Parting Gifts

stela 25 from Izapa – wikipedia commons

The Mayan Civilization, like so many before and after, had its decline. They turned their backs on the greatness of the past and seem to have vanished back into the rainforests from which they emerged centuries before.

Until recently, historians had thought the Mayan had abandoned all their cities at the same time. More recently, they found habitation continued at some centers longer than others and began to think that perhaps it was not something that came upon them at one time. Some even suggested that the “abandonment” was more of a gradual removal from the cities perhaps due to failing crops and changes in the climate.

Regardless, many of the sites seem to have been populated by Toltecs after the Mayans pulled out.

Were the Maya driven out by the Toltec or did the Toltec advance into a vacuum of abandoned cities? We may never know for certain on this question. But just as small groups of habitation continued in Teotihuacán after its abandonment, perhaps the same thing occurred in the Yucatan as well.

Climate, economic collapse, hostile invasion have all been cited as causes. Any one – or any combination of these factors – may have contributed. But we know the Maya slipped away from the hubbub of the world stage.

Now, though, George Bey’s researches have uncovered at least one village that appears to have been abandoned in a hurry. Pots were left on the potter’s wheel as if the fellow had expected to return to his task in a moment. Kitchens in some dwellings looked as though someone was preparing the meal when the evacuation took place.

From this discovery, it looks as though something had occurred on a grand scale to cause the departure of the people. And it was nothing as gradual as climatic change. But once again, it does not hold true for more than a few sites.

At some cities, it appears that the Maya left but habitation was continued by others. The Toltecs appear to have taken over Chichen Itza as well as a few other sites.

Perhaps it was war, perhaps it was climate. It could have been a combination of factors or it could have been different reasons at each site. At least no one has discovered the sacking and burning of the nobles’ homes as had happened at Teotihuacán.

Why Did They Leave?

From the evidence available, it would appear that the majority of the Maya simply melted back into the forests. It is hard for us to comprehend such an event. To us, the progression of civilizing influence tells us societies evolve toward greater social complexity with robust social systems.

Perhaps the Maya did not know how they were supposed to evolve. Whatever the reason for their departure, it remains a mystery to us today.

But it is not true that all Mayan centers were abandoned. There were still Maya cities and kingdoms located in the highlands of Guatemala that were later fighting against the encroachment of the Spanish. So whatever had caused so many to slip out of the mainstream did not seem to apply to all of them.

Numerically speaking, the majority of the Maya people did not remain in the cities.

Though the location may have changed, the Maya did not seem to change very much as a people. They apparently continued the ballgame, the reverence to the tzolkin, the following of the haab, and passing down the myths of their ancestors. This as well as commercial ties with other groups, Mayan or otherwise.

What they seem to have discontinued was warfare for conquest.

The Calendar’s Continuing Usage by the Aztecs

The Aztecs had risen to dominance in central Mexico during the decline of the Mayan civilization but – like all other Mesoamerican states – they clung to the same calendar, ball game, and myth cycles as their predecessors.

The Fire Cycle, the Calendar Round, was embraced by the Aztec with a vengeance and the terror of their sacrificial orgies put all the other previous practitioners in a lesser league. The other calendars of the Maya did not seem to find a place in the Aztec world and they disappeared from the world stage as the Maya “vanished”.

The tzolkin was not followed by the Aztec, nor was the long count, though the legends of the four previous suns continued to be passed along with other myths. What additions the Aztecs loaned to the calendar and the myth cycle are a bit fuzzy at the present but only because the search is still continuing. Perhaps we will learn more about this as more sites and evidence is uncovered.

What the Maya Left Behind – A Curiosity

The one thing glaringly missing from the list of the things continued by the Aztecs is the Long Count, that hefty Mayan Calendar which we will celebrate its culmination in December 2012. The reason the Maya did not abandon this calendar as the civilization was disappearing is because the Long Count had already been abandoned by them.

After working for centuries to build up this intricate combination of cycles, weaving all the elements of cosmic timetables into one system, they simply abandoned it while at the peak of their civilization. What the heck for?

The cities would not be abandoned for a couple of centuries when the last Long Count inscription was made. There was no apparent fanfare at its ceasing, nor any sort of proclamation announcing its discontinuance. It was just stopped and never mentioned again.

The tzolkin, haab, and the Calendar Round continued to be observed for centuries while the Mayan kingdoms continued their existence and, even today, the Maya make use of the tzolkin in their society. They brought that part of the old world into their new life.

I have not heard any good reason for quitting the Long Count. I figure that, as with most things discarded, they thought it had stopped working. It was broke, so they tossed it aside and went about their daily lives.

And when they left the cities, the hefty Long Count was not among their baggage. They were traveling lighter and needed no dead weight.

Why Was the Long Count Abandoned?

This is one of the great puzzles of the Mayan civilization. After spending centuries duly noting and celebrating the markers at the culmination of the katun and baktun endings, they simply stopped mentioning them at all.

No further mention and no further celebrations were held. Those very special days that had meant so much had come to mean nothing to the Maya themselves.

Why is this? They had been carefully noting the passing of days for century after century, why the sudden departure from the Long Count? I find this more puzzling than why the Maya seem to have left their cities. Moving to a new location is common; giving up your birthright is not.

Perhaps they had placed more attention on the baktun and katun ending days than they should have. Perhaps they thought these days were more fortuitous than other days. It would be much like us deciding that the first of every year was going to be somehow more important in the scheme of things than any other day in the year.

It rarely happens like that, though. In most years, the first of January passes without any spectacular occurrence. It does not cause us to abandon our calendar.

And they did not abandon the calendars they found useful: tzolkin and haab.

I believe they stopped using the Long Count because it had lost its meaning in their lives. Certainly it may have pointed toward that seminal End-Date but that lay centuries beyond their time and no longer meant anything to them.

But your guess is as good as mine, I suppose. Until we find some confession buried in some Mayan city yet undiscovered, we may never know for sure.

The Calendar Usage Today

Today, the Maya still use the tzolkin. And I believe the haab and the Calendar Round still hold a place in their social structures. The council of Mayan Elders claims that they still use other calendars as well – secret calendars – whose purpose will be revealed in due course. (Whatever that means.)

“Secret” or “hidden” knowledge usually heightens the interest in such things but I have found it usually is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, something of no real substance. Otherwise, if it is of real worth, why not show it?


If they had already abandoned the Long Count in the tenth century, why should it have any relevance to us today? If they thought it was broken or useless, does it make any sense for us to think so highly of the Long Count today?

If they had inherited the Long Count from a previous culture, it might make more sense when they ceased using it because it had never really had a deep meaning to them. Learning why they stopped using the Long Count might aid our study of it and its place in their world.

And perhaps further understanding would come from looking at their myths, especially those relating to their concept of creation? At least their comprehension of the creation of the Long Count.

I am certain the Maya would have preferred leaving a greater volume of their heritage to pass along but the intervention of the pious Catholic monks saw fit to lower the curtain of a “dark age” in America just as they had in Europe. It is truly a miracle that any of the Maya writings arrived intact in the twentieth century.

The Council of Mayan Elders claim that all their works have been preserved despite the efforts of the zealous Catholics. But do not rush out to find them because they say many of the works are still hidden from outsiders at the present time.

But why should we think they were sending a message to us? Admittedly, modern Man falls under the same delusion mankind seems to have throughout its history that whatever time we are currently in is the most important time, ever.

I know it is the most important to me because I am here currently, but do I think all of history has been leading to the marvelous pinnacle on which we now reside? No. Nor do I necessarily think we are on any sort of pinnacle, but that’s just me.

But we still do not seem any closer to understanding why they built the calendar. Neither the Maya of the past nor the Maya of the present have been very forthcoming in that regard. Perhaps by examining something beyond their history can we begin to understand what is was all about.

Let us take a walk on the real wild side: the realm of their myths.

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