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

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.

Educator How-to: Teach archaeology with edible excavation

It’s time, once again, for our monthly Educator How-To! Today we’ll help you teach kids to keep track of what they find — just like an archaeologist does.

Archaeologists keep careful records, as do all scientists. One important way to keep track of their work is by mapping where each artifact is discovered. Show your students how to plot artifact locations onto a grid with this tasty activity!

• Large chocolate chip cookies with lots of chips
• Toothpicks – 1 box
• Waxed paper sheets
• Cookie grid
• Markers
• Masking tape
• Ziploc baggies – 1 per child

Screen shot 2012-07-26 at 7.40.37 PMA printable cookie grid just for you


1. Tell the students that they are going to be excavating a chocolate chip cookie. And just like a real archaeologist, they must record where each “artifact” is found. In addition, they must be as careful as possible to get each “artifact” out of the “dig site” with the least amount of damage.

2. Supply each student with a cookie, a piece of waxed paper, a toothpick, a pencil, and a cookie grid worksheet.

3. Students should carefully draw a grid on their cookie using a black marker. It should match the grid on the worksheet cookie as closely as possible.

4. Students should then carefully excavate the “artifacts” out of the cookie trying to cause as little damage to the “artifact” (the chips) or the “dig site” (the cookie).

5. When they retrieve an “artifact,” they must assign it a number and plot it on the cookie grid. When an “artifact” is removed, it should be put on a small piece of masking tape and numbered.

6. Give each child a baggie to put all of their “artifacts” in.

7. When the time is up for this activity, count each child’s “artifacts” and look at the condition of their “dig site” to determine the most successful archaeologist for the day.

While we are working with cookies here, we do not advise eating the dig site or munching on your priceless artifacts — extra cookies are recommended!

August Flickr Photo of the Month: Terra Cotta Warriors!

Houston Cougars

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as the areas surrounding the Museum in Hermann Park. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we highlight one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we’re featuring a photo from Arie Moghaddam, known as Houston Cougars on Flickr, who is a regular attendee of the Museum’s Flickr meetups. This photo is from the meetup we held in our Summer 2009 exhibition, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor.

Why would we feature an image that’s celebrating it’s 2nd birthday? First: we’re thinking a lot about the Terra Cotta Warriors lately – since we’ve just announced a new exhibit featuring these wonders of the world!

Warriors, Tombs and Temples opens April 1, 2012!

The upcoming exhibit  includes 200 incredibly preserved ancient works of art featuring newly-discovered artifacts unearthed from imperial, royal and elite tombs and from beneath Buddhist monasteries in and around the capital cities of three great dynasties – as well as four of the famous life-size Terra Cotta Warriors!

And, second: it’s a great image with a unique perspective on the original exhibit. Arie shared a few words about what inspired it:

As for what inspired me to take the picture (aside from you being nice enough to invite us), of all the pictures I took I think this one best captures the essence of the exhibit since it combines the statue, cross bow, and armor in a logical order which any emperor would be pleased to have in his necropolis.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Terra Cotta Warriors was a temporary exhibit, and photography was restricted outside of special Flickr meetup opportunities. Follow our posts in the HMNS Flickr pool for announcements about upcoming events.

The Scythians [Ancient Ukraine]

Traditionally we can divide mankind’s past into two parts: before and after writing, or, prehistory and history. There is, however, a third period, which characterizes the transition from one to the other. Occasionally we may know of cultures through texts written by a third party. Such is the case for the Scythians.

In this blog, I will review our sources for the study of Scythian culture. These include archaeology and text materials. We will start our acquaintance with the Scythians through the results of dirt archaeology. Toward the end, the reader will see the remarkable accuracy – keeping in mind their antiquity – of Greek writings on Scythian culture. Throughout the blog, I will refer to objects on display at our current exhibit, ДРЕВНЯ УКРАЇНА (Ancient Ukraine) – Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations, to illustrate these points.

Archaeology has been our main source of information on nomadic people in general.

The Scythians in particular appear to have roamed across an expansive part of Asia into parts of Eastern Europe. In the summer of 2006, archaeologists discovered the mummified remains of a Scythian individual in Mongolia. Until then, the conventional wisdom among archaeologists was that Scythians lived and roamed in an area west of the Altai Mountains.

This discovery proved them wrong.

Compare these two maps, each representing the areas where Scythians were once thought to have lived, and consider how far we have come since Herodotus first wrote about the Scythians.

World map - Herodotus
Modern rendering of Herodotus’ worldview, with a reference to where the Scythians once lived.
Modern map of the Scythian realm
Modern map of the Scythian realm.

Over the last two and a half centuries Scythian artifacts primarily come from burial mounds, or kurhans.

In some cases, looters ransacked the tombs they knew were inside these mounds, leaving only few discarded objects for archaeologists to find. On happier occasions, archaeologists were able to investigate kurhans that had not been damaged yet. Hundreds of these kurhans have now been excavated and the discoveries published (Piotrovsky, 1974: 26-31).

With a sample this size, it has become easy for archaeologists to identify patterns. The size of the burial mounds reflects the importance of the individuals buried inside. The presence of servants buried alongside with the deceased, as well as the richness of the grave goods all supports this notion. In anthropological terms, we are looking at a stratified society, a society composed of multiple social layers, with unequal access to resources.  Horses, so important to nomadic people like the Scythians, are widely represented in art. We also find countless horse skeletons, buried alongside their master in the kurhan.

The Scythians roamed far and wide and their interactions with other cultures are also reflected in their grave goods. Greek cities along the Black Sea coast of Ukraine traded with the Scythians. A ceramic vessel on display in our current exhibit is of Greek design and is decorated with an image of an octopus.

Greek Amphora
Greek amphora with octopus design on temporary
display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
(Image courtesy of the Foundationfor International Arts and Education,
Bethesda, Maryland, the Government of Ukraine and the Museum
of Cultural Heritage PLATAR.)

It appears that wine and seafood was known (and appreciated) by more than just the Greek population along the Black Sea.

Ancient Greek Colonies of the Northern Black Sea
Greek cities, such as Olbia, located along the shores of the Black Sea, traded with the Scythians.

The Scythians and Persians also knew of each other.

This awareness of the other resulted in trade, exchange of ideas and art forms, as well as outright hostilities and protracted warfare. Among the more peaceful expressions of this back and forth between these two cultures, one could point to Persian-inspired drinking horns, or rhytons, two of which are on display at the museum.

A Persian-inspired gold drinking cup on display at the Houston Museum of
Natural Science. (Images courtesy of the Foundation for International
Arts and Education, Bethesda, Maryland, the Government of
Ukraine and the Museum of Cultural Heritage PLATAR).

We know of very few Scythian permanent settlements.

There is Bilsk, (also known as Bel’sk), a large fortified settlement on the banks of the Vorskla River. Earthen Ramparts some 33 km (or 20 miles) in length enclose an area of 4,000 hectares (almost 10,000 acres). Within this fortified area, there were two additional, smaller fortified sections with an area of 72 and 62 hectares. Modern reconstructions show it with palisades.

Another fortified city, tentatively identified by some as the Scythian capital, is Kamenka (Rolle, 1980: 119). Kamenka occupied about 12 km2 (more than 4.5 square miles) with an area of 900 hectares (or more than 2,000 acres) with an acropolis and extensive metal works (Kristiansen, 1998: 279).

I outlined at the beginning of this blog that there are cultures which we know of courtesy of descriptions left by third party authors. We do not know of any Scythian authors, very likely because there may not have been any. Yet we do have lengthy and interesting descriptions compiled by a well known Greek historian and overall great storyteller, Herodotus.

Here is one of Herodotus’ passages on the Scythians:

The Euxine Sea, where Darius now went to war, has nations dwelling around it, with the one exception of the Scythians, more unpolished than those of any other region that we know of. For, setting aside Anacharsis and the Scythian people, there is not within this region a single nation which can be put forward as having any claims to wisdom, or which has produced a single person of any high repute. The Scythians indeed have in one respect, and that the very most important of all those that fall under man’s control, shown themselves wiser than any nation upon the face of the earth. Their customs otherwise are not such as I admire. The one thing of which I speak is the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it pleases them to engage with him. Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?

In describing this non-Greek culture, Herodotus resorts to a rather common Greek sentiment. He describes them as “barbarians,” elaborating that he cannot find many redeeming traits among Scythian culture. Herodotus scholars identify both areas of congruence between archaeology and Herodotus’ writings as well as areas where there is dissonance. For example, there is overlap between what Herodotus wrote about the kurhans and what archaeologists have subsequently unearthed. However, Herodotus appears misguided when it comes to where he locates the kurhans, limiting them to a much smaller area than where they have been found and investigated by archaeologists (Hartog 1988:3 – 11).

These are sentiments to keep in mind as you walk through the exhibit.

What is left of this culture is still largely seen through the filter of grave goods, with very little in terms of text material and settlement archaeology to provide context. Imagine a future historian writing a book about the first 250 years of US history limited to information gathered at Civil War cemeteries. There is a lot more to the picture. Undoubtedly future archaeological projects will fill in these blanks. In the meantime, do come see the exhibit. After September 5, you will have missed the boat.

Hartog, François
1988 The Mirror of Herodotus. The representation of the other in the writing of history. Translated by Janet Lloyd. university of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles

Kristiansen, Kristian
1998 Europe Before History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York

Piotrovsky, Boris, et al.
1974  “From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U.S.S.R., 3000 B.C.–100 B.C.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 32, no. 5

Rolle, Renate
1980 The World of the Scythians. Translated by F.G Walls from the German Die Welt der Skythen. University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles