Unraveling the mystery of who the Maya were, how they lived-and why their civilization suddenly collapsed.
The crowd at the base of the enormous bloodred pyramid has been standing for hours in the dripping heat of the Guatemalan jungle. No one moves; every eye stays fixed on the building's summit, where the king, his head adorned with feathers, his scepter a two-headed crocodile, is about to emerge from a sacred chamber with instructions from his long-dead ancestors. The crowd sees nothing of his movements, but it knows the ritual: lifted into the next world by hallucinogenic drugs, the king will take an obsidian blade or the spine of a stingray, pierce his own penis, and then draw a rope through the wound, letting the blood drip onto bits of bark paper. Then he will take the bark and set it afire, and out of the rising smoke a vision of a serpent will appear to him.
When the king finally emerges, on the verge of collapse, he reaches under his loincloth, displays a bloodstained hand and announces the ancestors' message-the same message he has received so many times in the past: "Prepare to go to war." The crowd erupts in wild cheers. The bloodletting has barely begun.
Who were the Maya, the people who built and later abandoned these majestic pyramids scattered around Central America and who enacted these bizarre rites? The question has piqued scientists across a broad swath of disciplines ever since an American lawyer and explorer named John Lloyd Stephens stumbled across something strange in the Honduran jungle. In Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841), Stephens impressionistically described what was later identified as the ruined Maya city of Copan: "It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction."
More than 150 years later, the Maya seem less inscrutable than they did to Stephens, the man who discovered, or rediscovered, what they had left behind. Archaeologists have long known that the Maya, who flourished between about A.D. 250 and 900, perfected the most complex writing system in the hemisphere, mastered mathematics and astrological calendars of astonishing accuracy, and built massive pyramids all over Central America, from Yucatan to modern Honduras. But what researchers have now found among these haunting irruptions of architecture may be, among other things, reasons for admonishing today's world: at a time when tribal fratricide is destroying Bosnia and farmers are carving through the rain forest, the lessons yielded by the Maya have a disturbing resonance.
The Mystery of the Mayan Ruins
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