No one knows for sure from where the Mayan people came. Many archaeologists, scientists, and other experts have studied artifacts, ruins, drawings, and carvings uncovered over the years. Many speculate that they are descendents of the tribes of Jews expelled from Israel by the Romans. Many of the hieroglyphics appear to be Hebrew in nature, while others are a combination of Hebrew and an unknown source.
Over 1,000,000 Mayans live in Chiapas – mostly in the highlands area. Several million more live in the Yucatán, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The oldest recorded settlement excavated to date is in Belize, dating back to 2500 B.C. The Olmecs along the Gulf Coast are known to have developed great artistic and theocratic centres between 1200 B.C. and 600 B.C. Also, in Oaxaca (pronounced wah-hah’-kah), the Mixtecs had developed a form of writing by 400 B.C. The Maya refused to have much to do with these neighbours, however.
There are four distinct Mayan languages, as follows: (1) Tzotzil (pronounced so-tseel’) – located in the western highlands of Chiapas; (2) Tzeltal (pronounced sel-tall’) – located in eastern Chiapas towards the Lacandon Jungle; (3) Chol (pronounced chol) – located high in the cloud forests above Palenque; and (4) Tojolobal (pronounced toe-hoe-lo’-ball) – located towards the Guatemalan border.
Each language group is divided into small communities, averaging 20,000 people. Chamula, numbering 100,000 people, is the largest community. Each community has its own governmental body, which tries all cases, except murder, under its jurisdiction. A fundamental plan is common to all communities; that is, a government building and a church will face an open square or park, approximately one block square. This square is cemented or tiled with areas of grass and trees. There are benches on which to sit. In Teopisca, a community near San Cristóbal on the way to Amatenango, the benches are a tourist attraction. Each bench has a colour theme, done completely in tiles. It is very striking for the Maya love colour. Although each community has a town centre, most people prefer to live outside of town in hamlets along the mountainsides.
The Mayan people of today live similar to the way of their ancestors as recorded during the Formative Period (1500 B.C. to 100 B.C.). They still grow corn, grind it by hand, and daily make tortillas, the staple food. Beans are another staple food. Many varieties are grown in Mexico. The Maya prefer black beans. People still launder their clothes by hand on rocks in fast-moving streams, from where they also receive much of their drinking water. Therefore, diseases are ever-present. It takes great skill and much patience to teach these people simple hygienic basics. The Mayas still walk wherever they need to go, taking hours or days to reach a destination. They still carry heavy loads on their backs, using a strap across their foreheads. Some women have been known to carry 100 pounds or more. One woman actually carried her husband out of prison in this fashion without being detected.
About 100 B.C., the Mayan culture mysteriously changed. The people adopted ideas from others whom they had previously ignored. During this pre-Classic Period (100 B. C. to A. D. 200), they also perfected a calendar which is still used today. They also developed their own hieroglyphic writing.
It was not until the end of the 19th century that a librarian from Dresden, Germany, Ernst Forstemann, was finally able to decipher the Mayan calendar. This task took him twenty years. The bars and dots are mathematical calculations of planetary cycles. They intermeshed two sets of time, consisting of 260 days and 365 days. These were tied to the total number of days which had elapsed since August 13, 3114 B. C. This date appears to be the beginning of the Mayan world.
The Classic Period (A.D. 200 to A.D. 900) produced an advancement in the Mayan paintings, sculpture, architecture, and literature. Many of these items were destroyed by the Spanish, who thought that they were “unchristian.” Stories of this era are depicted on walls of ruins. They tell of nobility, wars, rituals, human sacrifices, and worship of many gods. By A.D. 900, Palenque, Yaxchilán, Copan, and Tikal had fallen. No one can explain the collapse of the Classic Period. We have only speculations for answers. Today, these ruins are for tourists, with only Palenque easy to reach.
During the post-Classic Period (A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1521), the Petén Maya of Tabasco united with the people of central Mexico. The Yucatán Maya were conquered by the Toltecs. Chichén Itzá was the trade capital of the Mayan world, which stretched from the Gulf coast to Honduras.
In the Chiapan highlands, Maya have been able to maintain their Classic traditions for centuries because they did not depend on other Mayan centres for trade. Amber from Simojovel was traded throughout Mexico. Bochil supplied cocoa beans, which were accepted as currency anywhere. Salt from Ixtapa was in plentiful supply until the 12th century, when foreigners came in and snapped for export what was left.
The state of Chiapas was named after a fierce group of non-Maya warriors who started disrupting Mayan trade about A. D. 1500. For centuries, these people, called Chiapanecs, were a formidable group. Their origin was probably Costa Rica. The Maya joined the Spanish to defeat the Chiapanecs, but were promptly enslaved by the Spanish after the Chiapanecs were defeated.
Today, there is still hatred between the villages of of Zinacantán and Chamula. Only five kilometers (three miles) separate these two communities. These people have been at war for many centuries for various reasons. It is still dangerous for one to be found in the other’s territory. When the Mayas came under Mexican rule, their plight became worse until their liberation during the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas was founded in 1528, nearly 100 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. Bishop de Las Casas was the first bishop of the Roman Catholic church to arrive safely in the area. He did much to assist the Mayan people. He was able to convince King Philip II of Spain to free the Maya and to rid the area of the conquistadores. The people were so grateful that they were easily converted to the Catholic faith. In time, however, the church demanded heavy taxes. Thus, the people revolted. They did keep some of the ritualistic practices of the Roman Catholic church, including the worship of patron saints whom they elaborately clothe, the burning of candles and incense, music, and pageantry. These devotional displays had been practised in Spain for centuries before coming to the Mayan world. Their ritualistic displays are very bizarre to the first world viewer, including Catholics from other nations. Festivals and religious celebrations still consume the life of all Mexicans, including the Maya. Fireworks are a large part of these celebrations, despite numerous injuries and deaths each year.
Today, there are thousands of Maya who have accepted Protestant or evangelical faiths and have rejected Catholicism. Thus, force is used to try to reconvert them. Everything done by these people has religious connotations, whether good or bad. What is done differently by another person is considered bad. Thus, the devil is believed to have that person. This is the simplicity, yet the complexity, of their beliefs. All skirmishes are done under the guise of political differences. Many have been forced out of their homes or killed. Those forced out end up forming new communities – and there are many in Chiapas.
For most Maya, the average yearly income is about US$300. A portion of this is spent on yarn and yarn goods to make elaborately designed costumes. Each community has a specific design. Images of their gods – universe, earth, sun, moon, stars, toads, bats, or snakes – are woven into the patterns. All are very colourful and beautiful. Only community governmental authorities are allowed to wear hats with many coloured ribbons attached. Mayan children may be dressed as small adults, but they are not considered human until they are seven or eight years old.
Today, the last of the primitive Maya are being forced from their homes in the Lancandon Jungle of Chiapas. Disease wiped out many when loggers came and stripped the area of the mahogany trees. Recent oil discoveries have further dwindled the area of habitation. Grazing cattle for sale to First World countries strip what is left of the topsoil. Some people still grow corn; fish; and tap rubber trees. A simple white tunic and straight-cut bangs identify them from other Maya. The Yucatán Maya are also considered to be one of the most primitive people of the Mayan world.
The Maya are a complex, yet simple, people. They are friendly, yet wary. Their daily hardships and danger are offset by their love of colour and celebrations. They live in one of the most beautiful areas of the world, complete with cloud forests, jungle, mountains, trees, flowers, and animals. Civilization has carved deeply into the souls of these people – and yet, they remain as they were thousands of years ago.