Tag Archives: Mayan culture

Coloring In

We’ve heard it so many times before.  History has always been written by the victors.  It’s a sad reality, yet very true.  It means that much of the history of Africa and the Western Hemisphere has been recounted with a decidedly European viewpoint.  As someone of mixed European and Indigenous American extraction, I always felt conflicted about this disparity.  While trying to find information about Native American Texans in an encyclopedia during my grade school years, for example, I noticed that references to pre-Columbian peoples were treated dismissively.  It wasn’t just archaic history in standard academic circles.  It was irrelevant.  Even mention of the state’s Spanish colonizers – the first permanent European settlers – was dubbed “pre-history.”  It seemed Texas history didn’t actually begin until the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston arrived.  And it didn’t matter that these men weren’t even born and raised in the state.

Only within the past half-century has the truth about various indigenous societies been revealed with advances in archaeological research and detailed forensic analysis.  Lidar, for example, has taken the concept of neon lighting from the banal presence of liquor store signs to the jungles of Central America where long-abandoned Mayan structures remain shrouded by the foliage.  As a devotee of Archeology magazine, I’m constantly amazed by discoveries of ancient settlements across the globe.  Areas once thought to be occupied by nomadic hunter-gatherer types at best are revealing the ghosts of thriving population centers.

Yes, history has always been dictated and composed by those who somehow managed to overcome the locals – usually through the casualties of disease and pestilence or the sanguineous nature of war and violence.  But the blood of history’s victims seeps into the ground and eventually fertilizes the crops that feed the newly-minted empires.  That blood eventually metabolizes into the truth of what really happened – albeit many centuries or millennia later.  Still at that point, it can no longer be ignored.

Here in the U.S. we’re now seeing statues and other emblems of the American Civil War come down by government decree.  Supporters of that conflict have maintained its genesis was the battle for states’ rights, while truth-tellers insist it was a battle over slavery.  They’re both correct, in some ways.  It was a battle over the right of some states to keep an entire race of people enslaved.  I certainly feel removal of these statues is appropriate.  Those who fought for the Confederacy wanted to rip the nation in half over that slavery issue and therefore, should not be venerated as military heroes.  They’re traitors.

The debate has now shifted to renaming many U.S. military bases.  In my native Texas, one military base is named after John Bell Hood, a Confederate general who – like so many other Texas “heroes” – wasn’t even born and raised in the state.  Hood also wasn’t an especially adept military commander; having lost a number of individual conflicts.  And yet, a military base is named after this treasonous fool?

The U.S. Pentagon has expressed some willingness to rename military bases that reference those ill-fated Civil War characters.  Naturally, it’s upset many White southerners who annually reenact various Civil War conflicts; not realizing how ridiculous they look in their antebellum garb.  I can’t help but laugh at them.  They’ve been fighting the war for over 150 years and STILL haven’t won!

In his usual brusque and toddler-esque manner, President Trump announced last month he would veto a USD 740 billion defense bill if it included an amendment that would rename many of those military bases.  He declared, “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.”

Remember, the Confederacy lost that war.  A million reenactments won’t change that reality.

Some 30 years ago my father discovered that Spain’s Queen Isabella (who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage) was an ancestor of his mother.  According to documentation my father found, Isabella learned of the atrocities Spain’s military officials were committing against the indigenous peoples of the “New World” and ordered them to stop.  That’s one reason why Latin America has a stronger connection to its native peoples than the United States and even Canada.

It should be worth noting that, while Italians celebrate Columbus as a national hero, he probably wasn’t even a native son.  For centuries he was considered a Genoese sailor with grand visions of finding a westward route to India and subsequently gain an edge in the then-contentious spice trade.  Contemporary research, however, has declared he was actually the son of Polish King Władysław III; often dubbed the twelve-toed king because allegedly had 6 toes on each foot.  And I have to emphasize that Columbus couldn’t get Italian leaders to finance his ventures, so he turned to Spain.  In the 15th century C.E., Italy was actually a conglomeration of city-states.

In one of my earliest essays on this blog, I lamented the term “redskin”; a derogatory moniker for Native Americans that has figured prominently into the names of many sports teams, from grade school to professional.  Just this week the Washington Redskins football team announced what many previously considered unthinkable: they might change their name.  Team owner Daniel Snyder conceded he’s bowing to pressure from its largest corporate sponsors (big money always has the loudest voice in the corporate world), as well a growing cacophony of socially-conscious voices demanding change.  Snyder said the team has begun a “review” of both the name and the team’s mascot.  Detractors, of course, moan this is political correctness at its worst.  But, just like Civil War reenactors still haven’t won, Eurocentrics still won’t admit they didn’t obliterate North America’s indigenous populations.

Change on such a grand scale is always slow and painful.  But, as with time itself, change will happen; it can’t be stopped.

We can never correct or fix what happened in the past.  Nothing can ever atone for the loss of millions of people and the destruction of the societies they built.  But we can acknowledge the truth that is buried.  It’s not rewriting history; it’s writing the actual history that remained entombed in that bloodied soil for so long.  It’s adding the needed and long-absent color to reality.


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Picture of the Day

Archaeologists have uncovered a “dramatic” new Mayan temple in the Guatemalan jungle; one covered with giant faces embedded in the façade.  This is just one of them: the Mayan sun deity as a “shark-man.”  The temple was part of El Zotz, one of the Mayan’s smaller kingdoms, which features a palace and a tomb believed to hold its first ruler, who lived sometime in the 4th century A.D.

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Mayan Mural Reflects Calendar Beyond 2012


“Younger Brother Obsidian,” as labeled on the north wall of the Maya city’s house by an unknown hand, was painted in the 9th century A.D. Archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University excavates the house in the ruins of the Maya city of Xultún.

Just when we thought the ancient Mayans had everything written (or drawn) down for us lowly mortals to follow, here comes this revelation.  A vast Mayan city discovered nearly a century ago in Guatemala’s Petén region is beginning to yield its secrets and in the process, expanding our comprehension of ancient Mayan society.

Excavating for the first time in the sprawling complex of Xultún in Guatemala’s Petén region, archaeologists have uncovered a structure that contains what appears to be a work space for the town’s record keeper; its walls adorned with unique paintings – one depicting a lineup of men in black uniforms – and hundreds of scrawled numbers.  Many are calculations relating to the Maya calendar.

One wall of the structure, thought to be a house, is covered with tiny, millimeter-thick, red and black glyphs unlike any seen before at other Maya sites.  Some appear to represent the various calendrical cycles charted by the Maya – the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars, reports archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University, who led the exploration and excavation.

“For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,” Saturno said.

Xultún, a 12-square-mile site where tens of thousands once lived, was first discovered about 100 years ago by a Guatemalan worker and roughly mapped in the 1920’s by Sylvanus Morley, who named the site “Xultún” – “end stone.”  Scientists from Harvard University mapped more of the site in the 1970’s.  The house discovered by Saturno’s team was numbered 54 of 56 structures counted and mapped at that time.  Thousands at Xultún remain uncounted.

The team’s excavations reveal that monumental construction at Xultún began in the first centuries B.C.  The site thrived until the end of the Classic Maya period; the site’s last carved monument dates to around 890 A.D.  Xultún stood only about five miles from San Bartolo, where in 2001 Saturno found rare, extensive murals painted on the walls of a ritual structure by the ancient Maya.

The house contains 3 intact walls, each telling its own story and each posing its own mysteries.

The north wall lies straight ahead as one enters the room.  An off-center niche in the wall features a painting of a seated king, wearing blue feathers.  A long rod made of bone mounted on the wall allowed a curtain to be pulled across the king’s portrait, hiding it and revealing a well-preserved painting of a man whose image is wrapped around the wall; he is depicted in vibrant orange and holds a pen.  Maya glyphs near his face call him “Younger Brother Obsidian,” a curious title seldom seen in Maya text.  Based on other Maya sites, Saturno theorizes he could be the son or younger brother of the king and possibly the artist-scribe who lived in the house.  “The portrait of the king implies a relationship between whoever lived in this space and the royal family,” Saturno said.

Four long numbers on the wall representing one-third of a million to 2.5 million days likely bring together all of the astronomical cycles – such as those of Mars, Venus and the lunar eclipses – the Maya thought important, dates that stretch some 7,000 years into the future.  This is the first place Maya archaeologists have found that seems to tabulate all of these cycles in this way.  Another number scratched into the plaster surface likely records the date – 813 A.D., a time when Mayan society began to collapse.

Three male figures loom on west wall, all of them seated and painted in black, wearing only white loincloths, medallions around their necks and identical single-feathered, miter-style head dresses.  One of the figures is particularly burly and is labeled “Older Brother Obsidian.”  Another figure is labeled as a youth.

The east wall is badly eroded, but another black-painted human figure and remnants of others are still discernible.  This wall is dominated by numerical figures, including columns of numbers representing counting and calendrical calculations.  Some of the numbers track the phases of the moon; others try to reconcile lunar periods with the solar calendar.  One well-preserved section contains numerical notes painted in red that appear to be corrections to more formal calculations appearing alongside them.

“The most exciting point is that we now see that the Maya were making such computations hundreds of years – and in places other than books – before they recorded them in the Codices,” said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, a coauthor of the Science paper.

The scientists say all of these symbols reflect a certain world view the ancient Mayans possessed.  They “predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this,” Saturno noted.  “We keep looking for endings.  The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change.  It’s an entirely different mindset.”

The discovery is reported in the June issue of National Geographic magazine and in the May 11 issue of the journal Science.

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