At its peak, around 750 A.D., the late great Maya civilization reached a zenith, with a total population estimated at near 13 million. Then, between about 750 and 950 A.D., their society suffered a terminating implosion. The Maya abandoned what had been very sophisticated and densely populated urban centers and scattered into the jungles, leaving their impressive stone edifices behind to fall into ruin. The exact reason for this demise of the Maya civilization has since been one of the great anthropological mysteries of modern times. So, what could have happened?
With their magnificent architecture and sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, the Maya boasted one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although they had not discovered the uses of a wheel and were without the aid of any metal tools, the Maya constructed massive pyramids, elaborate temples, and imposing monuments made of hewn limestone both in large cities and in smaller ceremonial centers throughout Honduras, Guatemala, and the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. They also studied with great attentiveness, the night sky and movement of solar bodies, and were able to track stars and planets with nearly perfect precision. This led to the creation of a calendar that was based on a year being 365.2420 days long, and was used to determine solstices, equinoxes, synodical alignments, ecliptic nodes, and other celestial phenomena essential for anticipating seasons.
The Maya as well created their own intricate system of mathematics, being the first civilization ever to incorporate the uses of zero. They had complex perspectives of mythology, and a religion based on a nine layer underworld and 13 higher layers or "heavens", and included a pantheon of gods that continually needed to be pleased with ceremony, offerings, blood letting, and sacrifice. They in addition, were master artisans, developed a hieroglyphic scheme for writing made up of hundreds of elaborate signs, and built long, perfectly straight terraced causeways (roads) between sites of significancy.
Scholars have advanced a variety of theories over the years, pinning the fault of the demise of the Maya on everything from internal warfare to foreign intrusion, from widespread outbreaks of disease to a dangerous dependence on monocropping, and from environmental degradation to paralyzing climate change. Some combination of these, and probably even some other unknown cosmic factors as well, are likely reasons to explain it all. But in recent years, new scientific evidence strongly suggests, that unusual shifts in atmospheric patterns took place near the end of the Classic Maya period, lending credence to the notion that climate, and specifically drought, at least played a hand in the decline of this ancient civilization.
Nevertheless, although the social essence of that civilization seemingly just disintegrated into thin air, and the reasons why are now left to only studious conjecture, the people themselves live on, in small villages all over like Tinum. And you'd think, that if you asked them what they thought happened and went wrong way back then, you'd end up hearing some sort of tale, fable, or legend passed down through the ages that would explain it all. But, that's not the case. The Mayans of today's Yucatan "say" that they know of no difference between their past, and the way they live now in the 21st century. And indeed, many, if not most of their daily lifestyle techniques and activities, are likely similar to those of their ancestors. Where else could they have learned all their bizarre, yet fully functionable nature-based methods of survival without centuries of trial and error? Granted, their governing laws and rules of society are much different these days, where powerful bloodline kings and influential high priests have been replaced with democratically elected "crooked" politicians. And of course, there are no longer sacrifices, at least of humans. But, purebred Mayans still do not have any body hair, except for on their heads and their eyebrows. Their language is void of words that represent modern times like "car", "electricity", "compact disc", and "space shuttle". And most intuitively, you can just feel in the air, that there's much more going on, than simply meets the eye.
Whether learned, like we've been enlightened by anthropologists and academic researchers of the facts and theories of the vanished Mayan Empire, or that there are actually indeed basic inbred elements of understanding about their heritage that they are not confessing to, today's Mayans know with pride, that their indirect past was quite glorious, mysterious, and very intriguing. They all marvel at the same things we've come to be astounded by, and perhaps they even give it all more thought than anyone.
For instance, most major ancient Mayan cities had what is known as a "ball court". The great ball court at Chichén Itzá is I-shaped and is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide, the largest of its kind. It has two fairly high slightly sloping parallel walls on either side each inset with a single stone ring over half way up at right angles to the ground. The players scored by passing a ball made of rubber, which was 50 centimeters in diameter and weighed more than a kilo, through the rings. But the players could only touch the ball with their elbows, knees, or hips. Scoring was considered such a laborious feat, that teams of between five and eight players would often have to play for days to do so even once. The "ball game" itself was extremely violent and had major religious significance. The players wore protective quilted cotton armor, perhaps filled with unspun cotton, that was wrapped around waist yokes made of wood. Brightly painted deer hides adorned with feathers were worn around the hips and provided some additional protection, and the players also wore knee pads and had protective wrappings on their legs and lower arms. On certain occasions, the players also wore elaborate headdresses.
There were often serious injuries during the game, when bruises were so bad sometimes that they would have to be cut open, and the blood squeezed out. And broken bones were common also. But this was all nothing compared to the outcome of the game. At the base of each of the walls at Chichen itza, are a series of stone carvings depicting the outcome of each contest. Separated by a representation of the ball, are the two teams lined up in single file facing each other. The leader of one of the teams holds a knife in one hand, and in the other hand holds the decapitated head by its hair of the other team leader, who is kneeling on one knee with streams of blood spewing from his neck. So, it would probably seem to make sense, that it was the losing team's captain that was sacrificed. After all, how often does a loser come out ahead? (no pun intended). But in fact, it was the winning team's leader, who'd trained for years and years to be the best and strongest ball player he could, solely to try and achieve the privilege of being sacrificed to the gods. This actually seems to make more sense, because why would an advanced civilization like the Mayans just kill for sport like another famous so-called advanced civilization in history, ... the Romans?
Also at Chichen Itza, is the grand pyramid El Castillo, which served as a temple to the feathered serpent god Kulkulcan, who created earth and all of humanity. But the pyramid was also nothing more than a gigantic solar calendar of sorts. It is a step pyramid with a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Each of the structure's four stairways contain 91 steps. When counting the top platform as another step, in total, El Castillo has 365 steps, one step for each day of the calender year. The overall structure has nine levels, which may be a parallel to the Maya cosmological view of there being nine levels in the Mayan "underworld". There is also a staircase within the center of the pyramid that has 13 levels, the number of levels in the "higher world".
At the base of either side of the northern staircase, are massive stone carvings of the head of the feathered serpent god Kulkulcan ("can" meaning serpent or snake, as in Can-cun). Occuring each year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a magical play of light and shadow during each day's late afternoon hours creates the appearance of a snake that gradually undulates down the side of the stairway of the pyramid. This diamond-backed snake is composed of seven triangular shadows, cast by the stepped terraces of the pyramid, and as the shadows move down the stairway, the body of the snake ultimately perfectly unites with one of Kulkulcan's stone heads. Thousands of tourists, visitors, hippies, cult groups, and worshippers gather twice each year to see this phenomenon, which may have been viewed by the ancient Maya as the manisfestation of Kulkulcan himself. And whereas it truly is an amazing spectacle to behold, it pretty much all just happens to tell time.
Ya see, the Mayan builders of El Castillo methodically and purposely built their pyramid aligned with an important astronomical axis. It was their plan right from the start, to construct a timepiece that would use the sun's many annual changing positions across the sky to create shadows that would indicate and signal particular times of the year. In this instance, the equinoxes. And with having a trustworthy way of discerning at what phase during a given year they were, the Mayans would know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to perform important ceremonies. It's not all that different than Stonehenge in England, that marks the summer solstice. But how many mushrooms do you have to eat, and how creative do you have to be, to build something that will ultimately produce a natural image such as the manisfestation of Kulkulcan?
A few years back, I met up with a young ty-dyed couple from London, England on March 20th. Dale was a face full of piercings, and Fiona was a tangled mop of dreadlocks with her own very special nose ring. They were quite excited about their luck that there would be an equinox celebration the next day at Chichen Itza, and early the next morning I arranged a ride to the celebration with a group of teenage dancers from Tinum expected to perform traditional Yucatecan dances there. So, a half hour later than the stated meeting time (Mexican tme), we all climbed into two beat-up vans for the ride over. But, because none of the dancers wanted to mess up their traditional clothing, they all appointed me in charge of their most important prop. It turned out, that one of their performances was to be the always interesting "dance of the pig's head", and of course they needed a pig's head for it to actually be authentic.
So, during the entire ride to Chichen Itza, I had a tina (metal bucket) with a pig's head in it between my legs. This was even a bit of a shock for Dale and Fiona, who thought they'd seen everything. But I explained, that you just never know what's going to happen day to day in Tinum, and anyway, the real fun didn't begin until we got to our destination an hour before noon. There were giant crowds of gringos wandering the premises and the parking lot was full with tour buses. And with all of that, I knew I had great opportunity to blow some minds. So very slowly, I walked through the front entrance and through the masses with my very unique and special attraction, being sure that every red-necked, camera swinging gringo I encountered , got a good look down the nostrils of my new best friend that I was carrying in front of me. This continued all the way out to a temporary stage location near the base of the pyramid, where I eventually stopped giggling.