Unraveling the Mysteries of the Maya

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, November 1994 | Go to article overview

Unraveling the Mysteries of the Maya


Fish, Peter, Sunset


Recent excavations and insights into the language of the Maya give visitors to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula a fresh look at an ancient civilization

In Yucatan, there is a story told about Chichen Itza's Temple of Kukulcan. Each year at the spring and autumn equinoxes, hundreds of visitors gather to witness twin serpents slithering down the temple's north face. Not long ago, as the story has it, one American tourist was seen clutching a snakebite kit, prepared in case the reptiles escaped into the crowd. No one had told her that the snakes are, in fact, a twice-yearly trick of sunlight as it hits the pyramid--a mirage and nothing more.

The story might be apocryphal. But it holds some truth about Mayan Yucatan. Here, on a flat peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico, history and legend tangle like the roots of the region's monkey ear trees. In the last two decades, though, archaeologists have made dramatic advances in separating Mayan fiction from fact. A writing system once thought beyond comprehension is being deciphered, and archaeological sites are being excavated and made accessible at a rate to frustrate guidebook writers.

A visit to Mayan Yucatan can encompass more than the ruins of a lost civilization. Visitors can savor the colonial charms of Merida, windsurf at Cancun, snorkel in the lapis lazuli waters of Xel-Ha National Park. In marketplaces and villages, they can catch glimpses of the world of the modern Maya, who are anything but a vanished people: an estimated 5 million people from Guatemala through Yucatan are Mayan speakers. Last year's revolt in Chiapas state warned Mexico, and the world, not to take them for granted.

Yucatan has been spared such unrest. But here, too, the Maya show increased appreciation for their past. As one Merida resident told us, "Many Yucatecans have never been to Chichen Itza, but they know the malls of Miami and Houston. That is beginning to change. The Mayan people were unaware of the beauties we have here. It took people from the outside to show us."

The highway from Merida south to Uxmal runs so straight and flat you'd think the world had been pressed with an iron. But in an hour, low green hills rise in front of you. Anywhere else, they'd be unremarkable: in Yucatan, they're alps. A thousand years ago, the Puuc Hills formed one of the most densely populated portions of the Mayan world.

The Mayan ruins are so sophisticated that some of the 19th-century explorers who first came upon them argued that the Maya must have had links to ancient Phoenicia or Egypt; more recent fringe theorists have suggested contact with visitors from outer space. But today most reputable archaeologists, employing techniques like radiocarbon dating and lexico-statistics (tracing contemporary Mayan dialects back to a single root language), believe that the Maya were dwelling in agricultural villages in Mexico and Central America as early as 2000 B.C. By A.D. 250, these people had created the beginnings of a highly evolved urban civilization stretching from the mountains of Guatemala to the lowlands of Belize and Yucatan.

Uxmal is the best known of the cities of the Puuc, which reached their zenith late in the classic era (A.D. 250 to 900). Uxmal amply demonstrates the Mayan genius for the monumental. Building with native limestone, the Maya became some of the finest masons the world has known. Rising on its own manmade platform, the Governor's Palace has the dignity of an Acropolis of the New World.

Until quite recently, Uxmal was the only Puuc site most visitors saw. That's no longer the case. During the administration of former president Carlos Salinas (said to be an archaeology buff), ruins across YucatAn were excavated, restored, and made accessible to visitors by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH). "The last six years have been heaven for archaeology," says Alfonso Escobedo, director of a Merida-based tour company, Ecoturismo Yucatan. …

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