By Robert J. Sharer Loa P. Traxler


Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-4817-9

Chapter One

The Setting of Maya Civilization

There is the white sea, and there is a red sea. They say that there is a sea like milk. ... Because they say that there is just water under the earth. And over the water we are floating. Because they say that where the edge of the world remains ... there is just water ... there they join, the edge of the world and sky. -Contemporary Ch'orti' Maya view of their world (after Fought 1972: 373)

This book is about the past of an extraordinary Native American society, the ancient Maya. The distribution of the ancient ruins of Maya civilization, and the settlements of their descendants, covers a geographic area of some 324,000 [km.sup.2] (125,000 sq. mi.), a region roughly the size of the state of New Mexico (Fig. 1.1). Despite five centuries of social change since the Spanish Conquest, the Maya people and their languages have survived, and some are expanding in number of speakers. There are several million people who speak one of the twenty-eight Mayan languages as their primary language (note that the adjective Mayan is usually reserved to refer to the languages spoken by Maya people, while Maya refers to all other aspects of these people and their culture). Except for the Waxtek speakers of Veracruz, the Mayan languages occupy a fairly compact zone in eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and until recently, western El Salvador (Fig. 1.2).

Most Mayan speakers are at least minimally bilingual in Spanish (or English in Belize), and other languages have influenced all Mayan languages. There is grammatical evidence for ancient contacts between the Mayan and the adjacent MixeZoquean language family (including Zoque and Tapachultec shown in Fig. 1.2). Borrowing between these groups almost certainly took place in the Preclassic era and was mostly from Mixe-Zoquean to Mayan. For example, several basic Mayan kinship and body-part terms are related to Mixe-Zoquean, as are several other words such as ajaw (lord) and kakaw (cacao or chocolate). Most Mayan languages also have a small number of loanwords from Nahuatl (the language of native peoples from Central Mexico, especially the Postclassic Mexica, or Aztecs). These loanwords presumably reflect the rising prominence of the Central Mexican states in the Postclassic era or in earlier times. The Maya were also donors of linguistic influence. Xinca, a nearly extinct non-Mayan language of southeastern Guatemala (Fig. 1.2), has a fairly large number of loanwords from Mayan. This process has continued with Spanish and English since European contact. The already-mentioned Mayan word kakaw has entered English as cacao and cocoa, as has the Mayan word xook (pronounced "shok") as the English shark.

The grouping of the twenty-eight Mayan languages into a single language family recognizes their close relationships. With the exception of Waxtek, these Mayan languages have been in contact with one another for many centuries and often grade into one another. Over time changes have spread from one language to another in different degrees. New languages often emerge as the result of isolation, as when communities once speaking the same language become separated from each other. Thus it is usually assumed that an original Proto-Mayan language first diverged into Waxtekan, the most remote subgroup, and the ancestor of the other Mayan languages, which in turn diverged into Yukatekan and the remaining four subgroups: Greater K'ichean, Mamean, Greater Q'anjob'alan, and Tzeltalan-Ch'olan (Fig. 1.3). In time these subgroups became differentiated through migration or other social processes until the present-day variety of Mayan languages evolved.

It is clear, therefore, that the Maya have occupied southeastern Mexico and upper Central America for thousands of years. Within Mexico, the Maya area includes all of the Yucatan Peninsula, and within upper Central America it includes the nations of Guatemala and Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The surrounding Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea provide the only firm geographic limits to the Maya area. To the east and west, boundaries correspond to zones of cultural interaction and transition between Maya and non-Maya peoples, rather than discrete geographic features. On the west the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrowing of the Mexican landmass to just under 200 km (124 mi.), is a convenient boundary between predominantly Maya and non-Maya areas of southern Mexico. On the east the zone of transition falls roughly along a line from the lower Lempa River in central El Salvador northward to Lake Yojoa and along the Ulua River to the Gulf of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea (Fig. 1.1).

The diffuse nature of these cultural boundaries is a reminder that Maya civilization was not an isolated development. Beyond sharing common roots in language and tradition, the ancient Maya were very much a part of a larger cultural area, Mesoamerica, which extends from northern Mexico into Central America. Like the Andean culture area of South America, Mesoamerica has been called a "nuclear area," because it was host to a series of crucial cultural developments during the last several millennia before European colonization. These include permanently settled villages, agriculture, and complex societies with urban centers, monumental architecture, calendrical systems, writing, and other cultural features that commonly define civilization. As part of Mesoamerica, the ancient Maya were influenced by, and in turn exerted an influence on, neighboring cultures, such as the Olmec of the Gulf coastal plain, the Zapotec and Mixtec of Oaxaca (west of the isthmus), the cultures centered in Teotihuacan and Tula (to the northwest, in Central Mexico), and the less well known societies to the southeast in Central America.

Natural and Cultural Subdivisions of the Maya Area

For its size, the Maya area represents one of the most varied environments on earth. Its terrain ranges from rugged, almost inaccessible mountains to vast level plains. Agriculture is highly productive in areas with deep alluvial or volcanic soils but almost impossible in regions with thin, rocky soils. Cool temperate climates prevail in higher altitudes and hot tropical conditions at lower elevations (Figs. 1.4 and 1.5). Traditional climatic subdivisions reflect these differences: tierra caliente (hot country) from sea level to about 800 m (2,625 ft), tierra templada (temperate country) from 800 m to about 2,000 m (6,560 ft), and tierra fr��a (cold country) above 2,000 m. But altitude alone does not determine climate. Variations in the amount and timing of rainfall create contrasts across the full range of elevation (Fig. 1.6): dry desert conditions are found in areas of both highlands and lowlands, and rain forests can exist at any altitude. But rainfall is seasonal throughout the Maya area, so even the wettest tropical forested areas may be completely dry for several months each year. In some areas water is available year-round from rivers and lakes, but elsewhere it is almost inaccessible, found only in caverns deep beneath the surface.

The Maya area is divided into three basic geographic zones, the Pacific coastal plain in the south, the highlands in the center, and the lowlands in the north (Fig. 1.1). The boundaries of each zone are not precise since they include subtle environmental changes or transitions from one zone to another. Environmental conditions also vary considerably within each zone, so each can be further divided into subzones. More importantly, ecological and archaeological research shows that understanding the considerable diversity and interplay of environment and culture is crucial to understanding the origins and development of Maya civilization and interaction between Maya groups in neighboring zones.

The Pacific Coastal Plain

A fertile plain stretches along the Pacific coast from Chiapas in Mexico through southern Guatemala and into El Salvador, composed of recent (Quaternary) sediments from the flanking volcanic highlands to the north. Some of the earliest traces of permanent settlement in Mesoamerica have been found along the margins of mangrove swamps, lagoons, and meandering rivers that lie behind the Pacific beaches (Fig. 1.7). Extending inland is the gently rising coastal plain proper, long known for its rich volcanic soils and as an avenue for migration and commerce, but now denuded of most of its original forest cover. Many south-trending rivers cut across the plain as they flow from the chain of volcanoes that parallel the coast some 50 to 70 km inland. The largest river is the Lempa in El Salvador, the traditional southeastern boundary of the Maya area.

The climate of the coastal area is tropical (tierra caliente), with mean annual temperatures between 25��C and 35��C (77��-95��F), becoming somewhat cooler with increasing altitude in the piedmont. As in most of the Maya area, there are two seasons each year: a dry period generally from January to April and a rainy season from about May to December. The rains are produced as the warm westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean rise and cool against the slopes of the volcanic highlands. This produces one of the highest rainfall rates in the Maya area, averaging over 3,000 mm per year on the Pacific slopes of Chiapas and western Guatemala and over 2,000 mm for most of the rest of the coastal area (Fig. 1.6).

In some areas there are still relic stands of rain forest. The tallest trees may reach 30-40 m in height, and a lower canopy averages 20 m above the ground. Beneath this cover are a variety of palms, ferns, shrubs, and small trees, including cacao (the chocolate tree). As one moves into higher elevations, the relic lowland forest gives way to seasonal growth of mixed oak and pine.

Although much of the original animal life of the south coast has been disturbed or destroyed by modern settlement and agriculture, many species remain. The sea and coastal lagoons still abound with fish, shellfish, amphibians, and sea birds. There are aquatic reptiles, like the sea turtle, water moccasin, and caiman (a relative of the alligator). Inland, iguanas and various smaller lizards, small mammals, and birds are typical, along with snakes such as the python and several poisonous species. The Pacific coast also teems with mosquitoes, biting flies, and other insect pests.

Rich habitats for animals, birds, and both salt- and freshwater creatures are in close proximity, so early settlers could hunt and gather a variety of wild food without moving great distances. Since the availability of these food sources does not vary greatly from year to year, small groups began to live permanently in one place. With good soils nearby, such as the rich silt deposits along rivers, people began to use agriculture to produce additional food. Products from the coast, such as dried fish and salt from evaporated seawater, were traded far and wide. As populations thrived and grew, a series of sites grew to importance as centers of marketing, ceremonial, and political activity. Early centers such as Tak'alik Ab'aj, Chocola, and El Ba��l (Fig. 1.1) represent the first flowering of Maya civilization by ca. 400 BC. Their successors were still thriving 2,000 years later, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, although by ca. ad 100-200 the great cities of Maya civilization had shifted to the lowlands, while the Pacific plain became secondary to developments farther north.

For far longer than elsewhere in the Maya area, the peoples of the Pacific plain have contended with waves of foreign migrants and invaders. The earliest may have been Olmec traders from the Gulf coastal region to the northwest. A succession of peoples from Central Mexico also settled here, mixing with Maya and other local groups. In the final century before the Spanish Conquest, the western portion of the Pacific plain became an Aztec province (Soconusco). Before the Conquest the coastal plain was well known for its production of chocolate and cotton. Today, peoples of European descent also inhabit the area, and the best lands produce sugarcane, cotton, and cattle, while the higher slopes support coffee plantations.

The Highlands

To the north of the coastal plain is an area generally above 800 m in elevation that is ecologically diverse, rich in a variety of resources, and geologically active. Here three continental plates converge, generating destructive volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that cause recurrent disasters for its inhabitants. Differences in elevation produce both tierra templada and tierra fr��a climates. From its margins lowland valleys penetrate deep into its interior, carved by rivers that flow toward the coasts. Although this mountainous area has many subdivisions, we will consider two major highland areas: one to the south, highly populated and dominated by recent volcanic activity, and the other to the north, less disturbed and characterized by older metamorphic formations.

The climate over most of the highlands is temperate (tierra templada), with mean annual temperatures between 15��C and 25��C (59��-77��F). On the sparsely occupied upper slopes of the higher volcanoes, above the 3,000 m level, and in the higher elevations of Los Altos Cuchumatanes, the highest mountains of the region, much cooler temperatures prevail (tierra fr��a), with frequent frosts and occasional snowfalls. In most of the highlands the dry season usually extends from January to April, followed by a May-to-December rainy season. Although the wet season may bring periods of steady rainfall lasting for several days, mornings are often clear followed by showers or thunderstorms in the afternoons or evenings. Rainfall increases toward the north. In both Chiapas and the Alta Verapaz, rainfall averages over 3,000 mm (120 in.) per year. In other places rainfall averages 2,000-3,000 mm (80-120 in.) annually. Rainfall is much lower in areas sheltered from the prevailing easterly trade winds, such as the interior of the Motagua Valley and the central Chiapas depression, where annual rainfall averages less than 1,000 mm (Fig. 1.6).

The effect of long-term human settlement has diminished much of the original flora and fauna in the highlands. The mixed evergreen-and-deciduous forest has been reduced in many areas, although original stands of oaks, laurels, sweet gum, dogwood, and many kinds of pine are still found in the most remote lands and higher elevations. In higher elevations pines often predominate, sometimes mixed with cypress or juniper.

Bands of hunters and gatherers roamed the Maya highlands long before permanent settlements and agriculture. These developments seem to have come later to the highlands than on the Pacific coast, although many traces of early occupation must lie undiscovered beneath deep volcanic and alluvial deposits. Much of the northern highlands was less densely occupied than the highlands to the south, which share with the Pacific plain the precocious growth of Maya civilization. During much of the pre-Columbian era the major population centers were located in the midst of the largest and richest highland valleys. Kaminaljuyu, situated in the Valley of Guatemala, dominated the entire southern highlands during the early development of Maya civilization. Adjacent regions were dominated by important centers such as Chiapa de Corzo in the central depression of Chiapas to the west, El Port��n in the Salam�� Valley to the north, and Chalchuapa in the southeast portion of the Maya area. Later, during the peaking of lowland Maya civilization, lowland cultural inroads can be detected in the western highlands, in the Chama Valley of the Alta Verapaz, and at Asunci��n Mita in the southeastern highlands. Two major Maya capitals prospered in transitional highland-lowland valleys that served important trade routes. Copan is located near the eastern margin of the southern highlands, and Tonina is situated near the northwest margin of the northern highlands (Fig. 1.1).

Several centuries before the Conquest, highland settlements began to shift away from the valley floors until most major centers were located in more defensible settings, such as hilltops or plateaus surrounded by ravines. Here the Spanish encountered the capitals of the dominant southern Maya highland kingdoms, such as Utatlan, Iximche, and Mixco Viejo. Since the Spanish Colonial era, wasteful agricultural methods and overgrazing by cattle and sheep in the southern highlands have led to erosion, rendering entire landscapes almost uninhabitable. Efforts have been made to halt or even reverse this process, including reforestation projects. But modern development in the form of highways, logging operations, mineral exploitation, and hydroelectric power plants still threatens even the most remote portions of this beautiful area.


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