Tri-City Herald, Sunday, May 12, 2002

Mysteries of the Mayans

©2002 Valerie Kreutzer

Tourists on Mayan temple stepsWhy didn’t I bring a flashlight, I thought, stumbling through the labyrinth at the entrance of Yaxchilan, one of the ancient Mayan cities in southern Mexico.

Without light I felt lost in the total darkness, groping along slimy walls, accompanied by the swooshing sound of bats that have lived here for over a thousand years.  Get me out of here, screamed my pounding heart.

Openings beckoned left and right and following a faint glimmer, I soon emerged onto the main plaza of Yaxchilan, a royal city in a loop of the Usumacinta River in the state of Chiapas, at the boarder with Guatemala.  It had taken me one hour by boat, three hours by co-op van, and 13 hours by bus from Mexico City to get here.  But it had taken the Mayas 400 years to build this royal city.

Yaxchilan, an independent city-state, reached its most glamorous period around 750 A.D. A hundred years later, it would share the fate of all Mayan cities: It would be abandoned and soon forgotten.

When the Spanish conquistadors stumbled over Mayan ruins six hundred years later, they didn’t believe that the ancestors of the indigenous people--whom they described as “savages”--had built these architectural wonders.  The Greeks and Romans, the Spaniards thought, must have passed through this area that stretches from Honduras to Oaxaca, and from the Pacific coast of Guatemala to the Yucatan peninsula.

Over the past 100 years, however, European and American archeologists have determined that the stone cities with their towering flat-topped pyramids, the ornate temples, palaces and causeways belonged indeed to the most developed civilization in the New World: the Maya. 

Through the explorers’ research we know that Yaxchilan was ruled in its heyday by Bird Jaguar, a king who lived in a monumental temple on a hilltop that hovered over housing for the nobility, priests and artisans.  Mayan cities were not commercial but ceremonial centers and peasants and laborers lived outside the boundary in straw-thatched mud huts, long since gone.  Status was hereditary.  There was no upward mobility.

The life of laborers and peasants was harsh.  They built stone cities without the benefit of draught animals--the Spaniards brought the first horses--wheels and iron.  They used harder stones to chisel hieroglyphic inscriptions into the limestone slabs that marked important events.  The peasants cultivated maize, the basis of the Mayan diet, by slashing and burning small areas in the rain forest--a practice that continues to this day.

The priests were the most important class.  Initiation into the priesthood probably included passage through the spooky labyrinth I had just traversed.  The priests were ingenious astrologers who established a surprisingly accurate calendar.  They were consulted on important events and foretold a newborn’s destiny.  They also presided over religious ceremonies that included human sacrifice and self-mutilation.

And they soaked in sweathouses, according to a sign at one of the buildings. Why sweathouses, I wondered, when this tropical climate makes you drip and gasp just walking?  Add to the soaring temperatures and high humidity thick undergrowth that quickly swallows whole buildings, mosquitoes and sand fleas that eat you alive, and you are amazed that the Mayans lasted here as long as they did. 

Ready to leave, I roused my sleeping boatman and returned to Frontera Corozal, a dot on the map where young tourists with big backpacks like to cross over to Guatemala.

At a lodge I met Ellen, a grandmother from Maine who had just built a house with Habitat for Humanity, and Matthew, a young environmentalist from Washington D.C. who had attended a meeting with local leaders.  At seven in the morning, the three of us set out for Bonampak, another Mayan city that was discovered by a Western explorer in 1946.

According to the story, Giles Healey had observed that the Lakandon, a Mayan tribe, would disappear ever so often for religious rites at a secret place.  When they finally took him along, he was amazed to find a temple with exquisite murals.  The colorful wall paintings tell stories of the life and rituals at the Mayan court, such as the presentation of a new king, a victorious battle and the torture of captives, and the procession of women in white who puncture their tongues in self-mutilation.

The Mexican government lets the Lakandon people administer Bonampak, the Mayan word for painted walls.  Margarito Little Bird, a village elder, drove us to the site, told us about his people and later took us to see his village.

There are only 382 Lakandones, Margarito explained.  When we wondered how so few could populate three villages, he allowed:  “Well, if you count women and children, there are about 1,000 of us.”  We arrived in his village just as school let out and adults and children clustered around us.

The men are about five feet two, the women are smaller.  They have very light skin, wear their hair long and open, and some still dress in white cotton shifts familiar from the mural paintings at the temple.  The teacher took us on a tour of the two-room school and simple sentences on the blackboard made us realize that Spanish is a second language for these kids.  “How is the war in Afghanistan?” the teacher wanted to know, and although we’d been out of the loop for some time, we tried to brief him as best we could.  The village had electricity and a health clinic but no television.  Stubbornly independent, the Lakandones lead an isolated and marginal existence. 

Before leaving, Matthew decided to accept Margarito’s offer of a guide and provisions so he could camp at Bonampak for a few days.  Ellen had to meet her daughter in Belize, and so I was again the only tourist on the van back to Palenque.

Every few miles a military roadblock made us stop.  The checkpoints are reminders that Chiapas has been the scene of bloody revolts against the Mexican government in recent years.  For decades, the ruling party supported the Chiapas ranch owners who kept the majority Mayan people land-poor and disenfranchised.  However, the recent change of power and party in the nation’s capital has brought a tentative halt to the hostilities. Whenever a rifled soldier checked our van, the driver would vaguely point,  “just some American tourists--and a few locals.”  I always got us through without ado.

I had saved Palenque, the largest and most spectacular of Mexico’s Mayan city-states, for last.  Entering the site almost takes your breath away. Straight-ahead is the Temple of Inscriptions, a stepped pyramid that rises to a summit temple.  Fifty years ago, a Mexican archeologist discovered a trap door in the floor and stairs that led 82 feet down to the amazing tomb of King Pakal, the most important ruler at Palenque.  The jade-encrusted mask found in the tomb is now on exhibit in Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology.

On the steps leading to the temple sat a family in traditional Chiapas outfits.  They had come from San Cristobal, obviously enjoying this outing into their past.  Could I take their picture?  They shyly nodded, but none of them dared look into my camera.  

Across from the Temple of Inscriptions is the Palace, a complex of courtyards, corridors, tunnels, and drainage ducts, crowned by a tower that was probably used as an observatory.  This monumental structure evolved over 400 years.

Wherever you look from the top of the palace you see clusters of temples, some still half covered by dirt and underbrush, some fully restored.  They are grouped along a creek that is lined with stone blocks and covered with vaults to prevent flooding.

Wandering around all day, I also came upon the ball court with viewing stands—an important site in every Mayan city.  According to picture inscriptions, even the king played with the rubber ball.  It that had to be thrown through a loop without hands, only with arms, knees and head.  Games were not mere entertainment, but ceremonial plays that symbolized life’s opposing forces.  I’ve heard of different end-game scenarios.  One source tells us that the losers were used for human sacrifice.  Another says—and I like that one better—that the winners were entitled to the spectators’ clothes and jewelry.  In the end, the spectators would flee as the winners chased after them—what a scramble!

At a small temple I meet Adela who guards a large sculpture of the rain god.  She’s worked at Palenque for 20 years. “I love it here, it is so peaceful,” she says.  Indeed, except for the cries of howler monkeys and exotic birds, there is hardly a sound from the machetes that keep the encroaching jungle at bay, and the workmen who restore crumbling structures by hand, one stone at a time.

What made the Mayans abandon their cities around 900 A.D., I ask Adela who’s had time to think about it.  “Perhaps there was a change in climate, perhaps there was a drought,” she says.  “Perhaps there was an epidemic.  Perhaps there were wars and the Mayans didn’t have the muscle to defeat the enemy.  Whatever happened, the people who left here settled in the Yucatan.”

The theory of a drought is hard to believe in this tropical forest where it rains daily and for hours during the rainy season.  This January afternoon is no exception, and I run for shelter from a sudden downpour that ends with a glorious double rainbow. 

Whatever the reason for their sudden exodus, the Mayans took many of their secrets with them, I realize. They still amaze and puzzle us, even after 1,100 years.