Who are the Maya and Where Did they Come From, Anyway?

In spite of their challenging terrain and vastness of their reach, the varieties in their languages and the serial interventions of conquistadors and modern opportunists, the Mayans keep their spirit, arts of fabric and design enriched and undiluted.

A very early member of the Mayan pantheon

Ladies still do this ..It keeps their hair out of thier work
Ladies still do this ..It keeps their hair out of thier work
“Maya” is the common name for the massive cultural complex that once spanned almost 8 degrees of latitude and that after 3,000 years, still distinguishes itself in Mesoamerica. The indigenous Mayans live in linguistic bands from the South Mexico to the Yucatan coast.

The volute or caracol was Mayan-ese for
The volute or caracol was Mayan-ese for “eternity”
There are more than 28 Mayan languages still spoken in the lands between Mexico and Honduras. Much of the linguistic pattern has been revealed since the 1960’s  Like archeologists and anthropologists with their image libraries, comparative linguists study data bases of current structures and ancient origins of living languages.

Displaying characteristic Talud and Tablero structure and an unsightly incroachment on the top dating from the 1900s
Queretero ruin displaying characteristic Talud and Tablero structure and an unsightly incroachment on the top dating from the 1850s
The late arriving Uto-Aztecan language, Nahuatl, is said to have migrated south from the deserts of North America around the 7th century. After a few generations, this arty lingua franca became popular with singers and poets in the cosmopolitan, warring and continuously dominating Teotithuacan.  This city grew to become the largest in the Americas (and impressed the European invaders, too) by around 1200. The official home to the Aztecs/Mixtecs, today it is mostly buried under Mexico City’s metroplex.

At the time of the conquest. Nahuatl was spoken by Toltecs as far away as Yucatan and by Maya in the present day Quiche District of Guatemalan highlands. The words must have eased trading and, eventually might have brought the loose alliances of MesoAmerica into a working unit–   But, Nahuatl was too “foreign” to be used for local affairs and since there was no common currency –except, maybe, the Cocoa bean, even if it were desired, overt unification would never have been possible .

This Zapotec site in Oxaca spun off smaller sites during it's 1000 years.
Monte Alban, a Zapotec site in Oaxaca spun off smaller sites during it’s 1000 years.
Still, since preclassical times, disparate cities shared a remarkably uniform sense of time and place.  People knew the names for stars, planets and some contellations  and that they had a pantheon of angry gods – some of whom could only be appeased by human sacrifices. This cast of deity-characters adorned temples and public spaces and reified the mysterious force behind the ritual cycles.

Two cosmic ball players or a couple of kings dressed to look like the Twins who played ball in Xihbalba - underworld
Two Popol Vuh ball players or a couple of kings dressed to look like the Twins who played ball in Xihbalba – underworld
By the Classical period, kings and nobles, were about identifying themselves as priests, ballplayers and warriors and are seen all over walls and pottery from The Valley of Mexico to as far south as Copan…. These depictions displayed fundamental  references to ancient mythological gods and creatures and sometimes referenced historical figures – like King Pakal of Palenque.  Pottery survives better than bark books and can be traced.  One Teotitucan style took about twenty years before it was seen in far flung grave sites. The remains of architecture and art are used to date times when a technology or cosmogony was accepted into an area. But, What special goods or stories tipped a group from a customer base into a temple buddies?  Was it the ballgame with rubber from the Olmecs, predictive astronomy, improved agriculture, fancy warrior symbols or hallucinagenic plants or something else that moved the people to practice trade expansion, war and human sacrifice??

At Atzompa and beyond, nobles sat in the short ends of the “I” shaped court   betting on the (sort of sacred) action..
One theory for the distribution of complete “memes” was that the proto Maya were seafaring.  After all, the Vera Cruz Olmecs had both rubber and cloth. — Could they not have made water resistant sails or caulked portable “canvas” canoes and just taken off? Maybe the Mayas at Izapa invented the early calendar because they could see the Zenith Passage from their about 15° Latitude. Somehow, that homegrown knowledge was useful enough for traders to talk about.  It is possible that farmer’s knowledge of this unique viewpoint allowed the Maya to calculate how to produce two harvests a year with 120 day corn?  Agricultural surplus ushered in social stratification, then Kingship and Priests.

In spite of their challenging terrain and vastness of their reach, the varieties in their languages and the serial interventions of conquistadors and modern opportunists, the Mayans keep their spirit, producing fiber arts and built design — rich and undiluted.

Shown with skeletal form.. precureor to day of the dead..
Shown with skeletal form..
precursor to day of the dead..

Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

2 thoughts on “Who are the Maya and Where Did they Come From, Anyway?”

  1. Diane I can’t find a direct email for you so I am hoping this will reach you.
    I was in Pana last summer with a friend and at that time we spoke about the coop. At that time I had limited time to help but since then I have retired from teaching and am in the process of creating a nonprofit with the objective of purchasing goods in Guat from the women and then shipping them to the US to be sold. I will be in Pana in Sept and would love to have a tour if you can arrange it. I will have my son-in-law with me who will be videoing where we go and the people we encounter. I hope you get this and we can connect soon.

    Gail Basham
    MoreThanSelf

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