Travel: Great Civilisations of the world: From the Stone Age to the stars: The Maya calculated a Venusian year using two pieces of wood. David Keys on the time lords

Click to follow
HUGE cities, massive buildings, a flourishing intellectual life and the creation of powerful states are not achievements we usually associate with a Stone Age society. Yet in central America, just such a people did exist - the ancient Maya, whose sophisticated yet primitive culture lasted 1,800 years, from 300BC-AD1530.

They had no beasts of burden, no wheeled vehicles, not even ploughs to help with cultivation - and for 90 per cent of their history they had no metal tools. Nor did the Maya have any knowledge of the world outside Central America and Mexico, and yet they built cities with populations of up to 170,000, established powerful kingdoms, developed a sophisticated writing system and constructed massive buildings, the tallest of which was the height of a modern 20-storey office block.

The Maya's knowledge of astronomy was immense, in some respects ahead of the ancient Old World. They succeeded in building hundreds of miles of surfaced roads, and in developing a magnificent form of naturalistic art. Today the ruins of dozens of Maya cities lie scattered across the grasslands and jungles of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador.

The largest of the Maya population centres was the great city of Caracol, in what is now Belize. It is estimated to have covered almost 100 square miles and had a population of 170,000, making it comparable in size with Milton Keynes. Its 'inner city' of 11 square miles probably had a population density of 10 people per acre - like many a London suburb. Another huge conurbation around the twin cities of Tikal and Uaxactun (in what is now Guatemala) is thought to have boasted an inner-city population of 80,000. Today at Tikal, the tops of the highest buildings tower above the forest canopy. Made of stone and plaster, the tallest of the temples is 223 feet high.

Maya temples usually consisted of a steep pyramidic base topped by an elaborately roofed room. Within the pyramids themselves, Maya architects often built tombs for their deified kings. These pyramidic ancestor shrines were in effect funerary temples, similar in shape and function to the pyramids of ancient Egypt. The Maya also developed the corbelled arch, the tower and the column. In the beautiful Maya city of Palenque, in Mexico, there survives a great palace with a 100ft- long corbelled corridor and a four-storey tower; in the ruined city of Chichen Itza stand the 190 columns of two huge colonnaded halls.

Perhaps the single most important achievement of the Maya was the development of writing. They were the only people of the New World to evolve an advanced script (from less sophisticated but now largely lost predecessors). Almost all the surviving Maya texts date from between the first century BC and the 15th century AD. Over the past 10 years, archaeologists have succeeded in deciphering about 60 per cent of them. It is a hybrid script - systemically similar to Chinese - using characters to represent both individual words and phonetic units.

The best place to see the script on a grand scale is in the ruined Maya city of Quirigua in Guatemala. Here the Maya erected what are, quite literally, history books hewn in stone. Great ninth- century obelisks are covered with sculpted images of kings, and bas-relief texts describing Maya history and mythology, and their perception of the history of the universe itself. Some of the events recorded on the Quirigua obelisks (or stelae) were computed by Maya mathematicians to have occurred 90 million years ago. The Maya virtually

worshipped time - and they were painstakingly exact about how they measured it. The length of their solar year may have been more accurate than even our Gregorian calendar allows for. They also succeeded in calculating the celestial cycles of Venus - and probably Mars, Mercury and Jupiter. Their Venusian year was 584 days long, out by just one hour and 55 minutes - not bad for data obtained from astronomical observations made using two pieces of crossed wood and a tube made of jade. Today tourists can visit a Maya observatory at Chichen Itza in Mexico.

This interest in time derived in part from the Maya preoccupation with a cosmology that made them fearful of the gods. In common with other Central American peoples, they had a view of creation uncannily close to what some 20th-century scientists have proposed actually happened. They believed in a series of universes - not just one - spread out across time, each being created and destroyed in a cyclical series of 'big bangs' and doomsdays. They held that humans had existed in all previous universes - but that they had been repeatedly destroyed because they had neglected their creator.

Appeasing the gods became the fundamental driving force of Maya religious life. And nothing, the Maya believed, could be so pleasing to the gods as human blood. To save mankind from oblivion, human sacrifice and ritual suicide became key elements of religious practice. All over Central America, the blood of divine appeasement flowed for centuries as countless sacrificial victims - usually important enemy prisoners - died by having their hearts torn out with knives made of natural volcanic glass.

War and ritualised violence were commonplace in Maya society. Depending on the period, there were always between 20 and 40 Maya city states, and half a dozen of them would probably have dominated the others. There is no better place to get an impression of Maya warfare than the remote jungle ruins of Bonampak, in southern Mexico. There, a unique series of wall paintings has survived inside a temple. One can clearly see the details of a battle, the taking and ritual torture of prisoners, acts of sacrifice - and preparations by a noble for suicide in which he would mutilate himself to supply the gods with blood.

Although war and sacrifice were important elements of Maya life, most people probably enjoyed tolerably pleasant lives most of the time. In times of prosperity, thousands of miles of drainage ditches were dug and maintained to stop the maize fields and cocoa plantations becoming waterlogged in tropical storms. Trade within population centres, and sometimes between them, was aided by the construction of hundreds of miles of metalled roads - although they were strictly for pedestrians, there being no pack animals or wheeled vehicles. The surfaces were made of plaster, compacted using large stone rollers.

War and peace must have alternated in the Maya world, much as they do throughout our planet today. But history tragically justified the Maya's deeply held fears of oblivion. Dozens of their cities appear to have collapsed economically or through war or disease; certainly, in the late ninth century AD, great metropolises such as Copan (in Honduras), Caracol (Belize), Quirigua and Tikal (Guatemala), and Yaxchilan and Palenque (Mexico) were simply engulfed by the jungle. In the 16th century, the economic dislocation, enslavement and disease that followed the Spanish conquest cut the population of the Mexican region from 20-25 million down to one million.

What archaeologists know about the Maya suggests that we may have underestimated the achievements of other Stone Age societies which did not leave behind such permanent records. Their civilisation also suggests a universality in human culture. For at least 10,000 years, the Maya and their ancestors were isolated from Old World humanity. They were an alternative human experiment, and yet - in broad terms, and in some very detailed ways - they turned out to be exactly like their long-lost cousins in the Old World.

A time interval of 500 generations did not stop the Maya developing thrones for their kings to sit on, gods for their people to worship, or pyramids to reach up to heaven. The Romans described the Milky Way as a celestial road - so did the Maya. The ancient Chinese venerated jade - so did the Maya. Astrology dominated many Old World ancient civilisations - as it did the Maya.

Wherever it is planted, it seems, human culture will develop along broadly similar lines. Is this because fundamental cultural concepts are embedded deep in our human psyche? Is it because human beings react similarly to common problems? Perhaps 500 generations were simply not enough to erase a common cultural baggage brought out of the Old World 10,000 years ago.


1 Altun Ha * Large pyramid in which archaeologists found an 8 1/2 lb block of jade carved in the shape of the Sun God.

2 Caracol ** Giant pyramids.

3 Cerros * 1st-century moated coastal trading site with five small temples.

4 Lamanai * 90ft-high temple.

5 Nohmul * Remains of 9th- century Maya city.

6 Xunantunich ** Huge 8th- century hilltop pyramid surrounded by jungle. Magnificent views. Also carved obelisks (stelae) and palace ruins. See three summer excavations nearby.


7 Chalchuapa * See the 8th- century pyramid temple.


8 Aguateca *5- Carved stelae, Maya bridges over deep ravine.

9 Altar de Sacrificios * 9th-century pyramid temples and stelae swathed in jungle.

10 El Mirador **5- Impressive, yet remote Maya city site with two huge pyramid temples - one 141ft high, the other (including its base) 230ft high. The ruined city - which now takes four days by mule to reach - was once home to 100,000 people before its downfall c AD100.

11 Iximche * Late Maya city built in the 15th century on a plateau. It was from this area that the world learnt the habit of smoking cigars. Cigar is derived from the Maya word Sikar.

12 Dos Pilas ** Beautiful 8th- century stelae and sacred stairways flanked by sculpted hieroglyphic texts in a steamy jungle location. Six hours by boat and foot.

13 Mixco Viejo ** Spectacularly located 15th-century Maya city surrounded by steep ravines.

14 Nakbe *5- 2nd-century Maya city currently being excavated. A four-day trek by mule.

15 Nakum **5- Well-preserved 8th-century pyramids and palaces in fine jungle setting.

16 Naranjo **5- Huge site with large pyramids in a beautiful jungle location. Romantic and rarely visited. In common with many other cities, it was a major centre for the production of chocolate, used as a Maya high- society drink. Our word cocoa comes from the Maya cacao. They prized it so highly that cacao beans were used as money.

17 Quirigua *** Maya site famous for its palaces and magnificent 8th-century carved stelae, which bear dates of historical and mythological events.

18 Seibal **5- Several 9th-century pyramids and stelae in beautiful jungle location.

19 Tintal *5- Remains of 2nd- century city. Two days by mule.

20 Tikal *** Fine city abandoned c AD900. Archaeologists have located 3,000 buildings, scores of them well-preserved. One temple is 224ft high.

21 Uaxactun **5- Remnants of a vast 9th-century Maya city.

22 Utatlan ** Hilltop capital of a Maya state at the time of the 16th-century Spanish conquest. In the period after the conquest, attempts were made to Christianise the Maya. However, according to a Spanish chronicler, they already practised baptism and confession - with a difference. Old women were forced to hear confessions and, having 'absorbed' the community's sins, were stoned to death.

23 Yaxha ** Many vast pyramids in beautiful forest setting on the banks of a lake.

24 Zaculeu ** 8th to 16th-century city with restored temples. The people of this and other Maya cities were dog breeders. They had a liking for baked dog, but the animals never complained too loudly, as they were congenitally barkless.


25 Copan *** 7th to 8th-century city of pyramid temples, carved stelae, carved heads, sacred ball-courts and altars in the shape of gods. Once ruled over by King Smoke Jaguar.


26 Balakbal *5- Remains of 8th-century Maya city. Access to the site is difficult.

27 Becan * 9th-century ruins of moated city.

28 Bonampak **5- Magnificent 8th-century Maya murals adorn one of the ruined city's temples. Three hours by foot from the nearest road, or fly.

29 Calakmul *5- Large 8th-century pyramids and palaces. Access by mule or 4x4 only.

30 Chicanna ** Massive temples dating from the 8th century, choked by the jungle.

31 Chichen Itza *** Great city which reached its peak in the 9th to 11th centuries. Its 14 major buildings include a perfectly preserved pyramid temple, an astronomical observatory and a sacred ball-court flanked by bas- reliefs showing the fate of the losers. The captain of the winning side is holding the severed head of his opposite number.

32 Coba *** Spread over 18 square miles, this important 7th- century centre boasts numerous sculpted stelae and pyramid temples. Coba is also the starting point for the longest road built by the Maya, a 70-mile- long, 12ft-wide raised highway - for pedestrians]

33 Comalcalco ** Well-preserved 8th-century temple made of brick.

34 Dzibilchaltun * Continuously inhabited from 600BC to AD 1700, its few surviving buildings - including a 5th-century temple - are scattered over the 30 square miles once covered by this ancient city.

35 Edzna * Famous for its great 7th-century five-tier pyramid.

36 Kabah ** Great 8th-century Palace of Masks, its walls covered with 250 images of the God of Lightning. See also the 14ft- wide corbelled arch.

37 Kohunlich * 8th-century pyramid decorated with masks of the Sun God.

38 Labna ** Corbelled arch, and ornately decorated 8th-century palace.

39 Mayapan * Walled 13th-century Maya city site founded by a group of warriors, dubbed 'The Lewd Ones', who mummified their leaders' heads in order to feed them for eternity.

40 Oxkintok * 10th-century Maya palaces.

41 Palenque *** Spectacular 7th to 8th-century city of temples and palaces on the edge of the jungle. Architecturally advanced, it boasts corbelled ceilings, a tower, magnificent stucco bas-reliefs and even an aqueduct to channel water into the city centre. One of Palenque's patron deities appears to have been some sort of shark god. The Maya, via English sailors, gave the English language their word for shark - Xoc.

42 San Gervasio * 9th-century Maya ruins on Cozumel island.

43 Sayil ** Ruins of 9th-century two-storey palace with an ornate colonnaded facade.

44 Tonina *** Hillside carved into terraces on which stand well-preserved 8th-century pyramids, palaces and sacred ball- courts. The Maya were obsessed with ball games. Sometimes the losers were sacrificed to the gods. The ball itself was made of rubber and was potentially lethal in its own right, weighing up to 7 1/2 lbs. Sometimes the skulls of defeated team captains formed the inside of the ball.

45 Tulum ** Remains of a 13th- century walled coastal city. Admire the temples, the murals depicting Maya mythology - and the beautiful white beaches.

46 Uxmal *** Magnificent Maya city full of virtually complete 9th-century buildings, many with elaborately carved facades. Opposite one, known today as the Governor's Palace, is a Maya royal throne in the form of a two-headed jaguar.

47 Xlapac * Jungle site with ornate 8th-century buildings.

48 Xpuhil * Ruins of 9th-century three-towered building.

49 Yaxchilan *** Remote jungle city of 8th-century temples and magnificent bas-reliefs, especially on the entrance lintels. One day by road and river, or travel by private plane.


The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, Nigel Davies (Penguin pounds 6.99) and The Maya by Michael D Coe (Thames & Hudson pounds 7.95) are the best general introductions. Also interesting and accessible are The Cities of Ancient Mexico by Jeremy A Sabloff (T&H pounds 8.95) and The Lost Cities of the Maya by Claude Baudel and Sydney Picasso (T&H pounds 6.95). Those wishing to take the subject further will enjoy Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D Coe (T&H pounds 14.95), The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and The Maya by Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube (T&H pounds 16.95) and The Blood of Kings by Linda Schele & Mary Ellen Miller (T&H pounds 19.95). John L Stephens' account of his exploration of the area in the 1830s, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas & Yucatan (Dover, two volumes, each pounds 7.95) is fascinating. More recently, Ronald Wright's Time Among the Maya (Futura pounds 5.99) can be highly recommended. Finally, two exceptional accounts of travels in Mexico are A Visit to Don Octavio by Sybille Bedford and Viva Mexico] by Charles Flandrau (both Eland pounds 8.99). The best guide to the region is the 1993 Mexico & Central American Handbook (Trade & Travel pounds 13.95), a mine of practical information. Otherwise you should choose the Rough Guides - Mexico ( pounds 6.99) and Guatemala and Belize ( pounds 7.99) - or the Cadogan Guides - Mexico ( pounds 12.99) and Central America ( pounds 12.99).

All titles available from good bookshops, and by mail order from Daunt Books, 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (071-224 2295). DK

(Photograph omitted)