By Ron O. Cook
(Author of The Enigmni)
A few years ago, I had the deserved pleasure of dragging my body up half of the 365 steps of “The Lofty House of Cuculcan,” also known as the Castle (pyramid) of old Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. At this phenomenal archaeological site, (first touched by Edward Thompson and later excavated by S.G. Morley and the Carnegie Institution) I came to realize the smallness of my own self-realization and narrowness of my thinking. Here were the remains of the workings of “Stone Age Man”… granted it was on the more high-tech end of the scale, and everything was made of…stone; yet, the engineering mystique had not dawned on me before. As I began to truly focus on the matter, I realized that this great collection of masonry was representative of only the minutest tip of the proverbial iceberg, when viewed cosmically (deeply).
Upon examination of the magnitude of the site and its workmanship, coupled with the knowledge that empiric scientific minds had worked hard to present what I saw and was reading while I walked — I suddenly realized the intellectual power before me. I wanted more from these enigmatic Ancient Americans. Their minds intrigued me, and I wanted to go beyond the typical five-sensory, numerically infested jargon that I had come into contact with, at every turn of the “page-of-record” portrayed by the signs at each monument on the site. I wanted to know how they got so smart.
Who were the sublime people of these ancient ruins, whose structures now served as an intellectual “Disneyland” to the hot and thirsty tourists from Cancun’s beaches? It was evident that their minds dwelled much more intensely on the spiritual realm than the shorts-clad, brightly dressed, ever noisy foreigners of that Spring day in May.
These “Maya” must have tried to understand the character and scope of transitional being and to me it was apparent that they were awed by that concept. The very pyramid that I stood upon was an ascension device, what some would call a transitional object (TO), used to get from here to there, mentally, spiritually and perhaps literally. That they thought upon the process of “otherness” (beyond reality) was in evidence everywhere. Built level upon level (onion-like), El Castillio was a permanent benchmark measuring the passage of time with every tick of the sun’s progress, marked by undulating shadows on the pyramid’s inclined sides. Information gleaned from the Toltec/Mayan monument’s built-in calendrics aided in the establishment of every important spiritual event practiced by the culture. Like white light in the electromagnetic spectrum, the Castle was symbolic of only a tiny slice of the total enlightenment that was present within the metro site of Chichen Itza, or for that matter, the entirety of the mystic Mayan lands.
The enigmatic Mayan culture/s evolved in the areas of what are now parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. They and their relatives (Olmec?) had been around since before 1000 BC. In their classical period 250-900 AD, they had reached a florescence which included a highly sophisticated knowledge of language, mathematics, engineering, architecture, agriculture, astronomy/astrology, government, marketing/commerce, human psychology and metaphysical dynamics (religion) which seemed to serve as the catalyst for their very being. By the time the Spanish arrived most of the classic Mayan civilization had been gone almost 600 years.
Their mathematics, based on three symbols…a dot, dash and a shell-like form (for zero) are not unlike our binary system (zeros and ones) which we use for computer work. Interesting…how long did it take our culture to get to that sophistication? (See Boolean algebra-1854 and Claude Shannon, MIT- 1936.) With their mathematics they astronomically derived a calendar which refers to dates as precise as August 13th, 3114 BC. and has pinpointed solar eclipses that took place millions of years ago. The Mayan calendars (there where three coinciding methods) calculated a year at 365.2420, whereas our present calculation is 365.2422. One wonders if the Mayans were the “designated hitters” for the bringing of TIME of ancient lost civilizations forward to aid us in our calculations?
Another point reinforcing their advanced state…the Mayans were the only ancient American civilization with a recorded history of their own; although, new evidence suggests that earlier cultures such as the Olmeca and perhaps others (La Mojarra Stela 1) could have been the precursors to the Mayan system of writing. At any rate, the Mayans broadcast on their classic and traditional stone billboards the loudest messages of all Mesoamerican cultures. They recorded on lithic monuments, pottery, papers, and skins, the grand events of their abstruse culture. Though their hieroglyphs remain to be totally deciphered, we may soon have the benefit of viewing an advanced civilization built upon “primary technology” taken to the fullest understanding of nature’s provisions. In other words the Mayans went about as far as they could go within a category of earth and stone technology. Their knowledge of Nature surely surpassed ours.
Today in our “master- mindedness”, exemplified in the form of the much publicized yet old Biosphere II project (an experiment to better understand ecological – food and waste processes, including global and scientific processes that will give us a better comprehension of agriculture, and take us to the colonization of space) — even in view of the above, the Mayan Culture has much to teach us about living and surviving in a world of environmental and social complexity which is approaching a saturation or compression state.
When one considers what the Earth is taking on just in the form of increasing population — to rediscover how one ancient civilization coped with feeding and maintaining a high-ordered community — it would be of great value to our survival in today’s complex society.
According to Linda Schele and David Freidel in their book, A Forest of Kings , the Mayans did just that for over a thousand years (200 B.C. to A.D.900) with a population of millions (4 -11 million?) crammed into a collection of some fifty plus city-states that occupied about 100,000 square miles. Population density in the lowlands could have ranged from 300 to 400 persons per square mile in AD 800. This currently compares with 68 persons per square mile figures for the U.S. The Mayans accomplished this unbelievable feat through what must have been on or above par with what we are now trying to attain with the research of Biosphere II and other ecological projects.
One has but to look at the massive public structures that inundate the Mayan lands, with its metro and suburban areas supporting populations as large as 200,000 persons (Tikal area – 50,000 metro), to realize what’s really involved here. Most of the once urban sites and almost all of the suburban sites are still left unexplored and unexcavated (90%?) by today’s archaeologists and anthropologists. They sit, still hidden under jungle growth and the decayed remains of the conquistador’s attempts to cover up the magnificence of their engineering and subsequently their agricultural prowess (raised fields, canal systems, and arboreal succession).
Though the present day Mesoamerican farmer slashes, burns and then plants his land, the ancient Maya had to be much more sophisticated to support such large populations. New satellite photos show evidence of raised-platforms and canal remains all over the ancient lands. Theirs was to farm within the harmony of nature, considering every element impacting the condition of a growing situation. In their view, growing could take place on the hillside or in the swamp…all predicaments were met through evaluation of what plants would work with others in a mutualism of ecological design perhaps not addressed since the Garden of Eden.
The Mayans were much more sophisticated than most archaeologist or anthropologist have indicated when they stress the wars between the cities or the rituals of blood sacrifice by the leader/kings or priesthood. The Mayan culture also was preoccupied with science, art, government, marketing, philosophy, letters and health. According to Mexican physician Xavier Lozoya, the Mayans were also involved in the scientific evaluation of medicinal applications to curing what ailed them. Omni magazine (August, 1991) indicated his research has shown that the 1500 different plants the Mayans used for herbal perscriptions, were even more effective than their modern medical counterparts. As research goes on into the use of ancient concoctions, will we soon discover that the source of this knowledge of the past was achieved as ours is today…through the scientific process of evaluation and research? Lozoya has shown that the Mayans bested today’s medicines for diarrhea and athletes foot. What other secrets still lay hidden in the jungles of the Maya?
A civilization so endowed and imbued with great structure and fine aesthetic touch cannot reach such high levels of advancement unless it is well fed…spiritually and physically. To those ends the Maya must have known something that we are still searching out…evidence…our Biosphere II project and our increasing amoral and criminal aberrations. Not to say that the Maya were perfect. Some experts would point to the bloody sacrificial hype of a “bad press” first leveraged by the greed of the Spanish conquerors of Aztec Mexico, as additional cause to kill off the native Americans who were in the way of their goals and gold. Many believe that it was a respect and fear of the Mayan religion that kept the moral populous in line for hundreds of years — until the last days, when violence became the norm rather than the exception. Had the Maya civilization still been around in their classical mode, the Spanish might have never conquered Mexico.
While their culture was structured in a power that controlled civilized functions via sacrifice of some sort to their complex gods, their people prospered in peace. The great city-states exploded via a commerce that many of today’s marketers would easily recognize as genius. Disagreements were most likely settled on the ball courts and if that didn’t work, there was always bloodletting by the self-sacrificing leader. It was done in front of all the people to show their love for their deities and their brave dedication to their people. Would that we had leaders of that ilk today. Ceremonial war might have also garnered a warrior-king who if captured would serve the king of another city, and perhaps would eventually sacrifice himself to regain his being via the ball court or the pyramid of godly ascension.
Recognition must have been at the depths of their reason–recognition by their gods. The fear of this religious ceremonialism, kept most of the commoners in line. They feared the law of consequences and stayed away from the tops of those pyramids and the responsibilities that went with anyone who dared to step into the arena of leadership. Warriors however, were always admired for their fearlessness. If they were fearless, the people must have felt protected for a while.
Today, we apparently do not have the religion or the laws that keep our society in line as did the Classic Maya. Without some morality and governmental solidity, our society will see our great city-states decay from within as did the Maya in their last days. When the ancient kings and chiefs became greedy for larger possessions, their selfishness turned from ceremonial wars and ball games of religious sport, to full-blown war against the very people who sustained the infrastructure of the Mayan society.
Tradition, religion and education began to fail to serve as the bonds that held their people together. Adversarial behavior eventually exploded to tear their society apart, as it will ours, unless we go back to an ordered and moral tradition that was once positioned by our founding fathers. The Maya show us that the political-warrior cult (third-party manipulation) will forever eat away society because it is based on survival of the cultist-self over the social-many through violence. Perhaps we should return to some of the more religious ceremonies of ancient America that publicly “took care” of persons desirous of self-destructive behavior. Those of us that are imbued with machismo are the hell-raisers of civilization’s destruction. Reason must prevail
In its present form, the old story of life’s game is still perpetuated by a Mayan history that is incomplete to say the least. One must also remember that, in comparison, our society may be viewed as savage and immoral (electric chair, lethal injections, drugs and etc.) by tomorrow’s “advanced” civilization. Though unusual bloodletting was part of Mayan social and religious life, archaeologists are still at odds as to the true meanings of such ritualistic processes and that these ceremonies had any impact on the Maya’s final decline is still unknown.
What was the emphatic punctuation that nudged the delicate balance of the stressed infrastructure of the Maya that brought on the eventual end of this great yet misunderstood civilization? Archaeological evidence suggests that the Maya did indeed turn against each other in the end. Many sites indicate fortifications were thrown up with stones from once beautiful buildings, to shield groups from attacking marauders. New geological data also indicates that volcanic activity might have been the straw that broke the back of a top-heavy civilization which pushed its resources to the ultimate disparity. If an eruption such as Mount St. Helens, did indeed occur in the 800 -950 A. D. period, as some believe, it might have impacted agriculture and food chains to such a degree that self-destruction was all that could have taken place in those last Mayan days.
By the time Cortes and the Spaniards arrived on Cozumel Island in 1519 the great Mayan classical civilization had ceased to exist some 600 years earlier. For the most part what remained of their grand structures were already engulfed by the creeping vegetation that was once their agricultural support source. In 1697 the last vestiges of anything even close to being a Mayan kingdom, came to a close with the flight of the Itza natives from their homes, routed by the Spanish in one of their final cleanup sweeps. The great written records of the Maya, which were kept in book form, were all destroyed by the representatives of the Catholic Church (Landa?), except for perhaps 4 surviving folding codices. Most of what we have in written form is inscribed on the stone walls of their once great cities.
Currently, one may find the generational-children of the ancient Maya in fragments scattered throughout their ancient homelands unable to read their ancestors glyphs and speaking vague versions of their old languages. They are represented by broken bands and small villages of persons who still keep traditions of whatever has been passed down to them by word of mouth. Some of their tribe, even today, still harbor rebellious thoughts such as the insergents in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. Could it be that the Maya will once again rise to their old glory? Or, are they as smoke from a last remaining ember still struggling in a rain of modern-day technology and sociology, destined to suffocate in a forest of bureaucracy as in the days of old. Not unlike any previous great civilization, they also experienced self-destruction in the abysmal trough of the cyclic wave. That old grave seems to always prohibit a leap from one crestwave to the top of tomorrow’s higher-crested civilization.
Why were the Mayans caught in the proverbial cycle — that old accommodating endless grave of mankind that always seems to awaken on the scene as a beautiful morning than suddenly turns into a horror filled evening and in finality, the night of death decends to darken all hope? Will this too be our fate? Has it already begun with Sept. 11?
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