The Magnificent Maya


Deep within the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and surrounding areas) lie the legendary temples and palaces of the Maya. By the time Europe was trying to figure out things during the Dark Ages, the Mayans had already charted the heavens, designed and constructed huge cities, evolved the only true writing system native to the Americas, as well as mastered mathematics and calendars. And they did all this without the advantage of metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel!  

The vast city-states they built, had an astonishing degree of architectural perfection and variety. Their legacy in stone has survived in a spectacular fashion at places such as ChacchobenKohunlichDzibancheKinichna and Cahal Pech and many, many others.
I’m not sure if it’s because we’re old and have a deep appreciation for things “ancient,” or because the Mayans were amazingly cool people, but John and I LOVE visiting Mayan ruins.  We’ve sure picked the right spot on the planet for this, because around here, much like Starbucks in the US, they are everywhere!  We’ve been to 5 archeological ruins sites so far and have plans to visit at least that many more while here in Belize.


When we were in Chetumal we visited the Museum of Mayan Culture. We went during the day, on a weekday, and were fortunate enough to have the entire museum all to ourselves.  How cool is that?  Here are a few things we learned.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Mayan Beholder

Every culture has its own idea of what makes a person beautiful, right? The billions of dollars spent annually on weight loss, make up, hair dye and plastic surgery affirms that nowadays, people are willing to pay a lot of money to be glamorous.  It was no different for the Mayans.  They took great pride in their appearance and went to great lengths to achieve the Mayan ideal

The Maya were small in stature, with dark skin, dark eyes and straight black hair, which to them was not at all beautiful.  Instead, they preferred long sloping foreheads and slightly crossed eyes.  It didn’t matter the social class – priests, rulers, merchants, peasants or slaves – all desired this type of beauty.  When a baby was born, the Maya would tie the infant to a board and then place another board on the baby’s head at an angle. Pressure was applied to the second board until the desired head “slope” was achieved.  Many babies died, but parents ignored the risk and the deformation continued. 

To get the slightly cross-eyed look, a piece of thread with an attached ball was hung between the baby’s eyes, causing the newborn to focus on the bauble and eventually rotate the eyes inwards.  I remember, as a kid, when I learned to cross my eyes.  My mom would chide me with, “Margaret Anel, stop it!!!  Do you want your eyes to lock like that??” I guess she knew what she was talking about.

But there’s more…

To a Mayan, pointy teeth were also attractive, so it was all the rage to file your teeth.  This had to hurt. But, all in the name of beauty right? Teeth were also inlaid with pyrite, jade or obsidian similar to the gold teeth donned by people today.

To compliment the sloped heads, slightly crossed eyes and pointy teeth, they loved piercings.  Noses, ears, and lips were all pierced to accommodate jewelry. The men also tattooed and scarred their bodies.  Does this sound familiar?

After all the body mutilation and decoration, you’d think that clothing would be a big deal to these people.  Oh, contraire!  What was worn on the body wasn’t a big deal, except for headdresses. The bigger the headdress, the more important the person.  

So are you getting a clear image of what these people looked like? Peculiar, huh?  Evidently, though, their unique appearance didn’t hamper their intelligence one bit.

Brainiac Mayans

Weird shaped heads served the Mayans well when it came to brain power. Go figure.

The Maya developed a complex writing system that included pictograms, as well as characters.  Unfortunately, in the 1500s and onward, Spanish friars destroyed most of the traces of it when they burned every Mayan book they came across, because of “idolatrous” content. Fortunately, four of them survived. 

It took modern scientists and lexicographers until the 1970s to break the code of the Mayan language, and when they did, old assumptions about the Maya civilization were dashed, and a very different picture of the Mayans emerged.  Prior to the 1970s, the Mayans were considered a docile, peaceful people.  Through the surviving books and temple etchings it was discovered that they were much more violent in war, capturing of prisoners and shedding human blood for sacrifices to the gods. In fact, their wars were fought not just for territory and power, but for access to the enemies’ supernatural power which was acquired, supposedly, by human sacrifice.

Because of the plentiful supply of corn for food, the Mayans weren’t required to spend all their time worrying about what was for dinner, so they had plenty of time to pursue things like mathematics and astronomy to a very high level.  Being keen mathematicians, the Mayans invented the concept of zero, centuries before Europeans understood it. They developed a number of calendars, including a 365-day solar one that matches ours for accuracy.  They built many observatories and were able to predict eclipses and chart the path of planets and stars.

Doctor, Doctor

To the ancient Mayans, staying healthy was a complex blend of mind, body, religion, ritual and science. Only a select few were put through extensive education and allowed to practice medicine as shamans.  The local shaman was a combination of sorcerer, healer and seer, with the foresight to predict and control natural events. It is known that Mayan shamans sutured wounds with human hair, reset fractured bones and were skilled cosmetic dental surgeons (remember the pointy teeth!)

The Mayans used hallucinogenic drugs for religious rituals as well as day to day painkillers.  Peyote, morning glory, mushrooms, tobacco and plants used to make alcohol were prevalent. 

Playing Around

The Mayans also took time to play.  They played a strange game using a 20” rubber ball. The “Ball Game” was played on a court that had walls that sloped inward.  Hanging high on the walls were stone rings. The goal of the game was to pass the ball around without touching it with your hands and to get the ball through a ring. Since the rings were so high, it was really tough and when one of the teams did manage to “score”, it usually ended the game. 

The playing of the game was a solemn event.  Sacred songs were played and sung, as the play commenced (think school alma maters sung at football games). Winners were considered heroes and were usually treated to a great feast after victory. The fate of the losing team was harsh. The losers were usually put to death. Other than the death part, the Mayan Ball Game was a lot like sports of today, with players working as a team to beat another team, getting a ball through a hoop, not touching the ball with hands (think soccer), huge structures built for playing, where large numbers of people watched and gambling on which team would win. 

Here’s a really good timeline of the major events in Mayan History. Check it out. It will blow your mind.

Being equipped with all this Mayan historical info has made our trips to the ruins much more than just poking around piles of old rocks.  We feel the spirit of a people that were brilliant and way ahead of the rest of the world in many ways.  It is estimated that there are more than seven million people with Mayan roots in the world today and most of them live in the Yucatan Peninsula. We have a new respect for their fascinating ancestry, and, we LOVE visiting, exploring and climbing the ruins of their magnificent Mayan forefathers.

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