The MAYA EMPIRE (and their famous calendar)


By now, people the world over have heard Dec. 21, 2012, marks the end of the Mayan calendar. Over the past 20 years, this uninteresting fact has exploded into a host of doomsday and end-of-the-world predictions — but not by the Mayans.

Courtesy of Meso American Studies: The pyramid at Chichen Itza is one of many temples built by the Maya.

The Maya and Aztecs were well developed civilizations throughout Mexico and Central America when the Spaniards arrived in 1519. The Inca were another expansive empire.

The Aztecs, Maya, and Inca are often confused. They were three separate civilizations, although they shared many common traits and cultural practices. The Aztecs and Maya occupied Mexico and Central America. The Inca lived in South America. All three empires existed at the same time.

Rather than worrying about whether the world will come to an end in three weeks, these indigenous people should be respected for their advanced civilizations and the influence they brought to the Americas — including to the people of New Mexico.

Pre-Columbian People

The pre-Columbian era simply means before Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World about A.D. 1500. In spite of what history books say, there is little evidence that Columbus actually stepped foot on what is now the North American continent. Instead, he explored the lands and native peoples of the Caribbean Islands and Cuba, and thus missing Florida by 90 miles.

Columbus thought he had found India. He called the native people “Indians,” which sort of proves he was lost. The Indians he encountered lived a rather barbaric life in grass huts, compared to the majestic cities of Europe. Due to this contrast, Columbus reported the Indians to be a very primitive, uneducated and savage people.

This attitude quickly changed when Hernan Cortez landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, in 1519. Pushing inland, he traveled through the impressive Mayan cities of Ixhuacán, Xocotla, and Ixtacamaxtitlan located deep in the Yucatan jungle. The Maya lived in substantial stone dwellings with temples and other beautifully built structures that matched the skills of European masons and stonecutters.

Continuing inland, Cortez was led to Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire — today’s Mexico City. Cortez saw an even more majestic city with enormous stone temples and olympian-sized pyramids. Governed by King Moctezuma II, the Aztecs lived an orderly life with plenty of food. Their luscious fields, irrigated with canals and viaducts, were a sight to see.

When Cortez arrived in Mexico, it is believed there were more than 20 million Aztecs and Mayans, with more than 200,000 living in Tenochtitlán. Compare this to Europe’s largest city, Paris, France, with a population of 185,000. Tenochtitlán surpassed even the largest cities in Europe at the time.

The mysteries of the New World did not stop at Tenochtitlán. Over the next 80 years, Spanish explorers ventured into New Mexico to find yet other developed cultures of people living in orderly towns and cities called pueblos. Following the Rio Grande, the first inhabited pueblos were found in today’s Socorro County — the Piro nation.

The Spaniards did not consider the people of Central America, Mexico or New Mexico to be primitive, uneducated savages like those of the Caribbean Islands. They were impressed with the orderly societies, masterful building techniques, irrigated fields, and the understanding of mathematics and astronomy. Yet, the Spaniards continued to call the people of these flourishing civilizations Indians as well.

The Aztec Empire

The Maya and Aztecs were two different civilizations, though very similar. Like most ancient tribes in the Americas, they began as small hunter-gatherer groups. By A.D. 1200, the Aztecs had congregated in the Valley of Mexico and settled near Lake Texcoco and began living in small villages.

In 1325, the Aztecs established the city of Tenochtitlán on an island in Lake Texcoco. During the rainy season, the lake would often flood the city. The Aztecs responded by building an elaborate system of canals, levies and causeways. This was the beginning of a great city.

In 1376, the Aztecs selected Acamapichitli to be their Huey Tlatcani, the first emperor or king over the Aztec empire. All of the Aztec kings who followed were descendents. Acamapichitli ordered the construction of a huge pyramid to serve as a religious temple. By 1487, it had been enlarged 11 times until it towered over the entire city.

The Aztecs matured into accomplished engineers, mathematicians and astronomers. They held political and military control over much of Mexico until their empire was crushed by the Spaniards in 1521.

Life was not rosy, either. Aztec leaders seemed to always be at war with neighboring tribes and villages. Those who were conquered served as slaves or were used for human sacrifice. The Aztecs, Maya and Incas all practiced some level of human sacrifice to appease the gods. The Aztecs took the practice to unprecedented levels, often sacrificing more than 1,000 people in a single religious ceremony.

Arrival of the Spaniards

Hernan Cortez landed on Yucatan Peninsula on Good Friday, in 1519, and made his way to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Cortez was so impressed with the Aztec city and the miles of canals, he compared it to Istanbul, Turkey, or Venice, Italy.

King Moctezuma II presented gifts of gold and other precious items to the arriving Spaniards. Bad move, since all Spanish explorers at this time were hungry for gold. Cortez and about 400 soldiers attempted to capture Tenochtitlán, the gold, and the 200,000 citizens. Another bad move. After a bloody battle, Cortez and the remnants of his army fled through the jungles back to their ships at Yucatan.

Undaunted by a mere defeat, Cortez returned in 1521. This time, he was able to recruit thousands of native people that had become enemies of the harsh Aztec rule. Arriving at Tenochtitlán, Cortez and Moctezuma II met and almost became friends. Cortez, his soldiers, and the native allies were invited to stay in one of the palaces.

To thank the friendly Aztecs, Cortez kidnapped Moctezuma to topple his control, and the Aztec capital. Tenochtitlán surrendered to the Spaniards. The rest of Mexico quickly fell. Cortez then ordered a complete destruction of one of the world’s most majestic cities. Everything was leveled to the ground and Cortez later killed Moctezuma.

Cortez forced thousands of Aztecs to build a new Spanish-style city on top of the rubble of their beloved Tenochtitlán. He called his new outpost Mexico City, which served as the capital of “New Spain” for the next 300 years, and remains as the current capital of Mexico.

The senseless destruction of the Aztec capital was so complete, very little of the original Tenochtitlán survives to this day. Remnants of the long-gone great pyramids were recently discovered in 1978. This has been a major archaeological project ever since to excavate as much of the pyramids as possible. Hopefully one day, the pyramids will stand again to serve as a lasting reminder of the once great Aztec empire and her people.

Aztec Calendar

The Aztecs developed a calendar — in fact, two of them. One was the solar calendar called the xiuhpohualli. The Aztec year was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, with a special five-day festival period added on for the proper 365 days in the solar year. This calendar was used to determine the seasons, times for planting and harvesting, planning festivities, and other events.

The Aztec solar calendar was carved into a circular stone and called the “calendar round.” At the center was an image of the sun god, surrounded by the symbols of the 20-day months and other lunar and planetary movements. Although it appears simplistic and crude, it has accurately predicted eclipses and the return of certain comets for centuries. The Maya improved on this calendar in later years.

The Aztecs also had a religious calendar that was 260 days in length, which was used to worship the gods and for determining religious events, birthdays and ceremonies. Now this gets a bit complicated. This calendar consisted of 20 “day signs,” each representing one of their gods, named after animals, such as a jaguar or rabbit. Simultaneously, another day calendar marched off a 13-day month, numbered 1-13. These two calendars ran side-by-side, and repeated every 260 days. Typical dates could then be “3 jaguar” or “7 rabbit.” If you were born on 7 rabbit, that became your name. I don’t know how they handled twins.

Both the solar and religious calendars were used together. It took 52 years for the two calendars to once again have the same date to start the cycle over again. On the last day of the 52-year cycle, the high Aztec priest would see if the Pleiades constellation would rise in the night sky — indicating the gods allowed the world to continue for another 52 years. The following day, a huge “new creation” ceremony was held in which numerous sacrifices (yes, human sacrifices) were offered to the gods for allowing their life to continue for another 52 years.

Surviving Aztec texts explain that human sacrifices consisted of ripping the heart out of live victims, often after first cutting off their limbs to prevent a struggle. The still beating heart was then offered to the gods to symbolize life. Thousands of people were sacrificed during such special occasions. And, indeed, piles of bones from these severed limbs have been excavated at Aztec temples.

Our calendar, marking off 365 days from January to December, seems so much simpler — and far less bloody.

The Aztec Language

The Aztec language was called N’ahuatl. The Mayan dialects were similar. Instead of having an alphabet, they used hundreds of symbols (or glyphs) to represent nouns and verbs. A string of these glyphs formed sentences. Only scribes and priests knew the written language, and it was they who recorded their history and stories on the walls of their temples, and in books called Codices.

The Spanish ordered the destruction of the Aztec writings to promote the Spanish language and to minimize the role of the Aztec priests and scribes. Much of their written history was destroyed.

The written language would be lost today were it not for the efforts of a Franciscan priest named Bernardino de Sahagún. He learned the N’ahuatl spoken language and recorded 2,400 pages, organized into 12 books, called the Codex Florentino. It was written in Spanish, N’ahuatl, and more than 2,000 Aztec glyphs. He wrote his books, starting in 1545, until his death in 1590. These books have been used by archaeologists and linguists ever since to translate the Aztec written language.

The Inca Empire

Far to the south, the Inca lived along the west coast of South America from Peru to Chile. Many of their cities were built high in the Andes Mountains. Like the Aztecs, their expansive empire was ruled by a central government and a single king.

Courtesy of Maya Pauahtun: The written language of the Aztecs and Maya adorn the walls of their temples and still tell a story about these ancient civilizations.

In 1533, Spanish invaders, led by Francisco Pizarro, discovered the Inca. Killing their single king allowed Pizarro to quickly crush the empire in the name of Spain.

The Inca had no written language. For this reason, the least is known about their history and people. Unlike Aztec or Mayan temples and buildings, filled with glyphs telling the importance of the building, who was the king at the time, or history, the Incan temples and structures contain almost no symbols. Their large cities — often built on almost inaccessible mountain tops of the Andes — and why they were abandoned, remain a mystery to this day.

The Inca are known for their intricate masonry skills, though it is still not known how they cut the massive stones with such accuracy and transported them to remote places (such as Machu Picchu) deep in the rugged mountains of Peru.

The Incan cities were all connected with an elaborate network of footpaths through the Andes Mountains and across arid deserts. The Inca were skillful potters, wove fine and colorful fabrics, and are known for their beautiful gold jewelry. Most of today’s Inca live in Peru and Bolivia.

The Mayan Empire

The Mayan civilization lived south of the Aztecs in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They were cultivating crops as early as 1800 B.C. The Mayan empire peaked with 40 cities, some of which had populations exceeding 50,000 people, and a total population of about 5 million people.

The Maya were accomplished astronomers and mathematicians for their time. They could predict eclipses, periodic comets and other astronomical events. They had a complex social structure and built elaborate temples and pyramids — many of which still stand to this day. Others remain hidden and unexcavated deep in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula

The Maya also had excellent medical practices. Shamans, or medicine men, acted as a medium between the physical and spiritual worlds. Even today, the shamans practice a unique blend of sorcery, religion and medicine. It is known that the ancient Maya sutured wounds with human hair, splinted fractured bones, and even filled teeth with iron pyrite, jade or turquoise.

The shamans encouraged the Maya to regularly take sweat baths for cleanliness and spiritual purification. Excavations of their cities reveal many ancient saunas.

Unlike the Aztecs, who built their cities near lakes and rivers for irrigation, the Mayan cities were built deep inside the rain forests of Central America, where natural wildlife and edible vegetation was plentiful and easy to cultivate.

The Mayan empire peaked around A.D. 900, and then their cities went into an unexplained rapid decline. This remains a mystery to this day. Many of the Mayan cities, such as Copán, were abandoned during this period. Proposed theories include everything from a prolonged drought, political upheaval, some natural disaster, disease to an agricultural collapse. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the empire was again on the rise.

The Mayan Empire did not have a single ruler or a central government. With most of their cities located deep in the Yucatan jungles, and virtually inaccessible, each city had their own king. There were dozens of Mayan kings serving at any given time. This non-centralized government made the Maya a formidable empire to conquer by the Spaniards.

Cortez was the first to attack and demand the surrender of Mayan cities, in 1521, when he wasn’t busy destroying the Aztecs. The Spaniards had to conquer the empire city by city, which took more than 150 years to accomplish. The last city to fall was Taj Peten. It was located on an island on Lake Itza, deep in the Guatemalan jungle and extremely difficult to reach. It took an attack by thousands of Spanish soldiers and subjects to finally conquer the city. Canék, the last of the Mayan kings, finally surrendered to Spanish control in 1697.

The Mayan people are not extinct. More than 7 million Maya still live in their ancestral lands and have maintained much of their culture and heritage. Most speak Spanish in addition to their native Mayan language.

The Mayan Calendar

We think of time as linear. That is, it goes on and on and on. The Aztecs and Maya thought of time as a cycle — repeating every so often. After all, crops grew and came to harvest in cycles. Women got pregnant and gave birth in a known cycle. Mixed with religion, the Maya believed the gods blessed them in cycles. They simply saw time, and life, as repeating cycles. This is why their calendars are round.

Courtesy of Maya Archaeology: The famous Mayan calendar is a giant circular stone that completes a cycle every 5,125 years. The cycle ends Dec. 21, 2012, and another Mayan “long count” cycle begins.

The early astronomers also saw cycles. They saw that the shortest day of the year — the winter solstice — occurs each Dec. 21, as we reckon time and dates. The winter solstice was important to most indigenous people in the Americas, including the pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Slots and windows at Chaco Canyon, for example, were built such that the sun shone through the openings only on the day of the winter solstice. It signified the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

These ancients also saw that the path of the sun followed the plane of the milky way on the very same day. They also noted that the full moon nearest the winter solstice rises on the Milky Way every 19 years, another one of their cyclic calendars.

For these reasons, the Dec. 21st winter solstice had a special significance to these early people, including the Maya. It’s no surprise then that the Mayan calendar also ends on Dec. 21, the end of the Mayan year, and winter solstice. The date has no significance except to mark the end of one solar year and the beginning of the next.

The Mayan calendar is similar to the Aztec calendar in that it consists of several calendars of different time cycles all running concurrently and repeating. The three Aztec calendars repeat every 52 years. The four Mayan calendars repeat every 5,125 years, which is also called the “long count.”

The Maya believe the gods created them in 3114 B.C. Jumping ahead 5,125 years, the Mayan long count calendar ends, and lines up with the other three cyclic calendars, on Dec. 21, 2012. Then, the calendar cycles start all over again for another 5,125-year cycle — much like an automobile odometer turning over to all zeroes at 100,000 miles. It simply starts counting again.

Our own calendar ends each year on Dec. 31, and starts over again on Jan. 1 — year after year. It means nothing, except maybe a New Year’s party with family and friends. Hardly the end of the world, unless you partied a bit too much.

The Mayan mathematicians and astronomers left written records predicting solar eclipses and the appearance of periodic comets with stunning accuracy. However, in spite of numerous claims made over the past few years, the Maya never left a prediction regarding Dec. 21, 2012, or a doomsday, the end of the world, or any other catastrophic event.

So who started all of this Dec. 21 end-of-the-world stuff? It was a New Age religionist named José Argüelles. He wrote a book entitled “The Mayan Factor” in 1987, where he claimed there must be some significance when the current cycle ends in 2012. Since the Maya refer to the 5,125-year cycle as the long “creation cycle,” he somehow surmised that 2012 would be the end of the present creation.

Since then, it has morphed into predicting some earth-ending, cataclysmic event — such as a global earthquake, a killer solar flare, or the return of some unpleasant alien race.

Today, astronomers and scientists can predict eclipses, certain comets, and the phases of the moon as did the Mayan astronomers. Why? Because these phenomenon occur in regular cycles, just as the Maya noted on their calendars. However, today’s scientists, with all their modern technology and instruments, still cannot predict when an earthquake will strike, or a solar flare will erupt, or when a volcano will blow its top. Neither could the Maya. These are random events. They do not occur with any known regular cycle.

Therefore, claiming that the Mayan calendar predicts an end-of-the-world earthquake, solar flare or other event is pure fiction. Such natural events, often causing death and destruction, occur all the time — many times each year. There’s even a good chance that some natural event might occur on Dec. 21, due to probability — not the Mayan calendar.

The Aztec and Mayan empires were once one of the leading civilizations on planet earth until they were destroyed by the Spaniards, almost to the point of extinction. In less than 100 years, 80 percent of their people perished from warfare and European diseases. How could they suffer a worse fate than that? Today, the Mayan people insist their calendar predicts nothing for Dec. 21. I think I’ll listen to them.

In the slim chance I am wrong, please don’t pick on me on Dec. 22.


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