It is far too easy to travel in Guatemala and ignore the remarkable and harrowing history of its people. Maya temples are impressive structures to be photographed and the indigenous population look simply adorable in their colourful, embroidered clothing. Most visitors aren’t even aware of the horrendous civil war that claimed nearly 200,000 lives in a bloody, 36-year conflict. The Maya civilisation goes back thousands of years, far beyond the Spanish arrival of the 16th century, and it tells a long and intriguing story.
We have always viewed the Maya through the lens of western civilisation. We blanket the Maya as one group of people, but the term in fact refers to various people of different ethnicities, traditions and societies who share some elements of culture. One common trait among the Maya is a fascination with time. As Ronald Wright observes in his book, Time Among The Maya, eternity is ‘so elegantly measured by the Maya calendar’. Remarkably accurate for thousands of years, this calendar ‘ended’ in 2012, causing hysteria among ignorant westerners who believed that the world might end. Of course, it was in fact just the beginning of a new cycle.
A common misconception is that the Maya share a language. While all Mayan languages have the same linguistic heritage, there are many differences between dialects. These languages tend to be a combination of words and pictures. To write the word ‘shield’, you can simply draw a picture of a shield. Instead of having specific words, speakers just throw monosyllabic sounds together, allowing for creative combinations and enormous potential. This creativity is perhaps the reason for new dialects developing and the reason why there are 21 official Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala today. These languages, which gave us words such as hurricane and shark are under threat, not just because of the dominance of Spanish, but because, as Wright notes, ‘unity has always eluded the Maya’.
Despite a lack of unity among tribes, another shared trait of Maya societies is astrology. Generation after generation studied the skies, constantly learning and developing their knowledge. Buildings and temples in Mayan cities reflect this knowledge. At Tikal, an ancient Maya city in northern Guatemala, temples were built with the winter and summer solstices in mind, almost functioning as seasonal clocks. By studying constellations, a young Canadian boy may have recently discovered yet another hidden city in the forests of Chiapas, Mexico.
Unfortunately, the continued development of the Maya civilisation was dramatically halted by the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, bringing an end to years of peaceful stargazing. The 500 years since have undoubtedly been the worst in the Maya’s history. Following the invasion, diseases such as smallpox wiped out almost 90% of the Maya population, while the remainder had to contend with confronting the Spaniards in battle.
Unlike their Aztec neighbours, the Maya weren’t accustomed to fighting and struggled to compete with the Spaniards’ advanced weaponry. Many consider this defeat in armed conflict as proof that the Europeans were more developed and technologically advanced. However, the Maya’s astrological knowledge far exceeded that of the Europeans even in the 17th century and a Maya city would certainly have been a far more pleasant place to live than any European city for anyone other than a member of the nobility.
The subjugation of the Maya has continued. Right-wing governments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took Maya land for corporate US interests and the indigenous population were forced to work as coffee harvesters for pittance. Unforgivable brutality towards the Maya reached its apogee in 1982, when the indigenous population was specifically targeted and over 10,000 were killed in a series of massacres during the civil war. José Efrían Ríos Montt, Guatemalan president at the time, was convicted of genocide earlier this year and sentenced to 80 years in prison. It is a small consolation.
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the Maya people remain sceptical of western visitors. It can be difficult to engage with the people in rural villages or those selling their produce at market. Though the cracking of several poor jokes may eventually force a smile, the Guatemalan usually remains quite distant. In general Guatemalans are averse to having their picture taken, perhaps distrusting of the device itself or of where the photograph might end up.
The Maya are a fascinating people, too often overlooked, as are the Aztecs, Incas and Quechuas that make up many of the other indigenous populations in Latin America. The historical and present day repression of any indigenous group must not be ignored. Even now, Maya people are painfully underrepresented in positions of power or authority, despite making up the largest percentile of the population. Their ways are different, but this cannot excuse western ignorance. If there is one thing the last 500 years have taught us, it is that the Maya don’t give up their culture easily.
Ronald Wright’s ‘Time Among The Maya’ was published in 1989, during the Guatemalan Civil War. It offers an illuminating insight into the life and history of Maya people and civilisations.