the Maya and Their Place in the Sun

PART ONE – The Basics – understanding the Maya has been a long time coming

In order to understand the Mayan Calendar it is necessary to understand at least a little about the people, their history, their religion, and their cosmological word view.

That is a tall order to try and accomplish in such a small space as this volume. Indeed, studies on any one of these subjects has already filled many volumes. So, all I can hope for in this instance is to present a small thumbnail overview of the subjects.

Hopefully, this thumbnail sketch, a minimalist overview, will be enough to point us in the right direction and bring a little clarity to the confusing mish-mash that is the 2012 phenomenon.

Armed with at least a little knowledge of how the ancient Maya saw the world, we can begin to understand what they tried to convey to their descendants with their marvelous calendar. We may not be a part of that tribe but we can share in the message they left behind. First, though, we will have to more completely understand the nature of their message. Is there something in the past of the Maya which would point us in the right direction?

We shall have to look before passing any judgment.

the Maya and Their Place in the Sun

the ancient ball court

Much of what we know of the Mayan culture has been gained in the last few decades. Before that time all we had to go on was the remnants of the tribes living in Central America today and the scant records left us by the Spaniards who conquered the region over four centuries ago – the few conscientious priests who decided to spare a little of the culture from the flames of the Inquisition.

The earliest civilization we have record of is one we call the Olmec culture. They left behind no written texts for us to tell us what they were like. Apart from the archaeological remains and the memories passed down by their neighbors we have no real knowledge of them or their culture.

Still, most historians believe these Olmecs were the creators of the ancient ballgame carried on by all descendants of the region (even as far north as Arizona) as well as the calendar used later by the Maya, the Aztec, and by all the other civilizations of Mesoamerica. And this even though the earliest calendar notations were after the Olmecs’ heyday and in the border region where the Maya civilization arose. So, until the certified authors of the calendar can be verified, I shall continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

Archaeologists are continuing today to unearth more of both the Olmec and the very earliest remnants of the Maya. Whose to say the Maya were not the creator of their calendar? If not them, then perhaps their immediate ancestors. It may be that they both received it as a gift from an even earlier – as yet unknown – civilization. We know from the evidence that the Maya were certainly more widely spread than the earlier Olmecs.

But launching our investigation straightaway into the height of the Maya is getting a little ahead of the subject.

Early Prehistory of the Region

The earliest inhabitants of the Americas came across the Bering Strait land bridge some 25,000 years B.C. At least, that is the generally accepted official version of the tale. And the very first “civilization” to sprout was one called the Clovis people – named from the location their remains were first discovered in New Mexico.

A few years ago, an archaeologist by the name of Virginia Steen-McIntyre, headed up a dig at Hueyatlaco in Valsequillo, Mexico. The team attempted to date the artifacts but discovered some serious anomalies. So, Steen-McIntyre called in a specialist at dating such artifacts. But, though several different methods were used, the same results were reached.

Tentatively, she tried to publish a report of the dig and was shocked at the reaction. Other scholars called her scholarship into judgment and effectively blocked the publication as well as shut down the woman’s career.

Her crime? Finding a site 250,000 years old.

If it had been closer to the Clovis date, there should have been no problem. As it was, the closely held belief in the pre-eminence of the Clovis people was not to be shaken. Her research was rejected simply because the tests dated the finds to a quarter of a million years ago, far too old to allow for the passage over the theoretical Bering Straits land bridge. Once again, the tail wagging the dog – ‘damn the evidence, it doesn’t match the theory!’ – and progress marches on.(1)

This debate will not be settled any time soon, I am certain, even though the pro-Clovis group is holding their own at the moment. Others are finding sites that push the envelope backward as well. It is getting harder for them to hold onto that theory. Especially since DNA studies have now shown the Native American DNA has more affinity for European root stock than that of Asia.

It may be some time before the subject is opened to more truthful and open debate. Until then, there is not much investigation of that problem going on.

The Olmecs, c.1400BC-400BC

The earliest civilization we have a record of is one we call the Olmec culture. The name comes from the Aztecs and means “rubber people”, probably due to the rubber they used for the ball in the game they left to their heirs. They left behind no written texts to tell us what they were like. (There are some written fragments but not enough to build a history – much less a language – on.)(2) Apart from the archaeological remains and the memories passed down by their neighbors we have no real knowledge of them or their culture.

Still, many historians believe they were the creators of the calendar used later by the Maya and the Aztec; in fact, by all the civilizations of Mesoamerica. That the earliest calendar notations were after their heyday and in the border region where the Maya civilization arose clouds the issue.

The most remarkable of the relics they left behind were large spherical stone heads. Historians have put forward the theory that the heads were representations of earlier kings, heroes, or even famous ball players. That would make them the earliest sport “collector cards” on the planet and pre-date the baseball cards by two millennia.

And though that is about all we know of the people at the present, research continues in the area and new evidence is coming, though slowly. Perhaps new discoveries will tell us more about this mysterious and yet influential people.


Sitting in the central plains of Mexico lies the magnificent city known as Teotihuacán. Estimates for the population of the city vary widely but it could easily have been 100,000 people which would make it probably the largest metropolis on the planet at the time. At least, if we could date the location with any certainty.

Though there are many theories put forward about who built the place, there is no evidence pointing at any specific group among the tribes known elsewhere.

Many scholars think it was the Toltec but I think they came along rather later in the progression and have nothing to rival the grandeur of Teotihuacán. So, there’s another mystery left to unravel.

The city rose to prominence around the first century B.C. and was abandoned around the sixth century. The causes of the abandonment are a little unclear but most historians point to the usual: climate changes and drought. One thing discovered in the digging there is that it appears the poorer classes rose up and burned the houses of the wealthier inhabitants. But that is just an educated guess.

Occupation continued at the site even after the city’s governance ended. Squatters called the place home for centuries. Though we are uncertain of their numbers, it was far fewer than the grand population it once boasted.

To the Aztecs, the city was Tollan, the home of the gods, and birthplace of the Sun. They seem to have frequently held some of their religious observances among the ruins of the city where they could somehow feel closer to their gods, as well as their claimed ancestors.

Today, the length of the long processional roadway still connects the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in an awe-inspiring tableau. Seeing the massive constructions these people built over the centuries of their occupation, it is amazing to consider the people would simply abandon the place… for any reason.

It must have been something extremely compelling to chase away 100,000 inhabitants but we may never know what really happened. Without so much as a rudimentary text remaining behind, either at the site itself or in the lands of their neighbors, we are stumbling around in the dark.

Some Other Important Peoples of Mesoamerica


This tribe centered on the eastern Oaxaca Valley and began to flourish about 500 B.C. They had their own writing, religion, as well as a calendar. Their primary cultural center was at Monte Albán, a site famous for many buildings, especially those that seem built for studying the planets.

During the Aztec period, they were known for and wide for being great workers in stone and were occupied in that capacity by the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, they tried to remain apart from the action. But as the Spanish sphere of influence spread, they were gradually forced to fight. Defeated, they became absorbed into the Spanish colony.


From their capital of Tilantongo in the western portion of the Oaxaca valley this group expanded to wrest Monte Albán from the Zapotecs and gained control over the Oaxaca valley. They appear to have avoided conquest by the Aztecs and remained independent but valuable trading partners with the central Mexican empire.

Like the Zapotec, they were able to hold off absorption into the Spanish colony for quite some time.


Although the Aztecs claim to be the political and intellectual descendants of the tribe called Toltec, many historians are beginning to doubt there had ever been a civilization of that name.

Practically everything known about the tribe is gleaned from the Aztec record and it is possible they built up this historical mythology to enhance their own position as rulers of the land.


The Aztecs are the best known of all the Pre-Columbian tribes of Mexico. They rose to power in the Valley of Mexico just a few centuries before the Spanish arrived on the scene. And since they were the first American civilization of any importance encountered by the conquistadores, it has been most often their view of the continent that was considered the correct one. (See note about the Toltecs above, to see what I mean.)

Trade from the Aztecs reached as for north as the tribes of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as far south into what is Guatemala and Honduras today.

And while it is true that practically all these differing peoples shared the same basic calendar and embraced the ballgame, the Aztecs participated in human sacrifice as well. Except that the Aztecs raised it to a whole new level, sending out war parties far and wide to supply their priests with an ever-increasing number of victims. This was shown very explicitly in the movie “Apocalypto”.

Where the Maya Fit In

MESOAMERICA (modern sites are in lower-case)
Tenochtitlan was home of the Aztecs; Monte Alban, the Zapotecs; La Venta, the Olmecs; Palenque, Chichen Itza, Caracol, Copan, and Ceren were home to the Maya.

And that brings us to the people of primary interest to this study.

The Maya crept onto the scene slowly, starting around 300 B. C. and began building their very distinctive cities. Some recently discovered cities of the Ancient Maya suggest that their civilization is older than previously thought. George Bey and his team have unearthed cities in the Puuc region that date back to at least 800 B. C.

Bey said, “It is both the number of sites we are finding as well as that some of them produced large-scale monumental architecture — pyramids and an acropolis — while others have ball courts.” At Kiuic, they found city dating back more than a millennium earlier than the Maya have been credited.

Satellite imaging has been utilized as well, helping pinpoint heretofore unknown Mayan cities in the jungles of Guatemala. There are more than enough to keep archaeologists busy for a long time to come.

A remarkable feature about these people is that they do not seem to have used the wheel. Certainly they knew about wheels and scores of toys have survived having them but they did not build wagons to convey goods. Everything was moved, apparently, on their backs. Perhaps they could not find a suitable draft animal as horses were unknown in Mesoamerica at this time.

Or it could be that something in their religious codes made them insist on cartage in that manner. There is even a statement in their mythical tale, Popul Vuh, that emphasizes the idea. (See Chapter 3 for more on this.)

So, it would seem they built all their marvelous pyramids by carrying all the stones by hand. That shows a remarkable social infrastructure that everyone would work together toward that end. Of course, some methods of coercion may have been used but we do not know.

The mainstays of their diet seem to have been maize, beans, peppers, root crops, and avocadoes. An early form of the stuff we today call “Mexican food”.

The Maya civilization stretched across the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent areas in southern Mexico and Guatemala, gradually spreading and building new cities. And in each they would raise their very upright pyramids and temples covered with the glyphs of their alphabet, as well as laying out the municipal ball court. Though these glyphs were a mystery to historians for some time, and though some are still uncertain, work over the past century has opened the historical record to us.

Many of the inscriptions were dated. And the form of this dating technique usually took dual forms: the date by the method we call “the Long Count” and another date using another of their calendars, which one exactly appears to have changed over time.

Though there are many dated inscriptions found in the excavated sites, there are still far too few to allow the historians to construct a definitive timeline. That is why there is such a disparity in the End-Date of the Mayan calendar.

Most historians have agreed to the correlation of the calendar constructed by Goodman, Martinez, and Thompson. This is the correlation that gives us the familiar End-Date of December 21st, 2012. It is not the only hypothesis and I will mention a few others in the next chapter. The exact date could very much be in question.

Another interesting feature of the Maya – and the other Mesoamerican civilizations – is the ballgame. We have often heard how the players would try and get the ball through the small hole in the side of the playing field. And the winners would actually lose their heads!

What’s that all about, I wondered? Who would want to play a game like that, much less WIN?

Scholars are fairly sure today that the small ring was not the goal but rather an apparatus for displaying the score of the game. Unfortunately, a lot of people do not seem to have gotten that memo and still profess the ring was for scoring. Some of the balls they played with seem to have been larger than the hole, making scoring in that manner impossible.

Artwork frequently pictures players at the game. Most wear protective equipments, pads and guards, leading us to believe the game could get dangerous. Also, there seems to have been various forms of the game with differing sized balls and the use of some sort of batting equipment. The game could have been similar to soccer or field hockey.

Golden Age

The Maya spread out over a large area centered on Yucatan and the Guatemala Highlands with hundreds of sites although not all of them were as large as the ones at Chichen Itza or Palenque.

They warred one against another and against outsiders on occasion and seemed to plan a lot of these expeditions to coincide with specific dates on their calendar, with the baktun and katun endings being viewed as most propitious. They also consulted the tzolkin to find auspicious days as well. I can imagine this lessened the element of surprise as their enemies were using the same calendars and knew which days were conducive for such endeavors and could be forewarned.

They held human sacrifice as was prevalent in most cultures of Mesoamerica but apparently not to the degree that the Aztecs were practicing it when the Spanish arrived. They also had the practice of running a thread through the tongue or penis to draw out blood used in certain rituals.

Their shamans used various plants with hallucinogenic properties and gained visions of the future as well as the structure of the universe. Pacal Votan, a ruler at Palenque, was supposed to have seen his future incarnations and even dated one well into the next calendar period in Sixth Sun.

We know so very much more about the Maya than we did a century ago but understanding has developed slowly, piecing together the parts of their society we can see left in the dirt. And though the Maya have left us a few written records, the full understanding of their temple inscriptions has been slow coming. The work of Linda Schele and others has finally cracked the barrier to more completely reading the temple inscriptions.

Meanwhile satellite images are helping uncover previously unknown Mayan cities in Guatemala today. All this will give us further insight into these mysterious people and the calendar they have left us. But, as I said, it may take decades before we have a clearer picture and the End-Date is already upon us.

But let’s turn to the calendar.

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