Who were the Maya? Who would you have been in ancient Mexico?

Who were the Maya? I’ve become interested in Mayan civilization for various reasons. One, it’s 2012, and there are the obvious accompanying prophecies of the apocalypse. Two, I grew up listening to stories about the Maya as part of my culture.

The Maya people are widely regarded as a civilization ahead of their time — an ancient culture who built great pyramids, created a calendar using the stars, and continue to thrive in the cold, mountainous regions of Guatemala and Southern Mexico as well as in the rainforests of Northern Guatemala and Southern Belize.

2012 Mayan_30x402012: Mayan Prophecies is currently showing in the HMNS Planetarium

But who were the Maya, really? In the 1500s when the Conquistadores arrived in the New World, they came looking for gold, land, and other riches. After colonization they brought religion in the form of Roman Catholicism, and in time, there was a fusion of the old and new worlds. The Maya soon became immersed in the Spanish Empire.

Even though the Olmec are not considered Maya, they did influence the Maya people as they developed and perfected their spectacular architecture of step-pyramids and sacred buildings, beautiful artwork and pottery, and a complicated mathematical and astronomical numerical system.

IMG_1816A Mayan step pyramid

There are three different periods of the Maya culture: The Pre-Classic period (c.1700 BC-250 AD), the Classic period (250-900 AD) and the Post-Classic (900 AD-1546/1697 AD) period.

Pre-Classic Period Maya were modest farmers whose primary crops were corn, squash and beans grown in their gardens. Their houses were mud-covered with thatch roofs.

In the Classical Period, complex cities, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and timekeeping developed. The collapse of the Maya towards the 8th and 9th Century AD left many cities abandoned, while others continued. What incited the Maya’s downfall — and how some cities survived while others fell — remains a mystery. Some hypothesize drought, natural disasters, famine, plagues, disease or possibly war.

Tulum Temple of MuralsThe Tulum Temple of Murals

Post-Classical Period cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala, like Chichen Itza, still flourish. It was also during this time that the Maya people started using a simpler timekeeping version of the Mayan Calendar.

Did you know how that the same ancient calendar that has us stockpiling for the apocalypse also helped Mayan babies get their names?

The day a baby was born on the Sacred Calendar would also be their first name. A child’s full name was a combination of the Sacred and Solar Calendar. If you are curious about what your name would have been, there is a kiosk located in our Hall of the Americas where you can enter your date of birth and discover your Mayan name.

Question for the Curator: Did Leonardo have a Crop?

We recently received a question through our YouTube channel asking about Leonardo the Mummified Dinosaur. Our viewer wanted to know what evidence there is to support that Leonardo might have had a crop. We passed the question along to Dr. Bakker, our visiting curator of Paleontology.

“In most of the articles I’ve read about Leonardo mention is made of evidence of a crop. Can someone tell me the nature of that evidence? Is the evidence sufficient for a near certainty, a likelihood or only a possibility?”

leo-head-sculpt2

A crop in today’s birds is a specialized pouch, an enlargement of the gullet, where food can be stored before final swallowing. Sometimes there are glands; sometimes not. Usually there are muscular walls and partial partitions so the bird can control swallowing and regurgitation.

The throat skin in Leonardo is distended below the jaws in the region where a crop would be expected to be if Leo were a big turkey. The distention is globular, swollen side-to-side, and not flattened, and the skin shows only weak indications of folds and furrows. That’s why everyone, from the very beginning, labeled this distention a “crop”.

leo-in-chamber-delin2The hi-energy x-rays showed no internal structures here. And there were no small ferrous-iron specks of the sort seen in the stomach and intestinal zones, where masses of chewed vegetation were packed. A chip was removed from the crop, exposing some of the interior – there were no masses of vegetation. The distention was filled with very fine, very clean sand.

Next time we x-ray Leo, we will probe the interior of the “crop” with greater intensity.

Other duck-bill mummies do show a distention in this area but these specimens are flattened side-to-side so the distention appears more like a dew-lap than a crop. Leo is unique in showing so much three dimensional preservation of internal cavities.

One of many lingering mysteries in Leonardo….