Mayan history is rich with culture, achievements in engineering, and fascinating details on religion. The culture of the Mayans has been preserved in their artwork, architecture, and in the writings that survived the destruction of the Spanish conquistadors. One set of books, called the Chilam Balam, has revealed a great deal about the mythology, astrology, and medical achievements of this ancient civilization. Lasting thousands of years, from as far back as 2000 BC through the Colonial Period of the sixteenth century, ancient Mayan culture is a matter of intrigue to historians and travelers alike.
Some people are surprised to discover that the Maya collapse occurred for several different reasons. A few of the Mayan cities experienced decline as early as the eighth or ninth century and were abandoned during this time, several hundred years before the Spanish arrived. Mayan history in these areas may have been shaped significantly be drought, disease, or climate change, but no one knows for sure. The culture of the Mayans received a significant blow when the Spanish did arrive, as the conquerors burned a great deal of writings. While some materials did survive that historians today have learned a great deal from, significant information was certainly lost during this period.
The Chilam Balam books reveal important information that we do know about the history of the Mayans. These nine manuscripts are said to be written by a legendary author called Chilam Balam, with Chilam being the word for priest and Balam a common last name meaning jaguar. One of the most interesting elements of the Chilam Balam texts is that they predict the arrival of the Spanish to the Yucatan. The texts of the books range from the pre-colonial period through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. History, details on the calendar, astrology, and herbal medicines are all described. The text has been considered a great challenge for translators, however, because of the archaic, idiomatic language and the often metaphorical nature of the writing.
Beyond this text, Mayan history has been interpreted by the ancient ruins. Temples, pyramids, tombs, and palaces have all contained clues towards understanding these ancient people. Historians have learned about their worship rituals, including that the Mayans practiced human sacrifice. The priest is said to have cut open the chest of person being sacrificed and taken out their heart as an offering to the gods. Many religious traditions are still not understood by scholars, but religion does seem to have been influenced by astrology. The Maya calendars were another developed aspect of their culture, and in recent times they have been brought back to the public eye for one particular interpretation, which some say foretells the end of the world in 2012.
And yet, the culture of the Mayans remains one of the most fascinating elements of their history. Art, architecture, and writing are all a way for us to connect to this ancient civilization. By visiting the ancient Mayan ruins, we can see where these people worshipped, how their leaders lived, and what their artists drew. From monuments to pottery, the items that have been recovered from these sites have revealed a great deal, and left much more open to interpretation. Whether you explore popular Chichen Itza or head for somewhere more remote such as Tazumal in El Salvador, your interest is sure to be piqued by this multifaceted civilization.