The Mayan Mystery


A British historian whose monumental analysis of the various world civilizations is contained in his twelvevolume A STUDY OF HISTORY, ARNOLD J. TOYNBEE is well known to lecture audiences in the United States. Last year he visited the Mayan sites in Gualemala, where excavations are being conducted by archaeologists from the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

SUDDENLY the glittering surface of the Caribbean gave way to a low gray coast, and we were gliding down over henequen plantations toward the airport of Mérida in Yucatán. For an instant I spied the two great towers of the city’s cathedral on the skyline, before we took off again. Now we were flying over the bush. Who would guess, from the air, that this fresh green coverage of saplings and the limestone shelf from which it springs are bone dry? I could see through that deceptive dewy look, for I had walked about, down below there, five years ago.

but now we are heading for new ground. We are bound for the rain forest of northern Guatemala, which has submerged the ruins of the temples and palaces of the Mayan civilization in its Classic Age. What shall I manage to see en route from Mérida to Guatemala City? As I peer out of the window I cannot register any dramatic change in the landscape; yet, after an hour’s flight, I see that it has changed indeed. I am looking down on what I have seen from the air over the Amazon Basin and over eastern Sumatra — a close-knit stand of huge trees of many shapes and shades. They crowd so close together that there is no room for a dead tree to fall. No road thrusts its way through them; nothing parts them but water — an occasional lakelet, and then the writhing coils of the Pasion River. No pinnacles of Mayan masonry emerge above the treetops. Yet we must be passing over dozens of famous Mayan sites.

The jungle ends as abruptly as the Caribbean. The flat forest turns into a choppy sea of shorn hills which seem to spring up at our plane as it skims over them. These hills are full of life. They have fields on their flanks and cottages on their summits and footpaths winding along their ridges. These approaches to Guatemala City are, once again, a living human world. But where are the dead cities of the Maya?

Well, now we are retracing our flight in a smaller plane at a lower altitude. The human highlands have died down into the inhospitable forest; and this time, as we stall and dip and wheel to make the Tikal airstrip, three great pinnacles do flash past above the treetops. Later I shall gaze at all three of them, and at Temple Five and the huge South Acropolis as well, from a vantage point just below the towering roof comb of Temple Four.

Tikal is the largest and most imposing of all classic Mayan ceremonial centers — the most imposing but not the most beautiful, for both Palenque and Copan, in their different ways, surpass Tikal in beauty of setting and beauty of detail. But at Tikal there are no less than six temples of cathedral height and volcano contours. The higher they soar, the nearer their battered build approaches the perpendicular. These temples were bent upon exceeding the greatest height to which the tallest tree could grow, for they knew from the start that they could not count on their human servitors’ aid for keeping the trees at bay till the end of time. Sooner or later, man would fade out of the picture again, and then these piles of manhewn stones would be left to light it out with the vengeful forest. So at birth, while they can still command lavish human labor, these temples must make sure of soaring so high that no tree can ever rob them of their access to the sun.


When, at Tikal, one stands in the central plaza, Temples One and Two close the ends, and piles of masonry encase either side — vertical temples along one side and horizontal palaces along the other. Here one has the illusion of being able to take in the whole layout at a single glance. The extent of Tikal slowly dawns on one as one stumbles upon terrace behind terrace and acropolis behind acropolis. One of the first steps taken by the archacologists of the University of Pennsylvania mission which I visited was to cut rides through the forest from the airstrip to the principal monuments. Between one group of temples and another, it is possible to walk for thirty or forty minutes along a newly cut path, and the initiated guide will point out, through the trees on either hand, the distant parapets of the broad ancient causeway along which the new path is threading its way.

When the paths give out, a man armed with a compass and a machete slashes a track for the visitor through the undergrowth, and one is almost incredulous when he casually remarks that, four or five inches below this savage surface, the original pavement of a smothered plaza is still intact. You can’t believe it? Well, look where this tree has fallen, or where this animal has dug its burrow. The upturned fragments of the buried pavement are scattered around the hole. The plaster speaks, and there can be no doubt about its veracity. All these square leagues of wilderness were once man’s submissive domain. Yet now Nature reigns again, as she reigned before man first set to work, with flint and obsidian blades, to fell the trees and square the stones and banish Nature to the horizon.

Today, we human beings walk here on sufferance. One morning, at the foot of the South Acropolis, we walked into a column of army ants. In an instant they were swarming over our legs and halfway up our bodies. No matter how many we might kill, millions more marched on. They were invincible because they were expendable, and the only salvation lay in flight—though this meant scaling the South Acropolis’ almost perpendicular side.

Why on earth did the Maya plant their principal ceremonial center at Tikal, of all places? The huge reservoirs there are as staggering as the lofty pinnacles. But why choose a site which required the building of such mighty works to catch and hold the annual rains, when a few miles away there are the spring-fed waters of Lake Petén, and a few miles beyond that, the rolling stream of the River Pasion flowing into the River Usumacinta?

The Maya did not despise these potable and partly navigable waters. On the banks of the River Usumacinta they founded Altár de Sacrificios and Bonampak and Piedras Negras, and in the opposite quarter, southeastward, Copán stands beside a running river. Yet Tikal and its sister Uaxactún were deliberately sited in a landscape without rivers or springs, on limestone through which water is not struck, however deep the well is sunk.

Why were these mighty buildings raised? Were they solitary sanctuaries or the nuclei of populous cities? Were they surrounded by continuous stretches of built-up and cultivated areas? Or were the fields, then as now, temporary glades burned out of the forest, to be abandoned again, for another eight or ten years, after one or two harvests had been snatched from them? If the peasants raised their crops by the same primitive methods as their present descendants, how were they persuaded or compelled to spend their hard-won surplus of food and leisure on building these vast piles and maintaining the astronomer-priests who made use of them? And what were the circumstances in which these ceremonial centers were eventually abandoned?

Did agriculture begin to bring in diminishing returns, while the priests increased their exactions from the peasantry in the hope of appeasing the wrath of the gods? Did the peasants lose faith in their religious mentors? And, if so, did they cut their throats or just leave them to starve? There were certainly crises in which, if throats were not cut, calendrical stelae were deliberately defaced. But that is all that the mutilated monuments can tell us.

In the end, Tikal and its sisters were left to the mercy of the forest, and the writhing roots have been clutching the shapely stones and prizing them asunder for more than a thousand years, till our present-day archaeologists intervened in the battle on the hard-pressed masonry’s side. We can save these monuments, but can we read their secret? This is the question that makes Middle American archaeology so fascinating a quest.

Dr. Shook and his colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania unearthed a hitherto unknown tomb which is remarkable for a number of things. The tomb’s occupants were a grown-up male without his head and two adolescent children. Why did the man lose his head before burial? Was he decapitated in battle? Or as a punishment? Or as a religious rite for the common good? Or did the community remove his head after death in order to preserve his skull apart as an object of veneration? We are left guessing, without evidence to decide between the possible alternatives, as we are left guessing the reason why Tikal and the other Mayan cities in what is now northern Guatemala were allowed to revert to the jungle.

This tomb also contained bowls of food, jade ornaments, and magnificent pottery vessels, some with incised decoration, others painted. But, for the archaeologist, the most interesting feature of the tomb is the one that has given it its name, the Tomb of the Painted Glyphs. An inscription in glyphs, the complex Mayan characters in which the Maya made their records, was painted in black on the plastered walls of the tomb while the plaster was still wet. Ten of the glyphs in the tomb were previously unknown, and this is a welcome addition to knowledge. But the most exciting single find in the tomb is a series of calendar glyphs, and the date that they record reads It is the Mayan equivalent of March 18, 457 A.D., a year in which, on the far side of the Atlantic, the western Roman Empire was tottering toward its fall. This was the first dated Mayan tomb to be discovered, and there can be no doubt that the date glyphs and the tomb belong together. These glyphs are “built in,” as their discoverers have put it.

But why were Tikal and the other Mayan sites in Guatemala abandoned some 450 years after the date at which the Tomb of the Glyphs was constructed? A discovery in this field would be an even more valuable find than the splendid Tomb of the Glyphs. IN THE GUATEMALAN JUNGLE

En route to Tikal, we had touched down on an airstrip along the south shore of Lake Peten and had looked longingly across the water to the city of Flores, perched on its dome-shaped island. Today we are back again, and we charter a dugout punt with an outboard motor and chug through reeds and cormorants to the landing place below the billiard room which is now the city’s social center.

No wheel has ever rolled into Flores; no quadruped has ever trodden its streets. Till the advent of the airplane the only means of access from the outer world was to hack one’s way with a machete through hundreds of miles of jungle. Yet Flores is, in miniature, a complete Spanish city — which is to say, a Roman city laid out according to the ageold specifications given in the handbooks of the Roman surveyors. Though the streets are grassgrown for lack of wheels and hooves, they are broad and cobbled, with sidewalks to shelter the pedestrian from imaginary vehicular traffic. On the crown of the hill there are a miniature plaza, miniature cathedral, and miniature governor’s palace. And in the principal street there is at least one store so well stocked that in a country town in the United States it would claim to be a supermarket. All the canned goods on its shelves must have been flown in by air at a price, yet there are plenty of buyers. For, after all, Flores is one of those lucky cities in which money has to be spent.

Flores is the capital of the Petén, the jungle half of Guatemala, and the Petén is the source of the chicle which provides the United States with its chewing gum. From Flores the chicleros range the jungle; one cannot walk ten yards into it without seeing the gashes that their machetes have made on the sap-laden tree trunks. They know the jungle from end to end, including not only the richest stands of chicle-bearing trees and the choicest stands of mahogany and other rare timbers but a score of smothered Mayan sites that have not yet found their way onto the charts of the eager archaeologists.

The chiclero is a match for the forest that eventually got the better of the Mayan astronomerpriest. The chiclero can find his way; he can fend off the jaguars that prowl by night; and if his rations of water give out a hundred miles away from the nearest spring or river, he knows of a vine that stores water for him and keeps it sweet. So the chiclero lives to make periodic visits to the capital of his jungle empire, and he spends the money that he is paid for his jungle spoil as freely as the cowboy used to spend his eighty years ago in Western towns of the United States. Therefore, Flores is prosperous, and it is choosy. For instance, it chooses to live on airborne maize flour and black beans, leaving to the cormorants the excellent fish of Lake Petén. In Flores there are, consequently, more cormorants than human beings.

Life is changing in Flores today. On the mainland, west of the airstrip, there now stands a fine large school. It is linked with the island by a long plank gangway on stilts, and it dwarfs the municipal buildings on the crown of the hill. But the lake and the island have seen greater changes in the past. Look at that jungle-covered peninsula that juts westward into the lake and overtops the island city. Those smothered mounds were once Mayan temples, perhaps of the Classic Age, and their pinnacles must once have soared high above the level of the present Spanish cathedral’s belfry. Nor was this the only chapter of Mayan history by the waters of Lake Petén, for Spanish-Roman Flores is believed to stand on the site of a Mayan settlement that preserved its political independence and lived its traditional life down to the closing years of the seventeenth century.

When the Spanish conquest struck Middle America and Peru in the sixteenth century with the force of a tornado and laid empires and civilizations flat, a few survivors of the catastrophe managed to find temporary shelter beyond the immediate reach of the conqueror’s long arm. In Peru an Inca-led resistance movement held out for a generation in the montaña, the jungle-clad Atlantic slope of the Andes.

In Mayaland, when the Spaniards swooped upon the comparatively open bush of dry Yucatan, one Mayan people, the Itza, trekked southward below the present air trail from Mérida to Guatemala City and found a new home on the shore of Lake Petén, probably on Flores Island itself. Here they lived on, unharassed by the Spaniards and for most of the time actually unknown to them, for more than a hundred and fifty years, until Spanish missionary enterprise eventually brought them to light, and consequently into danger. The missionaries and the Spanish crown would probably have been content with a nominal conversion to Christianity and recognition of Spanish sovereignty, and it looked as if a peaceful agreement were in sight when a Spanish military expedition made its adventurous way to Lake Peten through the jungle from Mérida. Unhappily, fighting broke out after all, and the last of the Itza were destroyed instead of being peacefully and gradually assimilated. It is not even certain that their secluded city stood where Flores stands today.

All that remains of the Itza is the memory of a horse which is said to have been left in their hands by a wandering Spanish conquistador of the first generation. Believing this unearthly being to be a god, the Itza honored it by feeding it first on flowers and then on meat, and they were desolated when it died of this godlike diet. Right down to the Spanish conquest of their city of refuge in the 1690s, they religiously preserved the horse’s skeleton, or perhaps a stone image of it. In the final catastrophe this is said to have been thrown into the lake, and the Spanish inhabitants of Flores assert that, when the water is clear, the skeleton, or statue, can still be seen lying on the lake bottom. This tall story is the only reminder of the last stronghold of the pre-Columbian civilization of the Maya.


Copán ranks with Palenque and Tikal as one of the three most illuminating monuments of the Mayan civilization in its Classic Age.

How shall I describe Copán? It is as distinctively Mayan as its sisters Tikal and Palenque, yet it is surprisingly different in atmosphere from either of these. It is not overwhelming, as Tikal is; its lines are horizontal, not vertical. Its workmanship has not the elegance of Palenque’s, and it does not stand, as Palenque does, on the foot of a jungle-clad mountain with a view over a boundless plain. Copán lies in a smiling fertile valley, with rich deep volcanic soil, traversed by a river that sings as it ripples past. At Copán there is no jungle lying in wait to take its revenge on its human violators. Nature, in this happy valley, is asking to be tamed. The tension between Nature and man is altogether lower here, so man has enjoyed a margin for experimentation. There arc a larger number of calendrical stelae at Copán than at all other known classic Mayan sites put together, and the sculptured human figure here is stepping out of the bas-relief and growing into the round. If Copan had continued to be an active civilization for a few more generations, we may guess that it would have produced a three-dimensional statuary that could have rivaled that of India or Greece.

Why was Copán abandoned at the same date as its jungle-encircled sisters? At Copán the mystery of the collapse of the classic Mayan civilization reaches its climax, for the Copán River has never ceased to flow, and the volcanic soil of the valley has never refused to produce crops. No economic stress can have moved the peasant here to revolt against the priest, or have moved the priest-king to despair of the republic. Yet the same impulse that led to the abandonment of Tikal and Palenque was operative at Copán too, and for more than a thousand years past there has been no life in this great ceremonial center which the happy valley was so easily able to support.


In the highlands of Guatemala, civilization has not known the vicissitudes through which it has passed on the jungle-clad northern plains. In the highlands, the preclassic Mayan civilization struck root at least as early as in the north, yet in the Classic Age, when the cities on the plain burst into flower, the highlands failed to distinguish themselves. The strength of the Mayan civilization in the highlands lies not in brilliance but in staying power, for in the highlands the Mayan people and their way of life are still a going concern, whereas the classic sites of the Mayan civilization in the Petén have relapsed into the wilderness.

On this afternoon of Easter Sunday I am standing on the top of a green hill, a furry, tree-covered volcano which rises just outside the escarpment of the natural fastness of Chichicastenango. On the summit sits the little shiny black figure of a Mayan god, and here is a Mayan family offering flowers and incense, on this Easter afternoon, to their traditional pre-Christian object of worship. Just one family is worshiping here, but in the city, on the steps of St. Thomas’ Church, a crowd of worshipers is heaping incense on a flaming altar, while others are lighting candles whose smoke rises above the church’s roof. Enter the nave and one will find a galaxy of candles and a host of worshipers chanting prayers. What divinity are they invoking? Christ or Tlaloc, the Mayan rain god ? If you questioned them it is probable that they would be unable to draw the distinction, for in their hearts and imaginations the exotic religion imported by their Spanish conquerors has blended inextricably with their traditional practices and beliefs.

In the background, the Catholic priest of St. Thomas’ Church hovers uneasily, like a hen whose supposed chickens have plunged, with ducklings’ zest, into the waters. Is he to assert himself or to efface himself? Well, at any rate he is better off than the priest who is nominally in charge of the church in the village of Chamula on the Las Casas plateau on the Mexican side of the border. At Chichicastenango the priest’s presence in his church is tolerated by his Indian congregation, even at the high pagan festival of Easter Day, whereas at Chamula the priest dares not show his face more than once a year.

In the Guatemalan highlands the Catholic Church has reaped its due reward for a policy that has been wise and generous. The Church has accepted the people’s pre-Columbian religion as “a preparation for the Gospel,” and it prefers to see them celebrate their pagan rites within its walls and under its auspices. In the cloister of the dissolved monastery to which St. Thomas’ Church is attached, the missionary order by which the church is now served has installed a clinic and a school. The ascent from one religion to the other has been aligned through a course of health and knowledge.

Will the Indians, sooner or later, rise to Christianity at, say, its Neapolitan level? Who can tell? But, meanwhile, who can be blind to the probability that if pagan rites were banned within the church’s precincts, St. Thomas’ Church would be empty on Easter Day, while the little black idol on the top of the neighboring volcano would be receiving the homage of a throng of worshipers, and not just of one single ultraconservative family?

It is evening, and the Indian families are preparing to return to their distant villages among the mountains. They are loading their mules with what they have bought — or have not managed to sell — at the Easter market in the plaza between the Church of St. Thomas and the Church of the Calvaria, which faces the larger church symmetrically. Some of the men (none of the women) are dropping in their tracks, dead drunk with firewater distilled from sugarcane. This, too, is part of the traditional celebration of the feast. Yet the general impression made by the Indians on the modern visitor is one of worth and strength. They hold steadfastly to their ancient ways while the rising tide of standardized modern civilization laps around them and seeps up the canyons almost to the level of the scarped plateaus on which their villages are perched.

We follow one party on its way out of town. The mule track skirts the edge of a deep wooded gorge that bounds the fastness of Chichicastenango on one side. At first the track keeps on the level; then it suddenly dips down, and we can see it winding up the far-off opposite mountainside. How many ups and downs, of that precipitousness, before the Easter pilgrims reach their home? We recoil from following them even on their first descent and strike off at an angle along the Chichicastenango plateau’s rim, only to lose our way and to find it again just before sunset.

Have the Maya lost their way in a world in which modern science and technology are now paramount, or are they going to outlive the alien civilization that is threatening to engulf them? Perhaps my grandchildren may live to learn the answer to this enigmatic question.