The ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica that were brutally terminated by Cortes and his army in 1521 were so sophisticated and wondrous, both in intellect and imagination, that it is hard to know where to begin a study of them. For some it will be with the architecture, sculpture, or ceramics. For others it will be with the elaborate calendar and mythology or with the religious views that so tightly linked human beings and the natural order to the needs of the gods.
Wherever one decides to enter this world, it soon becomes clear that although the civilizations were destroyed, the cultures that informed them have endured, supporting and enriching the lives of the often racially mixed people who now live in Mexico and Central America. One routinely hears of the rich mixture of cultures in what came to be called New Spain: Spanish first, of course, and then Indian and African. But more and more people are coming to appreciate the strength, flexibility, and even subversive persistence of the supposedly weaker cultural strands, not only in Mesoamerica but in other places in the Americas.
Sometimes the survival is virtually intact, as in villages in the Chiapas Highlands of Guatemala; often it is in subtle but powerful adaptations of European ideas to the service of the Mesoamerican belief system. It is a portion of this surviving belief system that I wish my students to understand through this unit. After a discussion of the inevitable encounter in 1521 between Europeans and the New World, we will look at some ways in which the Maya, one of Mesoamerica's most important cultural groups, mapped--and still map--their universe.
The tenacity of Mesoamerican culture is everywhere in the literature. In the last chapter of his book The Maya, Michael Coe asserts:
The six million or so Maya alive in the world today are survivors: they have endured repeated cycles of conquest that continue unabated even today. What have kept the Maya people culturally and even physically viable are their hold on the land (and that land on them), a devotion to their community and an all-pervading and meaningful belief system (202).