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MYSTIC PLACES - The Mayan Empire

Mayan civilization was so stable and established, they even had a word for a 400-year time period.
Eventually, huge cities were swallowed up by the jungle, and Mayan wisdom and knowledge was lost to mankind for centuries. What brought down this thriving society, which had survived and prospered for millennia?

Mayan Writing System  |  Watch Video  |  BooksLinks

The Fall of the Mayan Civilization

By Jessica Cecil

Huge cities were swallowed up by the jungle, and Mayan wisdom and knowledge was lost to mankind for centuries. What brought down this thriving society, which had survived and prospered for millennia?

Mayan ruins

The Mayan ruins of Tikal are hidden deep in the rainforests of Guatemala. From the air only a handful of temples and palaces peek through the canopy. The stone carvings are weather-beaten. Huge plazas are covered in moss and giant reservoirs are engulfed by jungle. The only inhabitants are wild animals and birds.


Tical, Guatemala

But 1,200 years ago, Tikal was one of the major cities of the vast and magnificent Maya civilisation that stretched across much of what is now southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Tikal was home to perhaps 100,000 people. Thatched farmsteads and fields would have stretched as far as the eye could see.


The Maya thrived for nearly 2,000 years. Without the use of the cartwheel or metal tools, they built massive stone structures. They were accomplished scientists. They tracked a solar year of 365 days and one of the few surviving ancient Maya books contains tables of eclipses. From observatories, like the one at Chichen Itza, they tracked the progress of the war star, Venus.

Chichen Itza, El Caracol and Castillo from Nunnery.
(Photo Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester )

Chichen Itza, Observatory (El Caracol) from NW
(Photo © 2006 by World-Mysteries.com )

El Castillo, Chichen Itza.
(Photo © 2006 by World-Mysteries.com )

Probably the best preserved is the Dresden Codex. It is a detailed account of the astronomical observations of the Mayas. The Maya sought to understand the repetitive cycles of motions of the moon and planets, and thus to be able to predict when these bodies would be in certain places on the sky in the future. To allow such predictions, the Maya also developed a sophisticated number system, of base 20 (compared with our base 10 system). Their observations were used by their priests to indicate to the meso-American rulers propitious times for various actions. Indeed, their whole calendar played a critical role in identifying important occasions, tied to many-year cycles of the base 20 numbering. The Dresden Codex contains:

  • An eclipse table that predicts times when eclipses may occur.

  • A Venus table that predicts the times when Venus appears as morning star and the other apparitions of the planet.

  • A Mars table that records the times when Mars goes into retrograde motion. A second Mars table that tracks the planet's motion along the ecliptic has recently been identified.

They developed their own mathematics, using a base number of 20, and had a concept of zero. They also had their own system of writing. Their civilisation was so stable and established, they even had a word for a 400-year time period.


Mayan society was vibrant, but it could also be brutal. It was strictly hierarchical and deeply spiritual. Humans were sacrificed to appease the gods. The elite also tortured themselves - male Maya rulers perforated the foreskins of their penises and the women their tongues, apparently in the hope of providing nourishment for the gods who required human blood.

In the ninth century, the Maya world was turned upside down. Many of the great centres like Tikal were deserted. The sacred temples and palaces briefly became home to a few squatters, who left household rubbish in the once pristine buildings. When they too left, Tikal was abandoned forever, and the Mayan civilization never recovered. Only a fraction of the Maya people survived to face the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

For decades, archaeologists have been searching for an explanation of the Maya collapse. Many theories have been put forward, ranging from warfare and invasion to migration, disease and over-farming. Many think the truth may lie with a combination of these and other factors.

But none of the conventional theories were good enough for Dick Gill. He believed that what had devastated the Maya was drought. However, drought as the only explanation of the Maya collapse was highly controversial.

Massive Drought

Dick Gill was a most unusual person to put forward a bold new theory explaining the collapse of Mayan civilization. When he started his hunt for clues, he was actually a banker.

His love affair with the Maya started back in 1968 when he visited Chichen Itza in Southern Mexico while on holiday. The Mayan ruins, he says, really touched him. He resolved to solve the riddle of the Maya collapse - but he still had a banking career to pursue.

In the early 1980s, fate stepped in with a Texas banking crisis. The family bank collapsed, and Gill was suddenly out of work and free to follow his dream. He went to college to study anthropology and archaeology.

His realization of what might have caused the Maya collapse came in a brainwave - it was an explanation that didn't come from books and study, but directly from his own childhood. Gill remembered the devastating droughts in Texas in the 1950s, when farmland was parched and fires raged. The hot, sunny days seemed interminable, and he was left with an emotional understanding of the power of drought.

'His work led him to a dramatic conclusion - that the Maya civilization consisted of millions of people who had died very suddenly.'

He felt sure the Maya had faced a huge drought, but he had no evidence to back up his theory - so he set out to search for clues. One of the first people he turned to was archaeologist Dr Fred Valdez.

Valdez, from the University of Texas, worked deep in the jungles of Belize. He counted Maya farmsteads in order to estimate the likely total population. Fragments of pottery told him when the area was occupied and his work led him to a dramatic conclusion - that the Maya civilization consisted of millions of people who had died very suddenly. Gill knew few factors could account for this - but one of them was drought.

In Gill's eyes, this strengthened his theory, but he still needed direct evidence. It was time to trawl the archives. National records held in Mexico City revealed that, at the start of the 20th century, a drought in the Maya region had lasted three years. Here was evidence that drought could, in fact, occur in this region.

He then stumbled upon older, colonial records from the Spanish authorities in the Yucatan province of Mexico, telling of repeated drought. 'I found this plea for help', he says. 'The crops had been very bad in the year 1795 - they were running out of grain and they were afraid that the terrible death they had seen so often in the past was going to repeat itself again, so they asked for help.'

Gill now had proof of devastating droughts in the past, but not in the key ninth century. Then he discovered an extraordinary coincidence. He'd studied hundreds of papers on meteorology before he stumbled on one entitled 'Dendrochronology, mass balance and glacier front fluctuations in northern Sweden'.

It had been extremely cold in northern Europe at just the time of the Maya collapse, but what could possibly be the link? Gill went back to the meteorological records, and found that one of the high pressure systems in the north Atlantic had moved towards Central America at the start of the 20th century. This was a time of both drought in the Maya areas and extreme cold in northern Europe.

Conclusive proof

The scientists discovered that the ninth century had been the driest time in the region for 7,000 years.

Though the circumstantial evidence was growing stronger, Gill still didn't have direct proof of devastating drought in the Maya areas in the ninth century. He finally got that evidence when a team from the University of Florida visited Lake Chichancanab in Mexico's Yucatan region.

The scientists discovered that the ninth century had been the driest time in the region for 7,000 years.

The team was interested in past climates and measured them by taking cores of mud from the bottom of the lake. The mud had built up over thousands of years - the deeper the mud, the older the shells and seeds it contained.

Back at their labs in Gainesville, they looked at tiny shells from each part of the core, and in particular the two types of oxygen locked in them - heavy and light.

The surfaces of shells from times of high rainfall are dominated by light oxygen. More of the heavy oxygen means the water in the lake was evaporating at that time. A core from the ninth century showed an exceptional surge of heavy oxygen, indicating it was the driest time in the region for 7,000 years.

Here at last was the clinching evidence Gill had been searching for - exceptional drought at the time of the Maya collapse. His quest was over, but it had been an emotional journey of discovery.

'There's a certain satisfaction that I have finally understood what happened to the Maya, but as a human being it's awful to think about what happened', he says.

Source: BBC.com http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/cultures/maya_01.shtml

Subject Related Videos

"Ancient Apocalypse: The Maya Collapse"

For over a thousand years, the Maya built a civilization in the jungle -- creating pyramids, sculptures and paintings. Then around 800 A.D., they practically vanished. Scientific sleuth Dick Gill has spent nearly twenty years proving his theory that a devastating drought wiped out the Maya. The program follows Gill on a journey of discovery: to an archaeological site in Belize, where there is evidence of a sudden abandonment; with geologists as they take cores from a remote lake in Mexico s Yucatan that shows evidence of an exceptional drought at the time of the Maya collapse; and visiting the slopes of the rumbling volcano of Popocatepetl, to search for evidence of an eruption that may have triggered a drought.

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Maya Writing

Maya writing at a glance has a lot in common with Egyptian hieroglyphics. It’s a similarly baffling system of detailed glyphs, often found carved on stone stelae, altars, wooden lintels and roof beams, painted on ceramic vessels or written in a type of book made of bark paper called a codex. Early European explorers of Maya lands in the 18th and 19th centuries agreed, and often referred to Maya writing as “hieroglyphics” or “hieroglyphs”, despite the fact that it has no relation at all to its Egyptian equivalent.

A copy of one of the few surviving Maya codices
at a museum in Copan, Honduras.
Practically all such examples of Maya writing were burned by the conquering Spanish.

In reality, Maya writing is a complex and highly individual mix between logographic and syllabic writing systems that not only represents the most advanced script used in the New World, but also the only Pre-Columbian writing system, which is known to completely represent its culture’s spoken language. Deciphering it was an epic undertaking that has been called “perhaps the greatest of all archeological detective stories”. Although Maya writing died out centuries ago, unlike ancient Egyptian, distant descendents of the language are still spoken today in some communities in Central America, and it may yet make a comeback in its text form.


As already mentioned, the script was logosyllabic – a mix between logographic and syllabic systems. Symbols (glyphs or graphemes) could be used as either logograms or syllables. In the course of the deciphering of the Maya hieroglyphic script, it became evident that it was a fully functioning writing system in which it was possible to express any sentence of the spoken language unambiguously.

The script had a complete syllabary (although not all possible syllables have yet been identified), and the Maya scribe would have been able to write anything out phonetically, syllable by syllable, using these symbols. It had more than a thousand different glyphs in total, although a few are variations of the same sign or meaning, and many appear only rarely or are confined to particular localities. No more than around 500 glyphs were in use at any one time.

Deciphering Maya Writing

How do we know so much about Maya writing? It’s largely because of incredible breakthroughs made in deciphering texts in the late 20th century. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, which essentially unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs in one go, the Maya script had to be unpicked gradually – over the course of 400 years – by a long series of hunches and tantalising insights, as well as false leads, blind alleys, and heated disagreements among scholars.

The Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries – for all their antipathy towards Maya writing – were the first to try and crack the code, to little avail. Eccentric French polymath Constantine Rafinesque fared better in 1832 when, using the Dresden Codice, he managed to accurately figure out the Maya system of counting. German Ernst Förstemann in 1880, and Englishmen Alfred Maudsley and Eric Thompson – working in the 1880s and 1930s respectively – all advanced theories on Maya writing, some of which resulted in big steps, others big missteps. It was a Russian linguist – Yuri Knorosov – who in 1952 made what would be a key discovery, when he determined that the individual glyphs were phonetic sounds, not individual letters or whole words.      Read More >>

Article Source: Heritage-key.com

 Maya BOOKS 

The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death
by Richardson Gill (University of New Mexico Press, 2001)

Between A.D. 800 and 1000, during what is known as the Classic Maya Collapse, unrelenting drought caused the deaths of millions of Maya people and initiated a cascade of internal collapses that destroyed their civilization. Linking global, regional, and local climate change, the author explores how atmospheric processes, volcanism, ocean currents, and other natural forces combined to create a climate that pried apart the highly complex civilization of the tropical Maya Lowlands in the ninth and tenth centuries. Drawing on knowledge of other prehistoric and historic droughts, The Great Maya Droughts is a compelling study of the relationship of humans to their natural and physical environment. The author develops a new, scientific explanation of why the Classic Maya failed to adjust their behavior and culture to the climatic conditions, and why civilizations in general sometimes collapse in the face of radical environmental change.

The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse (Hardcover)
by David L. Webster

The mystique of the ancient Maya dates from the early 19th century, when explorers in Central America rediscovered temple and palace complexes, astronomical observatories, and monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions. The image of a lost civilization absorbed by jungle has fueled the popular imagination, leading to much speculation about how and why the classic Maya culture collapsed. Webster (anthropology, Pennsylvania State Univ.) here outlines what is known about that culture and discusses the meaning of civilization as applied to the ancient Maya. He notes that the Maya represented not a united empire but a group of kingdoms sharing an elite culture that did not survive the collapse, though descendants of the ancient Maya still live in the same geographical areas. Webster also reviews evidence from archaeology, paleography, and historical writings and discusses theories of the collapse, concluding that it was not sudden but gradual and that its causes vary with location and may be attributed to overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, and the decline of kingship ideology. This excellent overview of classic Maya culture and history will be of interest to both the specialist and the general reader. For all libraries. Lucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA -- Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City
by Peter D Harrison, Colin Renfrew and Jeremy A Sabloff

Harrison draws upon more than 30 years of excavation and research to summarize what is known to date about Tikal. Once one of the greatest cities in the world, Tikal was strategically located in the central region of the Maya lowlands and served as a major trade center and architectural style-setter. Over 3000 known surface structures exist, and as many as 10,000 ruined buildings and platforms may lie below the surface of the site. Recent discoveries in Maya archaeology include insights into the urban nature of the society and the agricultural methods used to support such a large population (possibly 200,000). Harrison discusses breakthroughs in the translation of Maya glyphs, which continue to shed light on the history and politics of the city, and also considers reasons for its decline and fall. This book is recommended for its cogent style, treatment of recent advances in Maya studies, and fine photos and format. [History Book Club selection.]ASylvia Andrews, Indiana State Lib., Indianapoli. - - ASylvia Andrews, Indiana State Lib., Indianapolis -- Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The Maya
by Michael D Coe

Because of the wealth of new archaeological data and breakthroughs in the translation of hieroglyphs, Coe's updating of his classic synthesis of Maya civilization provides a valuable service to both informed lay readers and specialists wishing to apprise themselves of the current state of understanding of this most intellectually sophisticated and aesthetically refined pre-Columbian culture. Although the vast majority of the text may be found in the prior edition, the work is transformed by significant interpolations and deletions and is augmented by a new section of color plates, a useful guide for travelers, and a listing of Maya rulers. As it now stands, this refreshed and renewed little masterpiece merits a place in collections serving students of ancient Mesoamerica.

Continuing a tradition of massive exhibitions and concomitant exhibition catalogs, the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, has at last discovered the New World. This initial incursion wisely focuses on the most accessible of the great pre-Hispanic cultures, the Maya. In this daunting but unfocused potpourri, some 29 essayists broach nearly the full range of Maya historical, societal, intellectual, political, and artistic traditions with varying degrees of competence. As is common with collective efforts of this sort, one finds both a certain redundancy of elementary facts and a not infrequent inconsistency about the facts themselves. Crammed into the last hundred pages of the volume is the catalog of more than 500 well-illustrated but only perfunctorily documented and analyzed objects. Aside from its value as a remarkable gathering of some 1400 excellent color reproductions, this ill-balanced and ultimately superficial tome has little to recommend it.ARobert Cahn, Fashion Inst. of Technology, New York -- Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Breaking the Maya Code
by Michael D Coe

A fluent, engaging, and informative account of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics.

The decipherment of the Maya script was, Coe states, "one of the most exciting intellectual adventures of our age, on a par with the exploration of space and the discovery of the genetic code." He presents the story eloquently and in detail, with many illustrations of the mysterious Maya inscriptions and the people who tried to decipher them. Most of the credit, he says, goes to the late Yuri V. Knorosov of the Russian Institute of Ethnography, but many others participated. They did not always agree, and some of them went up blind alleys.

Coe--emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University--vividly describes the battles, missteps and successes. What is now established, he writes, is that "the Maya writing system is a mix of logograms and syllabic signs; with the latter, they could and often did write words purely phonetically." Coe concludes with a swipe at "dirt archaeologists" who believe the decipherment of Maya writing "is not worthy of notice." According to them, he asserts, "the Maya inscriptions are 'epiphenomenal,' a ten-penny word meaning that Maya writing is only of marginal application since it is secondary to those more primary institutions--economy and society--so well studied by the dirt archaeologists." Coe sees that attitude as "sour grapes" and ascribes it to "the inability or unwillingness of anthropologically trained archaeologists to admit that they are dealing with the remains of real people, who once lived and spoke."

Breaking the Maya Code (2007)

For a people to lose their history is a tragedy; to recover it, a miracle.
Breaking the Maya Code is the story of the 200-year struggle to unlock the secrets of the world's last major undeciphered writing system. Based on archaeologist and historian Michael Coe's book of the same title (which The New York Times called "one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery") and filmed in over 40 locations in nine countries, this amazing detective story is filled with false leads, rivalries and colliding personalities.

It leads us from the jungles of Guatemala to the bitter cold of Russia, from ancient Maya temples to the dusty libraries of Dresden and Madrid. The heroes of the story are an extraordinary and diverse group of men and women: an English photographer, a German librarian, a Russian soldier, a California newspaperman, an art teacher from Tennessee, and an 18-year-old boy immersed in the glyphs since early childhood. Surprisingly, the decipherment reveals not peaceful kingdoms but warring citystates in a long struggle for domination. The texts also reveal a strange world of kings and queens who regularly shed and burned their blood to invoke the Vision Serpent, a world shaped by an intricate cosmology that weaves together the lives of humans, the deeds of mythic heroes and the cycles of the planets and the stars. For the six million Maya alive today, a people who had been cut off from their own extraordinary past, the decipherment is like a time machine - uniting them with their own lost history and opening up an invaluable treasure for all of us.

Maya Art and Architecture (World of Art)
by Mary Ellen Miller (Thames & Hudson, 1999)

Mary Miller vividly takes the reader into the art of one of the world's most enigmatic ancient civilizations. From temple to tomb, she explains how and why the Maya made their greatest works. New archaeological discoveries at Copan, Tikal, and Palenque--to name but a few--are included, and the author draws on recent decipherments in Maya writing to provide fresh interpretations of Maya sculpture and ceramics. For the art historian, student, and traveler, Maya Art and Architecture will prove indispensable. Chapters on Maya architecture and the materials of Maya art set the stage for discussions of the sculpture of different time periods and regions, the famous murals at Bonampak, the dramatic new findings at Cacaxtla, and the painted Maya ceramics of the first millennium a.d. The author has organized the material in new ways, considering the nature of the human form in Maya art, for example, and the role of the hand-held object.

Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Paperback) Dennis Tedlock (Translator)

Popol Vuh, the Quiché Mayan book of creation, is not only the most important text in the native languages of the Americas, it is also an extraordinary document of the human imagination. It begins with the deeds of Mayan gods in the darkness of a primeval sea and ends with the radiant splendor of the Mayan lords who founded the Quiché kingdom in the Guatemalan highlands. Originally written in Mayan hieroglyphs, it was transcribed into the Roman alphabet in the sixteenth century.

This new edition of Dennis Tedlock's unabridged, widely praised translation includes new notes and commentary, newly translated passages, newly deciphered hieroglyphs, and over forty new illustrations.

More Books and Video

  • The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings
    by David Drew (Phoenix Mass Market, 2000)

  • Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya
    by Simon Martin (Thames & Hudson, 2000)

  • Prehistoric Mesoamerica
    by Richard EW Adams (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996)

  • Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya
    edited by Takeshi Inomata and Stephen D Houston (Westview Press, 2000)

  • The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art
    by Linda Schele et al (Thames & Hudson, 1992)

  • A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya
    by Linda Schele and David A Freidel (William Morrow, 1992)

Ancient Aliens (2009) DVD

Is it possible that intelligent life forms visited Earth thousands of years ago, bringing with them technology that drastically affected the course of history and man s own development? Presented in the 1968 bestselling book Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken, the theory of ancient aliens rocked people s beliefs in mankind s progress. Ancient cave drawings of strange creatures, remains of landing strips in Peru, and Indian texts that describe the flying machines of the gods were just a few of the odd archaeological artifacts cited by von Daniken as proof that ancient astronauts were well known to our ancestors.

Produced with the exclusive cooperation of von Daniken himself, Ancient Aliens launches all-new expeditions to seek out and evaluate this evidence, with a concentration on the latest discoveries of the last 30 years, including unusual DNA findings on man s evolution and newly decoded artifacts from Egypt to Syria to South America. It is a balanced investigation into a theory some believe cannot be true, but many agree cannot be ignored.

Searching for Lost Worlds: Machu Picchu: Secrets of the Incan Empire (1999)

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KEYWORDS: Ancient Apocalypse: The Maya Civilization Collapse
Maya, civilization, Ancient, Apocalypse, Mayan, Collapse, destruction, draught, mystery, disappearance, destruction, catastrophe