Among major ancient civilizations in the world, no people were quite as oddly anti-Darwinian and blood-thirsty as the pre-Columbic Mesoamericans. I’m of course referring to the routine large-scale human sacrifice practiced by the Aztec, Mayan and their kin. I couldn't think of any other contemporary people in the world that were quite as casual about the matter of life and death. When they completed a major construction, say the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec reportedly slaughtered as many as 80,400 prisoners in four days (reported counts vary, but none less than 4,000). It was amazing that they managed to collect that many victims from the jungle -- just think about the logistics. Every 52 years, as the Mayan calendar finished a cycle, these people would panic on the prospect that the sky would collapse and the world would end. Oh my, what to do what to do? More bloodshed! So the carnage would begin at midnight to and lives would be fed to the gods; afterwards everyone would hold their breath and waited for the dawn. Finally the sun would come up; everybody would cheer and celebrate that they had saved the world yet again.
The Mesoamerican gods, while unremarkable in any other aspect, all had a vicious lust for blood. The belligerent Aztec sun god (Huitzilopochtli) seemed to rely on human blood as a primary sustenance, and required to be fed constantly. The Mayan water god (Chaac) had a morbid interest of devouring live human beings through underground water sinkholes, for pleasure apparently. The Aztec rain god (Tlaloc) was even worse – he’s got a taste for the tears of the sacrificed children, which he demanded as an exchange for supple rainfall. When ancient Mesoamerican said to give their hearts to the gods, it was not just a figure of speech; they referred to a ritual involved actual coring laparotomy with a stone knife, which opened up the chest of the subject and ripped the vital organ out, alive, on the top of their lofty pyramid. A practiced priest could accomplish that in just seconds. To enhance the dramatic effect, the priest, dressed completely in back, would hold the still beating heart up high for the spectators, and kick the victim’s twitching body, painted in blue, down the stairs of the pyramid. What a breathtaking sight it must have been, as the lifeless and heartless body rolled down the slope, sketching a glaring bright red trail on the pale limestone! Talk about aesthetization of violence… Tarantino, eat your heart out!
What’s puzzling, is that the practice was not limited to “inferior” subjects such as war prisoners, slaves, or criminals; there are evidence that their own ordinary people such as selected maidens and children, sometimes the social elites such as warriors and even rulers could be victimized. When they had a ball game between cities, the best players of the losing team, or even the ruler of the losing city would be butchered. All in all, there was no match to ancient Mesoamericans in their sophisticated, state-sponsored, systematic ritual massacre of their own people and their neighbors. It makes you wonder, how could such a civilization even survive, let alone compete and thrive in the test of time with such senseless self-destructive behavior?
Fascinating as the question was, it was not supposed to be the main theme of our 2015 winter trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, as we brought along two very young and cheerful children who had a much brighter worldview and expected nothing less than a delightful and exotic vacation. However, the question was very much lurking in the back of my mind, as I secretly searched for an answer.
The Yucatan Peninsula is the southeast corner of Mexico. Shaped like a brawny claw that reaches for the island of Cuba, it separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean. As our plane descended towards Cancun International Airport, located on the Caribbean edge of the claw, we were greeted by a thick carpet of lush forest, the kind of dense tropical jungle that hides all kinds of treasures and secrets. Beyond the jungle was the vast glittering Caribbean, with inviting turquoise waves and white sand beaches. This was quintessential Maya country, home of the people who gave the world a variety of corns, squashes, beans, chili peppers, and the state-of-the-art Mayan calendar (with a doomsday omen threw in as a bonus). Inside the dense jungle the Mayan cultivated farmlands (quite an achievement) and built clever irrigation systems. They established empires that ruled over cities, ports, and trading posts that connected the Mesoamerican world.
Today the remnants of these Mayan establishments as well as the pleasant Caribbean coast make the area a hot zone for tourism. Along the Caribbean coast lies a long stretch of resort strip called the Rivera Maya, and that’s where we settled. The Xcaret Park in the Riviera Maya was advertised as an “eco-archaeological park.” It had everything you would expect in a Caribbean coastal resort: nice pools, trails in the tropical jungle, refreshing underground river for drifters, fine sand beaches...
Snorkeling lagoons, or aquariums for people too lazy to dip in... The kids just couldn't have enough of those little baby Green
Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas, last 3 pix).
Zoos, stables, gardens... The pig-sized beast with a extended dextrous snout in the first 2 pix was a Baird's Tapir (Tapirus bairdii), a Mexican native; in next 2 was a Jaguar (Panthera onca).
An aviary filled with butterflies...
And there was unlimited supply of tortilla and salsa, endless but somewhat monotonic Mexican folk music, and a troop of flamingoes patrolling the park.
The people were hospitable, and the nightly shows were ever so arousing.
The hotel was tastefully set in a Colonial Spanish style, while the facilities in the park were decorated with thatched roofs to resemble a Mayan village.
The Mayan elements were not just tacky ornaments. The park was built on an actual Mayan archeology site, with weather-worn limestone ruins lying here and there. Around the ruin a variety of Mayan artifacts were thoughtfully placed to provide a glimpse of ancient Mayan life and religion. On the southeast corner was a medium-sized ball court, where the traditional ball game “Pok ta’ pok” was played. Noticed that the stairs were decorated with limestone skulls, implying that ceremonial human sacrifice was practiced.
Today the prevailing faith in Yucatan is of course Catholicism. Near the ball court was an interesting little chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe (a Mexican Catholic title for Virgin Mary). The gathering hall was sloped deep down underground onto a creepy sinkhole, where the lectern sat. Hanging high above was is a giant 39-ft statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe carved from a tree trunk, with the branches and roots conveniently attached to resemble the glowing halo. It actually made her look more comically like a forest spirit than the holy mother of god.
There were trace of the colonial history everywhere. In the 2nd pic is a "certified authentic" rock from the Hill of Tepeyac, where "our lady of Guadalupe appeared and asked a sacred home to be built." I supposed they then bulldozed over the hill and sent every single Mexican Catholic church a piece of it. Every real estate developer should learn from this.
In terms of cultural experience, the best feature of the park by far was the acclaimed cultural show Xcaret Mexico Espectacular. For two hours in this stadium-like theater over an artificial sinkhole, we were mesmerized by a breathtaking display of kaleidoscopic costumes, impeccable high-tech stage setting, and brilliant live performance. It was like unrolling a scroll of Mexican history, folk lore, and customs of various regions. Note that this was not a show just to please foreign visitors; the native audience were apparently swell with emotion while enjoying the show, and applauded for allusions and cultural references foreigners like us failed to comprehend.
Here in the show we could finally watch the ancient Mesoamerican ball game in live action. It was a peculiar sport. Two teams of players took turn trying to knock a soccer-sized rubber ball over a stone hoop with their hips. Not an easy feat considering in real life the solid rubber ball weighed as much as 9 lbs. The game was over as soon as one team made a goal.
The winner received a prized while the loser, unfortunately, was to be slain (typically decapitation, remember the limestone skulls?) by a menacing priest to honor the gods, which raised the stake considerably. Far more captivating than Monday Night Football if you ask me. But then again, the Mesoamerican seemingly didn’t value their lives quite as much as other cultures. These games were often contests between cities, with their warriors participated voluntarily as a tribute to their gods.
The next ball game was probably less lethal but far more electrifying visually. The Uarhukua traditionally play in the state of Michoacán for thousands of years, was basically a hockey game with two braziers as the goals and a flaming wooden ball (it was wrapped with fuel-soaked cotton strips). As the light dimmed and the drumbeat intensified in the background, the blazing ball was stroke around the court, creating all kinds of spectacular scenes. When the ball, meteor-like, streaked across the sky with a graceful parabola and splashed into the goal with a small explosion, the crowd cheered. It was a sight to remember.
After the sport section came a history lesson. For thousands of years the Aztec had been isolated in their remote little corner, enjoying their bloody sports and other elaborated rituals, until the Spaniard showed up. One can imagine an impudent Hernan Cortez, the Spanish commander, accosting Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor: “Say, you guys have a nice piece of land here. Hey, listen amigo, how about we come over, eradicate your people with advanced fire arms and a mysterious deadly disease we call small pox, topple your empire, take all your gold, and build some nice resorts here to rip off the rich descendants of the Brits from up north? By the way, your temple looks awesome, I think we’re gonna tear it down and build a church on top of it.”
And so it went. From 1519 to 1521, the ruthless Cortez and his allies blasted through the Yucatan Peninsula, ravaged the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City), captured Cuauhtemoc and finally had his neck stretched. It should be note that human sacrifice contributed to the demise of the Aztec empire in at least three ways: it pissed off Aztec’s less powerful neighbors (chronically victimized by the practice) so they allied with the Spaniard; it weaken the Aztec arm force (with their own warriors routinely sacrificed); and lastly, unlikely the Spaniard, which would kill on sight, the Aztec followed their traditional tactic of live capture (for sacrifice), which was obviously far less effecient and lethal. Well, the gloomy yet sobering reality was, such an anti-Darwinian civilization was pretty much doomed to extinction when completely exposed in the jungle of the colonial age.
So that was the end of a once mighty empire, and the idols of the Aztec gods crumbled with it. A cross was erected on top of the ruin (implying the fate of the great pyramid of Templo Mayor, which was wrecked in the war and the remnant was trod under the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City). The colonial history, if you think about it, is pretty much an account of a more powerful god trampling over a number of lesser ones.
What followed, was the intermixing of two cultures (albeit not an equal integration) symbolized by a duet of two styles of music. The Mesoamerican found themselves groveling in front of their catholic priests, and the Spaniard... learned how to make guacamole I supposed. In the end, the ghost of Cuauhtemoc reemerged, presumably watching with dismay and bitterness that his people gathered around a new faith of the invader, symbolized by a huge projected Madonna on the floor.
Time goes on. Over the years, Mexico gained independence, established a federated republic political system, and modernized. The first half ended with upbeat vibe as the wooden carriages transformed into a steam train, heading to a bright future.
The second half was a display of traditional music, dance, and ceremonies of various regions of Mexico. This was the part that the natives chanted engagingly to the familiar tune and allusions of their endearing hometowns. We obvious weren’t able to follow many of the subtle cultural references; but I had this to say: the quality of the singing, live music, choreography, and costumes beat any show in any theme park we’ve been to, hands down.
One particularly interesting ritual was the flying men “Voladores de Papantla,” a designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Five small-built performers in bright traditional outfits would climb up to a 100-ft pole, with one stayed up to play the flute and drum, the other four would fling themselves down from the rotating platform, fly through the air with a rope attached to their waists. The stun was intended to entertain the Totonac rain god Xipe Totec, who was no doubt an avid fan of swing chairs in a modern amusement park, to spare the people from severe droughts. Another theory suggests that the ritual was dedicated to the sun god, while the four guys symbolized the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
We had a better look at the ritual again in day time. These guys, none of them over 5 ft tall, performed an additional dizzying ride on a windmill. These guys should consider a career in NASA.
After the cultural show, the performers lined up and posed outside the stadium for people to take pictures. You could tell their costume were not some Disneyesque Styrofoam wrappers, but proper outfits adorned with real natural materials.
Lastly, before we leave the park, I shall dutifully go through a running account of the thriving tropical creatures, large and small, that crossed our path. The most noticeable dweller around the park were a large amount of Black Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) lazily roaming all over the places. Some could reach as large as 4 feet. It’s an important food source in Western Mexico and is touted as “chicken of the trees.” Unfortunately I couldn't find it in any menu throughout the trip so wouldn't be able to verify the claim.
More reptiles and mammals. An American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus, 2 pix), a Yucatan Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus chrysostictus, 3 pix), and Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus 1 pix); a raccoon (Procyon lotor).
A more charming and noisy group of creatures were the showy tropical birds. In the first 3 pix is a group of Yucatan Jay (Cyanocorax yucatecanicus), and a Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus).
Couch's King bird (Tyrannus couchii, 2 pix); a Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica, 2 pix); and a Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis, last 2).
An Orange Oriole (Icterus auratus, ), an endemic species; in the last 3 seemed to be a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus).
A Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula, 2 pix) hidden among branches; a Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus, 2 pix); and a Yucatan Woodpecker (Melanerpes pygmaeus, last 2 pix).
The ubiquitous Greater-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus). The male is all black, female is brown.
Shore birds. My favourite was the vigorous yet somewhat menacing Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). I could just watch them patrol the heaven like a spirit all day long.
Another fascinating species was the Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia). They were incredible fishers. They would reel above water leisurely for a while, then suddenly dive in, and emerged with its mouth full.
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens, 3 pix); a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres, 3 pix).
In the tropical jung, you didn't have to look too far to search for life. Pay attention, you would find the place teemed with creatures in even the most obscure corner. Of course not all of them were friendly. Some were amusing, some were annoying, while some were just down right intimidating.
Leafcutter Ants (possibly Atta cephalotes, 2 pix). The collected leaves will be chewed into a pulp and used as a fertilizer for their crops -- a type of fungus they cultivate in their underground garden. Amazing social creatures. In the next 2 pix is a Greater Angle-wing Katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium). Last 2, a Lichen Mantis (Liturgusa maya) on tree bark with almost perfect camouflage.
You wouldn't believe how much fun I had by toying with this Caribbean Hermit Crab (Coenobita clypeatus), watching it probed tentatively out of the shell, crawled out, flipped over, sprinted towards water, and quickly withdrew when frighten.
Next page, excursions for a bit of cultural exploration.
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