Win a stay at the Viceroy Riviera Maya and experience Maya culture in person with the HMNS Go Out in Style Sweepstakes!

Editor’s note: This promoted article was provided by the Viceroy Riviera Maya Resort in partnership with HMNS.

As the culture’s healers and spiritual deliverers, shamans have always been held in the highest esteem by the Maya. With their deep, time-honored knowledge of the healing and curative properties of plant life in the forests and seas of the Yucatan, people have traditionally turned to the shamans to cure illnesses and alleviate physical problems. Through rituals, practices, and their intimate connection to the divine, shamans interceded on behalf of the people to influence both malevolent and benevolent spirits.

Win a three-day stay at the Viceroy Riviera Maya with HMNS' Go out in Style Sweepstakes!

While the influence of shamans has receded in the modern world, they still play a significant role in Maya culture. Today, visitors to Cancun and the Riviera Maya can even interact with authentic shamans at local resorts, who value the opportunity to further educate guests about the Maya culture.

For example, the Viceroy Riviera Maya has a shaman on staff who hails from a local Yucatan village and whose grandfather and great-grandfather were village shamans. At Viceroy Riviera Maya, the shaman works at the resort’s spa, where he grows herbs used in treatments and tends the Melipona bees. The stingless Melipona bees were considered the goddesses of all bees by the Maya because they believed their honey had natural healing properties. The hive at the Viceroy Riviera Maya spa, which is in the hollow of a branch of an oak tree, is 70 years old and came from a local Maya village.  The honey is harvested for the Sweet Honey and Rain Massage and other treatments at the spa.

Arriving guests are greeted by the shaman and welcomed with a traditional Maya blessing using smoke from copal, the aromatic tree resin burned at religious ceremonies since ancient times by the Maya. He performs the “Good Wish Maya Ceremony” for couples, a reaffirmation of marital vows involving potent symbols, objects, and rituals from the ancient Maya in a communion with nature. Enacted on the beach, with the bride wearing a handmade Maya dress and the groom in a white linen guayabera (Yucatan shirt), there is a ceremonial exchange of flower bracelets, stirring drums, a conch-shell horn signaling the ritual’s transformations, and flower petals strewn across the waves to preserve the couple’s good wishes.

Win a three-day stay at the Viceroy Riviera Maya with HMNS' Go out in Style Sweepstakes!

Today, travelers come to Cancun and the Riviera Maya for the sun and sand, luxurious resorts and delicious food and drink. But many also look to absorb the lore and history of the Maya culture by visiting the impressive pyramids and archeological sites. By extending their reach to the tourist communities, shamans help to educate visitors about the important spiritual and healing roles they have traditionally performed.

You can travel to the homeland of the ancient and modern Maya and welcome 2013 — with the HMNS Go Out in Style Sweepstakes! Enter today through Dec. 31 for a chance to win two airfare tickets courtesy of Aeromexico and a three-night stay at Viceroy Riviera Maya in a luxury villa. Each villa has a private pool, patio and outdoor shower — not a bad way to start the new year! Click here for details.

Debunking doomsday? Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout on the real history of the Maya

One of the most vexing questions that seems to torment a whole lot of people these days is: “do I need to buy Christmas gifts this year?” A lot has been made of the Maya calendar, its end on December 21 this year, and the end of the world as we know it.

But the question that vexes me is: why do people even believe in this you-know-what? You can find the answers to these questions and more at the newly opened Maya exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History surveys about 3,500 years of Maya history, starting with the earliest evidence, which dates back to about 1500 BC. The story covers the colonial period and ends with the contemporary Maya. Toward the end of the exhibit, visitors have a chance to learn more about the different ways of Maya timekeeping. The exhibit ends with a video featuring Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining that the fearmongers who talk of a once-in-a-lifetime celestial alignment with all kinds of dire consequences actually “forgot to tell us something.”

In this blog, I want to address the basics of Maya history; I will start with the who, when and where questions.

First: Who are the Maya?

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryThe term “Maya” refers to people who used to live, and continue to live, in southern portions of Mexico (including the Yucatan Peninsula, Tabasco and Chiapas), as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. The term “Maya” is a western label; the Maya refer to themselves by the language they speak. Someone might say, “I am a Mam”, or “I am a Chorti.” This translates into “I am part of the people who speak Mam, or Chorti.” Today, 30 different Mayan languages are still spoken. Additional languages have disappeared since the arrival of the Spaniards.

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Maya are still around, and so are many parts of their traditions. Although their culture was absorbed into that of the Conquistadores, there remain many vibrant expressions of Maya culture. In addition to the geographic areas identified in the map above, Maya people now also call other parts of the world home, including Houston.

The History of Maya research

A strange thing happened when the first Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas. On the one hand, their presence brought about upheaval and ended the independence of indigenous cultures, such as the Aztecs, Maya and many others. On the other hand, some Europeans were fascinated by the “exotic” nature of these new cultures and set out to study them. One such person was Diego de Landa, the second bishop of Yucatán.

Diego de Landa manuscript on the ancient MayaA page from de Landa’s manuscript, with an attempt to represent the ancient Maya”alphabet. One can see renderings of maya glyphs with associated Latin script letters. (Image courtesy of Archaeology.about.com)

Initially, most of the people who studied the Maya and other indigenous people were friars. Their goal was to convert people, and that required learning about their new flock — including learning the language. These friars produced dictionaries for several Maya languages, which have been a great help to modern researchers in their attempts to translate ancient Maya hieroglyphs.

During the colonial period, Spain initiated some efforts to study the ruins of Maya cities, such as Palenque. These efforts resulted in reports sent back to Madrid, but did little otherwise to bring the culture of the ancient Maya to the attention of a wider public. That did not happen until the 19th century, when European and American explorers traveled through the region.

Perhaps the best known of these travelers are John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, whose contributions, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán; Incidents of Travel in Yucatán; and Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán were hugely popular. They still are today. After World War I, American museums and universities started extensive research programs, culminating perhaps in the University of Pennsylvania’s Tikal Project of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, for  a variety of reasons, those efforts have been scaled back. It should be noted, however, that archaeologists from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras are now playing a much bigger role than in the early days of investigations.

Cultural subdivisions 

The ancient Maya and their modern descendants live in a wide range of natural environments. They lived in the breathtaking mountains in Guatemala and adjacent Chiapas, where we can still visit them today. They also existed the middle of the rainforest and in the challenging coastal plains and mangrove swamps of the Yucatán peninsula.

Maya culture: a timeline

We know where the Maya lived; next we deal with another question: how far back in time can we identify them as Maya in the archaeological record? Western researchers have superimposed a chronological framework on Maya history using terminology borrowed from European archaeology. Thus we find terms like the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods. While this may make sense to us, ancient Maya would have no clue what we are talking about. A division of time into units known as “bak’tuns,” which are almost 400 years long, would be more familiar to them.

Earliest beginnings

Human presence in this part of the world predates 10,000 BC. Evidence of mammoth hunters has been found in the Highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. A rare paleoindian point from Guatemala is on display here in Houston. Surveys in Belize have produced data on human activity dating back to the same period, as well. Recent discoveries in caves off the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, have yielded some of the oldest known human remains in the Americas.

Tentative dates suggest that permanent settlements existed along the Belize coast as long ago as 4,300 BC. The abundance of wildlife and plant life may have been the reason why people could stay permanently, as there is no evidence of agriculture to explain this sedentary (permanent) lifestyle.

Pre-Classic period (c. 1700 BC — 250 AD)

To date, the earliest known pottery from the region comes from the Pacific coast of Guatemala and dates to 1,700 – 1,500 BC. In Belize, the earliest ceramics date to 1,000 – 500 BC. These dates, part of the Preclassic period, mark the appearance of the Maya in the archaeological record.

At this stage, Maya communities are small, probably with a population of only a few hundred people. These are early farmers, who grew corn, squash and beans in their gardens. They also hunted and fished wherever possible.

Because these were small communities, the permanent structures they built were also modest. Still, they did produce house platforms. Their houses looked like a lot of Maya houses still look today: poles stuck into the ground (or platform) and a thatch roof. The walls were covered with mud in a manner that archaeologists call “wattle and daub.” Sometimes, when a house burned down, the mud got baked and the impressions of the sticks that made up the walls were preserved. These broken pieces of baked clay with stick impressions are found frequently in excavations. Modern Maya houses of this nature have two doors, and representations of dwellings in Maya art show them to have the same configuration.

Maya public buildings, such as temples, were also small in scale. Their presence, however, indicates that these early Maya made the time — and had the necessary workforce — to put these types of buildings together. Efforts like these are also interpreted as evidence of the presence of an authority figure. In other words, they had a chief or a headman in the village telling them what to do.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. While small-scale architecture was probably the norm for a large portion of the Pre-classic Maya, we do know of Preclassic Maya cities that were huge.

Examples of such a Pre-classic behemoths are Nakbe and El Mirador in northern Guatemala. Nakbe goes back to at least 1,000 BC. Initially, its architecture (both regular dwellings and public structures) seems to have been small-scaled. However, around 600 – 400 BC, the Maya started building larger structures. This culminated toward the end of the Pre-classic period, when they built four of their largest structures.

The successor to Nakbe was El Mirador. The base of its La Danta pyramid measured six times the footprint of the largest pyramid at Tikal. This city also had raised causeways connecting different temple complexes. The size of this city (as large as Tikal or larger) and the scale of its buildings (larger than Tikal in some cases), at this early date (Middle to Late Preclassic) has forced archaeologists to re-think the trajectory of the development of Maya society.

Initially archaeologists were comfortable with a linear development: the earliest Maya were the “simplest”; the later Maya were more complex. That translated into early buildings that were small and later structures that were much larger. But El Mirador showed that linear sequence to be a false one: at a time when the Maya were supposed to be in their “simple” stage they were already building very large temples. Moreover, El Mirador itself collapsed. It took until the Classic period for cities of this nature to re-appear again.

Maya society went through many ups and downs. These swings between fortune and misfortune are well known in the Classic period Maya.

Classic period (250 – 900 AD)

The Classic period is characterized by the florescence of many Maya cities. The rulers of these cities commissioned stelae, or large carved stone slabs, to glorify their achievements. Thanks to years of meticulous archaeological research (followed by many decades of head scratching and attempts to decipher Maya writing) a general historic framework is now in place. We have a concise view of the history, as reflected in the citizens’ own texts, for more than a dozen cities. References to calendrical cycles in texts, as well as the alignment of buildings to correspond to solstices and equinoxes, testifies to the Maya’s ability in the fields of astronomy and timekeeping.

This is also a time when the Maya interact with other areas of Mesoamerica. Perhaps the best-known exchange is that between Tikal and Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. In 378 AD, a delegation from Teotihuacan arrives at Tikal. It appears that the leader of this delegation had a military background. The texts at Tikal mention how, on the same day that this delegation arrives, the king of Tikal died. We are fortunate enough to have fairly extensive written information on this episode in Maya history.

Maya texts also mention warfare among Maya cities, and the alliances they concluded in an attempt to encircle their mutual enemies. Cities and even small rural communities fortified themselves in an attempt to protect themselves against raids. Some communities even dug large trenches and used the excavated dirt to build enormous ramparts on the inside portion of moats. This phenomenon of warfare becomes more pervasive toward the end of the Classic period; warfare is often invoked as a cause of the so-called Maya collapse.

Postclassic period (900 — 1,546/1,697 AD)

The Maya collapse did not mean the end of Maya culture. Sites in northern Belize experienced rapid growth in the 10th century. It has been suggested that part of that growth was due to the arrival of refugees from the collapsing cities.

During the Postclassic, cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala flourish. Perhaps the most famous Maya city at this time is Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, our understanding of that city and others is still limited.

The Postclassic period is a period of internal change; the Maya are abandoning certain practices, such as their long-held custom of complex calendrical computations. The Postclassic Maya preferred using a simplified version, instead. The Postclassic comes to an end with the arrival of the Spaniards.

Conquest

The first contact between Maya and Spaniards occurred in 1502, when Columbus encountered a sea-going canoe in the Gulf of Honduras. Nine years later, in 1511, shipwrecked Spaniards land on the coast of Yucatán. Two of them survive, while the others perish at the hands of the local Maya. The Spaniards, in search of gold and other riches, had a very hard time conquering the Maya, especially those Maya living in the Yucatán Peninsula. It took them almost 20 years (from 1527 to 1546) to establish nominal control over the peninsula. It was not until 1697 that the last independent Maya surrendered. They lived in northern Guatemala on an island in Lake Petén Itza.

Colonial-period Maya

Our understanding of the colonial-period Maya is mostly text-based rather than based on archaeology. Archival documents associated with legal and religious issues are dispersed across the landscape. Those few Maya who could read and write during this period tended to serve their communities as notaries and assistants to Spanish church officials. It is from their pens that we learn of Maya attitudes and thinking with regard to the new arrivals in their world.

The Maya repeatedly rose up against the Spaniards. They did so in 1542, 1562, 1761 and from 1840 through 1901. These events have been the subject of a good number of books. The Yucatán peninsula, in particular, was the scene of a prolonged, brutal conflict known as the Caste War, which lasted from 1847 to 1901.

The Maya today

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryA modern Maya couple checks voicemail. Photo courtesy Rosalinda Mendez.

While modern Maya continue to have social and economic problems, a small number hold advanced degrees and serve as junior ministers in national governments. Thirty Mayan languages are still spoken. The artistry in weaving still continues. With the advent of mass media, the Maya too are getting plugged into the wider world.

Upgrade your gift this holiday season with HMNS’ fall Lego Robotics course

Editor’s note: Today’s blog comes from Xplorations Camp Coordinator Kelsey Friedemann

HMNS’ new Lego Robotics after-school program debuted this fall and was met with great success. The course was adapted from our popular Robotics summer camp, but was redesigned for a smaller class environment with more hands-on experience. Many of our fall students entered class with little to no experience, but they quickly learned how to build a robot and how to program it, as well.

Over the 10-week class, students were able to participate in specific programming challenges. As they advanced beyond introductory activities, they learned how to program their robots to make sharp turns, avoid objects using the ultrasonic sensor, and even perform a unique dance.

Lego Robotics now available for Fall courses at both HMNS locationsThe small class size allowed the students more freedom in constructing their robots, as well. One student decided to recreate the wheel for his robot — literally. He expanded upon the introductory wheel system and created a mega-wheel, but soon realized that a bigger wheel does not necessarily make a more effective wheel. Through experimentation, he was able to conclude that an earlier adaptation would make his robot more functional.

By the final week, the students could manipulate their robots to perform a multitude of tasks using several different attached sensors.

So take it up a notch this holiday season. Legos are always a hit, but this year, give the gift of knowledge!

Lego Robotics now available for Fall courses at both HMNS locationsHMNS’ Lego Robotics course makes a special, educational gift for any child – and it’s available at both Museum locations:

Ten Tuesdays at HMNS
Jan 8 – March 19
4:30 – 6 p.m.
$240 | $190 for members

Ten Thursdays at HMNS in Sugar Land
Jan 10 – March 31
4:30 – 6 p.m.
$240 | $190 for members

Give your family some space — outer space! — at Family Space Day this Saturday

You probably spent a lot of time with your family over the Thanksgiving holiday, and we know just what you need: SPACE!

A couple hours (or days) to yourself aren’t gonna cut it. We’re thinking this year you need some major space. Like, we’re talking outer space.

And we’ve got just the ticket.

Join HMNS at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park this Saturday, Dec. 1 for a day of family fun aboard the Challenger Learning Center, where families and individuals have exclusive access to participate in real-life astronaut training that’s usually reserved for groups and field trips.

Challenger Learning Center - CommunicationsAs astronauts for the day, child and adult participants are assigned jobs aboard the Space Station Observer. They will learn about teamwork and crisis management as they work together to solve problems on simulated space missions.

Tickets must be purchased before 5 p.m. Friday, so click here to reserve yours and see a schedule of mission times. You can also call 281-242-3055 on Saturday morning to learn about walk-in availability.

Missions are open to kids age 7 or older, and children age 7 to 9 must have an adult chaperone.

Bring the whole family and explore the George Observatory exhibits, then stay after your mission for stargazing on the George’s observation deck! Tickets to view the night sky through the George Observatory research telescopes are $5 and go on sale at 5 p.m.