A news article dated December 21, 2012 reads quote “A man in Phoenix keeps 1,000 fish in his swimming pool, which he says he plans to survive on if the worst comes. One couple says they have collected 25,000 rounds of ammunition and gathered enough food inside their gated-home to survive for 50 years. A California company has sold 50 survivor bunkers in the past three months alone. An estimated 3 million Americans have been actively preparing for the end of the world, and thousands of people believe that the world, as we know it, might actually end on Friday.” end quote. The end of the world did not in fact come on Friday, December 21st, 2012. So why all the prep? Why were all these people so convinced that doomsday was coming? This belief was based on an ancient calendar created by the Maya people of Central America, the Mesoamerican long count calendar, which ended on December 21, 2012. Incorrect beliefs that the end of this calendar signaled the end of the world came from the centuries old notion that the Maya were a mystical, lost civilization with abilities, knowledge, and powers that modern humans no longer possess, beliefs started by European conquistadors who couldn’t possibly fathom that these barbaric quote “savages” were possibly capable of their impressive accomplishments without some kind of supernatural interference, beliefs based in racist ideas that white Europeans were undeniably superior to all other races on Earth and therefore should be the most advanced. But did you know, the Maya aren’t a mysterious lost civilization with supernatural abilities, they’re the second largest ethnic group in Mexico where, even today, up to a million native Mayan speakers struggle to gain the respect and acknowledgement their ancestors deserved? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Knowledge of the Maya civilization is shrouded in mystery. And there’s a reason for that. When Spanish explorers arrived in Central America in the early 1500s, they destroyed most Maya relics without taking even half a second to try to understand this impressive civilization or preserve their writing and artifacts for future generations. To the Spanish, the Maya were godless savages, heathens and nothing of their culture was worth saving so they basically erased most of it. We have the Spanish conquistadors to thank for much of the confusion surrounding the Maya.
We know a lot more about Aztec culture because the Aztec empire was at the height of its power when the Spanish arrived. If you listened to episode 22 about Tenochtitlan, you know Hernan Cortez spent a great deal of time living amongst the Aztecs before he ultimately defeated them and a lot of their customs and culture and rituals were recorded by Spanish chroniclers. With the Maya, it didn’t happen that way. The first European contact with the Maya is believed to have happened in 1502 during the last voyage of Christopher Columbus. But they didn’t become widely known about by Europeans until 1517 when three ships led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordova landed on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. After some time, they scrambled back to Cuba, half dead from starvation, and reported discovering mysterious cities and fighting battles against savage Maya warriors. So let’s pause to unpack that word “mysterious” for a sec because honestly, this is where the concept of Mayanism was born. Hey Siri define mysterious (Siri recording) “difficult or impossible to understand, explain, or identify.” Okay so their buildings looked different than in Spain. They had pyramids and such. But this wasn’t unheard of. The Spanish had seen foreign cities that looked different than their own. So why did they describe the Maya cities as mysterious? I think, because it was hard for them to wrap their heads around the reality that this group of savage jungle dwellers, these brown people could possibly have built cities more sophisticated, more advanced than their own. When you think you are the most intelligent, advanced, and civilized humans on Earth, and then you encounter evidence to the contrary, that’s a hard pill to swallow and so in your head it doesn’t make sense. Difficult or impossible to understand, explain, or identify. Mysterious.
So Cordova goes back to Cuba and tells the Governor, Diego Velasquez, about the Maya. He also brings some gold they had stolen out of Maya temples. Velasquez sees the gold and he’s like “sweet, that’s what I’m talking about,” and he sends his nephew to go retrace Cordova’s steps and find this mysterious people, which he does. He finds the Maya, he trades for more gold and then they tell him about the Aztecs. They’re like, “you like our gold? You should see what these guys have.” Because at this point, the Aztec empire is on top and the Maya are kind of struggling. They had just gotten out of a civil war type situation, rebellions between different groups of Maya so they were already weakened when the Spanish first encountered them, to the point that one of the groups, the Quiche Maya were actually paying tribute to the Aztecs. And this is something the Maya had always adamantly refused to do. They traded with the Aztecs but they were always determined to maintain their independence. So the fact that they’re paying tribute indicates that the Maya had hit a rough patch as a civilization even before Cordova stumbled upon their mysterious cities.
So they kind of defer Spanish attention off of themselves and onto the Aztecs. And the Spanish take the bait. Hernan Cortez especially, though he completely defied direct orders from Governor Velasquez, decides to go after the Aztecs and go listen to episode 22 for more on that. In the years following the fall of the Aztecs with the conquest of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish set their sights on the Maya. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya didn’t have a strong centralized government. It was a lot of smaller city-states that the Spanish had to conquer one by one. So this was a big job and the Maya put up a heck of a fight. But eventually, weakened by diseases like smallpox and influenza, more and more Maya territory was conquered and claimed by the Spanish.
The Spanish guys in charge of this, especially Cortez who was made governor of “New Spain” AKA Mexico after conquering the Aztecs, had put up a lot of money to pull it off. They hoped to find a bunch of gold when they conquered the Maya but they didn’t. It was nothing like the gold they’d gotten from the Aztecs. They were sorely disappointed there and now in debt because their investments in this conquest of the Maya had not paid off. So what they did to recoup the money was confiscate the land and basically enslave the indigenous people who lived there to work it for them in a feudal system set up by the Spanish government. This was completely legal. Conquistadors got a grant from the government called an encomienda which allowed them to force the indigenous people to work in mines, construction projects, and on plantations harvesting cash crops. Then they were forced to pay tribute to their Spanish Lords or encomenderos. Conditions were horrific for these people and any rebellion against the system was punishable by imprisonment, torture, and execution. And all of this in the name of God as Catholicism was forced upon them. How, you might ask? Well, they destroyed all important temples, shrines, altars, and writings. They couldn’t worship their religion, wear any religious ceremonial clothing, or enact any ceremonial rites without severe punishment from the Catholic church.
So here we begin to see the destruction of anything and everything that would have shed some light on the Maya, their culture, their society. Everything that would have helped us see them as people, humans like you and me, instead of some mystical, otherworldly civilization that we just can’t comprehend. But, with what little was left, which we’ll get into soon, we have been able to piece together some sort of understanding of the Maya. So let’s get into that now.
According to a National Geographic Article by Erin Blakemore, the Maya as a people, a society, a culture, seem to have emerged between 7,000 BC and 2,000 BC. So that’s a 5,000 year period. That’s pretty indicative of how little we know about the Maya that we can’t narrow their emergence down to less than 5,000 years. At some point in that window, hunter gatherers abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and started to create permanent settlements, villages, cities, whatever you want to call them. According to Blakemore quote “Recent analyses suggest that those first settlers came from South America and likely developed their staple food, maize, by 4000 B.C. Maize cultivation dramatically changed the Maya’s trajectory, literally fueling the explosion of their society and culture.” end quote. So maize is corn and it’s the whole reason the early Maya were able to settle down in one area instead of moving around following game and hunting for nuts and berries and such as their predecessors had done.
But corn on its own, I don’t know if you realize this, it’s mostly indigestible. If you eat corn on the cob, you’re likely to see that corn again, if you know what I mean. The early Maya found a way around this with a process called nixtamalization. Basically, they dried out the corn then soaked it and cooked it in an alkaline solution that softens it and makes it more digestible. The alkaline solution they used was likely water mixed with ashes or lime. Not like limes like the fruit, lime like the mineral that comes from limestone which is made of shells and coral and stuff. The combination of heat and alkalinity make nutrients in the corn bioavailable, meaning our bodies can absorb and use them. So this process basically turned an inedible plant into a nutritious food source with amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
When the Spanish arrived, they were like “cool, corn,” and they took it back to Europe with them and were like “look at this amazing new food we discovered.” However, they didn’t know about nixtamalization, remember they made almost no effort to learn about the indigenous people or their customs and I’m sure the Maya didn’t go out of their way to teach them their ways. So as corn spread through Europe as a new food staple, people started to suffer from malnutrition and pellagra which is a disease caused by a severe vitamin B3 or niacin deficiency. The corn they were eating had almost no nutritional value because they skipped the crucial process of nixtamalization before eating it. So, you know, I think there’s an important lesson there. Had they valued these indigenous Americans, valued their customs, paid any attention to them whatsoever, they would have known about nixtamalization and all of that could have been avoided. I love natural consequences.
But it’s this technological advancement, the cultivation of corn and the development of nixtamalization, that allowed the Maya to rise up throughout Central America, parts of southern Mexico (especially the Yucatan Peninsula) all the way down to parts of Nicaragua. But they weren’t the only civilization rising up. The Maya seem to have developed alongside another civilization called the Olmec, yes like in Legends of the Hidden Temple and if you don’t get that reference then you clearly didn’t watch Nickelodeon in the mid 90s. According to that National Geographic article, some scholars consider the Olmec to be one of the most influential societies of all time. So the Maya way of life was most likely heavily influenced by that of the Olmec. Including creating ritual complexes. So this means building cities around ritual areas. Think of Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. You can probably picture the pyramid, it’s pretty iconic. That’s a ritual area, the pyramid had religious, ritualistic significance. But a whole, very impressive city was built up around the pyramid and this is something the Maya probably took from the Olmec.
So we’re already seeing agricultural advancement and urban development and we’re still in the BCs here. This is what’s known as the preclassic period between 1500 and 200 BC. During this time, the Maya developed complex trade networks, farming techniques like an advanced irrigation system, water purification, sports, writing, and a complex calendar that we’ll most certainly come back to later.
200 to 900 AD is known as the Classic period and this is when the Maya are at their peak. They are building these super impressive advanced cities around megalithic monuments, pyramids, and other grand buildings that resemble palaces, although we aren’t sure if they were actually used as residences for the elite or had some other purpose. That’s not something the Spanish bothered to ask about. But despite all this organization and advancement, it wasn’t an empire like the Aztecs would later form. The Maya were always organized more into city-states with local rulers that often fought with each other.
They were a very religious and ritualistic people. We know a good bit about their religion from the Popol Vuh which is their bible basically, their foundational religious text. In the mid 1550s, an unknown Maya author or authors recorded the Popol Vuh in the Mayan language using the latin alphabet, the one we use, the ABCs. So they’re writing in Mayan but their spelling out the words phonetically using our alphabet instead of Mayan hieroglyphic symbols. This was then lost, of course, because who of any importance cared about the Popol Vuh in 1550s New Spain. It was sacrilege, heresy. But it was rediscovered in the early 1700s by a priest named Francisco Jimenez and he translated it into Spanish. So we had this knowledge of the Maya religion, their creation myth, that sort of thing but it’s not really backed up by anything, we just kind of think it’s their creation myth. I mean, Jimenez just found some old manuscript, we don’t even know who wrote it.
But then, in 2009, an archaeologist named Richard Hansen discovered two 26 foot long carved panels at the Maya site of El Mirador in Guatemala. The panels had been carved during the pre-classic period around 300 BC and the carvings depict the same stories that were recorded in the Popol Vuh, images of how the Maya gods created the world. So it wasn’t until 2009 that we kind of knew for sure that the Popul Vuh Jimenez transcribed in the 18th century was actually based on the Maya religion. The carved panels Hansen found authenticated the text.
So it’s real and we have it, miraculously, it somehow survived the Spanish Inquisition. Based on the Popol Vuh we know the Maya believed in K’uh or K’uhul which is the concept that sacredness, divinity can be found in all things, living and inanimate. Corn, for example, was sacred, holy. They believed in a divine life force that ran through all things on Earth. In the Maya religion, the wind and sky god Huracán created the Earth. Sound familiar? It’s where the word hurricane came from. According to worldhistory.org quote “The sky and earth connected, which left no space for any beings or vegetation to grow. In order to make space, a Ceiba tree was planted. The tree grew roots in all the levels of the underworld and its branches grew into the upper world. The tree trunk grew to leave space on earth for animals, plants, and humans. According to Maya belief, animals and plants were extant before humans. The gods were not satisfied with only the animals because they could not speak to honor them. From there, humans were made in order to honor the gods.” end quote.
According to the myths, there have been three different creations. In the first, humans were made from mud but according to the texts, these people quote “spoke but had no mind.” They also couldn’t move because they were made of mud. So the gods weren’t happy with them and decided to destroy them with water which is common in many religions including Christianity - Noah’s arc right? In the second creation, they were made of wood. Well, men were made of wood and women were made of reeds.They functioned like humans but they didn’t have souls so they couldn’t honor the gods. They were also immortal. Apparently, when they died, they only stayed dead for 3 days and then they came back to life. The gods decided to destroy this second attempt at humans with boiling water. But some are believed to have survived and became the monkeys that still exist today. Which I find very interesting. That the ancient Maya already realized a connection between humans and monkeys. They’re like, dabbling with evolution there.
So the gods give it one more go, this is like the three little pigs, very reminiscent of the three little pigs here. In the third attempt, they make humans out of corn. Well, dough made of corn mixed with blood from the gods. So these are modern humans, these corn blood creations. At first the gods just made four men and four women but they soon began to fear that these humans were too intelligent and would pose a threat to the gods so they almost destroyed them too. But then Huracán quote “clouded their minds and eyes so that they would become less wise.”
Now, there are a lot of different groups of Maya living all over Central America and different groups have slightly different beliefs. But one central, overarching narrative is that the gods destroyed earlier versions of humans because they either couldn’t or wouldn’t worship their creators. Right, the mud people had no brains, the wood people had no souls - now it’s sounding like the Wizard of Oz. Sorry, my pop culture references are out of control this week for some reason. So it isn’t inconceivable that the third creation, the corn people, modern humans, us, could also someday be destroyed by the gods if we were to stop worshiping them to their satisfaction. This will play into the 2012 calendar crisis later. But right now what it tells us is that the Maya were intent on worshiping their gods. It was a matter of avoiding an apocalypse. It was a big deal.
Worship happened in the form of various rituals including human sacrifice and bloodletting which, when taken out of context, seem incredibly barbaric and cruel. But when you think about it in the context of sacrifice this one guy to save all of mankind from destruction, it makes more sense. They created a sport called pitz that was similar to today’s soccer but even it had religious, ritual purposes. It may have been based on a game played by the sun and moon gods in the Popol Vuh and researchers think losers of the game were sometimes sacrificed to honor these gods. So, it was a high stakes game.
The Maya absolutely flourished as a civilization up until around the year 900. That’s when it all started to crumble. So, I want to point out, 900 is roughly 600 years before first contact with Europeans. I know it seems like I blame everything on Europeans and they will do horrible things to the remaining Maya later on but the actual collapse was not their fault this time. I’d like to make a note of that so as not to be perceived as a quote “radical liberal influencer spewing anti-American propaganda with half truths and negativity” and if you don’t get that reference then you didn’t listen to last week's episode and shame on you. No, but anyway, it wasn’t the Europeans this time.
So why did the Maya civilization collapse? Well remember when I said they didn’t have a strong central empire? It was more just independent city-states. That kind of comes back to haunt them. Relations between these city-states sours and they start fighting each other more and more. They stop trading with one another which affects quality of life, access to resources, people start to die. There are various theories as to what led to the demise of the Maya. One points to environmental factors. There was apparently a bad drought which affected food availability. Also, slash-and-burn farming techniques were destroying the forests they relied on for resources. So it really comes down to competition for resources. Resources become scarce due to drought and deforestation and they start competing with their neighbors, turning against each other, fighting each other with the threat of famine looming over them. Many die. Others start abandoning the big city centers and heading for more fertile lands to the south. So these big, impressive urban centers, these massive cities are left deserted and eventually reclaimed by the jungle as the Maya scatter and start over in small villages.
Although they had peaked centuries ago, the Maya were still alive and well when the Spanish arrived but they were scattered, disorganized, still trying to bounce back from the fall of their great cities. And this left them vulnerable to Spanish conquest. So by the time the Spanish arrived and set their sights on the impressive Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, they didn’t even realize that the Maya had already been there, done that, and come out the other side. So they easily subjugated them, forced them into their feudal encomienda system, and buried their whole existence, replaced their culture, customs, religion with their own Spanish way of life. Erased them, essentially as a civilization of any importance. And they would remain that way, erased, for the next few centuries.
By the mid 1800s, two men finally decided they wanted to know more about this erased civilization in Mexico and Central America. They had heard tales of ancient Maya cities hidden deep in the jungles, and you know, now that roughly 300 years had gone by, they thought “hey, maybe these old ruins actually have some kind of value. Maybe it’s worth a trip.”
These two men were named John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. Stephens was a lawyer from New Jersey turned explorer and author. He was the chronicler, on these missions, he wrote down all of their findings. Frederick Catherwood was from London and he was an architect and artist. He drew illustrations of what they found. So we’re in the 1830s here. Stephens was actually made US ambassador to Central America so he goes there, really for diplomatic reasons, but he takes Catherwood with him and he’s like “we’re gonna go check out these mysterious cities the Spanish wrote about. I know I’m like the ambassador or whatever but that’s not actually why I’m here. Get your sketchbook, we’re going exploring.” And they set off into the jungle without knowing a whole lot about where they were going. There were no accurate maps of these areas and they mostly heard about these rumored cities through word of mouth. They had a guide, a few guys to help carry their stuff, and an inaccurate map which they knew was wrong but I guess was better than no map?
Through two different trips they managed to map, survey, and record around 44 different Maya sites, some which were previously unknown even to indigenous people in the area. Many of these cities were not in areas that people lived or even visited. They were in the middle of nowhere and covered in vegetation so they just looked like mounds of green hills. You really had to know what you were looking for. Stephens wrote a couple books about their findings and recorded this about his first impression of the city of Copan quote “Diverging from the base, and working our way through the thick woods, we came upon a square stone column, about 14 feet high and three feet on each side, sculptured in very bold relief, and all four sides, from the base to the top. The front was the figure of a man curiously and richly dressed, and the face, evidently a portrait, solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror. The back was of a different design, unlike anything we had ever seen before, and the sides were covered with hieroglyphics. This our guide called an `Idol' and before it, at a distance of three feet, was a large block of stone, also sculptured with figures and emblematical devices, which he called an altar.
The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.” end quote.
So Stephens is convinced immediately, Copan was the first city they visited, that the Maya were an advanced civilization capable of really impressive things. The belief at the time was that these ruins were somehow linked to Hebrew, Egyptian or even Atlantian people who had somehow migrated to that region and left behind the monuments and the hieroglyphics. Stephens is adamant that they were left by the Maya, a totally separate group of people that originated in that area and did not come from somewhere else. He’s giving them that, acknowledging that they were capable of it, letting them take ownership of it instead of trying to come up with some other explanation because “oh there’s no way they could have done that. They simply aren’t smart enough to have pulled that off.” I applaud him for that. But not everyone is willing to concede.
We’ll get into that next but quick fun fact, Stephens actually purchased the entire city of Copan for $50 and says he was quote “thought a fool by the owner for buying such useless land.” He had plans to move the whole city to a museum in New York but realized pretty quickly that that was absurd. So Copan is still in Honduras.
Despite Stephen’s insistence that the Maya were just really badass, these mind blowing discoveries in the jungle led to the concept of Mayanism. So this is a field of pseudoscience that originally suggested the ancient Maya must have had contact with some other, advanced civilization, usually Atlantis, in order to have pulled off these impressive cities. And I have a whole episode on Atlantis, episode 14, if you want to know more about this theory. But the takeaway is that, throughout history, the mythical city of Atlantis has been used as a way to try to give white people credit for impressive feats that were actually pulled off by people of color. Atlantis actually played a role in fueling the holocaust as the source of a quote “master Aryan race.”
Since its early days, Mayanism has evolved and new theories have emerged about the Maya having contact with extraterrestrials, aliens, as an explanation for how they pulled off these feats. It’s the ancient aliens theory and it’s fun, it’s fun to think about and I’m not saying it’s impossible. But it does take the credit away from the Maya in the same way that master Aryan race of Atlantians theory did. Maybe if we look at the Maya as an intelligent and capable group of people, and not through the Eurocentric lens the Spanish brought with them, it’s not so hard to believe that they pulled off what they did. It’s not so mysterious after all.
And I know I did a whole episode about how the Egyptians couldn’t have built the Great Pyramid but that’s only because the Great Pyramid literally defies the laws of physics. It’s actually impossible to build with our current knowledge of physics and engineering. Plus I wasn’t claiming that the Egyptians didn’t build it, just suggesting that maybe a much earlier group of Egyptians built it. Anyway, that’s episode 10.
We just have to be careful with these types of fringe theories because they can be really damaging to people from whom the credit is being snatched. Mayanism, in particular, turned out to be damaging in another pretty bizarre way. And that brings us to the calendar debacle of 2012. The Maya calendar is a big round stone carved thing with a guy’s face in the middle and concentric circles around that. It’s very intricately carved. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s actually 3 different calendars that are used simultaneously. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science quote “The three calendars work together as a series of interlocking wheels of different sizes, each one marking a different time span.” end quote.
So the three calendars include the Tzolkin (solkin) calendar which is a 260 day calendar arranged in 13 day cycles that marks religious and ceremonial events, the Haab calendar which is a 365 day solar calendar much like our modern calendar but it has 18 months that are each 20 days and one month that is just 5 days. The Tzolkin and the Haab together are called the Calendar Round and they’re actually still used in some parts of Guatemala today. They date as far back as 2,000 BC which means that they likely existed before the Maya, were created by some earlier civilization, maybe the Olmecs? I don’t know. The Maya just adopted these calendars and improved upon them. The third calendar on the wheel is the long count calendar. This was added later, some think around 300 BC.
The long count calendar is an astronomical calendar with universal cycles that last 2,880,000 days. That’s 5,126 solar years which are 365 day years just like we still use today, or 13 baktun. A baktun is 144,000 days. The long count calendar started in 3114 BC which is when Maya myth points to the creation of modern humans, the corn ones and it ends 5,125 years later which is, if you crunch the numbers, the year 2012. December 21, 2012 to be precise.
Some ancient Maya reportedly believed that at the end of each universal cycle, at the end of the long count calendar, the universe itself would reset by ending and starting over so many incorrectly interpreted that to mean that the world as we know it was going to end in December of 2012 despite some pretty solid evidence to the contrary. In May of 2012 a professor of archaeology at Boston University named William Saturno uncovered murals and astronomical tables at the Xultun site in Guatemala that had time recorded past the year 3500. Also, the Maya people themselves did not support the end of the world theory and maintained that people were misinterpreting their beliefs. In 2011 Mayan Grand Elder and leader of the National Council of Elders, Wandering Wolf, said quote “2012 is not the end of the world, nor did we ever predict that it would end: not now, not at the end of our Long Count calendar, not on December 21, 2012." end quote. He insisted instead that it pointed to a quote “shift of the ages” and an “era of expanded consciousness.” So it’s more a symbolic end and new beginning than a literal one.
So why were people so eager to twist this into a doomsday prophecy? Well I think the concept of Mayanism had a lot to do with it. This idea that the relics left by the Maya were more advanced than the Maya people themselves should be given credit for. That they had to have some kind of outside help from superior beings, Atlantians or aliens or whatever, and that, because these outside helpers were superior to normal humans, they knew things that we couldn’t possibly know, like when the world was going to end, for example. It’s an idea rooted in centuries old racism, a self defense mechanism designed to protect the fragile egos of European explorers realizing, for the first time, that, just maybe, their race was not superior to the rest, that these godless savages were not actually godless nor savages. Because it’s much easier to subjugate and oppress godless savages than a society that’s actually just as advanced, intelligent, cognizant, if not more so than your own. If the Spanish had given the Maya credit for their accomplishments, recognized their value as a people, would they have been able to carry out the brutal encomienda system upon which the vast Spanish empire in the Americas was built?
This view of the Maya as an illusive, mysterious ancient people that we couldn’t possibly understand had other consequences as well. It led to widespread misconceptions that the Maya no longer exist when, in reality, there are around one million Maya living in Mexico today and as many as 6 million in the whole of Central America and they are still facing the consequences of those early misconceptions. According to the Mayan Health Initiative, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving healthcare in Guatemala, an estimated 79% of Guatemala’s indigenous population lives in poverty with 40% in extreme poverty and quote “the indigenous have lower rates across the board in all measures of wellbeing.” end quote.
So, you know, when you talk about the Spanish encomienda system, people are quick to say, well that happened 500 years ago. I’m not responsible for that. We’re not responsible for what our ancestors did. That was the go to response I got when trying to spread awareness about the real Thanksgiving story. It’s not our fault. Stop trying to make us feel guilty. And I get that. But what people need to be aware of is that these early actions and especially these early perceptions of indigenous people are still affecting them today. Clearly these misinformed ideas are still widespread or the whole world ending in 2012 thing never would have happened. All I’m saying is, give credit where credit is due. Maybe if the Maya were viewed as a super intelligent, advanced, impressive group of people that still exists, you know, that might go a long way in a job interview. That’s all I’m saying.
But despite overwhelming obstacles, the Maya have managed to hold onto whatever small shreds of their culture remain, to carry them through the generations and that is a true testament to their willpower and determination as a people. According to David Stuart, Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin in a Short History of podcast episode about the Maya, there's been a re-emergence of the Mayan language in recent years, seminars where they’re teaching Maya children how to read and write in Mayan hieroglyphs. Stuart says quote “when in world history has ever a culture or civilization lost the ability to write in their own written language for 500 years and then regained it. I think that’s what we’re seeing in this generation and it’s a beautiful thing to see and a testimony to the resilience of Maya civilization.” end quote.
In December of 2012, when people were panicking that the world was about to end, the Maya were erecting a new stele (steelah) at a site called Iximche (ish im che) which was the capital of the Quiche Maya people that was burned to the ground by the Spanish. According to Stuart, this is one of at least 8 new steles that has been erected in modern times throughout the Maya world. And on this one they recorded the demise of that city in Mayan hieroglyphs. They told the story of the Spanish, led by Pedro Alvarado, burning the city to the ground and trying to destroy the Maya and how they have struggled to come back from that ever since. But they also recorded quote “but now it’s December 21, 2012, a new dawn for the Maya and we’re still here.” end quote.
So maybe the end of the Maya long count calendar, the 13th baktun, December 21, 2012, maybe it never was an ending. Maybe it was always a new beginning when the Maya, erased out of existence, would rise from the ashes of their burnt down cities and reclaim their place among humanity, as humans, not godless savages, not supernatural beings or extraterrestrials, but humans who are still here.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from National Geographic, BBC, Encyclopedia Britannica, worldhistory.org, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, maya-aztec.com, puraveda.org, mayanhealthinitiative.org, and a Short History of podcast episode about the Maya. As always, links to these sources can be found in the show notes.