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ALL ABOUT THE MAYANS

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"Mexico has 37 World Heritage Sites and more than 30,000 archeological sites," says Gloria Guevara Manzo, Secretary, Mexico Secretariat of Tourism. The Maya civilization is one of the most fascinating cultures of the ancient world.

Visitors explore Mayan ruins at Tulum, Mexico.
Visitors explore Mayan ruins at Tulum, Mexico.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Secretary Guevara named the states with major Mayan archeological sites. They include Izapa and Palenque, in Chiapas, Uxmal and Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Coba, El Cedral and Tulum in Quintana Roo, Calakmul and Edzna in Campeche, as well as Comalcalco and Tortuguero's Monument 6, Villahermosa in Tabasco.

Mayan Calendar

Tortuguero's Monument 6 features an inscription about the end of the last 5125-year period in the Maya Long-Count 13 baktun calendar. December 21, 2012 coincided with the end of the cycle in the Mayan calendar.

The Maya are one of Mexico's 62 ethnic groups. How many Mayans exist today? The Mayan population is about 10 million, primarily living in Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Museum artifacts

Besides touring Mayan ruins, the best way to learn about the Mayans is by viewing artifacts from Mayan sites in Mexican museums and international collections.

Tablet of the Warriors from Temple XVII, Palenque
Tablet of the Warriors from Temple XVII, Palenque
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Artifacts reveal the Maya World (Mundo Maya), with Mayan ceramics, archeological finds and information on Mayan rituals and daily life of the Mayans. Museum visitors learn about Mayan social structure and learn how to read Mayan script and the Mayan calendar.

Archeological finds

An example is the Late Classic Period (600 - 900 CE) Tablet of the Warriors from Temple XVII at Palenque, from the Regional Museum of Chiapas, Mexico. The limestone tablet celebrates the capture of an enemy by Palenque's ruler, K'inich Kan Bahlam II, who carries a spear and wears the headdress of the war serpent, Waxalju'un Ub'aah Kan.

Smaller glyphs describe the capture of B'olon Yooj and the conquest of the city of Tonina in 687 CE. Larger glyphs list activities that happened after the date Palenque was founded (August 25, 490 CE).

Maya writing

How many glyphs are there in the Classic Period Maya writing system? Of the 900 known glyphs about 80 per cent have been deciphered. Seven hundred are logograms that stand for whole words. The remainder are phonetic glyphs that represent syllables in the Mayan language.

Glyphs are on many of the Maya sculptures, such as the limestone stela fragment depicting a Mayan ruler with a royal scepter, the embodiment of K'awiil, the serpent-footed patron of Maya royalty.

Mayan warrior leader with jaguar pelt, painted on ceramic vase from the Late Classical Period (600-900 CE)
Mayan warrior leader with jaguar pelt, painted on ceramic vase from the Late Classical Period (600-900 CE)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Maya life

Mayan ceramics depict many aspects of ancient Mayan life, including the animals they encountered. One vase depicts a procession of warriors returning from battle with captives. The leader wears a jaguar pelt.

The handle of a lidded ceramic bowl from the Regional Museum of Yucatan Palacio Canton, Mexico, depicts a jaguar head. Another Mayan ceramic lidded bowl features a head that combines the features of a jaguar and an iguana. Found in Becan, Campeche, it resides in the Archeological Museum of Campeche Fuerte in San Miguel, Mexico.

The Early Classic Period (250 - 600 CE) ceramic bowl portrays the Mayan myth of the earth's creation by the slaying of the Celestial Crocodile. Emerging from the jaws of the iguana-jaguar head is the head of Itzamnaaj, the Creator God.

Mayan animals

Ancient Mayans associated jaguars with death and the underworld, because they were nocturnal hunters.

The Maya believed ducks were celestial messengers and carriers of seeds in agricultural fertility rites. A lidded bowl from Temple IX at Becan, in Campeche, depicts a duck's head.

Sculpture of seated ruler from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza
Sculpture of seated ruler from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mayan clothing

Mayan sculptures and ceramics depict clothing worn by Mayans. Clothing and jewelry signified Mayan social status. Mayan men wore loincloths. Mayan women wore dresses.

A limestone sculpture of a seated ruler, from the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, shows him sitting cross-legged, wearing a loincloth and a short cape. His headdress depicts Chaahk, the rain god.

Both men and women wore jewelry, including earrings and lip plugs. A Late Classic Period (600 - 900 CE) necklace with a jade pendant was found in the funerary assemblage of a high-ranking priest in Calakmul, Campeche.

Jade was a valuable Maya trade good, associated with life because it mirrored the color of water and vegetation. The jade pendant is carved with a symbol for sacred rule. The shell necklace beads were linked with the underworld, wind and sea.

Mayan rituals

Mexican museum artifacts depict objects used for Mayan religious rites, such as bloodletting. A stingray spine with incised hieroglyphic text was used for auto sacrifice. Classic Maya people believed that offering their blood helped them contact gods and ancestors.

Mayan jade funerary mask from Calakmul, Campeche
Mayan jade funerary mask from Calakmul, Campeche
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A large incense burner, or censer, from the Regional Museum of Chiapas, Mexico, depicts a seated ruler dressed as the jaguar god of the underworld, a noble emerging from a serpent head and a jaguar head.

The Mayans believed that the sun god, K'inich Ajaw made a nightly trip to the underworld, which duplicated the journey taken by deceased Mayans. A mosaic jade funerary mask from Calakmul, one of the most powerful Mayan cities, portrays a deceased Mayan, as well as the young maize god, who was associated with agricultural fertility and the creation of the current world.

The jade mask from the Early Classic Period (300 - 600 CE) has shell nose plugs and fangs, which signify the divinity of the mask and its wearer.

Spider monkey with cacao pod collar on ceramic jar lid from Tonina, Chiapas
Spider monkey with cacao pod collar on ceramic jar lid from Tonina, Chiapas
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mayan foods and drinks

From Museo de Sitio Tonina in Chiapas, Mexico, a whimsical ceramic jar lid portrays a spider monkey. The cacao-loving animal wears a collar of cacao pods. (The word cacao is derived from kakaw in ancient Zoque, the language of the Olmecs, who first domesticated cacao in Chiapas, Mexico.)

The now-lost jar likely held cacao beans, which were used as trade goods. Ancient Maya fermented, dried and roasted cacao beans.

Mayan rulers drank fermented maize drinks mixed with chocolate, during festivals. A ceramic bowl from the Yucatan peninsula depicts a man drinking at a banquet.

Mexican cuisine was declared part of the World's Cultural Heritage. "There are thousands of dishes in Mexican gastronomy," says Gloria Guevara Manzo.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Mexico Tourism Board: www.visitmexico.com

More things to see & do in Mexico:

Tulum Mayan Ruins Tour

Cozumel Mexico - Things To Do

Mexico Day of the Dead

Mexican Candy Shops, Markets and Dulcerias

Central America on a Shoestring