Traveling back in time to the tropical rainforests of
Central America and Southern Mexico some 1,100 to 1,700 years ago,
we encounter the fascinating civilization of the ancient Mayans.
Revelations From the Mayans
By Zi Xue & Quan Heng
Astounding Knowledge and Skills
The Maya civilization was both an agrarian and urban society. Its cities were bustling centers of commerce, culture and government. The principle crop was corn, which was considered to have vital power and even spiritual significance. Mayan Tikal, a major center, was home to about 60,000 people within a six-square-mile area, making it several times denser in population than average cities in Europe or America of the same historical period. It contained more than 10,000 structures, from temple-pyramids to huts.
The construction of pyramids by the Mayans required sophisticated astronomical knowledge. Pyramids were constructed of hand-cut limestone, and were built to align with compass directions and celestial events. For example, during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun’s rays might shine through tiny openings in a Mayan observatory, illuminating all within.
In the case of the ancient site of Chichen Itza, the genius of Mayan astronomers and architects is visible externally every vernal and autumnal equinox. Thousands flock to the site to watch the sun bathe the Temple of Kukulcan’s (the Feathered Serpent god) primary stairway, causing seven isosceles triangles of shadow to form and create the body of a 120-foot-long serpent that slithers down the stairs to join a huge serpent’s head located at the base.
In part, the Mayans went to great lengths to align their temples with the stars in order to worship the gods. They believed that the gods guided the sun and moon. Their astronomical and mathematical knowledge were so inexplicably advanced as to be considered astounding by modern scholars.
There has been extensive speculation that the Mayans had help from extraterrestrials. Some speculate that their gods were in fact aliens. The sarcophagus lid of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, a Mayan ruler, features stone carvings which depict a man resembling an astronaut steering what resembles a spacecraft. The mystery of the carvings remains unsolved.
Mysterious Rise and Fall
In the 16th century CE, the invading Spaniards destroyed most of the written records left by the Mayans. The texts that were salvaged have not yet been fully interpreted. Hence the origin, rise and decline of the Maya civilization are still shrouded in mystery.
The Mayans were also famous for the way they kept track of time using a complicated calendar with a 260-day year known as a tzolkin. There is also a solar year measuring the days it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, and a Venus year measuring the time Venus takes to orbit the sun. In addition, there is the Long Count, a nonrepeating calendar used for longer periods and counting all days since its creation with 20 days in one month and 18 months comprising one year. Twenty years is a katun, 20 katun make one baktun, and so on. The largest unit, an alautun, equals 23,040,000,000 days.
What was the significance and use of such large counting units to the Mayans? Astronomical research? Again the alien theory comes into play. Some say that aliens came to Earth and bestowed the gift of knowledge upon the Mayans, while others believe that the Mayans were aliens from a planet that had been destroyed. The survivors fled to Earth, created a brilliant civilization, and left quietly.
Others subscribe to more earthly explanations, postulating that the Mayan people originated in Asia. They could have been hunters from Northeastern Asia who crossed the prehistoric Bering Strait Land Bridge to the Americas.
Some have suggested that around 1,000 BC the Shang dynasty was vanquished, and General Hou Houxi led 250,000 Shang troops eastward, crossing the Pacific Ocean. After much hardship and difficulty, they reached Central America and established the Maya civilization.
The sudden decline of the Maya civilization is even more puzzling than its origin. From the 9th century onward, the Mayan city-states suffered massive decline, all at the same time. Between the 10th century and the end of the 11th century, the once-prosperous Mayan cities were abandoned and eventually covered by the jungle. There are various hypotheses, such as foreign invasions, population explosions, plague and epidemics, climate change, and so on. One popular view is that the Mayans suffered from urban overdevelopment. Catastrophic overpopulation led to excessive resource consumption, sparking fierce battles for resources that ultimately brought the downfall of the civilization.
Ancient Wisdom and Relevance to Modern Day
The Mayans left behind large numbers of stone tablets and stone pillars. The Mayan hieroglyphs that are engraved on them recorded their religious myths, prayers, history, astronomy, and images. One of the most profound Mayan sayings is: “Earth is not owned by human beings, but human beings belong to Earth.”
Deciphered Mayan texts indicate that the Mayans paid great attention to a harmonious coexistence with Nature. Prior to cultivating or burning forests, they would hold sacred rituals to pray for the forgiveness and blessing of the gods. They cultivated land according to the basic needs of the population and allowed arable land to rest every few years to replenish its nutrients. They hunted only to satisfy hunger and did not kill or capture wild animals indiscriminately.
However, as time went by and the population grew, resources became scarce. War broke out between the Mayan tribes. There is a parallel with our world of today. For a long time, humans have neglected the need to coexist harmoniously with Nature. As the environment deteriorates, human beings bear the brunt of our own actions. For example, factories produce a variety of goods of convenience to satisfy our needs and wants. However, when industrial wastewater is discharged into the rivers and lakes, the polluted water comes back to poison fish, plants, and our bodies.
Contemplate the Mayan saying “Earth is not owned by human beings, but human beings belong to Earth.” These words of wisdom from centuries ago are powerfully relevant to modern day.
Beginnings and Endings
Mayans believed that the world has its beginnings and endings. According to the Mayan Long Count calendar, the world will be reborn once every 5,125 years, when the old world is destroyed and a new world arises. The Mayan calendar has a 52-year cycle, similar to the Chinese 60-year stem-branch cycle. The Mayans added a layer of stone slabs to pyramids every 52 years. To them, the cycle of rebirth — arising, declining, dying and beginning anew — was nothing but the law of Nature.
The Mayans believed that if they performed good deeds while they were alive, their souls could go to Heaven after death. Conversely, evil-doers would go to hell after death. In Mayan Heaven, there are no diseases, no sorrows, no pains, and all of one’s wishes can be fulfilled. Their hell, however, is a terrible place. Though Mayan spirituality arose in a time and place different from that of Buddhism, these faiths share a vision of Heaven and hell.
Where do we come from? Where do we go next? What is the meaning of our existence? The Maya civilization extends its wisdom to us, cloaked in mystery, across the centuries, as we ponder these enduring questions. The Mayans integrated the stars into daily life, seeking harmony between self, humankind and Nature. As we seek clarity in the modern world, the fascinating wisdom of the Maya civilization serves as a source of endless inspiration.