Missing Mayan History

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How is it that we know so much about some historical periods, including my favorite, the American Revolution, but so little about others? Certainly the older the period the harder it is to develop a detailed history. However, much is known about Alexander the Great who lived 356 B.C. to 323 B.C., and yet very little is known about one of the greatest ancient civilizations every formed, the Mayans.

At its peak around 600 A.D. the Mayans likely numbered close to 2,000,000 living in dozens of cities across parts of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. They developed a written language, studied the stars, used math, made a calendar, and became skilled farmers. Most impressive were the Mayans’ ability to design and construct enormous pyramids. In our family’s recent visit to Belize, we were able to see these amazing structures for ourselves. We visited the Mayan ruins at Lamanai and Caracol, both isolated ruins in the middle of the Belizean jungle.

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Looking out from Caana Temple at Caracol, Belize

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One of the few surviving carved Mayan temple faces at Lamanai, Belize

Although these two Mayan cities are approximately 100 miles apart, their design is very similar. How did the Mayans build these massive structures? How did they coordinate designs between cities? How were they able to make the pyramids level and symmetrical? More importantly, what led to the collapse of the Mayan civilization? Historians and archaeologists can give educated guesses to these questions, but no one knows for sure.

Why is it then that we know so little about the Mayans? Not long after Christopher Columbus found the New World, Spain sent missionary priests to teach Christianity. In the mid-1500s Spain sent the Franciscan friar, Diego de Landa to the Mayans. Frustrated with the Mayans’ adherence to idol worship, Diego de Landa destroyed hundreds of Mayan books about their language, religion, and science. While Diego de Landa’s was likely trying to end pagan human sacrifice and blood-letting, the destruction of these Mayan books have left a huge historical hole in one of the most complex ancient civilizations.

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Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, Diego de Landa

Right or wrong, Diego de Landa’s actions demonstrate how important it is to preserve our history. Understanding our history is one of the best ways to learn from our former successes and to try to keep from repeating our past mistakes. For example, many historians and anthropologists believe that the Mayan civilizations’ downfall was related to deforestation of the surrounding rainforest. In order to build their huge temples they needed lime, which required large fires to heat the material into plaster. The more structures that were built, the more trees had to be felled. Scientists think that the destruction of the surrounding rainforest led to a severe extended drought. Without enough food, Mayans starved, and the peasant class likely revolted against the ruling class. Unfortunately, we will probably never know exactly what happened to the Mayans. While some Mayan carvings and hieroglyphics remain, linguists have been unable to fully decipher the Mayan language. Again, this is a direct result of Diego de Landa’s destruction of Mayan texts.

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Mayan carving at the Caracol ruins

The lesson to be learned from the Mayans and Diego de Landa is to cherish our history and learn from those who have gone before us. Preserving our historical sites and texts should be a priority to make sure future generations learn from the past.

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