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Dig Deeper: Origins of the Maya

The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

After a day and a half of presentations on four ancient civilizations from the Old World, the crowd of more than 700 people gathered in Guatemala for the Dialogue of Civilizations last week was more than ready to dig in to the archaeology of the Maya. Barbara Arroyo, coordinator of excavations at the site of Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala City took the stage first and did not disappoint, opening everyone’s eyes to the fascinating early history of this renowned culture.

When the New World Was Still New

Arroyo spoke of the truly ancient origins of the Maya. Because the Classic Maya period took place in the centuries after the fall of Rome, it’s easy to focus on it as generally more recent than the other ancient civilizations discussed. Getting at its deeper roots was eye-opening.

The white tops of the temples of Tikal rise above the canopy of the national park that protects the site for miles in every direction. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)
The white tops of the temples of Tikal rise above the canopy of the national park that protects the site for miles in every direction. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

The best-known cities of Classic Maya civilization, like Tikal with the tops of its white temples still soaring above the canopy of a jaguar-filled jungle, are mostly from the “lowlands” of Guatemala – the region between the heel and the toes of the boot of Mexico. Arroyo was focused on the rest – the highlands and the lush strip along the Pacific Coast, and their origins, thousands of years before Tikal was built.

Along the entire Pacific Coast of North and South America, the deep oceanic plate slides under the continental plate, rippling the continental edge into mountain ranges, and melting as it is pushed below the thin cooled crust of Earth’s surface, only to percolate up into volcanoes that keep this landscape ever changing.

While such activity brings plenty of instability and danger, it also brings precious metals and minerals to the surface, and provides a trap to catch the clouds rolling in from above the ocean, pushing them up, cooling them down, and causing them to release their water as rains that feed lush plant life and erode the mountains into rich soils.

The resulting wetlands and combination of resources are what really distinguish the highlands and coast from the flat northern inland lowlands, Arroyo said.

Along the coast by 3500 BC, local people were cutting and burning forest to plant maize (a general agricultural practice that continues at a disastrous scale today). They then developed the first pottery in region, with designs based on the shapes of gourds found on trees, between 1800 and 1600 BC. We see such things at the site of Paso de la Amada, and from there they spread both north and east.

This map shows the cultural dispersal among early villages and cities in the earliest days of Maya civilization. "a. C." is the Spanish form for "B.C." (Map courtesy Barbara Arroyo; "Tikal," "Kaminaljuyu," and "San Bartolo" added by Andrew Howley)
This map shows the cultural dispersal among early villages and cities in the earliest days of Maya civilization. “a. C.” is the Spanish form of “B.C.” (Map courtesy Barbara Arroyo; “Tikal,” “Kaminaljuyu,” and “San Bartolo” added by Andrew Howley)

While these were all developments at villages, not cities, the material and social culture were clearly getting more complex, with well-made goods used for prestige, celebrations, and the pleasure of kings.

Olmec: Friends or Forebears?

By 1300 BC, the Olmec site of San Lorenzo near the Gulf of Mexico had developed into the first real city in the region. Here we see the kind of permanent architecture, population density, and social complexity that signal the beginnings of “civilization” proper. In particular there are the giant stone heads that made the Olmec culture famous when discovered a hundred years ago.

Excavator Matthew Stirling kneels beside the largest of the La Venta heads. (Photo by Richard Hewitt Stewart)
Excavator Matthew Stirling kneels beside the largest of the La Venta heads. (Photo by Richard Hewitt Stewart)

The later Olmec site of La Venta from around 850 BC shows other cultural developments. Huge naturally forming basalt columns were used to construct some kind of presumably ritualistic building of significance to people in much less developed villages throughout the area.

This has lead some to conclude that the Olmecs were a “mother culture” to the Maya. At other sites in the area though, Arroyo sees too many differences too early in their development. Maybe they were a “sister culture,” she says. Similar conclusions are supported by research announced today by National Geographic grantee Takeshi Inomata from the site of Ceibal, which shows Maya style platforms as early as 1000 BC, more recent than San Lorenzo but predating La Venta by 150 years. Clearly the Maya world was developing alongside the Olmec, and not as a direct descendent of it.

Connecting the stories of past and present, Arroyo then described the major highland Maya site of Kaminaljuyu (kamin-all-hoo-yoo), the ruins of which were right under our feet in Guatemala City. This was a great site, she said, but it was “doomed to disappear because of geology.” Given the well-known modern stories of sinkholes in the region, that was not hard to believe.

Archaeologists excavate through the A-24 platform to reach the foundations, dated to about 1,000 B.C. (Photo courtesy Takeshi Inomata)
Archaeologists excavate through the A-24 platform to reach the foundations, dated to about 1,000 B.C. (Photo courtesy Takeshi Inomata)

The ancient peak of the site was around 200 BC. During this Pre-Classic period, its focus was almost entirely on water. Much like Augusta McMahon said about ancient Mesopotamia, the rulers were responsible for keeping the water infrastructure in good shape. In Kaminaljuyu, as long as they kept the canals working, “rulers were able to control population,” Arroyo said. However when drought struck, the gig was up.

While some regions in the ancient (and modern) world have a very specific style, Kaminaljuyu was more cosmopolitan. “People were coming from the lowlands and from the east,” resulting in a “wide variety” of art styles. They came for political purposes like royal visits, and for practical reasons like access to markets. Eventually a population from the northwestern highlands conquered Kaminaljuyu. Around 100 AD a major drought struck Mesoamerica and there was broad decline. Then the city recovers and has a new chapter in the Classical period.

In summary, Arroyo compared the civilizations of the Mesoamerican highlands and coast with the other civilizations studied at the Dialogue. “Obviously we can’t compare age,” she said. “But we can compare the progress of the civilizations, and that allows us to have dialogue.” Finally, she pointed out, “many Maya groups keep up the traditional culture handed down from their forefathers” and as such there is much we can learn from them. “We need to be responsible with these communities and the public” around the world she said, if we are to show how important these civilizations of the past are in the present.

Into the Lowlands

What made Barbara Arroyo’s presentation captivating was the way it opened up the story of the less-often-discussed coastal and highland Maya. The next presentation caught everyone’s attention because of the light it shed on the rise of the better known lowland Maya, represented in sites like Tikal and the well known art seen in museums and jewelry shops.

Tomás Barrientos from the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala leads excavations at the site of La Corona knew his audience. “Clearly this is one of the great civilizations of the world,” he said. “It has a long history… well known and engraved in stone. We have lots of information, but we still have many questions.”

While the coastal Maya had the reliably fertile soil and many rivers mentioned above, in the lowlands, they had rainforest. “It’s difficult to make use of resources here,” he said. “Even when rich, it can be fragile.” It was this unpredictability that led the lowland Maya to develop a detailed knowledge of their resources and environment.

Once in harmony with the surrounding jungle, the city of Tikal now emerges from the trees only where modern humans have cleared the ground. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Once in harmony with the surrounding jungle, the city of Tikal now emerges from the trees only where modern humans have cleared the ground. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

They managed the land so that they “became part of the forest.” The mistakes that have been made in development in Guatemala over the past 50 years he said are due to the fact that we have not worked with the same mindset. In addition he pointed out that “Maya cities were not densely populated or nucleated…. [the land] was fragile so cities were dispersed to handle load capacity.”

As had been said earlier in the week about ancient Egypt, core cultural concepts were early paired with an artistic style that then fed each other and kept each other alive for millennia. A major example of this is the way temples were called “mountains” and seen as “sacred hills that conducted to the underworld.” Indeed, deep within their supporting pyramids are cave-like chambers of a man-made underworld where rest the rulers’ remains.

The different terrain also meant that to get precious stones and metals to feed their desire for precious items, the lowland Maya needed to visit or trade with other communities in the mountains where these resources were directly attainable. The resulting long-distance trade networks were useful for developing a rich culture, but it also raised opportunities for excessive competition.

Hindsight Is 20/20

Barrientos was frank when it came to shortcomings of the Maya civilization. “They were not very good in political control of territories,” he said, and this kept them from developing the kind of major empire seen in other ancient civilizations. There was even competition between groups of elites in same city. The “big failure,” he said, was that major Maya cities “didn’t develop a [political] territorial control system… conflict was decided in war.”

Bound war captives show varying levels of resistance and acceptance to their fate, in this detail from a stela from Piedras Negras, now at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Guatemala City. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Bound war captives show varying levels of resistance and acceptance to their fate, in this detail from a stela from Piedras Negras, now at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Guatemala City. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

 

In Barrientos’ assessment, “When war became intensive, that forced many cities to change the ways in which they’d lived for a long time.” The result was a catastrophic break in the traditional “balance with the ecosystem.” Then, even when the area had recovered from the poor management of resources, there was “no continuing sociopolitical system for people to come back to. So when it was abandoned, the jungle reclaimed its territory.”

“We have the mistaken idea that [the people and their culture] stayed the same for thousands of years,” he said, “but they were ever changing.”

After building enormous ceremonial complexes in huge cities like Tikal in the 5-700s AD, the culture and civilization had shifted to groups of small kingdoms by the 1200s, and this is what the Spanish found.

In the town of Chichicastenango, the church of Santo Tomas stands atop the remnants of a Maya temple, a visual manifestation of the spiritual blending that has kept ancient beliefs and values alive in a new cultural landscape. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
In the town of Chichicastenango, the church of Santo Tomas stands atop the remnants of a Maya temple, a visual manifestation of the spiritual blending that has kept ancient beliefs and values alive in a new cultural landscape. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

What has changed and been lost is not was Barrientos is ultimately focused on though. “What is important is what continued,” he said in closing, “and what allowed for continuity based on a world vision. That is what has survived in the Maya communities today. You can’t say [the civilization] disappeared, because this survived and this is what is behind those facades and works of art.”

What thoughts do the rise and fall of the Maya inspire in you? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations.

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Comments

  1. Steve Lloyd
    Canada
    June 3, 2013, 3:21 pm

    Mayan people used and still use productive practises that are sustainable. The key ideas in these two lectures though, are that a) the Maya did not land in spacecraft, they were and are as human as we are with troubles and capacities we can relate to, and b) the civilization did not ‘disappear’ as so often ‘officially’ misstated (via Thompson and his followers) in the 9th C (C.E.), indeed it thrived in most areas until it was purposefully destroyed by the Spanish. We can still learn much from a civilization that was self-supporting for a much higher population than exists in the region now for 3,000+ years, that would have continued far longer but for invaders bent on its total destruction.

  2. Dan F.
    Ohio
    April 25, 2013, 8:33 pm

    Is there a connection between the Mayans and Mesopotamia? Could it be, since the Cradle of humanity is in that region, that they traveled to Central America? Where were the Mayans before the Americas?

    • Andrew Howley
      April 26, 2013, 11:19 am

      That’s the wonderful part, Dan. Humans appear to have arrived in the Americas sometime before 12000 BC, walking or boating from far northeastern Asia. While there’s always the possibility of unknown small scale epic voyages from other places, as well as the passing of information between distant groups through the grapevine, the rise of Maya civilization shows every indication of having been completely separate from the civilizations of Europe, Africa, and Asia, developing gradually over a very long period with a style and world view all its own.

  3. wayne
    USA
    April 25, 2013, 8:07 pm

    We do have a written record of some of the dealings of these people. The Book Of Mormon. It would be interesting to see similarities with what the researchers have found.

  4. F.A. Hutchison
    currently, La Paz, Bolivia.
    April 25, 2013, 7:40 pm

    I’m curious, was the Aymara culture discussed at all?

  5. reefers
    April 25, 2013, 7:34 pm

    its twin was washed up on the river banks in ny today i think