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Article suitable for older students

Mexicolore contributor Diane E. Davies

Modern Myths of the Ancient Maya

I am an archaeologist who specialises in the ancient Maya. When I tell people what I do for a living I am usually questioned on various aspects of the Maya life and culture and given information that the person has heard from the media or popular culture. This information is often inaccurate and there are a couple of ‘facts’ about the Maya that come up again and again in conversation. As the ancient Maya will be a topic of study in the Primary History Curriculum, I would like to take the opportunity to correct some of the information that teachers may have heard or read about the culture and it would obviously give me immense pleasure if these myths were dispelled! (Written by Dr. Diane E. Davies, City Literary College, London)

Pic 1: The Calendar round – the tzolk’in and a portion of the haab
Pic 1: The Calendar round – the tzolk’in and a portion of the haab (Click on image to enlarge)

Myth 1: The ancient Maya predicted that the world would end on 21 December 2012. The world did not end and so they were incorrect in their prediction

The Maya used the Calendar Round of 52 years, which consisted of two cycles:
• One is of 260 days, the sacred calendar (tzolk’in), representing the intermeshing of a sequence of numbers 1 to 13 with 20 name days, for example, 1 Imix, 2 Ik’ to 13 Ben, then 2 Ik’, 3 Ak’bal and so on. Every day had its ritual significance, similar to an astrology chart.
• This sacred calendar was meshed with a 365-day solar year (haab), representing the intermeshing of 18 ‘months’ of 20 days each, with 5 unlucky days added to the end. The Maya New Year started with 1 Pop, then the next year was 2 Pop. 1 day such as 1 Kan 2 Pop did not repeat until 52 years passed, which was the Calendar Round.
• Moving on from this was their absolute dating system, the Long Count of 5125 years. Like our own calendar the Maya marked dates for more extensive time from a fixed starting point. In our calendar it’s the birth date of Jesus Christ, for the Classic Maya the beginning of the present creation was 13th August, 3114 B.C. and it ended on 21 December 2012.

Pic 2: The Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Pic 2: The Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque (Click on image to enlarge)

What is important to note here is that one of the most significant aspects of Maya culture was the organization of their society around the concept of the cyclical nature of time. As one cycle ended, another began. So as one cycle ended on 21 December 2102, another cycle began on 22 December 2012. They did not expect the world to end at this point. We have confirmation of this from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, where the Maya predicted that in 4772 A.D. the Maya would be celebrating the anniversary of the coronation of king Pakal. Finally, the end of a cycle was a time of celebration for the Maya not of fear and uncertainty.

Pic 3: Worlds apart: an Egyptian pyramid from Giza (L) and a Maya pyramid from Tikal (R)
Pic 3: Worlds apart: an Egyptian pyramid from Giza (L) and a Maya pyramid from Tikal (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Myth 2: As both the Egyptian and Maya pyramids are similar, the Egyptians must have built them or at least influenced the Maya in the building of their pyramids

Firstly, the ancient Maya and ancient Egyptians lived during different time periods. The era of pyramid building in Egypt was between 2575-2180 B.C, around 2000 years earlier than the earliest Maya pyramid (around 400 B.C. which equates with the Greco-Roman era (332-395)).
Secondly, Egyptian pyramids are actually stylistically and functionally different to those of the Maya. Egyptian pyramids were pointed, whereas Maya pyramids were flat and often had a small room/temple built on top. Pyramids in Egypt were funerary monuments, housing tombs of the rulers, for the Maya, though at times housing the dead, the pyramids were mainly a staging post for ceremonies carried out on top.

Pic 4: An indigenous Maya woman
Pic 4: An indigenous Maya woman (Click on image to enlarge)

Myth 3: The mystery of the Maya collapse and the disappearance of the Maya

There is a popular myth that there was the Maya civilisation abruptly collapsed and that the Maya all but disappeared. There was no such rapid decline, sites were abandoned in the central Petén area of Guatemala over a period of at least 150 years (approximately between 760-910 A.D.). The people who abandoned these sites moved north into the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, where we see cities such as Mayapan, which was occupied up until the 15th century. This belief not only denigrates later achievements of the Postclassic kingdoms, but also the continuing cultural traditions of the descendants of the Maya, who exist today. Around 6 million Maya exist in the countries of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

Pic 5: Lintel 21, Yaxchilan – D8 is where it states ‘He of 20 captives’
Pic 5: Lintel 21, Yaxchilan – D8 is where it states ‘He of 20 captives’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Myth 4: The ancient Maya were blood-thirsty savages

The Maya are often portrayed in the media and popular culture as blood-thirsty savages (for example in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto). Warfare amongst the Maya was much less bloody than ours. They did capture, torture and kill opponents, but it was on a small-scale. Rulers boasted of being ‘He of five captives’ or ‘He of the three captives’, the most being Lord ‘Bird-Jaguar’ of Yaxchilan wearing the title ‘He of 20 Captives’ (pic 5). The heart sacrifices that were recorded by the Spanish chroniclers were those pertaining to the Aztecs. Moreover, the Spanish may have exaggerated the extent in which they were carried out to justify the massacre of the people and the conquest of their land.

Pic 6: A pottery vessel from a Classic Maya ruler’s tomb in Rio Azul, Peten, Guatemala, that has glyphs stating it is ‘a drinking vessel for cacao’
Pic 6: A pottery vessel from a Classic Maya ruler’s tomb in Rio Azul, Peten, Guatemala, that has glyphs stating it is ‘a drinking vessel for cacao’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Regarding the ‘savage’ image, ancient peoples are often seen as ignorant and less advanced than us. Yet the Maya created and sustained an incredible civilization in a harsh environment and built spectacular temples, pyramids and palaces without the use of metal tools, the wheel, and domesticated beasts of burden (donkey, ox or elephant). They were the only civilization in the Americas to develop a fully-fledged writing system. Their precise observations of the movements of the sun, moon and stars combined with their advanced mathematical concepts – produced calendars, eclipse tables and a level of astronomical knowledge beyond that of their contemporaries in Europe. They were also advanced painters, muralists and ceramicists. Most importantly, for me anyway, is that we have the ancient Maya to thank for chocolate! Cacao was grown mainly in Guatemala and we have found depictions of chocolate pots on Classic Maya painted vessels as well as the pots themselves

Pic 7: ‘Living in a rainforest environment...’
Pic 7: ‘Living in a rainforest environment...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, there is the remarkable adaptation that they made in living in a rainforest environment.
International conservation agencies have argued that rainforest environments can only be sustained by keeping human populations down to a very low level. Yet the Maya built large cities sustaining tens of thousands of people. Agencies are now drawing on information learned from ancient Maya agricultural systems and farming techniques in such an environment to provide specific models to guide contemporary development projects.

Final Note
The adjective “Mayan” should be used only in reference to the Mayan languages. Otherwise “Maya” is used. Therefore the Maya calendar, Maya civilisation, Maya culture, but Yucatec Mayan, Mayan languages, Mayan words and so on.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Drawing by ML Design. From Ancient Mexico and Central America by Susan Toby Evans, 2008, Thames and Hudson, London -
• Pic 2: from Wikipedia
• Pix 3, 4 & 7: Photos by Diane E. Davies
• Pic 5: From the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
• Pic 6: from Del Hutseneil’s Museum of Central and South America

Some Internet Resources on the Maya:-
NOTE: Dr. Davies has made several excellent recommendations here: we have omitted from these links any that already feature on our Maya Links page...

Diane Davies gives workshops for teachers in the UK on the Ancient Maya and is available to speak at Twilight Sessions/INSET days. Contact information

Justin Kerr’s database of Maya vase rollouts and of Precoloumbian photographs
‘A Puzzle in the Petén’: at Waka, an archaeological dig in the Petén. The site details the practicalities of excavating such as setting up camp and so on
‘Maya 3D’ - 3D exploration of the Maya world focusing on the site of Chichen Itza
Discovery Education: A news report on the Classic Maya with classroom activities
Learner.Org: Teacher professional development and teacher resources across the curriculum Why civilizations fall interactive topic using the site of Copan as an example
Mesoamerican Ballgame: Excellent interactive site on the Mesoamerican ballgame where you can watch and play the game
FAMSI: Includes a teacher’s guide book as well as guides and colouring books on the Maya glyphs, Maya days and Maya months
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