Yucatan Peninsula, 2015, Part II

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For those who wanted more cultural experience beyond the modest ruins within Xcaret, there were plenty of renowned archeological sites around to explore the rich sediment of the Maya civilization. Many were close enough for day-trips.

 

Comparing the Mayan civilization with their contemporaries, one may not be very impressed by their largely stone age technologies: no metal tools, didn’t use wheels (it must be hell to drag all those massive stones over in the tropical heat to build their lofty pyramids), and had only a primitive hieroglyphic writing system (despite being the most advanced among the Native Americans, it was simple compared to say the Chinese logogram). What we need to realize, however, is that the Mayan were located in a geographical area where technology dissemination was rather challenging. In general, east-west oriented continent (meaning the massive Eurasian) could allow extensive agricultural and technological exchanges between civilizations that share the same latitude, thus climate and crops. Such advantage sped up the progress of Eurasian civilizations considerably. North-south oriented continents (like the Americas, or Africa), on the other hand, tend to develop more isolated civilizations due to the wide climactic and thus agricultural variations. In an agricultural society, you probably wouldn’t learn much from remote people who grew very different crops.

With very little help from neighbors, the Mayan had to develop their civilization pretty much on their own: their agriculture, language and writing, art, mathematics, astronomy, and their famous calendar… It was all the more impressive considering that their calendar was more sophisticated and accurate than its European counterpart in certain aspects (in calculating the length of the solar year, for instance). So you see, these were very intelligent folks. One additional note regarding the wheels: the Mayan didn’t use wheel not because they didn’t have the concept, as functional wheels were found repeatedly in their toys. They didn’t use it because their densely vegetated topography gave them little advantage on wheels, plus they lacked proper large domestic animals to pull a wheeled vehicle.

Of course isolation was relative. The Maya actually had extensive trading relations with people throughout Mesoamerica. The city of Tulum was the perfect testament of the bustling commercial activities in the Mayan community. It was a heavily-walled small city of built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean blue. Despite an estimated population of only 1,000-1,600 (some speculated that a larger population of proles resided outside the wall), it was an important hub that connected important trading routes on the land and the sea. For centuries, laborers and long canoes carrying textile, honey, salt, feathers, ceramics, gems and obsidian (important materials for weapons, religious artifacts, or even mirrors) congregated here for exchanges.

 

To safeguard this valuable commercial center, the Mayan constructed around it a massive stone wall, some 16 feet high and 26 feet thick (Tulum means “wall” in Yucatan Mayan). It must had been a laborious project, but somehow I was skeptic of its effectiveness. To me its rugged, slightly sloped profile didn’t look too intimidating to an invading army, in fact it might had even been inviting to amateur rock climbers. Anyway, it was not an invading army, but more likely the imported contagious Old World diseases (small pox, measles, influenza, typhus, yellow fever… they were deadlier than all Spanish infantries combined) that wiped out most of its population, and forced the site to be abandoned.

 

The prominent structure within the wall was definitely the Pyramid El Castillo (the Castle), resting right at the edge of a 39-ft cliff. It was the main temple and lighthouse.

 

Two other notable structures include the Temple of the Fresco (an observatory house, 3 pix) featuring impressive fresco from the 13th century, and the Temple of Descending God (dedicated to the city’s main guardian, last 2). It should be noted that despite their weather-worn cadaverous tone today, these limestone structures used to be stuccoed and painted in more cheerful colors (mostly red) more suitable for Mayan tastes. The problem was these natural pigments didn’t last very long.

 

The Great Palace (4 pix) was speculated to be the primary residence of the nobles in Tulum. The small God of the Wind Temple (last 2) sits on the cliff side overlooking a small cove, where presumably the mercantile canoes docked in the good old days.

 

It was a pity that all these cliff side buildings, even on their ocean-facing facet had only a few vanishingly small windows, like loopholes on a bunker. Not that the Mayan didn’t have the same appreciation of a nautical scene like we do, but the windows were to server as the light source to guide the incoming canoes at night, a kind of primitive light house.

 

Interesting detail of the buildings. Note that corners all slanted slightly outward to make the buildings appear to be top-heavy, a distinct trait of Mayan architecture. Upon close inspection, the limestone surface was rather coarse, possibly due to centuries of erosion.

 

A stroll along the beach.

 

 

The Maya civilization did not develop a centralized empire, but consisted of an alliance of large city states, which typically controlled only their individual surrounding areas and possibly some neighboring vessel tribes and outposts. Tulum, for instance, served as a trading outpost for the city of Coba. However, no city state has ever matched Chichen Itza in scale and prominence in the Yucatan Peninsula. For centuries in the Mayan Classic and Post-classic period (8-13th century), Chichen Itza was the very definition of metropolitanism in the jungle of northern Maya Lowland. It’s got a dense network of causeways, skyscrapers (such as the 78-ft-tall Castle, El Castillo), a stadium (the largest, best-preserved ball court in Mesoamerica), a sophisticated observatory, and even a sauna house. One could only imagine how awe-inspiring Chichen Itza must have been for some Stone Age peasants stumbled out of the jungle. However, after the 13th century the city mysteriously and rapidly declined and was finally abandoned, possibly due to prolong drought and the exhaustion of nearby natural resources. When the Spaniard arrived in the 16th century, the site was no longer a functional urban center, but merely a heap of stone structures.

 

Today the city revived as a popular UNESCO World Heritage site, with some 1.4 million annual visitors -- probably busier than any period in its 1,300 years of history. There were people everywhere, from the lofty El Castillo to the giant ball court. The ball court would rival any modern stadium in scale. Under the grandstand, the losing team, commonly known as the tourists, lined up waiting to be executed.

 

On the east end of the city is the impressive Temple of the Warrior, a multiplex of pyramid and flanked by a forest of stone columns, each signifies a warrior. What's more fascinating, was a Chacmool statue on the top of the main staircase. Chacmool is a peculiar form of statue found throughout ancient Mesoamerica. Depicting an awkwardly reclining figure with the face tilting sideway and both hands holding a container on the stomach, Chacmool was speculated to symbolize a slain warrior. Not a bad guess since such an odd posture must be rather uncomfortable for anyone alive. The container on the stomach was thought to hold sacrificial offering, for example, a human heart. Some even speculated that Chacmool was used as a sacrificial stone where the victims were stretched on top of it.

 

House of the Eagles, a platform featuring relief of eagles and jaguars clutching human hearts in their claws (last 2 pix). It was likely another site for human sacrifice...

 

The Mayan no doubt had certain fascination with jaguar, the top predators in the jungle. It was revered as a god who had the power to travel between different worlds, probably owing to its agility.

 

And there were serpents, and dogs...

 

More interesting details. The prevailing topics of the reliefs are wars, human sacrifices... Just how blood-thirsty these people actually were?

 

Like most major attractions in the world, the walkways were lined with vendors sell all kinds of colorful trinkets and crappy souvenirs that could be found in attics and forgotten closet drawers all over the world. All those glossy Maya calendars and masks, as I accidentally found out in the back of a small workshop, were just painted platters of rather crummy clay. Quite a silly ballast to stuff into your already bulging luggage.

 

I was particularly puzzled to see that a few vendors were selling various versions of predator statues, and later found out that there was a moderately-rated, cheesy Sci-fi movie Alien vs. Predator (2004) that was staged on Mesoamerican mythology and a mysterious Chichen Itza-styled pyramid. Well, wouldn’t have stirred up my appetite anyway, if I knew it. Aren’t you tired of these endless Hollywood sequels already? When the producer had to desperately scramble two franchises together to double the dosage, you know how exhausted the fans were; and it was reflected on the movie reviews too.

 

 

The Yucatan Peninsula is a large limestone plain with a typical Karsts landscape. The region lacks major rivers but is abundance in underground water source. Large sinkholes, or cenote in Mayan language, were formed when limestone bedrock collapsed and exposed underground water. One of the more impressive sinkhole we visited was Cenote Zaci, right at the center of a small town called Valladoli. The sinkhole was largely exposed to open air, so we could survey its deep blue and murky water from some 95 ft above. To access that water, however, we had to enter through a cave and down some stairs carved right out of the stone wall. The tropical heat disappeared the moment we descend into a world of calcite formation. The sinkhole was sizable (148 ft in diameter) and deep (up to some 328 ft). Many were eager to take a dip into the cool water, but I somehow was skeptic of the water quality of the puddle. I mean, should we wonder about what was the murkiness consist of? Algae? Bird and bat dropping? Decomposed particles from the corpses of all the anguished sacrificed victims over the centuries? Imagine you chock and drink some... The thought virtually ruined the scene for me, although to be fair, the sinkhole was quite a refreshing refuge from the roasting heat all around.

 

I have a lot more nice things to say about the small town of Valladolid, which was built around the sinkhole. It felt like the kind of quintessential small Mexican town that have not been completely contaminated by tourism. People went about their business quite oblivious of us, or at most casting a curious glance. The store owners kept on shooting the breeze on open street; pedestrians gathered around a hawker's booth to enjoy a cold drink or snack; the foot court was not yet invaded by tourists - at least their menu were still fully Spanish... Such laid back, congenial and unassuming life style of a provincial town seemed quite agreeable to me.

 

Another attraction of Valladolid to me was the distinct style of Mexican architecture -- from what I've seen on the road I believed the town is a good representation for rural Yucatan. Not surprisingly there were Spanish Colonial elements everywhere -- arches and curves, stucco walls, painted tiles, flat roof, wrought iron details... But what distinguished Mexican architectures was that the integration of traditional vibrate colors into the buildings, making the street scenes particularly lively and pleasant. A general observation was that more rural area usually offered more diverse and brilliant colors. In a cosmopolitan area say Mexico City, the colors will be lost in a grayish jungle of concrete and steel.

 

A fine example was the Church of San Servacio at the center of the town, doubtless the grandest and loftiest structure in entire Valladoli, was solemnly undecorated in its original greyish tone.

 

On the other hand, any little rural church at the fringes of the town would feature a much brighter facade.

 

That's one reason why I enjoyed the road trip across the colorful rural Yucatan very much. Below are some images taken from the bus, the true Yucatan far from tourist attractions, unadorned and unpretentious.

 

 

At the end, we shall take a crack at the mystery of the prevalence of human sacrifice in Mesoamerican cultures, just to satisfy a morbid curiosity that has haunted me the entire trip. Well, the simple answer is, like so many other irrational human behavior, human sacrifice rooted deeply in religion. All Mesoamerican shared similar myths that their god or goddess sacrificed themselves to create the world so human could live. It was a debt, a Mesoamerican version of the original sin that ancient Mesoamerican reimbursed quite generously with all kinds of offerings: food, incense, jewelry, animals, human blood, and ultimately, their lives. The Mesoamerican believed that the universe was run by a mysterious vitality force, which the Aztec called tonalli. All motions were fuelled by it, the gods fed on it, and the entire universe depended on it. In human it was run in the blood. When people were frighten, tonalli congregated in the heart – and that was the perfect time to cut open the chest, rip out the pumping vessel, and dedicate it to the gods as the ultimate offering.


On a personal level, the Mesoamericans didn’t have as much fear of their own mortality. The Mayan believed in cyclic nature of life – nothing was ever “born” and nothing ever “died,” but people just “moved on”. Secular life was just a segment of a continuum so there’s nothing sacred about it, and there’s no needs to be excessively mournful of its loss. On the road trip we passed a local graveyard of some remote village. I was amused by the vibrant tones, not applied on the houses but on all the graves, making the whole place look more like a children’s playground than a cemetery. Imagine resting your loved ones there for an eternity, wouldn’t all that liveliness just lighten up your heart?


The Mayan believed (and probably still believe) that when one expired, the soul had to venture through a treacherous dark realm (Xibalba), then a multi-level underworld, followed by layers and layers of higher world, before reaching a flowery paradise of eternal happiness (Tamoanchan), the Mayan heaven. It was quite a horrendous process to go through, or so the Mayan believed. Very gloomy prospect, I know. But don’t panic, our beneficent priest’s got good news for you. There were shortcuts to skip the ordeals and enter the paradise directly! But of course, there was always a catch: you had to die in certain unusual circumstances, such as during childbirth, being sacrificed in religious rituals, or in the ball courts, or during warfare, or at the very least committing suicide by hanging... It was hard to believe that that was the incentives that inspired such a mysterious and peculiar belief system for thousands of years. I hate to say this, but for whoever fell for this kind of trickery, besides naivety and plain fatuity, don’t you think there were certain degree of laziness and selfishness involved? In addition, I found the last offer and the notion of an honorable death by suicide a particular strange concept. Unlike most other cultures, the Mayan considered suicide not only perfectly justifiable, but also virtuous. They practically encouraged it by introducing a goddess (Ixtab, often depicted as a decomposing corpse with a rope around her neck) to escort the souls of suicide victims to paradise. Thanks to remnant of such blissful ignorance, today the Yucatan region still has the highest suicide rate by hanging in the entire country.


The above are just the more dignified interpretations of the curious belief system. Like so many fascinating mysteries in history, if we dig a little deeper, there were often more pragmatic motives underlying these supposedly spiritual practices. Many attempted to rationalize human sacrifice in social and political contexts. Some hypothesized that sacrifice was a mean of larger city states to instill fear in the people, vassal tribes, as well as neighbors to strengthen their political system; some speculated that sacrifice was a mean of population control (G. Murdock, 1973), adding yet another leverage on the Malthusian Catastrophe; some introspective souls even proposed that human sacrifice was an unconscious psychological need rooted in traumatic experience during childrearing (L. deMause, 2002).


Some scholars (notably M. Harner and M. Harris, 1977) entertained a much more chilling theory of cannibalism as a hidden motive for human sacrifice. Their argument was that the Mesoamerican had scarce animal protein sources, which was limited to few domestic animals (dogs and turkeys mostly) and hunting quarries. What if there was a more reliable source of protein, based on a state-sponsored, institutionalised ritual? Ever wondered what happened to the corpses of the sacrificed victims? They were collected by attendants, and delivered to the... you guess it right, kitchen. Well, careful calculation generally disproved such theories, as the nutritional value of the victims may not be sufficient to be a necessary component in Mesoamerican diet. Another counterevidence is that the sacrifice typically happened in harvest season. But the disproval simply means cannibalism was not a primary motive for sacrifice. In another word, a feast of human flesh was more a privilege for the nobles rather than the regular sustenance for the commoners. Archeologists have found ample evidence for the practice, such as paintings depicting consumption of human parts and human bones with butcher-like cut marks (C. Pijoan, 1997). Just how wide-spread the practice was is still a matter of debate.

So there we have it, a multitude of incentives for the Mesoamerican to terminate lives, either some one else's or their own, in such dramatic fashions. Be it the native version of the original sin, or any hidden political, social economic causes, it's obviously difficult to justify such behavior from any modern, civilized perspective. However, we probably shouldn't rush to judge the Mesoamerican -- I don't believe they're worse in their nature than any other people. Any neolithic people in say Jericho, or Lascaux, or Northern China were capable of such deeds, or worse -- archeology evidences are overwhelming. The Mesoamerican just happened to remain unenlightened to a relatively recent age due to geographical reasons as explained above. It's just the sad truth of life, that human behavior was indeed that ugly, once upon a time.

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