What are some of the ways that a culture records its history? What messages do we leave to future generations? Where are these messages inscribed or depicted? Who passes this generational knowledge and in what ways is the passing of these messages accomplished? How is that knowledge different from previous cultures in time?
These are some of the questions that I ask myself as I study one of the most important surviving cultures in the Americas: the Maya. As a second grade teacher working in a bilingual classroom in a community where over 55% of the students are Hispanic I find it important to bring new material that will get them excited about learning about our different heritage. Although most of the students come from the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, I want my students to explore these questions with me as we study a culture that we have not yet fully comprehended. I want my students to think about how the Maya left a mark in the history of human kind through the use of a written language, architecture, the arts, and the extensive collections of artifacts and how it is that we can leave such a mark in future generations.
One culture that left a clear mark on the history of Mesoamerica and the world is the Maya. The term Mesoamerica was first used by Professor Kirchhoff to refer to those pre-Spanish cultures that had settled in Central America. There are many aspects of Mesoamerican cultures that have survived the ages and have become part of the human heritage that make us who we are. As an example, contrasting the western and eastern hemisphere cultures of antiquity, we can observe that there are more remains of Maya cities than there are of ancient Egypt. Maya cities, traditions, and crafts have survived for over 3,000 years in remote villages. Among their achievements is the development of the concept of zero in mathematics (often depicted in stelae and monuments as a shell or a half flower); the elaboration of an intricate calendar equal in accuracy to our own; the charting of the night skies to predict solar and lunar eclipses and to track the orbits of planets such as Venus. Additionally, the Maya left a prodigious artistic heritage in monuments, sculptures, and other pictorial evidence of their commanding culture.
The Maya culture once extended from the Caribbean to the Pacific; from southern Mexico, to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and all the way to parts of Costa Rica. Although this region encompassed such climatic, biological and geological diversity, there are two distinct settings that differentiate the Maya people of highlands and lowlands. The Maya highlands by definition include those areas over 1,000 feet and are interspersed with volcanoes. This area stretches from the southeastern Chiapas region toward the lower part of Central America and is designated by a defined rainy season lasting from May though early November. The farming practices in these areas are very distinct from the lowlands with deep soils that support high concentration of populations and are rich in vegetation. The main farming techniques of cutting patches of the forests allowed the Maya to work the land for up to ten years with a rest period of up to 15 years.
It is, however, the Maya lowlands that are of greater importance for the rising of the Maya civilization. The climate of the lowlands is hot and has an unreliable rainy season from April to October that varies widely from the dry north to the wet south. In the north, the lack of lakes made the dependence on water holes (cenotes) more important and it is among these naturally created reservoirs that the major centers of Maya settlements occurred. In the south, abundant water supplies of rainy season were preserved for the dry season. These areas are rich in fauna and flora. Animals such as deer, turkey, howler monkeys, tapir, and peccary were once abundant. Plants such as the breadnut tree and the avocado, among the many fruit trees, enriched the dietary staples of the Maya even though it was once believed that they relied mainly on intensive maize agriculture.
The Maya people had many commonalties with what seemed to be shared ancestors. They share some of the same cultural beliefs of previous peoples such as the Olmecs, who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and made them part of their own heritage. This commonalties would explain the similarities that these groups have with one another. Their ancestors came across the Bering land from Siberia to Alaska settling in Mesoamerica more than twelve thousand years ago. As part of the shared ancestral heritage we have remains of religious practice, altars, and early writing, among others.
The Maya were well aware of the depiction of artworks and their use of materials, as is evident by the many vestiges of their culture, and they are evident in the representations on buildings as well as pottery and ornamental pieces that have withstood the passage of time. Their remains depict many stories where we have yet to uncover their hidden meanings. The use of new technologies, new discoveries in hieroglyphic writing and new sites previously unknown have made the Maya a better understood culture. However, the passing of time and the political instability of some of the countries that maintain the remains of such a culture have made very difficult the piecing together of what was once a great culture and the reasons of their decline.
The arts and the written depiction of images and texts passsed from one generation to the next are important remnants of a culture. From the thousands of artifacts uncovered in old Maya ruins, and the writing of pictographs and hieroglyphics, we can learn of the historical events that took place and of the prevailing ruling class of the times.
It is unfortunate that much of the written retelling of the Maya history has been lost in time and space due to factors such as the medium they used (codices), climatic factors, in addition to the coming of the Spaniards who destroyed much of what had remained. The Maya wrote many books called codices which they treasured as sacred objects. These books were written on paper made from fig-tree bark and there are only four that have survived. However, of the remains we have, each medium seems to retell different parts of ancient Maya life and thought. Often these retellings are complementary. In other cases they are unique and original. When we look at the hieroglyphics left on monuments, stelae and sculptures, the main concern seems to relate historical and mythological events that took place to support the ruling class. In the pictorial representations of vases, plates, and jars uncovered in tombs and graves, the purpose of the narratives seems to be focused narratives or sometimes aspects of the lives of the well-off.
From the writings that we have been able to decipher we get much of the knowledge about what the Maya thought of the created objects, their names, their uses, and even the names of the people who created them. The depicted images found in the ceramic images go from delineation of the underworld to the genesis of the ancient Maya as outlined in the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation myth. A particular example of this deciphering process can be seen in the collaboration among Maya experts through the use of computers and new technologies. It has only been recently that some of the major breakthroughs, due to the use of new technologies and the collaborative process among scholars, have made it possible to step forward in the understanding of the many hieroglyphics that make up the Maya heritage left to us in the many ceramic vessels, pyramids, architectural sites as well as sculpture.