Looking in the Mayan mirror

Mayan culture reflects an essential part of our universal human experience


Fred-DonnellyCANCUN, Mexico, Apr 24, 2014/ Troy Media/ – The Mayan Riviera on the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Each year millions of visitors stay at luxurious resorts in the Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel areas enjoying tropical sunshine, beaches, snorkeling and, of course, Mexican cuisine.

There is also something else of a rather curious cultural nature on offer. Typically, tourists take in a day-trip to Mayan ruins during their stays in the area with Tulum (pronounced Too-loom) 38 miles/60 kms south of Playa del Carmen, a walled, coastal city and Chichen Itza (pronounced Chee-chin-eat-za) 125 miles/200 kms inland to the west of Cancun, famous for its pyramid with a serpent shadow visible on the equinox each March 31.

At these sites visitors are impressed by the monumental architectural achievements of the Pre-Columbian Maya who built temples and pyramids all over the region from 400 A.D. all the way up to the contact with Europeans in the early 16th century. Most tours have a competent guide who can explain the basics of Mayan culture including their invention of a unique writing system, their very accurate calendar, something of their religious beliefs and their practice of human sacrifice. It all has a certain anthropological shock to it, especially for North Americans more familiar with indigenous cultures that were not builders of spectacular civic sites and were non-literate.

Chichen Itza, a site constructed ca. 750 to 1000 A.D., with 1.2 million visitors a year is the second most popular tourist site in Mexico. Covering a large area, it has many temples, a large pyramid and a ball-court. The playing field of the latter can be walked through by visitors while they try to comprehend the rules of a “game” that sometimes ended with a human sacrifice by decapitation. Sadly, the pyramid and temples are roped off as vandalism by tourists has been excessive in recent years.

Curiously, Chichen Itza allows vendors on the site although they stay in designated areas at the perimeter under shade trees. They sell souvenirs often of little relevance to Mayan culture and made who knows where. Meanwhile, there is no museum or an official government operated museum shop where replicas of Mayan artifacts can be purchased. There is an educational and commercial opportunity lost here and I contrast that with the situation in Greece. Visit Mycenae or the Acropolis in Athens and there is a museum shop selling certified copies of the artifacts found at these sites.

Recently, Mayan civilization made its way into the popular culture in Apocalypto a 2006 film directed by Mel Gibson. With a $US50 million budget, it is an action-packed thriller set in the time just before the first Mayan contact with the Spanish, ca. 1502. It is a gory, blood-soaked, relentlessly sadistic portrayal of the Mayans not recommended for children and people with heart conditions. It is also based on a false premise that civilized Mayans sent expeditions into the jungle to round up more primitive village folk for human sacrifice. On the contrary, Mayans found plenty of victims for their sacrificial rituals closer to hand among their rival city-state enemies.

On a more scholarly level Jared Diamond, best-selling author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, devotes a chapter to the Maya. He, along with many other researchers, wants to know why the Mayan civilization went into a steep decline long before the arrival of Europeans in the New World. The jury on this is still out but the leading suspects are drought, environmental degradation via deforestation and internal warfare.

This brings us back to a central question we have as tourists visiting the remains of Maya civilization. Are we viewing something alien whose people had a strange genius for building huge astronomically-aligned structures and committing human sacrifice? I think that is the impression many visitors take away after these brief archaeological excursions.

I want to suggest another response to our encounter with the ancient Mayans. First like many civilizations they derived their mathematics, calendars and writing skills from observations of the seasons so important to an agricultural society. They did this completely independent of similar and sometimes earlier efforts in the Old World of Europe and Asia. From that, they went on to develop forms of worship involving monumental architecture, a creation myth and human sacrifice to propitiate the gods.

The latter was present across many cultures at various times. The ancient Romans, for example, outlawed it in 97 B.C. but it had been in decline in their culture for many decades earlier.

Then there is the perplexing matter of the Mayan collapse, possibly by means of over-exploitation of their environment.

So what do we see as outsiders viewing the old Mayan world? Perhaps to a large extent we are looking into a cultural mirror with features, issues and problems long forgotten in our own civilization but nevertheless reflecting an essential part of our universal human experience.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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