Apocalypto — 150 AD

The study of the ancient Maya is relatively new compared to that of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Our understanding of the Maya before the arrival of the Spanish may never reach the same level as we have for Old World cultures. However, major discoveries, utilizing new technologies paired with backbreaking archaeological work in steamy jungles and on freezing mountain peaks, continue to be made. That aspect, as well as the fact that Precolumbian cultures in general charted their own path, independent from the Old World, makes this such an interesting area to study.

Archaeologists drew on their knowledge of Classical archaeology when they started studying Precolumbian cultures. For example, they borrowed from Classic Old World archaeology by dividing Precolumbian history into three parts: the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. The underlying assumption here was that everything started out small and then grew into a more complex web of city states trading and fighting each other, only to succumb to the onslaught of the invading Europeans.

Humble beginnings, triumphant zenith and ultimate collapse. Simple enough, right? Not quite.

Uxmal
Creative Commons License photo credit: malias

There are major differences between Old and New World archaeology. Most known Preclassic Maya sites were small, with the beginnings of public architecture that would make later Maya sites so popular among tourists today. One site, however, left its humble beginning behind very quickly and grew into a huge city centuries before other Maya cities ever did. That site was El Mirador.

Located in the northern part of the Department in El Petén, Guatemala, El Mirador was first noted by archaeologists during pioneering mapping efforts in 1893. During the 1920s, the Carnegie Institutionwent from Campeche to Tikal and reported on their travels through the Mirador Basin. Subsequent aerial reconnaissance conducted in 1930 yielded the first photographs of these pyramids and the raised roads connecting them. In the 1960s, Ian Graham mapped the sitefollowed by additional mapping efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. One archaeologist who has spent most of his career working at El Mirador is Dr. Richard Hansen. Over the years, this project has seen tremendous growth, encompassing archaeology, biology, as well as community development.

Grand Jaguar 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: auntjojo

El Mirador can best be described with superlatives. Two of its platform-pyramid complexes are among the largest by volume in the world. Known as La Danta (or tapir) and El Tigre, these pyramids are 72 and 55 meters tall respectively. These magnificent buildings were part of a Preclassic community which some estimate may have had 100,000 inhabitants, perhaps even more. It is considered larger than the much better known Maya site of Tikal.  El Mirador may have been 38 sq. km in size. What makes this development even more interesting is the location: no major rivers in the vicinity, and as far away from the sea as one can get in Guatemala.

In is against this backdrop that archaeologists found evidence of a pitched battle fought on the top of El Tigre pyramid. Bone fragments were found together with hundreds of spear tips and arrow heads. Many of these projectile points were made from obsidian, or volcanic glass, which was traced back to a source in the Central Mexican highlands. Currently additional research is underway to help identify the two combatant parties.

It is tempting to see this event as part of a power struggle that played out during the early centuries of our era. We know that Teotihuacan, located in the Basin of Mexico, was meddling in Maya affairs during the fourth century AD. We know that central Mexican art forms, architectural canons and perhaps people were present at Maya sites such as Tikal, Copan and Piedras Negras. We do not really know what happened and why the city of Teotihuacan had extended its influence that far into Central America.

What remains equally enigmatic is why there would have been a battle. Is this an example of inter-site warfare? Was Tikal keen on disposing of a major competitor? Given the known chronology of Teotihuacan’s involvement in the Maya cities just mentioned, the suggested date of El Mirador’s demise, at 150 AD, may be a few centuries too early to make this a workable hypothesis.
This is just the beginning of this story. The last word on this topic has not been written yet. In the meantime, it is fascinating to get a glimpse into a single event – that of a violent conflict – fought at the top of a Maya pyramid now almost 2000 years ago. Apocalyptic indeed.

I would like to add one final point: the site of El Mirador and its architecture served as a source of inspiration for the Maya city portrayed in the 2006 Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. Dr. Hansen served as one of the movie’s advisors.

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   

 

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do – we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced – making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 

 

Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa