Mayan civilization was so stable and
established, they even had a word for a 400-year time period.
Eventually, huge cities were swallowed up by the jungle, and Mayan
wisdom and knowledge was lost to mankind for centuries. What
brought down this thriving society, which had survived and
prospered for millennia?
Huge cities were swallowed up by the jungle, and Mayan wisdom
and knowledge was lost to mankind for centuries. What brought down
this thriving society, which had survived and prospered for
The Mayan ruins of Tikal are hidden deep in the rainforests of
Guatemala. From the air only a handful of temples and palaces peek
through the canopy. The stone carvings are weather-beaten. Huge
plazas are covered in moss and giant reservoirs are engulfed by
jungle. The only inhabitants are wild animals and birds.
But 1,200 years ago, Tikal was one of the major cities of the
vast and magnificent Maya civilisation that stretched across much
of what is now southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Tikal was
home to perhaps 100,000 people. Thatched farmsteads and fields
would have stretched as far as the eye could see.
The Maya thrived for nearly 2,000 years. Without the use of the
cartwheel or metal tools, they built massive stone structures.
They were accomplished scientists. They tracked a solar year of
365 days and one of the few surviving ancient Maya books contains
tables of eclipses. From observatories, like the one at Chichen
Itza, they tracked the progress of the war star, Venus.
Probably the best preserved is
the Dresden Codex. It is a detailed account of the astronomical
observations of the Mayas. The Maya sought to understand the
repetitive cycles of motions of the moon and planets, and thus
to be able to predict when these bodies would be in certain
places on the sky in the future. To allow such predictions, the
Maya also developed a sophisticated number system, of base 20
(compared with our base 10 system). Their observations were used
by their priests to indicate to the meso-American rulers
propitious times for various actions. Indeed, their whole
calendar played a critical role in identifying important
occasions, tied to many-year cycles of the base 20 numbering.
The Dresden Codex contains:
An eclipse table that predicts times when
eclipses may occur.
A Venus table that predicts the times when
Venus appears as morning star and the other apparitions of the
A Mars table that records the times when Mars
goes into retrograde motion. A second Mars table that tracks
the planet's motion along the ecliptic has recently been
They developed their own mathematics, using a base number of
20, and had a concept of zero. They also had their own system of
writing. Their civilisation was so stable and established, they
even had a word for a 400-year time period.
Mayan society was vibrant, but it could also be brutal. It was
strictly hierarchical and deeply spiritual. Humans were sacrificed
to appease the gods. The elite also tortured themselves - male
Maya rulers perforated the foreskins of their penises and the
women their tongues, apparently in the hope of providing
nourishment for the gods who required human blood.
In the ninth century, the Maya world was turned upside down.
Many of the great centres like Tikal were deserted. The sacred
temples and palaces briefly became home to a few squatters, who
left household rubbish in the once pristine buildings. When they
too left, Tikal was abandoned forever, and the Mayan civilization
never recovered. Only a fraction of the Maya people survived to
face the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
For decades, archaeologists have been searching for an
explanation of the Maya collapse. Many theories have been put
forward, ranging from warfare and invasion to migration, disease
and over-farming. Many think the truth may lie with a combination
of these and other factors.
But none of the conventional theories were good enough for Dick
Gill. He believed that what had devastated the Maya was drought.
However, drought as the only explanation of the Maya collapse was
Dick Gill was a most unusual person to put forward a bold new
theory explaining the collapse of Mayan civilization. When he
started his hunt for clues, he was actually a banker.
His love affair with the Maya started back in 1968 when he
visited Chichen Itza in Southern Mexico while on holiday. The
Mayan ruins, he says, really touched him. He resolved to solve the
riddle of the Maya collapse - but he still had a banking career to
In the early 1980s, fate stepped in with a Texas banking
crisis. The family bank collapsed, and Gill was suddenly out of
work and free to follow his dream. He went to college to study
anthropology and archaeology.
His realization of what might have caused the Maya collapse
came in a brainwave - it was an explanation that didn't come from
books and study, but directly from his own childhood. Gill
remembered the devastating droughts in Texas in the 1950s, when
farmland was parched and fires raged. The hot, sunny days seemed
interminable, and he was left with an emotional understanding of
the power of drought.
'His work led him to a dramatic conclusion - that the Maya
civilization consisted of millions of people who had died very
He felt sure the Maya had faced a huge drought, but he had no
evidence to back up his theory - so he set out to search for
clues. One of the first people he turned to was archaeologist Dr
Valdez, from the University of Texas, worked deep in the
jungles of Belize. He counted Maya farmsteads in order to estimate
the likely total population. Fragments of pottery told him when
the area was occupied and his work led him to a dramatic
conclusion - that the Maya civilization consisted of millions of
people who had died very suddenly. Gill knew few factors could
account for this - but one of them was drought.
In Gill's eyes, this strengthened his theory, but he still
needed direct evidence. It was time to trawl the archives.
National records held in Mexico City revealed that, at the start
of the 20th century, a drought in the Maya region had lasted three
years. Here was evidence that drought could, in fact, occur in
He then stumbled upon older, colonial records from the Spanish
authorities in the Yucatan province of Mexico, telling of repeated
drought. 'I found this plea for help', he says. 'The crops had
been very bad in the year 1795 - they were running out of grain
and they were afraid that the terrible death they had seen so
often in the past was going to repeat itself again, so they asked
Gill now had proof of devastating droughts in the past, but not
in the key ninth century. Then he discovered an extraordinary
coincidence. He'd studied hundreds of papers on meteorology before
he stumbled on one entitled 'Dendrochronology, mass balance and
glacier front fluctuations in northern Sweden'.
It had been extremely cold in northern Europe at just the time
of the Maya collapse, but what could possibly be the link? Gill
went back to the meteorological records, and found that one of the
high pressure systems in the north Atlantic had moved towards
Central America at the start of the 20th century. This was a time
of both drought in the Maya areas and extreme cold in northern
The scientists discovered that the ninth century had been the
driest time in the region for 7,000 years.
Though the circumstantial evidence was growing stronger, Gill
still didn't have direct proof of devastating drought in the Maya
areas in the ninth century. He finally got that evidence when a
team from the University of Florida visited Lake Chichancanab in
Mexico's Yucatan region.
The scientists discovered that the ninth century had been the
driest time in the region for 7,000 years.
The team was interested in past climates and measured them by
taking cores of mud from the bottom of the lake. The mud had built
up over thousands of years - the deeper the mud, the older the
shells and seeds it contained.
Back at their labs in Gainesville, they looked at tiny shells
from each part of the core, and in particular the two types of
oxygen locked in them - heavy and light.
The surfaces of shells from times of high rainfall are
dominated by light oxygen. More of the heavy oxygen means the
water in the lake was evaporating at that time. A core from the
ninth century showed an exceptional surge of heavy oxygen,
indicating it was the driest time in the region for 7,000 years.
Here at last was the clinching evidence Gill had been searching
for - exceptional drought at the time of the Maya collapse. His
quest was over, but it had been an emotional journey of discovery.
'There's a certain satisfaction that I have finally understood
what happened to the Maya, but as a human being it's awful to
think about what happened', he says.
For over a thousand years, the Maya built a
civilization in the jungle -- creating pyramids, sculptures and
paintings. Then around 800 A.D., they practically vanished.
Scientific sleuth Dick Gill has spent nearly twenty years
proving his theory that a devastating drought wiped out the
Maya. The program follows Gill on a journey of discovery: to an
archaeological site in Belize, where there is evidence of a
sudden abandonment; with geologists as they take cores from a
remote lake in Mexico s Yucatan that shows evidence of an
exceptional drought at the time of the Maya collapse; and
visiting the slopes of the rumbling volcano of Popocatepetl, to
search for evidence of an eruption that may have triggered a
Maya writing at a glance has a lot in common with Egyptian
hieroglyphics. It’s a similarly baffling system of detailed
glyphs, often found carved on stone stelae, altars, wooden lintels
and roof beams, painted on ceramic vessels or written in a type of
book made of bark paper called a codex. Early European explorers
of Maya lands in the 18th and 19th centuries agreed, and often
referred to Maya writing as “hieroglyphics” or “hieroglyphs”,
despite the fact that it has no relation at all to its Egyptian
copy of one of the few surviving Maya codices
at a museum in Copan, Honduras.
Practically all such examples of Maya writing were burned by the
In reality, Maya writing is a complex and highly individual mix
between logographic and syllabic writing systems that not only
represents the most advanced script used in the New World, but
also the only Pre-Columbian writing system, which is known to
completely represent its culture’s spoken language. Deciphering it
was an epic undertaking that has been called “perhaps the greatest
of all archeological detective stories”. Although Maya writing
died out centuries ago, unlike ancient Egyptian, distant
descendents of the language are still spoken today in some
communities in Central America, and it may yet make a comeback in
its text form.
As already mentioned, the script was logosyllabic – a mix
between logographic and syllabic systems. Symbols (glyphs or
graphemes) could be used as either logograms or syllables. In the
course of the deciphering of the Maya hieroglyphic script, it
became evident that it was a fully functioning writing system in
which it was possible to express any sentence of the spoken
The script had a complete syllabary (although not all possible
syllables have yet been identified), and the Maya scribe would
have been able to write anything out phonetically, syllable by
syllable, using these symbols. It had more than a thousand
different glyphs in total, although a few are variations of the
same sign or meaning, and many appear only rarely or are confined
to particular localities. No more than around 500 glyphs were in
use at any one time.
Deciphering Maya Writing
How do we know so much about Maya writing? It’s largely because
of incredible breakthroughs made in deciphering texts in the late
20th century. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, which essentially unlocked
the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs in one go, the Maya script had
to be unpicked gradually – over the course of 400 years – by a
long series of hunches and tantalising insights, as well as false
leads, blind alleys, and heated disagreements among scholars.
The Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries – for all their
antipathy towards Maya writing – were the first to try and crack
the code, to little avail. Eccentric French polymath Constantine
Rafinesque fared better in 1832 when, using the Dresden Codice, he
managed to accurately figure out the Maya system of counting.
German Ernst Förstemann in 1880, and Englishmen Alfred Maudsley
and Eric Thompson – working in the 1880s and 1930s respectively –
all advanced theories on Maya writing, some of which resulted in
big steps, others big missteps. It was a Russian linguist – Yuri
Knorosov – who in 1952 made what would be a key discovery, when he
determined that the individual glyphs were phonetic sounds, not
individual letters or whole words.
Read More >>
Between A.D. 800 and 1000,
during what is known as the Classic Maya Collapse,
unrelenting drought caused the deaths of millions of Maya
people and initiated a cascade of internal collapses that
destroyed their civilization. Linking global, regional, and
local climate change, the author explores how atmospheric
processes, volcanism, ocean currents, and other natural
forces combined to create a climate that pried apart the
highly complex civilization of the tropical Maya Lowlands in
the ninth and tenth centuries. Drawing on knowledge of other
prehistoric and historic droughts, The Great Maya Droughts
is a compelling study of the relationship of humans to their
natural and physical environment. The author develops a new,
scientific explanation of why the Classic Maya failed to
adjust their behavior and culture to the climatic
conditions, and why civilizations in general sometimes
collapse in the face of radical environmental change.
The mystique of the ancient
Maya dates from the early 19th century, when explorers in
Central America rediscovered temple and palace complexes,
astronomical observatories, and monuments with hieroglyphic
inscriptions. The image of a lost civilization absorbed by
jungle has fueled the popular imagination, leading to much
speculation about how and why the classic Maya culture
collapsed. Webster (anthropology, Pennsylvania State Univ.)
here outlines what is known about that culture and discusses
the meaning of civilization as applied to the ancient Maya.
He notes that the Maya represented not a united empire but a
group of kingdoms sharing an elite culture that did not
survive the collapse, though descendants of the ancient Maya
still live in the same geographical areas. Webster also
reviews evidence from archaeology, paleography, and
historical writings and discusses theories of the collapse,
concluding that it was not sudden but gradual and that its
causes vary with location and may be attributed to
overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, and the
decline of kingship ideology. This excellent overview of
classic Maya culture and history will be of interest to both
the specialist and the general reader. For all libraries.
Lucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA -- Copyright 2002 Reed
Business Information, Inc.
Harrison draws upon more than
30 years of excavation and research to summarize what is
known to date about Tikal. Once one of the greatest cities
in the world, Tikal was strategically located in the central
region of the Maya lowlands and served as a major trade
center and architectural style-setter. Over 3000 known
surface structures exist, and as many as 10,000 ruined
buildings and platforms may lie below the surface of the
site. Recent discoveries in Maya archaeology include
insights into the urban nature of the society and the
agricultural methods used to support such a large population
(possibly 200,000). Harrison discusses breakthroughs in the
translation of Maya glyphs, which continue to shed light on
the history and politics of the city, and also considers
reasons for its decline and fall. This book is recommended
for its cogent style, treatment of recent advances in Maya
studies, and fine photos and format. [History Book Club
selection.]ASylvia Andrews, Indiana State Lib., Indianapoli.
- - ASylvia Andrews, Indiana State Lib., Indianapolis --
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Because of the wealth of new
archaeological data and breakthroughs in the translation of
hieroglyphs, Coe's updating of his classic synthesis of Maya
civilization provides a valuable service to both informed
lay readers and specialists wishing to apprise themselves of
the current state of understanding of this most
intellectually sophisticated and aesthetically refined
pre-Columbian culture. Although the vast majority of the
text may be found in the prior edition, the work is
transformed by significant interpolations and deletions and
is augmented by a new section of color plates, a useful
guide for travelers, and a listing of Maya rulers. As it now
stands, this refreshed and renewed little masterpiece merits
a place in collections serving students of ancient
Continuing a tradition of massive exhibitions and
concomitant exhibition catalogs, the Palazzo Grassi, Venice,
has at last discovered the New World. This initial incursion
wisely focuses on the most accessible of the great
pre-Hispanic cultures, the Maya. In this daunting but
unfocused potpourri, some 29 essayists broach nearly the
full range of Maya historical, societal, intellectual,
political, and artistic traditions with varying degrees of
competence. As is common with collective efforts of this
sort, one finds both a certain redundancy of elementary
facts and a not infrequent inconsistency about the facts
themselves. Crammed into the last hundred pages of the
volume is the catalog of more than 500 well-illustrated but
only perfunctorily documented and analyzed objects. Aside
from its value as a remarkable gathering of some 1400
excellent color reproductions, this ill-balanced and
ultimately superficial tome has little to recommend
it.ARobert Cahn, Fashion Inst. of Technology, New York --
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
A fluent, engaging, and informative account of
the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics.
The decipherment of the Maya
script was, Coe states, "one of the most exciting
intellectual adventures of our age, on a par with the
exploration of space and the discovery of the genetic code."
He presents the story eloquently and in detail, with many
illustrations of the mysterious Maya inscriptions and the
people who tried to decipher them. Most of the credit, he
says, goes to the late Yuri V. Knorosov of the Russian
Institute of Ethnography, but many others participated. They
did not always agree, and some of them went up blind alleys.
Coe--emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale
University--vividly describes the battles, missteps and
successes. What is now established, he writes, is that "the
Maya writing system is a mix of logograms and syllabic
signs; with the latter, they could and often did write words
purely phonetically." Coe concludes with a swipe at "dirt
archaeologists" who believe the decipherment of Maya writing
"is not worthy of notice." According to them, he asserts,
"the Maya inscriptions are 'epiphenomenal,' a ten-penny word
meaning that Maya writing is only of marginal application
since it is secondary to those more primary
institutions--economy and society--so well studied by the
dirt archaeologists." Coe sees that attitude as "sour
grapes" and ascribes it to "the inability or unwillingness
of anthropologically trained archaeologists to admit that
they are dealing with the remains of real people, who once
lived and spoke."
For a people to lose their
history is a tragedy; to recover it, a miracle.
Breaking the Maya Code is the story of the 200-year struggle
to unlock the secrets of the world's last major undeciphered
writing system. Based on archaeologist and historian Michael
Coe's book of the same title (which The New York Times
called "one of the great stories of twentieth century
scientific discovery") and filmed in over 40 locations in
nine countries, this amazing detective story is filled with
false leads, rivalries and colliding personalities.
It leads us from the jungles of Guatemala to the bitter cold
of Russia, from ancient Maya temples to the dusty libraries
of Dresden and Madrid. The heroes of the story are an
extraordinary and diverse group of men and women: an English
photographer, a German librarian, a Russian soldier, a
California newspaperman, an art teacher from Tennessee, and
an 18-year-old boy immersed in the glyphs since early
childhood. Surprisingly, the decipherment reveals not
peaceful kingdoms but warring citystates in a long struggle
for domination. The texts also reveal a strange world of
kings and queens who regularly shed and burned their blood
to invoke the Vision Serpent, a world shaped by an intricate
cosmology that weaves together the lives of humans, the
deeds of mythic heroes and the cycles of the planets and the
stars. For the six million Maya alive today, a people who
had been cut off from their own extraordinary past, the
decipherment is like a time machine - uniting them with
their own lost history and opening up an invaluable treasure
for all of us.
Mary Miller vividly takes the
reader into the art of one of the world's most enigmatic
ancient civilizations. From temple to tomb, she explains how
and why the Maya made their greatest works. New
archaeological discoveries at Copan, Tikal, and Palenque--to
name but a few--are included, and the author draws on recent
decipherments in Maya writing to provide fresh
interpretations of Maya sculpture and ceramics. For the art
historian, student, and traveler, Maya Art and Architecture
will prove indispensable. Chapters on Maya architecture and
the materials of Maya art set the stage for discussions of
the sculpture of different time periods and regions, the
famous murals at Bonampak, the dramatic new findings at
Cacaxtla, and the painted Maya ceramics of the first
millennium a.d. The author has organized the material in new
ways, considering the nature of the human form in Maya art,
for example, and the role of the hand-held object.
Popol Vuh, the Quiché Mayan book of creation, is
not only the most important text in the native languages of the Americas, it is
also an extraordinary document of the human imagination. It begins with the
deeds of Mayan gods in the darkness of a primeval sea and ends with the radiant
splendor of the Mayan lords who founded the Quiché kingdom in the Guatemalan
highlands. Originally written in Mayan hieroglyphs, it was transcribed into the
Roman alphabet in the sixteenth century.
This new edition of Dennis Tedlock's unabridged,
widely praised translation includes new notes and commentary, newly translated
passages, newly deciphered hieroglyphs, and over forty new illustrations.
More Books and Video
The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings
by David Drew (Phoenix Mass Market,
Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the
Ancient Maya by Simon Martin (Thames & Hudson, 2000)
by Richard EW Adams (University of Oklahoma Press,
Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya edited by Takeshi Inomata and Stephen D
Houston (Westview Press, 2000)
The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art by Linda Schele et al
(Thames & Hudson, 1992)
A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya
by Linda Schele and
David A Freidel (William Morrow, 1992)
Is it possible that intelligent life forms
visited Earth thousands of years ago, bringing with them
technology that drastically affected the course of history
and man s own development? Presented in the 1968 bestselling
book Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken, the theory
of ancient aliens rocked people s beliefs in mankind s
progress. Ancient cave drawings of strange creatures,
remains of landing strips in Peru, and Indian texts that
describe the flying machines of the gods were just a few of
the odd archaeological artifacts cited by von Daniken as
proof that ancient astronauts were well known to our
Produced with the exclusive cooperation of von Daniken himself, Ancient Aliens launches all-new expeditions
to seek out and evaluate this evidence, with a concentration
on the latest discoveries of the last 30 years, including
unusual DNA findings on man s evolution and newly decoded
artifacts from Egypt to Syria to South America. It is a
balanced investigation into a theory some believe cannot be
true, but many agree cannot be ignored.