Recent discovery adds to our understanding of ancient Maya civilization.

When Europeans set foot on the shores of the New World, one of the most advanced civilizations they encountered was that of the ancient Maya. With a past spanning close to three millennia, the Maya lived in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. Most of their descendants still live in these regions; others are now in areas further north.

The history of ancient Maya society is characterized by a multitude of ruling lineages, each controlling relatively small territories centered on their capitals. Unlike the ancient Aztecs, the Maya never had a single ruler controlling the entire Maya territory. During what is known as the Classic period a massive power struggle took place between two major Maya dynasties with Tikal and Calakmul as their respective capitals. When not deploying armies in the field, they employed alliances to encircle their foe. Inscriptions bear witness to these struggles, and to shifting alliances. It is against this backdrop that a recent discovery in Belize needs to be interpreted.

Maya MapMap showing the location of sites mentioned in this blog, among them Xunantunich, Naranjo, Caracol, Tikal and Calakmul.

On June 3, 2016 , a tomb was discovered in the ruins of an ancient Maya city called Xunantunich. The site is located in western Belize on the border with Guatemala. The tomb contained the remains of a young man. He was between 20 and 30 years of age, and muscular, judging by the features of his skeleton. He was buried with jade beads, jaguar and deer bones, and fine ceramics. His tomb was beneath the central staircase of a pyramid. Who was he? Nobody knows… Only time and the hard work of archaeologists will tell. However, only feet away from the body, at the base of the same staircase, archaeologists discovered stone panels, engraved with Maya hieroglyphs. Some dusty old Maya glyphs may not sound like much, but these are rewriting Maya history.

arch xunantunichThe tomb was found underneath this pyramid. The blue and green tarpaulins cover carved stone panels. (Image courtesy of Dr. Jaime Awe, NAU).


The pyramid and the tomb below present a rather unique building history. Said Dr. Jaime Awe, professor at Northern Arizona University, who discovered the tomb: “Most tombs in the Maya world are sort of dug into existing buildings. Not in this case! In this case, they constructed this tomb and then built the pyramid on top of it.”

One of the stone panels uncovered during the excavation, called “Panel 3”, is helping to solve a mystery that has intrigued archaeologists for over a hundred years, and is also shedding light on a period of intense competition in lowland Maya history. The panel does not belong at Xunantuncih. When archaeologists translated the text on the panel, they realized that the glyphs were part of a much larger text, originally carved into the steps of a grand staircase located 30 miles away in a city called Caracol. When Naranjo defeated Caracol in 680 A.D., the hieroglyphic stair was dismantled and most of it transported and reassembled at Naranjo. This is not totally unexpected, as portions of that stairway were recovered at Naranjo more than one hundred years ago,and also, more recently, in a city called Ucanal, which lies about halfway between Naranjo and Caracol.

arch xunantunich 2Nighttime photo of Panel 3 (Photograph by Christophe Helmke)


What happened? Why are there pieces of this staircase all over the place? The hieroglyphs on the panels of the stair record events that occurred in the period between 623 and 642 AD, during the reign of K’an II, ruler of Caracol. The text refers to Caracol’s victories over Naranjo in 626 and 631 AD. After their defeat, the people of Naranjo became the vassals of Caracol, and paid homage to that city, probably in the form of produce, luxury goods, and labor. They were also no longer allowed to erect monuments of their own.

Originally, when the first panels were discovered at Naranjo, it was believed that K’an II had the staircase erected in the middle of Naranjo to spite the inhabitants of the defeated city. But we know that in 680 AD, King K’ahk’ Xiiw Chan Chaahk of Naranjo fought back and defeated Caracol, ending years of oppression, and it is now believed that to celebrate their victory, the people of Naranjo ripped up the staircase that had been erected by K’an II and brought it back to their city as a trophy. Pieces of it probably ended up in Xunantunich and Ucanal because those cities were allies of Naranjo, and were gifted a piece of the winnings.

Such was the life of a Maya city in the Classic Period. It’s important to remember that the Maya were not an empire, but a series of city-states, fiercely competing for new territory and access to trade routes. The Maya Classic Period, which ran from about 250 AD to about 950 AD was what some consider the apex of lowland Maya splendor. The majority of the beautiful glyphic texts and some of the greatest Pre-Columbian architectural achievements date to this period. The cities of the lowlands were not the jungle-choked ruins that we see today, they were alive, vibrant, and colorful. Vast areas of forest were cleared for agricultural purposes, and beyond the Maya capitals, with their mountainous temples and palaces, open fields blanketed the countryside, dotted with little hamlets inhabited by farmers.

Thank you to Dr. Teurenhout and Dr. Awe for their assistance in putting this blog together

Further reading:
Sharer, Robert J. and Loa P. Traxler, 2006. The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

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.

Modern Maya, flying kites and Day of the Dead celebrations.

Volcan de Agua
Volcan de Agua (Photo by Dirk Van Tuerenhout)

In the Highlands of Guatemala, about 15 miles north of the city of Antigua, great things are about to happen on November 1st. Every year, on this day, there is a celebration known as the Feria del Barrilete Gigante, or the Giant Kite Festival. Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, the two towns located north of Antigua, are the focus of this festival.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands
Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands (Photo by Dirk Van Tuernhout)

The Highlands of Guatemala and neighboring Chiapas, Mexico, are exceptionally beautiful, full of history – some of it enchanting, and some extremely full of sorrow.

In preparation of the Day of the Dead, people in Latin America, and especially in Mexico and Central America, gather flowers, food, and candles. On the day itself, they bring all these items to the cemeteries to honor their loved ones. Food and prayer are the two most important components of this commemoration.

There are regional variations in the way in which these celebrations takes place. Among the living Maya in Yucatán, the Day of the Dead is known as hanal pixan “to feed the souls.” In the village of Pac Chen, Quintana Roo, the shaman starts off the proceedings by praying as he walks around an underground cooking oven, or pib. After the prayers, the food that has been cooking in the oven is moved to a small outdoor altar, decorated with brightly colored flowers.  The shaman further blesses the meal and then the food is served.

In neighboring Tabasco, the Chontal Maya go to church, pray the rosary, and burn candles and incense. At home, they prepare offerings for the dead. The men in the family place a bed of banana leaves on which they arrange food and other items in front of the permanent altar found in all homes. Chicken, tamales and turkey are offered to the ancestors, as they burn more candles and incense on the altar. Eventually, when the remembrance takes place in the cemetery, men play a central role in the ceremonies, as women are forbidden to attend.

In Guatemala, at the end of October, people set up altars with photos of the departed. Around these, they arrange an offering of water, flowers, votive candles and different kinds of food and drink: aguardiente (liquor made from sugar cane), bread, fruit and atole (a non-alcoholic drink made with water and corn flour). During the pre-dawn hours of November 1, members of the family place flowers in the doors of the house to welcome the departed souls. Then comes the rite of “dressing” the graves. The family goes to the cemetery and places flowers on the small hillocks, the last resting place of those who have gone before. They leave wreaths of wax-paper flowers at the head of the grave and then prepare the food which they will eat right there, in a symbolic breaking of bread with the dearly departed. The meal consists of fiambre, a type of Spanish stew made of meat or fish, vegetables, olives and capers; and canshul (based on regional vegetables) which the family eats by the grave.

Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival
Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival.

The regional specialty of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez is that they fly kites. A tradition going back more than a century, some of these span 40 feet and are contraptions made of lashed bamboo and vibrant tissue paper held together with gallons of glue. The smaller ones are made of corn stalks and twine.

Maya women elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations
Maya women, elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

It takes a whole village to build these kites. Men travel to the south coast of Guatemala to collect canes for spars; wire and rope hold the kites together. Groups of Sumpango residents collaborate to make each kite. The standard size 10-foot kite takes up to 15 people up to a month and a half to design, create, and assemble, depending on how complicated the design is.

The kites serve as a means to communicate with the deceased, while at the same time also operating as a filter – removing any bad vibes that might exist in the cemeteries.

Gathering around the tombs of loved ones
Inhabitants of Santiago Sacatepequez gathering around
the tombs of their loved ones.

These kites with their vibrant colors, dashing through the sky above the cemeteries add an extra dimension to the gathering of the families around the tombs of their loved ones. An eyewitness account described the experience as follows:

“As the morning wore on, a team of boys and men tested the wind. They grasped a long rope attached to an 8-foot kite and ran into the gusting breeze. Spectators created a narrow corridor as the kite runners raced to pull their creation aloft before they ran into a wall – literally. With a final tug, the brightly colored disk rose steadily, then swooped down close to the heads of the crowd before sailing up again. The fickle winds couldn’t always hold the swerving kites, and they would come plunging down and scatter the crowds. More teams pulled their kites into the air in the afternoon. Some were all-women teams in traditional dress. Others were made up of children or students. Ropes got tangled and shouts went up as a kite dive-bombed.”

One can get a good feel for the excitement that runs through the crowd when some of the giant kites catch the winds and stand upright, by watching – and listening to – the following video.

At the end of the day, kites that were torn by the winds are burned inside the cemetery. The surviving kites are exhibited in the local Catholic Church during a novena for the deceased. Then they are burned, and the ashes are buried in the cemetery, completing the annual ritual for the Day of the Dead in Santiago Sacatepéquez. With the outside world discovering this wonderful festival, and with up to 15,000 international visitors descending to these two cemeteries, some of the kites are now sold to these visitors. This leaves the local Maya both delighted (as this generates extra income) and puzzled as to why one would want to acquire them (as these kites act as filters to remove negative sentiments from the cemeteries) (J. Maxwell, personal communication, February 16, 2011).

I referred earlier to the tradition of kite flying going back more than a century. I am basing this primarily on the observation of the texts written on the kites as shown in the photographs above. This chronology is echoed in some sources. However, it should be noted that some sources peg the origins of the giant kites to the 1940s.

The hanal pixan ceremony mentioned earlier, while occurring on the days of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Catholic liturgical calendar, has its roots in pre-Columbian ancestor veneration.

Redfield and Rojas (1934) studied the Maya village of Chan Kom including their beliefs in the afterworld, and their burial customs. They reported that the Maya believed in demons, okol pixan, who would waylay a person’s soul the moment it left the body on its way to paradise. To prevent this from happening, the Chan Kom Maya employed a maestro cantor to recite prayers, thus keeping these “soul thieves” at bay. Diego de Landa mentioned the existence – in the 16th century – of demons that swooped in to abduct the soul of the deceased. Scholars wonder if these 16th century demons might be the okol pixan of early 20th century Yucatán. The same Chan Kom Maya were also convinced that animals, rather than humans, were able to see human souls attempting to leave the body, moments before death. Thus, when dogs barked all night, they were convinced that a death was imminent. A soul returned to its home for up to seven days after death. During this period, a house should not be cleaned, as the deceased is thought to return to collect what is his or hers, especially its sins so that it can be judged in the afterworld.

Sometimes souls are stuck. When a person dies a violent death, either by accident or by murder, they are trapped in the place where the person died. This sometimes means that the souls are caught under a rock or in a tree until they are liberated (by someone moving a stone, for example). The sounds made by trees during windy weather are seen as signs of these trapped souls.

Customs observed during the early Colonial period by Diego de Landa reflected the customs in place during the final portion of the Late Postclassic period, just before the arrival of the Spaniards. de Landa described how among the upper echelons of the elite, the custom was to cremate the remains, rather than bury them. The ashes were then placed in great ceramic burial urns. As far as the “regular” elite were concerned, their ashes were placed in wooden statues, which were then kept and venerated. We see here in both cases clear attempts to keep the remains of the deceased in order to pray to them later.

We learn that among the upper crust, there was a firm belief and desire that the statues resemble the appearance of the deceased, especially the facial features. Moreover, these statues were brought out during ceremonies when people wanted to appease the souls of the deceased. People shared meals during such ceremonies and offered food to the statues (Tozzer, 1941:131).

The customs described above are recent examples of Maya people honoring the dead. What do we know about the pre-Columbian roots of these customs? As far as I know, there is no evidence of pre-Columbian Maya flying kites. In one instance, Tozzer (1941:131, n. 612-613) provides us with an answer dating back to pre-European times. Archaeologists found wooden statues and human skulls painted and modified to look lifelike at the site of Chichen Itza in northern Yucatán. It is tempting to see in the statues seen by Tozzer the most recent descendants of the pre-Columbian statues.

The ancient Maya also honored their dead by burying their dead underneath the floors of their dwellings. There is good evidence that after an interment the house and its contents was burned to the ground and a new house was then constructed on top of it. Such acts of destruction and reconstruction, acts of rebirth and renewal, correspond with the cyclical view of life and nature that the Maya held. Predictably, the tombs of the rich and powerful were separately built affairs, filled with valuable grave goods.

The burial customs of the ancient Maya elite inform us best about ancestor worship. Temples built on top of pyramids, some of which enveloped royal tombs, were decorated with art and text referring to the ancestors of the ruling dynasty. These temples were the place where ancestor rituals took place and, as such, they constituted a portal between the world of the living and the afterworld (Foster, 2002, p. 211).

Tikal Altar 5
Tikal Altar 5.

A unique carved Maya monument allows us a fleeting glance at ancestor worship among the Classic period Maya elite. Tikal Altar 5 shows Tikal Lord Jasaw Chan K’awiil I and an unknown lord from the site of Maasal. One can see a skull and long bones depicted between them. These remains are identified as those of Lady Tuun Kaywak. The hieroglyphic text refers to an act of consecration, in conjunction with the word “knife.” The monument is dated to AD 711, a period when Tikal and Calakmul were at war. It has been suggested that we are witnessing the removal of human remains, likely an ancestor of the ruler of Tikal, for reburial at Tikal, at a moment in time when the original burial site, Maasal was threatened by Calakmul. Rather than risk the tomb of his ancestor be desecrated, the ruler of Tikal exhumed the remains and brings them back to his capital. A cranium and long bones were recovered by archaeologists near this altar (Fitzsimmons, 2009, pp. 164-165). This is a touching example of the close ties between the living and the departed, as they were felt in pre-Columbian days.

The overview provided here shows that both modern and ancient Maya honored their departed loved ones. Though the sentiments may be the same, they chose different ways to express them.

Further reading:

Fitzsimmons, James L., 2009. Death and the Classic Maya Kings. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Foster, Lynn V., 2002. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Redfield, Robert and Alfonso Villa Rojas, 1934. Chan Kom, a Maya Village. Carnegie Institution. Publication 448, Washington, DC.

Tozzer, Alfred, 1941. Landa’s Relacion de las Coas de Yucatan: a Translation. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, 18, Harvard University.

2012: Did the Maya Predict an Apocalypse?

For the last 2 years, the Astronomy Department of the Houston Museum of Natural Science has searched and researched Maya ruins and writings for connections between the Mayan calendar and the ability of Maya astronomers to predict future events.

To record the passage of time, the Maya developed a 260-day ritual cycle, made up of thirteen numbers and twenty names. With this continuous running cycle, they could predict future events like the harvesting of crops and the birth of children. The Maya kept a second 365-day solar calendar of 18 months, each lasting 20 days, plus 5 extra days to complete the year. This calendar determined the growing season and the annual return of the rains. For longer time periods the Maya used a 5-number Long Count. On December 21st, 2012, for instance, this Long Count has a new beginning as the date changes from to This is similar to the change from 1999 to 2000 in our modern calendar and is the cause of much 2012 speculation.

Great Temples
The homeland of the Maya stretches from southern Mexico to northern Central America. Our new planetarium show, 2012: Mayan Prophecies (Now Showing!), explores the great Maya cities of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque. For survival, the Maya created these great urban centers to store rainwater through the dry season and built observatories to determine when the annual rains would begin.

The Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza is a temple to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. Each of its 4 staircases has 91 steps for 364 steps in all with a top step into the temple – one step for each day of the year.  According to legend, Kukulcan returns to his pyramid on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, descending the staircase in an undulating shadow.

In the nearby Caracol observatory, astronomers watched Kukulcan, who appeared in the heavens as the planet Venus. Through motions of the brilliant Venus, they determined the will of Kukulcan and the time for human sacrifices to honor this sky god and give thanks for the rains he would soon send.

photo courtesy of Raymond Ostertag

The Maya carved the great city of Tikal out of the rain forest in the lowlands of modern Guatemala. In this city of up to 100,000, all water came from the sky. Tikal’s rulers cleared the rain forest, channeled the water in swamps to grow crops, and built cisterns and catch basins to store water during the rainy season. Tikal’s power depended on storing enough water to last until the rains returned each spring.

Five giant pyramids helped astronomers predict when the rainy season would begin. On December 21, for instance, astronomers on Temple 4 could watch the sun rise farthest to the south, over the Pyramid of the Jaguar Priest. From this date forward, they knew that the sun would rise a little more to the north each day. At the vernal equinox, the sun would always rise over Temple 1, an event that must happen before the rains could begin.

In the foothills of Mexico’s southern mountains, lies the Maya city of Palenque. Blessed with abundant rain and flowing rivers, the artisans of Palenque had time to create some of the most elaborate and exquisite Mayan art and the most delicate of buildings. Here inscriptions describe the beginning of the Maya long count cycle and chronicle events far into the future, but no mention of 2012.

There has been a subtle change in the sky in the 1,300 years since the time of the classic Maya. Due to the wobble of Earth’s spin axis, different stars rise with the sun in each season.

For instance, at the time of the Maya, the glowing Milky Way band was above the sun at sunrise on the winter solstice.  Now in December, the sun reaches its lowest point at noon in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way, near the direction of the galaxy’s center.

Does this mean that galactic forces are now aligned? Did the Maya predict this alignment? We have no data to indicate that the Maya recognized the 26,000-year cycle that caused this alignment. There is no documented connection between the Earth-centered Maya cosmos and our modern universe.

Classic Maya civilization did experience a great apocalypse, but it occurred long before the Spanish Conquest.

For over a millennium, the major cities of the Maya have stood abandoned – deserted by their citizens, conquered by weather and reclaimed by the rainforest. At their culture’s height, many of the Maya faced the worst drought in thousands of years. It devastated a civilization that had cut down the rainforest to grow crops and destroyed urban centers that could not store enough water for their people. In less than a hundred years, over a hundred thousand Maya disappeared, leaving their parched cities and their withered fields, rejecting the divine right and Earthly power of their kings. By the thousands they returned to the rainforest and mountains to a sustainable population and way of life.

As we sense the fragility of our own culture today, we may discover a warning for 2012 in the ruins of these great Maya cities — silent sentinels, witnesses of the apocalypse of the Maya.

Explore pyramids towering above the rainforest, designed as observatories to follow the sun. Experience the apocalypse of the Maya and discover how our fate in 2012 may be foretold in our new planetarium show 2012: Mayan Prophecies. Check out the extended preview below!

Can’t see the video? 2012: Mayan Prophecies from HMNS on Vimeo.