New discoveries promise new insight into the ancient Maya civilization and its religion. Archeologists have found a network of 417 cities in northern Guatemala that date back to about 1000 BCE. The cities were connected by nearly 110 miles of of well constructed roads that one scientist called “the first freeway system in the world.” The ruins revealed that the Maya civilization was much more advanced at a much earlier date than previously thought. It must now be understood as one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. (Note that scholars tend not to use the adjective “Mayan,” and so I’m trying not to also.)
Before the recent discoveries, most of what we knew of Maya civilization was from what’s called the Classic period, which began about 250 CE. It was assumed that earlier Maya civilization mostly consisted of hunter-gatherers who planted corn. But archeologists have found “sophisticated ceremonial complexes, hydraulic systems and agricultural infrastructure” that are “evidence of a well-organized economic, political and social system” that was well underway two millennia and more ago. (See Charlotte Lytton, “Long-hidden ruins of vast network of Maya cities could recast history,” The Washington Post, May 20, 2023.)
These discoveries were made possible by a technology called Lidar, which uses lasers to create images of landscapes. The remnants of the old civilization were buried under dense jungle. But jungles are no barrier to lasers. Scientists used an aerial transmitter that bounced millions of infrared laser pulses off the ground to create 3D images. And the images were astonishing. The scientists could see the shapes of pyramids and ball courts. They recognized ancient dams and reservoirs. It was much more than they expected.
About the Maya Civilization
The ruins of the Maya civilization have been found as far north as southeastern Mexico and as far south as Honduras and El Salvador. Maya territory included all of today’s Guatemala and Belize. The Maya civilization flourished in Central America from about 2000 to 1500 BCE to 900 CE, although in truth it never completely died. Indigenous people of the region to this day speak Maya languages. Many privately practice a religion that mingles Maya deities into Christianity.
The Maya developed advanced mathematics that included the use of zero. They created a remarkably accurate 365-day calendar, and it’s believed they could predict solar eclipses. They left behind beautiful sculptures and relief carvings. And the Maya developed a sophisticated hieroglyphic writing that scholars began to decipher in the 20th century. They made paper from bark and kept chronicles in books called codexes. Unfortunately only a few codexes escaped being destroyed by the Spanish, who began settling Central America in the 16th century.
About the Maya Religion
For the Maya, mathematics, astronomy, calendars, and architecture were inextricably linked to Maya religion. The Maya had a rich polytheistic religion with multifaceted deities. The central belief was that all things, living and inanimate, contained sacredness or k’uh. All beings, all things, and the earth itself were sacred. Architecture was carefully planned to align with the movements of stars and planets to reflect the holy order of all things. Ceremonial buildings especially were planned so that, for example, the sun would shine through a particular opening and light up a room on spring and fall equinoxes. Today people still gather at the ruins of Chichén Itzá on the equinoxes to watch the sun illuminate pyramid stairs and create the illusion of a snake slithering down to the earth. The snake is Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god whom you might know by his Aztec name, Quetzalcóatl.
The Maya did practice human sacrifice, although not as robustly as did the Aztecs. The most common Maya sacrifice ritual was bloodletting, which stopped short of death. Apparently it was a duty of Maya royalty to shed blood on ceremonial occasions. The royals spent days in purification rituals and then publicly shed blood, sometimes in especially painful ways. For example, a royal woman might draw a thorned rope through her tongue to produce blood to be sprinkled over icons. A royal man might be expected to draw blood from his penis. Bloodletting was part of the observance of events such as births and anniversaries. More important events might require a sacrifice, however, often of captured prisoners.
The Maya abandoned their cities in about the year 900, for reasons not clearly understood. But the Maya did not forget their gods. Spanish conquistadores destroyed as much of what remained of Maya culture as they could and attempted to convert the Maya to Catholicism. But the old religion did not completely disappear even as Christianity was laid over it. Today public religious observances among Maya people are strictly Christian. But it’s widely reported that many people identify Christian figures, such as saints, with Maya deities. And many still honor their ancestors’ gods in their homes.