History is full of examples of civilizations that have collapsed for various reasons. Undoubtedly the people living in all them thought they would last forever, or at least for a few thousand years.
Who can forget the 3rd Reich and the predictions that accompanied Hitler and his PR machine. Well, that one fell a few years short of the 1,000 mark. The British Empire, upon which the “sun never sets” just a century ago, has long diminished and is even now shrinking even more. . And the promise of Khruschev that the USSR would “bury” the US has long since gone by the wayside, as has the old USSR.
As some civilizations rise, others decline. And one who is alive never really knows where he is on the timeline. Will the USA last for a thousand years? Or 20? Will China dominate the next 500 years? Or will Brazil emerge as a superpower? No one really knows. And, since all people are to some extent “ethnocentric”, we sometimes think that those that came before us were not as “civilized” or “organized” as modern society. Stereotypes.
Which brings me to the Maya of Central America. One of my areas of interest. I have traveled to Guatemala twice and to Mexico at least 4 times. Mainly to see the Maya ruins. Tikal, Uxmal, Labna, Sayil, Chichen-Itza and others. I may go back again someday while I am still ambulatory.
I climbed the Great Pyramid at Chichen-itza and the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal. I think both are now off limits due to the increase in tourism.
For a long time the Maya were known only through the lens of the Stephens and Catherwood journals and drawings. A mysterious civilization which had died out when the Spanish arrived. A hidden language on stelae and paper, largely destroyed by Spanish missionaries, but still surving in limited texts and oral traditions. When I was in college the Mayan linguistic code had not been broken. We had just scratched the surface.
Ove the last 40 years tremendous insights have been acquired. The hieroglyphic sysmbols have largely been interpreted. As a result a rich history of city-states and kings has now become part of our history. No longer seen as backward savages, a sophisticated civilization has emerged and continues to emerge as we learn more each year. As always, knowledge destroys stereotypes.
The Mayan people themselves, of course, have survived. In the millions. They make up the bulk of the population in parts of the Yucatan peninsula and in Guatemala. In fact, they were the focus of the brutality of the military during the Guatemalan wars of the 1990s.
All of this leads me to a new discovery. In the jungles of Guatemela, which seem uninhabitable today, we have always known there were small city-states, like Tikal. But now we see that this area was densely populated , holding millions of inhabitants in an area that today is a vast rain forest.
An organized central government. A road system. Canals. An agricultural and transportation system to support a vast population. Maybe as many as 60,000 structures hidden beneath the ground by the overgrowth. All of this implies superb organization and the mobilization of people and resources. A new discovery worth looking at.
On Tuesday, February 6, the National Geographic channel will have an hour long program on these new discoveries: Lost Cities of the Maya, 9 PM.
Information destroys stereotypes.
For more on the new discoveries:
For more on Stephens and Catherwood.