In the jungles of Belize, descendants of ancient Mayas tell a story. A story about the rise and fall of a great empire..
Ricki, a spritely grandfather, was leading us on an arduous hike to the peak of a slate mountain across from our jungle lodge. The jungle is a shifting landscape. WIth a machete, Ricki cut overgrown plants and creeping roots that could trip the weary climber, and carved footholds on the slippery ground.
Ricki's knowledge of the jungle is uncanny. He had left the comfort of his home when he was only fourteen, spending months on end with his father and uncles, collecting rubber from the bark of rubber trees. The jungle sustained them -- the fruits of the Breadnut tree, fleshy sap of edible plants, leaves of Allspice and other medicinal plants, and the occasional termites for proteins!
But it was not always this way. Ricki recounted stories handed down from his parents and their parents of a time when the mountains lay bare and his people forced to flee. He belongs to the Mopan tribe that inhabit Belize and Guatemala.
In 900 A.D, the Mayan civilization declined rather suddenly. What led to the mysterious disappearance of the Mayans and the abandonment of some of the greatest centers of the civilization in Central America? In a recently published study, scientists have concluded that a 40% drop in rainfall and prolonged mild drought conditions between 800 to 1000 A.D were to blame.
The Rise of the Mayas..
The ancient Mayan empire once stretched across what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America, including the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. The region was originally inhabited by settlers who eked out a living in the harsh landscape. What prompted them to move here is unknown. Dense rainforests filled with predators such as snakes and jaguars, mosquito-infested swamps and a soil too thin to farm, awaited them.
But settle they did. They filled in swamps and cleared rainforests to farm maize, squash and other crops, practiced crop rotation, and raised animals. Over centuries, these settlements grew into city states. They built temples and palaces, developed a heiroglyphic style of writing, created murals and intricate sculptures, and even developed a 365-day calendar with provisions for leap year adjustments!
Mediating between the heavens and the earth, were the Mayan kings. However, the priests were the ones wielding real power -- for they maintained the Mayan calendar, foretold the annual flooding, suggested best times to plant crops, and conducted religious ceremonies.
Unlike the blood-thirsty Aztecs, the Mayans were a relatively peaceful civilization. The settlements continued to stay separate, traded with each other, and engaged in mild warfare. One of the largest settlements was Tikal, in present day Guatemala. However it was the arrival of a visitor with his entourage from the Aztec city of Teotihuacan, that spurred the Mayan civilization to its greatest glory.. and to its downfall.
His name -- Fire Is Born.
[In Lost Pyramids Of Tikal, we look at at the rise and fall of one of the greatest MesoAmerican civilizations, through a personal journey into one of its greatest cities, Tikal. Meanwhile, here is an interesting video on the advanced heiroglyphic script developed by the Mayas]