Palenque

What Went Wrong?

The 64,000 cocoa question (for a time the Maya used chocolate as currency!) is what went wrong? What caused this highly developed, safisticated and scientific culture to collapse? Scholars have proposed various theories all of which cluster around themes strikingly familiar to contempary times; overpopulation, war, overtaxing of the environment, drought. Its been noted that they would have had to cut down a tremendous number of trees in order to process lime stone into the plaster they used to cover their buildings; that a continous state of war (and the public spending that accompanies that) may have corresponded with an unexpected, drought-induced crop failure to push a society on the brink over the edge, that a system of slash-and-burn agriculture and an ever-growing population were not sustainable. Regardless, the story of the Maya seems to serve as a warning for modern times.

Carlos Adampol Galindo's photo of Palenque.

Why were these sites abandoned? Photo by Carlos Adampol Galindo.

But one might ask, as a warning for whom?

The “collapse of Mayan culture” in no way meant that the people died out. They are still there today. The decision to stop building giant monuments and to abandon their great cities was a decision the people made themselves. It’s as if one day the 99% just said, “Fuck it. We’re not doing this anymore.” Afterall, the pyramids, temples, ball courts and other monuments we’ve visited on our Mayan tour reflect the life of the Mayan elite. Heavy taxes must have been levied in order to create these marvels. But what of the working class people? Those who carried the stone, dug the cisterns and grew the corn? When I’ve asked my tour guides how the regular ancient Mayan people lived, they’ve responded, “Not so differently from how they live today.” In other words, humble homes and substitance farming.

This begs another question. What of the life of the Maya between the end of the Post Classic period and the arrival of the Spanish? How was their society organized? Did they live in anarchy? And might it not be true that that period of time, when they didn’t have to contribute to the building of monuments or the waging of wars, nor be enslaved by Spanish overlords, might that not have been the best period of history from the point of view of the Mayan working stiff?

The Maya Today

We may never know the answer to these questions, but if it’s true that average Mayan then lived a similar life to the way many Mayans live today, then our tour of Mayan sites needs to include contempory Mayan life in order to be complete. Opportunities abound in Guatemala, Beliz, Hondurus and southern Mexico.   In Chichicastenango, a group of women coached and assisted me in weaving a scarf on a back-strap loom. I’ve watched people lay out elaborate burnt offerings, spreading colored powder like a “plus sign” (which the Spanish would see as the sign of the cross) pointing to the cardinal points. And I’ve marveled at how similar the face of the young man who worked the front desk of the hostel in Valladolid  looked to the carvings I’d seen at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.

So here’s hoping that you enjoy seeing the Maya as they were then and are now. And that we will all be able to learn a lesson or two from their history.

Guillén Pérez's photo of a modern Maya performing an ancient ceremony.

A shaman performs a ritual in Chichicastenango. Photo by Guillén Pérez.

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