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

November 29, 2012

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and 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

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.


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.

5 responses to “Debunking doomsday? Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout on the real history of the Maya”

  1. olga marroquin says:

    is there a special event on DEC 21, 2012 regarding The Mayan Calendar? If so please provide full information. (where, time, and scheduled activities

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi there! We ARE having a special event on Dec. 21! From 8 to midnight at the HMNS main location we’ll have traditional Mayan dancers, Grupo Kache, drinks, dancing, food trucks and all sorts of other goodies to complement our exhibit Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes History

  3. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Dear Olga,

    Thanks for your email. There are various ways in which you will be able to learn about the Maya calendar at the museum: There is a considerable section of the current exhibit, Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes History that is devoted to Maya calendars (plural); there is also a Planetarium show (see here: and then we are planning a special countdown event on the day of December 21 itself. The latter is part of LaB 5555, an event that starts at 8PM.

    Hope to see you at one of these.

    Dirk Van Tuerenhout

  4. Noelia Brunini says:

    Hello I am a sophmore this year in high school. I’m intrested on majoring on anthropology and archeology, but not sure in what field exaclty. I do like ancient history and mostly the idea of traveling the world to learn and expirience variety of cultures. So I was wondering that if I could apply to an intership or volenteer during the summer in the museum to know more and a better oppurtunity for a good university when I gradate from high school. If there is any chance please respond to my email.

  5. Caroline says:

    Hi Noelia, we’ve forwarded on your message on to our volunteer coordinator. Thanks for your interest!

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