and tomatoes, which were native to the Maya area but not known in Europe. Also native was chocolate. It was not eaten, though, but drunk – unsweetened, since the Maya did not have sugar. That was an old-world plant. Instead, they sweetened it with honey. And cut its bitterness with chilli peppers.
In terms of meat, the range of animals was far smaller than what Europeans had. They had turkeys and small deer, though not chickens, pigs and cows. They ate a lot of fish: on the Yucatan Peninsula, even though the Maya area is not an island, they were surrounded by coastline, so seafood played an important part of the diet as well as mythology.
When did the ancient Maya civilization end?
As mentioned before, they didn’t disappear, but there are two moments in Maya history that have fed into that misconception. The first is to do with the decline of populations in the big cities, particularly in northern Guatemala, which was the centre of population, and economic and political power, in this period.
Those cities were abandoned and inhabited by smaller populations that weren't making big buildings or monuments. They didn't leave much of a trace. For a long time that created this idea that there was something that had had disappeared – particularly before the Maya glyphs could be read and before it was understood that the Maya area comprises the whole of the Yucatan Peninsula as well as Guatemala and Belize.
They didn't leave much of a trace. For a long time that created this idea that there was something that had had disappeared
The other factor was Spanish colonialism. It wasn't that the Spanish came in and conquered the whole Maya area and killed everybody, or that they were all carted off as slaves. It was mostly the impact of epidemic disease. We don't know exactly what the Maya population was before Spaniards arrived, and we don't even know exactly what it was 100 years later because Spaniards had not conquered most of the Maya area, but the population drop was something in the region of 80 to 90 per cent.
Entire towns and villages become depopulated. There were moments of epidemic disease: outbreaks of smallpox over the course of weeks or months, which killed half the population of the town, at the same time as repeated invasions was extremely disruptive. It meant that there were no independent Maya city states building cities like Chichén Itzá. That reinforces the idea that the Maya disappeared.
They’re the reasons for the myth, but it's important to recognise that millions of Maya still exist today. They accommodated and adjusted, and their culture today is still Maya culture, still Maya civilisation. Just because you have a cell phone, you’re watching satellite television, and speaking Spanish as well as Maya – doing things that connect you to the 21st century – it doesn't mean you're not still a Maya person. They are still perpetuating Maya civilisation.
Professor Matthew Restall was talking to Rob Attar on the HistoryExtra podcast. These answers have been excerpted from the interview. To find out more, listen to the full episode: The Maya, Everything You Want To Know
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