Five things we learned about the Maya in Central America

Who doesn’t know the game in which one person says a word and the other one completes with the first thing that pops into your head? I have no idea about the purpose of the game, except to prove that you have a dirty mind. Until a year ago, if you’d asked me to play and threw the word ‘Maya’ at me, I’d probably have replied ‘the bee’.

What about you? Be honest. Unless you’ve visited Central America or have a degree in history, you likely don’t know much about the Maya.

Yes, it’s a potential answer in any crossword puzzle asking for ‘ancient Latin American people’, with the Incas and the Aztecs being the other options. So far, so good. You probably remember their end-of-the-world prophecy. And if you’ve seen the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto, you probably think the Maya have more thirst for blood than a house warming party of vampires.

But other than that? What do you know about the Maya’s beliefs, their lifestyle, their diet? Did you know they invented a ball-game in which losers or winners were sacrificed? (How about a game, Cristiano Ronaldo?) That their shamans cured every imaginable disease with tree branches or leaves? That they invented chocolate? Here are five other things we learned about the Maya during our nine-month-long sojourn through the Maya world:

1. The Maya are alive (but not so much kicking)

You might assume that the Maya died out with the collapse of their civilisation. But just like Rome still has Romans, even if they have nothing to do with Julius Caesar or Panem et circenses, the Maya linger in Mesoamerica. In Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, all countries we’ve visited, they are very much alive (although they’re too peaceful to be kicking). In this blog post, I’ll talk about the current Maya as well as their ancestors, so it’s important to note this first.

Maya lady in Zunil near Xela

We learned about the Maya from visiting a dozen archaeological sites and ruins, yes, but even more so from infiltrating into their communities. In Guatemala, we admired their clothes in Cobán, ate their food in Nebaj, listened to their stories on the banks of Lake Atitlán. We lived five weeks on a Belizean farm within walking distance from a Maya village called San Antonio. In Copán, Honduras, we stayed for two weeks near the ‘Paris of the Mayan world’.

Find out more about the Maya in Belize in this post about ethnicity in Belize.

Our week of Spanish classes in Quetzaltenango proved key to understanding the Maya. INEPAS, our school in Xela, supports the education of underprivileged Mayan children in poor rural communities. That’s a pleonasm, by the way – most Mayan children are disadvantaged. The director of INEPAS, Maria Antonieta Ixcoteyac Velásquez, gave us a two-hour lecture on Maya culture and the many misunderstandings that live on in the western world. In Spanish, yes.

2. They are suppressed. Badly.

For the indigenous people of the American continent, the year 1492 was not a reason to dance on the tables. Led by Columbus, the Spaniards pillaged all the natural resources of the land. In exchange for all that hospitality, they left infectious diseases that caused havoc amongst the locals.

When the conquistadors arrived, the Mayan empire had already dwindled. Long gone were the days of mighty city-states that built grand, awe-inspiring temples and developed a profound understanding of mathematics and astrology. The Maya who could retell the collapse of their empire lived in rural communities. They followed a system that was utterly different in political, spiritual and economic terms from the one in vogue in Europe. The enlightened Spaniards would swiftly put an end to it.

It is what Ixcoteyac Velásquez calls “the destruction of the Maya” in Guatemala. “It started in 1524, when the Europeans arrived in Guatemala, and is still going on.” That destruction went far, really far. The Spaniards saw the Maya as pagans, as savages. They wanted to eradicate all elements of their culture.

Diego de Landa, the bishop of Yucatán, thought it was absurd for the Maya to worship many of their ancient gods, rather than pray to Jesus Christ unconditionally. He commanded that all codices, Mayan books written on bark paper, be thrown on a large pile and set on fire. According to Ixcoteyac Velásquez, “the mountain of books burned for 30 days”. Today, only four codices remain. The Landa wrote about his self-imposed destruction:

“We found a large number of books with these characters [hieroglyphics], and since they contained nothing that should not be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which greatly grieved them [the Maya], and caused a lot of vexation.”

Two Maya men and Maximón, a Mayan saint.

Inside a house in Santiago Atitlán, two men guard Maximón, an ancient Mayan saint capable of miracles.

“1524 was the first page of a new history,” says Ixocteyac Velásquez, “From then on, we were no longer Maya but Indians, animals, savages.” Discrimination against Maya continued for a long time. In the 19th century, the Guatemalan government gave Germans, Belgians and other foreigners free land to start coffee plantations, land that had always belonged to the Maya (see number 3). They got the workers for free as well. Not that the foreigners did not pay the Maya at all. Their pittance, however, often came in a unique currency that could only be used in farm shops, where the Maya could purchase products at extortionate prices. The foreigners laughed up their sleeves a second time.

In 1945, Guatemala elected Jacobo Arbenz as president, a nationalist with an ambitious plan to redistribute the land. He wanted to give a small part of the unprocessed area of the largest companies and farms to the landless Maya. The end of slavery! That sounded too communist for the CIA. Or, at least, it was not in favour of the United Fruit Company, the corporation that controlled a large part of Guatemala and barely paid taxes. The Americans launched an invasion and chased Arbenz out of the country in his underpants. The Maya were back where they started. In the ensuing civil war, they had to endure the worst. I wrote about this earlier in this article about hikes near Nebaj.

Ixil Maya lady in Nebaj

Nowadays, the most visible elements of discrimination are slowly starting to disappear, but the Maya have far from equal rights. A right-wing tendency within the Guatemalan society even claims that the current Maya are not the real heirs of the ancient Mayan culture, its justification for ignoring the land claims of the Maya (again point 3).

“Guatemala is still not a democracy,” says Ixcoteyac Velásquez, “You cannot call a country a democracy if a few companies own everything. If there is no place for indigenous groups, who have been working the land for millennia. If an oligarchy of 16 families holds all the power – 12 families of descendants of immigrants from Spain, Germany, Belgium, the US, England and Italy, and four families of newly rich, Guatemalans who’ve made big bucks in the drug trade or the army. These families arrange everything among themselves and ensure that the political and economic power remains with them. The parties in the driver’s seat may change, but the real power does not.”

3. The Maya have a radically different concept of land

All of the above has made it abundantly clear: land ownership plays a big part in the misery of the Maya. Historically, they have never occupied themselves with drawing lines or issuing property papers. There are no borders in the Maya world. “Our concept of land is completely different from that of Europeans,” explains Ixocteyac Velásquez, “Europeans view land from an economic point of view. They consider in the first place the benefits that they can get out of it. While to the Maya the land is sacred, the source of their survival. Private ownership does not fit that picture. The Maya philosophy revolves around ‘we’. Individualism is out of the question.”

That – beware: danger of spontaneous levitation – holistic approach runs through all aspects of Mayan life. For example, the entire community is engaged in raising children. Ixocteyac Velásquez: “Everyone is responsible for everything. That is why you will not soon see a begging child on the streets of a Mayan village. Because that’s a child of the community and no one will tolerate such behaviour. If someone is ashamed, everyone is. If someone is hurting, everyone is hurting. When a person has a problem, then everyone has a problem. Everything is connected. Because: you can’t be happy when others suffer.”

“We all belong to a large family in which each individual also has its own responsibility,” she continues, “The role of the individual depends on age and runs according to a 13-year cycle. You grow up in your family from 0 to 13 years old. From 13 years old, you take up your first role in the community and help you with the work. Maya work together on the land, sowing and harvesting. Three cycles later, at the age of 52, you become a complete person.”

Mayan ladies working together on the land near Zunil, Guatemala.

Mayan ladies working together on the land near Zunil, Guatemala.

That is why it is so difficult to understand the legal system of the Maya. “Europe is individualistic. If you make a mistake, you end up in prison. Not in a Mayan community. Exactly because everyone is responsible,” says Ixocteyac Velásquez, although she admits that the situation in the cities is different than in the villages, “Village Maya still have norms and values ​​. Not that they are written down, but they are passed on verbally from childhood.”

4. They were practically vegetarians

To adapt the title of a hit from the early 2000s: it’s just corn, mum! Corn flour is the cement that holds the Mayan community together. Together with beans and pumpkin, corn is the agricultural Holy Trinity of the Maya. These three simple foods give the Mayans everything they need: corn provides carbohydrates, beans are an excellent source of iron and pumpkins are chock-full of vitamins. They don’t need anything else. Okay, a good piece of wild fruit will never go to waste. And the Maya will not quickly turn down a slice of turkey, native to Mexico, either. But other than that, corn, beans, and pumpkins suffice.

To this day, the Maya eat truckloads of corn tortillas and tamales, steamed corn dough wrapped in a corn husk. In traditional regions, you’ll still find a mostly vegetarian diet, for example in the area around Nebaj, where we mainly ate bolboxes (green leafy vegetables with a spicy sauce), beans and eggs. Meat is reserved for special occasions.

A kitchen in the Nebaj region. Note the cat on the floor and the hanging corn cobs.

By the way: why are there so many chicken restaurants in Guatemala and the surrounding countries? Blame those damned Europeans who couldn’t live without their familiar meals for two minutes. They brought along the ingredients that they could not find in Central America, including heaps of meat. Think of all those Spaniards who already call for their mum if they once have to survive a meal without chorizo or jamón. Conquering a continent, all fine, but not without the necessary chicken legs and wings! The smart guys hadn’t thought of bringing chefs though. That’s why they asked the local Mayan ladies to prepare something. The communication, however, did not go smoothly; the Spaniards failed to explain to the chefs what they wanted. The latter then started improvising. Which led to great results, for example in Mexico.

Where were we? Oh yes, corn. Corn is sacred to the Maya. Not only because God made supposedly sculpted humans from masa (corn dough), but also because the corn crop made their holy calendar advance. One of the Maya calendars follows the cycle of corn – planting and harvesting for 260 days. It is the backbone of the community, when everyone, young and old, works together to ensure their continued existence. In Mayan households, you often see corn cobs hanging in the kitchen. Everything revolves around it.

“The Maya first modified corn from teosinte near Huehuetenango 5000 years ago,” says Ixcoteyac Velásquez, “Call that the Mayan Lab. Corn does not only have a biological, but also a ceremonial, physiological and cultural significance. Hence the four colours of corn – yellow, white, red and black.” That connection with their food is also the reason why the Mayans are so angry with Monsanto. “In 2014, that company destroyed our corn. The result of their genetic modifications is that we now find insects in corn cobs.”

Corn tortillas

5. The Maya reserved one hundred days a year to make art

We finally got there. That damned Mayan calendar! The reason why producers of Spam, propane gas heaters and fall-out shelters still survive. The direct reason for the largest number of simultaneous hangovers since the last title celebration of FC Bruges. Because let’s be honest, who didn’t drink like there was no tomorrow on the evening of December 20, 2012? It turned out that there was a tomorrow, and your head certainly knew it!

But now that we’ve come to the point: apparently, the Maya never claimed that the world would come to an end in 2012. No, that “end of the world” simply turned out to be the “end of one cycle.” For the Maya, 2012 was a reason to celebrate. Great, but why couldn’t they say that straight away?! (By the way, Justin Bieber released an album in 2012, which indeed feels a bit like the end of the world, but doesn’t count in this case.)

Maya in Solola, near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

“Hahaha – and you guys really believed that?”

According to Ixocteyac Velásquez, it is our own fault that we believed all that bull. She says that there are three truths about everything related to the Maya: the one from the Maya themselves, one written by the colonizer and one written by the anthropologists, who, according to her, have no idea what the Maya really feel or mean. “They explain the culture and philosophy of the Maya from their own European background,” she says, “Like the wars between the Maya city cities, which anthropologists have completely novelised.”

The Maya did like to make calendars. They had about 20 different ones. Their observations of the sky and planets were far ahead of their time. I already mentioned that one of the most essential calendars follows the corn cycle. No surprises there. The calendar happens in two phases of 140 and 120 days, 260 days in total.

After the Maya had harvested the corn, 100 days followed that were reserved for art, creativity, spirituality, recreation, architecture, music, painting, you name it. In other words: the Maya had a lot of days off. They must’ve had a good union. To complete the lunar calendar, five more days ensued. These final days served to meditate, to forgive others for their mistakes and to express thanks for everything. Admirable, but then again, the Maya probably hadn’t heard that new album by Justin Bieber yet.

Mayan ladies in San Pedro, Lake Atitlán.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *