The Mystery of the Lost Ancient Culture of the Maya
The collapse of the Maya civilization is considered one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the ancient world. One can only speculate their downfall from the numerous explanations presented by researchers. The differences of their accounts imply the Maya and their way of life is virtually a complete mystery to our modern way of thinking. How did this advanced society disappear without leaving any solid evidence of their downfall? Is this a sign of a sudden collapse from a cataclysm or, like some believe, abandonment as the result of political upheaval?
With the absence of any concrete evidence there are many possibilities of their decline and the same can be said about their belief system as well. The main clues are from paintings on walls, pottery, and very few writings in the form of deciphered hieroglyphs. It’s very difficult for researchers to piece together this ancient culture without information being left out or interpreted incorrectly. Only recent discoveries have been used as evidence to explain how they lived and what happened to their lost civilization. During its reign there is no doubt this amazing civilization was far beyond it’s time in comparison to other cultures but there are still many unsolved mysteries surrounding this extraordinary people and their beliefs.
Clues and evidence support the idea the Maya possessed superior knowledge in mathematics and astronomy. The keen observation of the night’s sky and its relation to their calendar and monuments must have had significant meaning in their way of life. For the time and effort it would have taken to advance to the level of knowledge they processed, it seems this information must have had important meaning to them. Some of this wisdom would take decades of observation and the use of very sophisticated mathematics to calculate the astronomical cycles which take thousands of years to complete, such as precession. How did the buildup of this knowledge completely disappear without someone passing it along unless something happened to the entire culture, taking their accomplishments with it?
The Maya left behind the evidence to prove their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy was superior but why did they practice sacrificial rituals and bloodletting? Was this their way of population control or to please the Gods of the underworld as most believe? These rituals were a complete mystery until the Bonampak murals were discovered during an excavation in 1949. Before this time it was believed they were a peaceful non-violent culture. The most popular belief, that they performed ceremonies to please the gods, follows the same patterns as other cultures such as the Aztecs.
Bonampak Mural (North Wall, Room 2). Image source .
It is believed from the depictions on ancient walls that members of the royal families practiced bloodletting and self-sacrifice for the sake of contacting the gods or their ancestors. It seems an advanced society would have plausible reasons to practice this sort of custom. Researchers believe the walls also depict prisoners of war as victims to human sacrifice. They determined these different ceremonies were held on certain days of the Maya calendar year or during celestial events, why would these dates be important for the type of rituals they performed?
Presentation of Captives to a Maya Ruler; c 785 AD; Mexico. Kimbell Art Museum Fort Worth, Texas. Source: Wikipedia
For what is believed as entertainment, the Maya played a ballgame called poc-ta-poc. The game involved a rubber ball they would strike with their hips trying to bounce it through a stone circle usually mounted high on a wall. With the existence of over 550 of these ball courts discovered so far, this evidence should determine the importance of the games to their everyday lives. It is believed by many that the games were the most sacred practice of the Maya and the winners were sacrificed with honor. Others find this speculation hard to believe with the idea of all the best players being killed off leaving no competition for future games. For this reason, they believe the losers were sacrificed. If it was an honor to win the game only to be sacrificed they must have believed it was for a valid reason and this would encourage future team members to compete harder. What if the ballgames were not for entertainment purpose but were instead used to determine who will enter the afterlife? Was this part of their beliefs of entering the next life with royalty and honor? The depiction on walls of the players wearing their headdresses and royal jewelry should indicate they were of high rank on both sides. Even if the losers were sacrificed, why would they risk their lives to please the gods or for the sake of entertainment? It seems they would want to hold their positions by sacrificing someone of less importance as the ancient Roman gladiators did.