12 Facts About the Mayans: Brush Up Your Knowledge Before the Apocalypse (Or Not…)

From the Bonampak Mural. Image via Wikipedia, public domain.

From the Bonampak Mural. Image via Wikipedia, public domain.

The Mayan Apocalypse, which has somehow also included the zombie apocalypse, has been quite a hot topic as of late. And all this panic about that calendar really is a shame. In spite of the fact that there are multiple calendars (and, y’know, maybe they just ran out of space on that rock) I think we’re forgetting that the Mayans were a phenomenally advanced culture and deserve some recognition outside of their wrongly perceived doomsaying. So I’ve gleaned the Internets in search of twelve tasty tidbits about the Mayans that, hopefully, will inspire you come December 22nd when, indeed, none of us are bathing in vats of blood as sacrifices to gods of old. Hopefully.

  1. Most people agree that the Mayan civilization came to being sometime around 1800 BCE. To give you a frame of reference, that’s approximately when Hammurabi was ruling Babylon, when the Nordic and Chinese Bronze Ages began, and marked the start of the height of Troy.
  2. Their Classic Period went from AD 250-900, and was likely one of the most advanced civilizations on earth, boasting dozens of cities, a hieroglyphic writing system, and a robust political and trade structure.
  3. The Mayan territories included Guatemala, the Chiapas highlands, the entire Yucatan Peninsula, parts of modern day Mexico, El Salvador, and all of Belize. The land of the Highland Maya was made rich by a chain of volcanoes. In spite of the tumultuous scenery, it still made the land fertile and able to support the large population.
  4. Between 600,000 and 1M lived in the region before the arrival of the Spaniards, with some cities in excess of 100,000 people. No one has an exact head count, but those numbers are pretty impressive for that time period considering the lack of modern conveniences.
  5. There are about 30 dialects and languages when it comes to the Mayans, and their hieroglyphs contain 800 different symbols.
  6. Cenotes are one of the prominent and most important features of the area. Basically, they’re fresh-water wells, some likely a result of the Chicxulub crater impact. They’re formed from collapsing limestone bedrock below the surface that allows groundwater to rise up, creating fresh water pools. They are connected to other underground water sources. Not only were the cenotes essential for the survival of the Mayans, as there are few rivers or other natural water sources, but they were apparently used for human sacrifice from time to time. So much for potable drinking water…
  7. The Mayans loved a good ballgame, and built some fantastic structures for playing. There are over 1300 known sites, and though they’re not all the same size they are relatively the same design: two sloping sides and a flat basin narrow alley. The largest, El Tajin, is 126 meters long. Some are decorated by markers and stones, but we’re not sure what they represent, exactly. The game itself is a bit of a mystery. The general consensus is that the game was something like racquetball and dates to around 1400 BCE.
    One of two ballgame courts at Coba - Picture Credit: Geeks are Sexy (March 2011)

    One of two ballgame courts at Coba – Picture Credit: Geeks are Sexy (March 2011)

  8. Like many cultures, they liked to drink and smoke. Some familiar and not-so-familiar ingredients on this list kept them entertained: chocolate, tobacco, balche, and pulque.
  9. Like the Egyptians, the Mayans’ architectural feats are universally revered and still relatively unexplained. We’re not really sure how they did it, though there’s plenty of theories. Aside from the classic pyramids, they built a variety of other structures including platforms, palaces, observatories, and other buildings that seemed to serve astronomic or ceremonial purposes.
    The Main Pyramid at Coba - Picture Credit: Geeks are Sexy (March 2011)

    The Main Pyramid at Coba – Picture Credit: Geeks are Sexy (March 2011)

  10. Their gods have some rather amusing epithets, including God A/Kisinwho is known as the god of death or, sometimes, the flatulent one. While we’re fuzzy on many of the details of their religion, it’s clear from their artwork that the afterlife was considered rather scary. The underworld, which could be reached by tunnels and caves below ground, was also known as the “Place of Fright.”
  11. Food was plenty, and that makes sense. You need food to keep such a big civilization going. There were four pillars of Mayan cuisine, though, which made up their central diet: maize, squash, beans, and chili peppers. Maize, or corn as we know it now (though that word is borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon), featured prominently in their artwork, celebration, and iconography. There’s even maize gods! We can also thank them for discovering chocolate, though their beverage was far from the way we drink it now: mixed with peppers, cornmeal and honey, it was a drink for kings.
  12. Human sacrifice gets all the press, but it’s more likely that the Mayans practiced more animal sacrifice and bloodletting than full-out human sacrifice. Yes, it was a brutal world. But keep in mind that many cultures practiced similar rituals to appease their gods, so they believed. There are many Mayanists out there who have worked their entire lifetimes to try and piece together the Mayan approach to sacrifice, with a whole lot of varying theories (including the use of blood from the genitals, I kid you not). While there are some horror stories (children, babies, etc.) supported by archaeological evidence, there’s still not enough to say just how often and how popular the practice was. That the Mayans had a rather dark side when it came to life and the role of human beings related to the god isn’t up for dispute, but we may never know the gritty details.

Unless of course, we all experience it first-hand on Friday.