March 16, 2016
The Mayan Lesson
Human nature does not change; it only repeats itself. The ancient Maya, a singularly gifted civilization that rose, peaked, declined and collapsed almost simultaneously with the Roman Empire, left a vast historical record: a tale of an unholy alliance of kings, priests, and military leaders who usurped and corrupted their religion to legitimize and perpetuate their rule. To subdue their people, they created a society afflicted with abysmal inequality and used their immense wealth to wage perennial wars of aggression, practice institutionalized genocide, and ruin their environment.
Collectively the Maya once occupied and controlled the deltas of most Caribbean rivers in Mesoamerica, from the Pánuco River on the north, where the Teenek (the Aztecs still call them Huastecs) live, to the Gulf of Honduras. Whether they achieved this astonishing feat under the leadership of a long-forgotten military genius, when they all spoke Proto-Mayan over four thousand years ago, is anybody’s guess. The fact is, in a world without beasts of burden, pirogues reigned as the only means of mass transit along the great rivers. And, by reason of the strategic location of their homeland, they effectively controlled all fluvial and coastal trade between the Mexican and Guatemalan highlands -with their vast deposits of obsidian, jade, cinnabar and many other minerals- and the Caribbean Sea, as well as between what we now call North and South America. Over time, their immense wealth supported the great progress they made in the arts and sciences, among them amazingly accurate calendars, linguistics (their glyphs could be read and understood by speakers of all the Mayan languages), mathematics, astronomy, hydrology, architecture, medicine (which made it possible for them to thrive in a jungle teeming with hundreds if not thousands of tropical diseases) and agriculture. However, eventually the original central authority splintered into a multitude of independent and competing city-states. As with the ancient Greeks, who suffered a desperate struggle between Athens and Sparta, Mayan city-states eventually coalesced into the orbits of two rival alliances led by Calakmul and Tikal, the two dominant southern lowland cities of the Classical Period (300-900 A.D.). Over time, their intentional mutual isolation fractured Proto-Mayan into thirty-two related but mostly mutually unintelligible languages, complete with different names for the deities of their common religion, and caused centuries of fratricidal wars that culminated in the slow demise of their civilization. By 900 A.D., six-hundred years before the Spanish invasion, the formerly great cities of the southern lowlands, now in ruins, had been abandoned to the relentless jungle.
Humble cinnabar -underestimated and now all but forgotten- was the premier source of wealth of the time. Since time immemorial it had been used to make red for textiles, buildings, writing, pottery, murals and burials, and the work was done mostly in poorly ventilated huts or small rooms. One byproduct was pure elemental mercury, a highly toxic liquid metal that is not naturally found in its pure state. As jars full of it have been found in ancient burial chambers, two things are certain: humans distilled it, and over time -hundreds or even thousands of years- it necessarily must have found its way to the food chain via aquifers, streams, rivers and the sea -a long-term environmental catastrophe of incalculable magnitude.
The Maya commonly used cinnabar powder or paste to coat cadavers with it, a necessity -or so they believed- since someone had long ago determined that only cinnabar could and would keep the dead from rising from their graves at night to steal the souls of the living. And the demand was incessant and permanent. The constant “flowery deaths” –cutting the beating hearts out of hapless captives- guaranteed a steady supply of corpses. For the elite, it was a stupendously lucrative business. In cahoots with the priests and the generals, the kings had monopolies on war making, which caused deaths, and on cinnabar, which they imported from the highlands and for which there was an enormous, permanent demand. That forced ordinary people to work tirelessly for meager amounts of it, be it by growing food, serving in the army whenever the fields did not require their labor, or collecting exotic feathers, jaguar skins, seashells, jade, or whatever the kings fancied at exchange rates the kings, not the people, determined.
The ruse lasted for centuries, possibly longer, until the day someone mustered the courage to verify it. And so, as it always does, the truth finally emerged. Ironically, their genial writing system -the Internet of the day, which had long since been usurped by the elite to perpetuate their wealth and power- may have played a pivotal role in the rebellion that followed.
Scores of barricaded palaces and other structures have been unearthed where rulers, generals and priests took refuge as the vengeful, enraged masses came for them. The defenses did not hold; the elite were massacred, the scribes disappeared, and the Classical Period came to an end. By A.D. 900 the great Cholan-speaking cities in the Petén jungle -along with the cult of intolerable inequality which had brought ordinary people so much misery and grief- had been abandoned. In their wake, egalitarian villages re-emerged led by elders who doubled as custodians of a vestigial kernel of knowledge.
Nine hundred years later (letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816) Thomas Jefferson aptly postulated what may be the underlying principle that destroyed the Mayan civilization -and now threatens our own: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”