The Maya – Belize

Maya ruin southern Belize
Lubaantun Maya ruin southern Belize.

Discoveries have led many archeologists and cultural anthropologists studying Maya history to conclude that the center of Maya civilization was, in fact, Belize. Belize is a treasure trove of ancient Mayan temples, towns and cities, only a few of which have been uncovered.

The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica . Originating in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico , Guatemala , northern Belize and western Honduras. 

According to a new study, more than half of the modern Maya genome is derived from ancient populations who migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula from southern Central America and South America at least 5,600 years ago. A team led by archaeologist Keith Prufer of the University of New Mexico, geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, and archaeologist Douglas Kennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, analyzed DNA from human remains recovered from two rock shelters in southern Belize. They discovered that a group of the individuals whose remains were radiocarbon dated to between 5,600 and 4,000 years ago are ancestors of present-day Chibchan-speaking populations that live between Costa Rica and northern Colombia. “These people moved into the area in fairly small numbers over a period of perhaps five hundred to one thousand years and mixed with local populations,” Kennett says.

This migration coincided with the introduction to the Yucatán of improved varieties of maize. Maize had originated in southwestern Mexico around 9,000 years ago and was dispersed to South America before being fully domesticated. It was then reintroduced to the north. Isotope analysis of the remains of the people found in the rock shelters revealed that their consumption of maize jumped significantly starting 4,700 years ago. Along with new maize varieties, and possibly other crops such as manioc and chilies, Kennett explains, the migrants likely brought horticultural knowledge that eventually led to the development of intensive agriculture in the Maya region. “By four thousand years ago, corn was a staple grain in their diet,” he says.

Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec , the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing.

The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.

Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900. Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centres.

It started to decline around A.D. 900 when – for reasons which are still largely a mystery – the southern Maya abandoned their cities. When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centres continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.

Maya history can be characterized as cycles of rise and fall: city-states rose in prominence and fell into decline, only to be replaced by others. It could also be described as one of continuity and change, guided by a religion that remains the foundation of their culture. For those who follow the ancient Maya traditions, the belief in the influence of the cosmos on human lives and the necessity of paying homage to the gods through rituals continues to find expression in a modern hybrid Christian-Maya faith.

A little-known fact is that Belize is the cradle of the Mestizo, the largest ethnic group in Latin America. The father of the Mestizos Gonzalo Guerrero lived in northern Belize and was the first European to settle in Belize.

The Maya Of Belize and Their Neighbors

Frieze detail Xunantunich Maya Ruin El Castillo

The Maya of Belize have never lived in isolation. A growing body of evidence suggests that from Preclassic times there was increasing contact between them and their neighbors, the Olmecs on the Gulf of Mexico, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs in Oaxaca, the Teotihuacanos, Toltecs and Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico, and the Tlaxcalans and Uaxtecs of the East coast.

Between 1200 and 600 BC Maya ideology was influenced to some degree by the Olmec people from the Tabasco-Veracruz area. During this time the Belize Maya Incorporated many Olmec-like symbols on their ceramics and artifacts. In the classic contacts with other regions were maintained for the acquisition of exotic materials that served both utilitarian and decorative purposes and for social political reasons. Jade was imported from the Motagua Valley, obsidian fromthe Guatemala highlands, and marine shells from the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The Belize Maya also exported many objects and produce to their neighbors. The raw material for a large slate stela from Calakmul for example was likely shaped by river and overland routes from the Maya Mountains. Contacts with even more distant locations, like Teotihuaca, are indicated by the presence of Pachuca obsidian from sources near Mexico city. This diagnostic green coloured obsidian has been found at Altun Ha, Pactibun and many other sites in Belize. 

Unlike the tangible remains of trade items, socio-political relations with other states are predominantly seen in the hieroglyphic data carved on the monuments of important sites. Conflicts between Caracol and Tikal for example are recorded on several monuments at Caracol. In the same way relations between Copan and sites in southern Belize are indicated by the presence of the Copan emblem glyph on one of the stela at Nim Li Punit. During the postclassic period trade and contact were even more widespread than before. A beautifully painted mural that was discovered at the turn of the 20th century by Thomas Gann at Santa Rita reflects strong influences from the Mixteca people of Oaxaca. There is also the importation of plumbate pottery from the Pacific coasts of El Salvador and Guatemala. The introduction of metallurgy and the presence of gold and copper objects during this time also indicate contacts with more distant areas of Western Mexico and Costa Rica.

Cultural Achievements Of The Ancient Maya

Modern day Maya Shaman in western Belize

Much physical evidence of ancient Maya civilization remains today in the many pyramid temples, palaces, ball courts and sacbeobs. But the fact that these were constructed without the use of the wheel or beasts of burden continues to fascinate us.

The architecture of the Maya not only made use of the corbel arch but certain temples were positioned so that precise observations of the equinox, solstice and other astronomic events could be made by sighting planets and stars along defined line positions on special buildings.

The Maya used their knowledge of astronomy to produce an extremely accurate calendar. Their Maya Calendar computed length of the tropical year was 365.2420 which according to today’s calculations is 365.2422. The Maya’s advanced concepts of time and mathematics including the use of zero, led to the development of their elaborate calendar based on cycles that go beyond our weeks months and years. This knowledge was used to schedule optimum planting and harvesting times for their intensive agricultural system that made use of terracing, drainage canals, raised fields and tree cropping to feed huge populations. The video below shows the traditional Belize Maya Deer Dance,

Their socio-political structure included a hierarchy of priests, elites, artisans and farmers. The Maya religion regards the world as a quadrangle supported at the corners by deities known as bacab, and at center by a giant Ceiba tree that reaches from the sky to Xibalba, the underworld. Their deities such as Kinich Ahau (sun god), Chac (rain god) and Ix Che (goddess of healing) were equally benevolent as they were malevolent. Sacred books like the Popol Vuh also provide us with descriptions of Maya creation myths and the important role of the underworld. The Maya developed a logo-syllabic system of writing that incorporated hundreds of hieroglyphic symbols and was used primarily for recording important historical events. This information was inscribed on stone monuments, wooden lintels, ceramics and in codices – books produced from bark paper. Their artisans produced decorative pottery, murals, figurines, whistles and carvings in jade, obsidian, slate human and animal bone.

Dr. Jaime Awe

Article by – Dr. Jaime Awe – Belize Archaeological Commissioner and Professor at Northern Arizona University.

© Copyright Ltd.