With a heritage as rich and varied as the Mayans, it is unsurprising that even today archaeologists and historians are captivated by the secrets of this perplexing and infinitely fascinating civilization, each time arriving at more questions than answers. But until these mysteries are unraveled and light shed onto their hidden world, here are eight startling and often disturbing facts you can wow your tour party with when you too exploring their ruins.
Although sports fanaticism may seem like a very modern construct, long before the Super Bowl and Soccer World Cup, the Mayans were engaged in competitions not entirely dissimilar to sports we recognize today. One of the best examples of this sporting heritage can be found at Chichen Itza where a huge ball court is the former setting of what may appear to be an early version of quidich, a game in which each team sought to toss a ball though a ring at their opponents end of the court. Whilst this may sound like a harmless illustration of humanity’s competitive spirit, things take a darker turn when you consider that some of the carvings at the site depict the beheadings of the losing captains!
In each and every Hollywood depiction of the Mayans, the practice of human sacrifice features prominently. Whilst this may be glamorized to a certain extent, there can be no doubting the importance the notion of sacrifice held in Mayan spiritual life, a custom based on the belief of appeasing the gods, whether this be in return for a good harvest or victory over their enemies. Chichen Itza again acts as a good example of this and the infamous “Well of Sacrifice” in which hundreds of bodies were unearthed.
- Spider Woman
One of the reoccurring carvings you may notice during your visits to the many of the ruins throughout Central America is the depiction of the Teotihuacan Spider Woman. This strange entity was considered by the Mayans to be the creator of the universe although to the modern observer, she may appear more akin to a character out of a horror movie. Some of the best preserved examples of her appear in the ruins and Palenque and Tikal.
It is widely regarded by archaeologists that Mayans were the first the great a complex written language, a system of dots and lines that scientists have not yet fully transcribed.
- Divine Origins
Whilst fantastical stories are common throughout Mayan culture, many of which depict the birth of a piece of architecture, it is perhaps the story of Uxmal which is most enduring. According to Mayan folklore, the pyramid which dominates the city was the handiwork of a dwarf who hatched from an egg, building it in just one day and creating a legend that gave Uxmal it’s name – “Pyramid of the Dwarf.”
- Girls in Charge
Contrary to the age-old assumption that men were the sole bearers of power in the ancient world, the Mayan ruins as Palenque actually have an entire array of carvings that depict the images of Lady Zac Kuk and her grandmother, Lady Kanal Ikal who ruled over the kingom during the 10th century. And there is yet further evidence scattered throughout the Mayan world that positions of authority were not the sole property of men as several tombs have been discovered in which the bodies of women were adorned with clothes and artefacts typically associated with the rich and influential.
- The Class Divide
Upon arriving at the ruins of Tulum, one thing most immediately apparent to the visitor is the wall that runs through the site. Initially assumed to be a defensive barrier, it is now known thought that it was erected as a means of parting the rich from the poor, a stark reminder of the inequalities within Mayan society.
- A People Beyond Characterization
Although technically categorized as a stone-age people, the Mayans do not comfortably fit into this bracket. With their advanced use of jade in architecture, farming and warfare, the empire was without equal at its time, far surpassing the primitive image associated with this classification.