Ancient Drama: 1,000 Years of Mayan Passions, Intrigue, Wars Documented in Discovered Glyphs
circa 1955: The Temple of Kukulcan, the Mayan god of rain, at Chichen Itza, near Valladolid. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
Specialists dedicated to deciphering the Mayan writing system have uncovered a wealth of information that spans several centuries and provides fresh insight into the ruling elites of that ancient civilization and their passions, intrigues, wars and rituals, archaeologist Enrique Vela told Efe.
"In the Mayan glyphs, we find a history of passions and intrigues. There are close to 1,000 years of constant warfare between city-states that shared the same language, religious visions, customs and many other things," the editor of the magazine Arqueologia Mexicana told Efe.
He said the July edition of the magazine provides a detailed look at life in the courts of the rulers of Yaxchilan, Calakmul, Palenque, Tonina, Copan, Tikal and other Mayan cities of the Classic period (250-900 A.D.).
Extensive information is known about two Mayan periods - the conquest era, thanks to chroniclers' accounts; and the Classic era, due to glyphs written on stone and ceramics that provide details such as dates of "birth, death, enthronement and kinship relations."
The archaeologist recalled that the pioneering efforts of Russian researcher Yuri Knorosov (1922-1999) helped present-day archaeologists begin to understand the meaning of the inscriptions.
But Vela noted that caution must be exercised in interpreting the glyphs because they represent the king-approved version of the wars and rituals, adding that "everything must be seen as rulers' propaganda" and their accounts must therefore be compared with the results of other research.
"Sometimes they tell us in their inscriptions that their cities were enormous even though the archaeological data indicates they were small, or that a ruler was 80 years old when his bone fragments show an age of 53," he said.
ECR 102 : Introduction à l’écriture maya / Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphic writing
Rulers made sure rituals were performed - including sacrifices to perpetuate the natural cycles - and they would wear masks to represent the gods during such appeasement ceremonies.
"In the case of the Maya, self-sacrifices were performed. The leaders would donate their blood, they had their tongues, penises and ears pierced (and) the blood that flowed was sacred liquid," he said.
Vela said that although there is no concrete evidence of human sacrifice, the paintings of Bonampak in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas show "images of decapitations in which blood flows from the body of a sacrificed individual" whose heart apparently had been ripped out.
"We now know the names of all of the leaders in each city-state, their story, their passions, their wars recorded in the writings," he said.
The Maya, whose contributions to mankind included a unique calendar based on a vigesimal (base 20) numeral system, were constantly at war and it's all recorded in the inscriptions," the anthropologist said.
Referring to the Mayans' abandonment of the Classic period cities and relocation to the northern Yucatan Peninsula, he said there is no mystery to the exodus and that it was caused by numerous factors such as a climate of war, demographic pressures and soil exhaustion from intensive agriculture.
He said a relatively young, 1,000-year-old tropical jungle - stretching from southern Mexico to Honduras - covers much of the former Mayan area of influence in the Classic-period.
"We believe there are several cities lost in the jungle. Some have been explored but there (could be) thousands of cities buried under the jungle, some of them very large," Vela said.