Ancient secrets of Maya civilisation revealed

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The Independent US

A ten-year study by British and German researchers has revealed the long-lost history of one of the world's most mysterious ancient civilisations.

A ten-year study by British and German researchers has revealed the long-lost history of one of the world's most mysterious ancient civilisations.

By using a series of hieroglyphic texts from the first millennium AD, Simon Martin, of the Institute of Archaeology in London, and Nikolai Grube, of the University of Bonn, have reconstructed the political history of the ancient Maya civilisation of Central America.

It is the first time in the Americas that a detailed political history of an ancient civilisation has been reconstructed. The study suggests that the Maya were in some respects a New World equivalent of ancient Greece - with dozens of city states retaining their individual identity, but functioning politically under the hegemony of a handful of more powerful ones.

Territorial empires did not exist on the Roman, Chinese or Persian model - but spheres of influence, control and patronage certainly did, and seem to have resembled Old World hegemonic systems such as ancient Greece and early Mesopotamia.

Simon Martin believes the Maya reluctance to build empires derived from a religious obstacle. Each city state was an incarnation of a local god, soit would have been sacreligious for any one city state to absorb another. Absorption would have destroyed the divine power behind the absorbed state. The more powerful Maya cities therefore preferred to respect, preserve and then co-opt their opponents' deities.

He believes that the most powerful Maya cities became extraordinarily wealthy by extracting conscript labour, tribute and preferential commercial treatment from subservient though nominally independent fellow city states. Two cities - Tikal in modern Guatemala and Calakmul in modern Mexico - became the superpowers of the region.

Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube's analysis of the hieroglyphic record has revealed the complex and ever-changing web of political relationships between these Maya superpowers and their client city states. Their study - published this week as a book - covers about 800 years of Maya power politics, from around AD100 to AD900.

Their research suggests that the Maya civilisation collapsed rapidly. Data from their hieroglyphic analysis shows that most Maya states - including Tikal and Calakmul - collapsed, probably in just a few years, between AD800 and 830, rather than more slowly between AD800 and 900 as had previously been thought. Agricultural overuse of the land seems to have exhausted soil nutrients and to have made populations more vulnerable to crop failure in times of reduced rainfall.

The Classic Maya civilisation collapsed some seven centuries before the Spanish began to take over Central America. In its heyday it boasted at least 100 cities, the largest of which had populations of up to 100,000 and temples 70 metres high. All the cities seem to have been ruled by kings who were seen as governing by divine right. "Our research is revealing the highly efficient ways in which the great Maya cities maintained their wealth and power," said Mr Martin.

* Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya, by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, is published by Thames and Hudson at £19.95.