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Time travel in the Yucatan

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Mystery of the ancient Maya

By Jack Souther�

From the top of the Castillo, 91 stone steps above the floor of the Plaza, we have a priest’s-eye view of the once great Maya city of Chichen Itza – the Observatory, the Nunnery, the Temple of Warriors. In all the remains of 50 stone structures scattered over an area of six square kilometres. Beyond the ruins, the jungle-covered surface of the Yucatan Peninsula extends to the horizon in every direction.

The Castillo, where we are standing, is a magnificent four-sided pyramid topped by a small temple bearing the carved mask of the god of rain. It is 24 metres high and, like all of the other structures below us, constructed of closely fitted limestone blocks, each quarried, shaped, transported, and lifted into place by hand. But why here? The northern Yucatan Peninsula is a low, utterly flat limestone platform with only a thin layer of soil and no surface rivers. Even the jungle seems uninviting, a tangled mat of water-starved scrub trees and vines. Yet this is where the Maya people built, not only impressive stone monuments, but one of the richest and most advanced cultures in pre Columbian America.

Before our trip to Chichen Itza we spent a day exploring the walled ruins at Tulum, one of the few Maya settlements on the Caribbean Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The present paved road between the two ancient communities follows much the same route as that used by early Maya traders. Our air-conditioned bus took about three hours to cover the distance. How long, I wondered, did it take those early merchants to make the trip, on foot in the sweltering jungle heat? They had neither the wheel nor any domestic beasts of burden – everything had to be carried on the backs of human bearers.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have learned a great deal about the Maya culture which flourished in Middle America for over a thousand years, but much of its history is still shrouded in mystery. The first hunter-gatherers are believed to have moved into the Yucatan Peninsula about 11,000 years ago, when British Columbia was just emerging from the last ice age. By 1000 BC these people, who would later become the Maya, had learned agriculture and begun to build villages. They were strongly influenced by the Olmecs who inhabited the swampy lowlands of the Gulf Coast. The Olmec built the first great civilization to arise in Meso-America and it became the template for the structure and symbolism of Maya society.

Olmec influence was gradually modified and, during the Classic Period (AD 200-900), a distinct Maya culture evolved and spread throughout the Yucatan and adjacent parts of Middle America. Small tribal groups were organized into states that ultimately grew into kingdoms with highly stratified social structures. The kings, who called themselves "ahau," were regarded as living gods – divine shamans who operated in both the material and supernatural world. They surrounded themselves with a privileged class of priests and lords who held jurisdiction over thousands of lesser subjects in each of the city-states. At its height Maya civilization was organized into more than 50 independent kingdoms scattered over an area of 250,000 square kilometres. It was a world defined by religion and ritual where physical surroundings were seen as manifestations of the spiritual and supernatural.

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