“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.
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.
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 .
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.
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??
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.