Ancient Mayan military
NASHVILLE—AFTER hacking through tropical jungles in Central America and turning up stones of magnificent temples and tombs, archeologists over the years built up in their minds an idealized image of the Maya people who once flourished where now only wilderness thrives.
The Mayas' civilization was clearly the greatest to flourish in pre-Columbian America. They studied the heavens to devise precise calendars, created a true writing system and built imposing cities, with no evidence of any fortifications. Hence, archeologists assumed, the Mayas were an unusually gentle, peaceful people living in a relatively benign theocracy ruled by sage priest-kings.
But the earlier archeologists apparently got it wrong. In the last few years scholars have made great strides in translating the Mayas' previously indecipherable writing system. From the emerging texts and from recent excavations has emerged a new, at times bewildering, picture of the Maya civilization at its peak, from A.D. 250 to 900. Great as their cultural and economic achievements manifestly were, they had anything but a peaceful society.
Indeed, the latest feeling among scholars is that the increasing militarism of Maya society may have undermined the ecological underpinnings of the economy. Some of them speculate that siege warfare concentrated population in urban centers, caused desperate farmers to abandon previously successful practices of diversified agriculture and led to overexploitation of the forest.
Dr. Arthur A. Demarest, an archeologist at Vanderbilt University here who directs an ambitious Maya dig in Guatemala, said the evidence from stone art and texts points to the surprising conclusion that "the Maya were one of the most violent state-level societies in the New World, especially after A.D. 600."
Various writings and artifacts, Dr. Demarest said, indicate continual raiding and warfare between the elites of adjacent city-states and also the practice of ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice. The prestige of ruling dynasties, and hence their power, seemed to depend on their success in battle and the sacrifice of prisoners of war.
Dr. Linda Schele, a Maya scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in this month's issue of Natural History magazine, "We don't know if the early Maya went to war mainly to acquire territory, take booty, control conquered groups for labor, take captives for sacrifice in sanctification rituals or a combination of these."
Whatever the specific goal, archeologists think that for centuries the wars were limited to ritualized conflicts between the elite troops of two rulers. The losing ruler was sometimes decapitated with great ceremony, as depicted in Maya art.
Dr. David Freidel, an archeologist at Southern Methodist University, surmises that Maya conflicts functioned to maintain a balance of power between city-states of roughly equal strength. He has called this a system of "peace through war."
But recent excavations by Dr. Demarest's team at the ancient city of Dos Pilas, in northern Guatemala, have revealed the remains of extensive fortifications seemingly erected in haste and other evidence that the character and scope of Maya warfare began to change in the seventh or eighth century. These signs of siege warfare, Dr. Demarest said, indicate an escalation of militarism involving the general population in a desperate fight for survival.
Therein may lie telling clues to the most enduring mystery about the Maya civilization - its sudden collapse. Dr. Demarest speculates that increasingly destructive warfare disrupted the delicate balance that Maya farmers had been able to maintain for centuries in the rich but fragile tropical-forest ecosystem.
By the 10th century, Dos Pilas and other cities of the lowland Maya culture were abandoned, survived mainly by newer cities on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
"It's a very exciting time in Maya studies, " Dr. Demarest said. "It's time for new editions of all the textbooks." Writing on the Wall Monumental Texts On Love and War
The critical turning point, archeologists agree, has come with the steady progress in deciphering Maya writings, complex hieroglyphics that once were thought to be incomprehensible. Scholars can now read monumental texts documenting the ascent to power of rulers, their marriages and alliances and especially their wars. Scholars are thus better able to interpret the temple ruins and stones graven with scenes of dynastic triumphs and gory ritual.
"No Egyptian tomb's discovery was ever more exhilarating than the decipherment process under way today, " Dr. Freidel said. "We can now perceive the Maya past through the words and exploits of kings and queens and high nobility. We can talk about real historical individuals making difficult decisions about their government and its policies."
In what is now called the Classic Period, from 250 to 900, the Mayas built some 200 cities in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Places like Palenque, Tikal and Copan, with their soaring pyramids bespeaking wealth and a powerful ideology, represent the splendors of the period.
More recent discoveries, however, have revealed that the civilization was prospering in the southern lowlands of Guatemala centuries before the classic period.
Two years ago, Dr. Richard Hansen of the University of California at Los Angeles reported uncovering at the site of Nakbe the ruins of pyramids and stone buildings dating back some 2, 600 years. In the same region, El Mirador, one of the largest Maya cities ever excavated, was settled some 2, 500 years ago, rose to prominence with all the architectural accoutrements of royal power and then vanished in the first century.
Research at El Mirador and Nakbe and other pre-Classic ruins has led scholars to the recognition that the Maya civilization evolved earlier and was more complex and heterogeneous than had been thought. Since the Aztecs of central Mexico had not risen to prominence and power this early, archeologists can no longer attribute the rise of the Maya culture to their influence. Maya origins remain clouded, scholars say.
Dr. Peter Mathews, a Maya scholar at the University of Calgary in Canada, has analyzed the "emblem glyphs" of Maya rulers to establish the outlines of the political boundaries of the classic city-states. These glyphs appear like a crest on all the monuments of a period and place. By tracing the extent of their occurrence, Dr. Mathews could define the territory controlled by a particular ruler. Often the radius of a ruler's domain was no more than the distance a person could walk or travel by canoe in a day.
Some archeologists believe these cities were organized into some kind of loose political confederation. But new evidence seems to contradict this view. Instead, these myriad city-states were linked simply by elite interactions, trade and ideology into a single ethnically distinct system. Dr. Freidel and Dr. Jeremy Sabloff, a Maya archeologist at the University of Pittsburgh, refer to it as a "peer-polity" network. Violence Abounds Celebrating With Bloodletting
Historic Print (L): [Monument of the ancient Mayan race, Quirigua, Guatemala]
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