I have a confession to make: I think I like the Mayans the best of the Mesoamerican cultures I’ve researched. I feel sort of terrible about this, in the way a parent might feel admitting that they have a favorite child. But it’s right there in front of me and rather undeniable: the Mayans are just way cooler than the other three. If JetBlue offered a special on 4-day, 3-night ancient American getaways you can bet that I’d sign up for Copan (with the optional day trip to Uxmal). Sorry Cuzco and Tenochtítlan, your lack of writing system and brevity is against you. And Cahokia, we don’t even know your real name. Lie about your age, but your name… really? But if you don’t agree with my instincts, let me point out a few things I’ve learned about the Maya that might just change your mind:
1) For one thing there’s the gorgeous writing and hieroglyphics to consider: Maya script is made up of both logograms (words) and syllabic glyphs (syllables that make sounds, like a consonant and vowel sound together) called a logosyllabic system, a little similar to Japanese. This means that there are over 800 different Maya glyphs which overlap and fit together in different combinations and can be artistically stylized very differently between one scribe and the next. The glyphs are so complicated that the language’s full code wasn’t cracked until the 1980’s, the culmination of centuries of work from archaeologists, anthropologists, artists, art historians, epigraphers, and linguists from around the world. The Mayans were wicked smaht!!
2) Then there’s the Mesoamerican habit of human sacrifice: the Maya weren’t quite as bloodthirsty as the other three seem to have been. (Yes, it’s true, the Maya did make some regular human sacrifices, but heads up, Judeo-Christians of European descent: the Crusades, Witch Trials, and the Inquisition aren’t exactly high points for us either.) The daily Aztec ritual of killing of a war prisoner really grosses me out (cut out his heart, lop off his head, throw him down the stairs, repeat) and so far as we know the Maya didn’t regularly sacrifice children (like the Inca did) or groups of women (like the Cahokians did). Not killing off prisoners and children might mean that the Maya were better neighbors to surrounding tribes, too.
3) Finally we have their stunning sense of architecture, art and style. Grand civic planning, echoing temples, and stone stela sculptures of great leaders are all standard features of Mayan cities, and in combination with their painted vases, jade jewelry, and ceremonial dress with more feathers than a drag queen at Pride, I suspect they had a deep-running love of order and natural beauty. There is this elegance to everything that is Mayan, a Rome-ness that I can’t help but connect to. And, like the Romans, the Mayans fell from grace, fading away into the jungle after exhausting their land and other resources.
They Maya didn’t have their act together in lots of ways, and I’m sure that my preferences have been partly shaped by our culture’s fascination with them (second to our Egypt obsession, of course). But of the four cultures they firmly stand as my favorite. I hope to get to work on another book about them soon!
*Image of hieroglyphics by ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
*Image of Copan Ball Court by Adalberto Hernandez Vega from Copan Ruinas, Honduras (Ball Court – Copan Ruinas, Honduras) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons