Many of you have probably learned the basics about the Mayan Empire because of your High School history class. You most likely already know that they were an ancient civilization in southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. But few people know how truly strange the Mayan people were. Here are some of the weirdest facts about life in the Mayan Empire.
The Mayans Became Drunk And High Off Chocolate
Nothing makes for a romantic night with your partner like a bottle of wine and a box of chocolate. But the Mayans took it to another level. They would ferment their cocoa beans, making for an inebriating chocolate beverage. However, instead of drinking it the normal way, it was administered through enemas (through the “back door”). Exactly why did the Mayans choose to drink their chocolaty beer this way? One theory references a piece of Mayan art depicting a Mayan hanging over a vat of the stuff and receiving it in the rear while they vomit. Perhaps this was a way to speed up the process of intoxication when the stomach was not so inclined. It may have also been part of a ritual that involved hallucinogens. University professor Peter de Smit even tested this theory by rectally self administering alcohol and DMT and monitoring the effects on his toxicology.
As horrifying as it may seem, human sacrifice was a source of security and hope for the Mayan people. They believed that it was nourishment for the gods. It was considered mandatory whenever a new ruler came to power, or a new building was completed. Sacrificial victims were usually gathered from prisoners of war. Most prisoners were used as slave labor with only a few sacrificed to the gods. The victim’s skin was painted blue. They were given a headdress and held down on the altar by four attendants. The head attendant would cut out the victim’s heart with a ceremonial knife. Their heart was then passed to the priest, who then smeared the blood onto an image of a god. The body was then thrown down the steps of the temple. Afterwards, the corpse was skinned by the priests and worn by dancers, to symbolize rebirth.
Children of the Elite Were Forced to Become Cross-Eyed
In modern times, if we see someone cross-eyed, we try not to stare for too long. And many parents opt to give their child surgery to correct the issue. But the Mayan people actually thought that crossed eyes were a sign of nobility. They also believed that it made someone more physically attractive. So they would induce the condition by hanging a piece of thread in-between their baby’s eyes. They would attach a stone or ball of resin at the end of the string, and the baby would focus their eyes on it. Eventually, their eyes would rotate inwards, causing them to be slightly cross-eyed for the rest of their life. Believe it or not, this is something that modern Mayans still do today, because it’s still considered attractive.
Chocolate Was At The Center Of Mayan Religious Identity
Mayans believed that long ago, the gods brought cacao beans, corn, and other foods down from the Mountain of Sustenance. As the story goes, the gods mixed their blood with the cacao beans. So the blood of the gods became permanently entwined with cacao. The god of corn was born from a cacao plant. Cacao, corn, and many other foods brought by the gods down from the mountain were fashioned to create the first humans. Chocolate was therefore part of the very essence of both humanity and the gods. It was used to lighten the mood of someone being sacrificed, and in every important occasion. Chocolate was a requirement for a marriage ceremony, since it was believed to be linked to fertility. It was also believed to have medical properties. Cocoa beans were mixed with other plants to treat fever, and the cacao flowers were used to treat fatigue.
Keeping track of all the Mayan gods can be a dizzying affair. This is partially due to the fact that the names of many of the gods often change by region, as well as particular details of the myths. However, the core identity of the gods and mythological ideas stay the same despite having different names. For example, whether it was thirteen gods involved, or two, there seems to be an agreement that the gods created humanity from corn. And apparently it was not a straightforward process. Practically every aspect of Mayan life was covered by at least one deity. For some gods, no information about them can be discerned, and some are conflated either with each other or with later Christian ideas. We would have a better picture of the richness of Mayan theology today if the Europeans had not burned the Mayan books.
Along with chocolate and alcohol, tobacco use was one of the many vices enjoyed by the ancient Mayans. Mayan tobacco was much stronger stuff than the cancer packets you can buy off the shelf today. It made you feel dizzy, but also calm and focused. It was believed that the plant itself had a soul, and that you could feel the power of thunder and lighting up the nerves in your body. They also believed it had healing properties, and could ward off witches and demons. Mayan Shamans took in the tobacco with enemas, and this provided them with powerful visions. Hundreds of Mayan snuff boxes have been found by archeologists. These snuff boxes are clay pots that are about the size of modern cigarette boxes. They bear the images of gods who are depicted smoking tobacco. The snuff may have also been used for chewing and snorting.
The Mayans had a taste of style that could have put David Bowie to shame. Men and women wore it long and fabulous. These hairstyles often were meant to mimic or depict their gods, or animalistic motifs. Feathers, jaguar skins, flowers, herbs, and jewels were all used. Something like a receding hairline was also considered attractive, at least for men. They would often burn away layers of hair to achieve that look. Mayans loved styling their hair so much, it was a severe and humiliating punishment to have your hair cut off. Hair was even integrated into the class structure itself. In particular, it was the nobility who wore their hair the longest and prettiest. Lower classes typically wore shorter and less ornate fashions. Being that fabulous would be an expensive and time consuming affair. It’s something only the nobles could probably afford.
You might not think the Mayans, of all people, would have much to relate to with midwestern farmers. But it turns out the Maya may have had an unhealthy fixation with corn. They believed that the gods had fashioned them from corn. So they effectively saw the long, slender nature of corn as the highest form of beauty. Ergo, they were very much enamored by long, slender faces. Hence the tendency for head binding and elongation of the skull. Examination of Mayan skulls showed that 90% of them were artificially elongated. Modern beauty standards seem to prefer smaller noses, but the Maya preferred large and prominent ones. So much so, that many even wore artificial nose bridges. You will find an example of the ideal Mayan man in depictions of their Maize God, Yum Kaax.
Cacao trees were everywhere, from the rain forests to Mayan gardens. The Mayans used chocolate for practically everything. In Mayan baptism, cacao beans were mixed with flower petals and water to anoint the heads of children. A chocolate drink was shared between the couple in a wedding ceremony. There was a Mayan god for cacao, and chocolate was often used as a stand-in for blood in religious ceremonies. It was a drink enjoyed by commoner and noble alike, and Mayan art is covered in depictions of the drinking, preparing and harvesting of the cacao. Mayan elites could afford to enjoy a chocolate drink at the end of every meal, and the powder was added to every kind of food. The standard chocolate beverage was actually quite nutritious, because it was mixed with spices, cornmeal, water, and chili worthy of the label “Drink of the Gods”.
Though they are no longer used often in modern dentistry, many readers may have relatives who have a gold crown or two. The Mayans were no stranger to the use of precious materials to repair teeth. In fact, what may seem at first to be an odd practice for ritual or beautification purposes, putting gems in teeth was actually part of Mayan cavity prevention. The materials used for adhering the gemstones were complex recipes that had many hygienic, and even therapeutic properties including being antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal. These cements were so durable, they’ve lasted till today and continue to hold these gemstones firmly in place. The recovered samples mostly come from persons of roughly middle class status, so it was not an exclusive luxury of the upper class. Gem materials included cinnabar, turquoise, quartz, hematite, serpentine, jadeite, and even iron pyrite.
Modern drivers are no strangers to potholes and crumbling infrastructure. It may make you all at once amazed and disappointed to know that ancient Mayan roads still exist in the rainforest today. These were so simple dirt paths, as one might expect when one imagines an ancient civilization. The roads were massive. In fact, the term Mayan Highway might be a more apt term. These roads were 130 feet wide. That’s about the width of a modern 10 lane highway! They were also 15 feet high, about the height of a single story house. About 110 miles of these elevated highways have been found so far. That’s greater than the distance between New York City and Philadelphia. What is perhaps most impressive is the age of these structures. The roads and the other buildings and infrastructure they are related to date to about 1,000 BC.
Mayan Pyramids Were Built to Reflect Astronomical Events
Imagine yourself standing at the base of a 79 foot tall stone stepped pyramid. As the sun sets, a shadow slithers its way down the stair of the pyramid to the head of a giant stone, feathered serpent god Kukulkán. This vision can be seen twice a year at the Chichén Itzá Maya pyramid on the equinox. The various patterns of light that appeared on the pyramid throughout the year could be used to mark important dates. It was vital for an agrarian society to know precisely at what time of year to plant and harvest, so it’s not surprising that such information was considered sacred and built into their temples. The temple even has numerological symbolism. Four sides each have 91 steps for the 91 days of the four seasons, adding up to 364. The top platform was 365 for the 365 days of the year.
The Mayans Were A Modern Civilization In Many Ways
Three thousand years ago, the Mayans were a thriving civilization. They lived in ornate stone cities that were connected by a massive roadway network. In fact, it may be the first network of ancient stone highways ever built by mankind. It was not just huge stone temples that can be found in Mayan cities. The Mayans also built irrigation canals to help water their crops. They built dams to control local waterways such as rivers and lakes. Reservoirs held massive amounts of water. Such engineering projects require a large and complex society. Any civilization able to produce the engineers necessary to build such structures must have farms productive enough to produce a large amount of food. This surplus can then allow for the expansion of the division of labor through specialization, educational institutions to teach the engineers the math and construction skills inherited from generations past.
The love of sports is a universal human trait. Admittedly some fans take the sport a bit too seriously. The Mayan ballgame, Pitz, was often the sight of human sacrifice. However, it is a myth that the players themselves were sacrificed in the game. The human sacrifice that took place at the games was not central to the game itself, contrary to popular belief. Players wore protective equipment, which was necessary, as the rubber ball that was used could weigh up to 20 pounds! They were not allowed to use their hands. The ball was bounced off their bodies and kept the ball in the air as long as possible. Despite the precautions, players would sometimes sustain broken ribs and other injuries. Getting the ball through a small stone hoop was a rare occurrence, but when it happened, the player responsible was declared the instant winner.
Everything in Mayan culture was in some way connected to the gods, including their tattoos. Getting a tattoo is a painful process. Due to the lack of knowledge in germ theory, Mayan tattoos often resulted in infection and sickness. However, this was considered part of the process. A tattoo had sacred meaning. Getting one and enduring the pain and illness was part of the sacrifice to appease the gods. They were encouraged to not show pain during the process. This was to achieve admiration and higher status. The Mayan process would have been considerably more painful than the contemporary one. An image was painted on the individual, then cuts were made along the pattern. It scarred into a colorful tattoo. Men and women got tattoos, and they could be found anywhere on their chest, back, arms, legs, or faces.
You’d think it would be hard to be a killjoy about something like a sauna. But that didn’t stop the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Perhaps be because of the nakedness, though the biggest hangup may have been the extensive religious rituals used in Mayan saunas. They often offered incense to idols in these saunas called zumpul-ché. The sauna was believed to have spiritual and healing power. It was used to heal all sorts of ailments. Saunas were also used very commonly by women who had recently given birth. Nothing like a trip to the sauna to treat postpartum symptoms. Zumpul- ché even translates to “a bath for women after childbirth and for sick persons used to cast out disease in their bodies.” Eventually the Spanish themselves caught on to the fad, but not until they removed the old Paganism out of the practice.
Blood From Body Piercings Was An Offering To The Gods
Body modification was a huge part of Mayan Culture, and one of the most common forms was body piercings. One particularly important ceremony involved an individual getting their tongue pierced with a stingray spine. Both the blood and the pain from the ordeal was considered an offering that pleased the gods. It was meant to bring good rain, harvests, and luck to the people. The whole community would gather around and watch the event. It was a celebration of both community and individuality in the pursuit of a greater connection to the gods. Even individual piercings were marked by Piercing Parties, where they would invite their friends and family to watch. Everyone attending would then get something pierced, because it was expected. They pierced their noses, ears, and lips, and also wore large ear gauges made out of precious stones, like jade or obsidian.
Anyone who lived through 2012 will recall the predictions that the world would end. This was allegedly because of the Mayan calendar. However, there is simply no evidence that the Maya ever thought the world was ending in 2012. None. No specific belief about a doomsday, much less what exactly will cause it, has ever been discovered. Hence why most of the 2012 predictions were so all over the place and silly. It is pure conjecture, at best, since one particular Mayan stone calendar ended around 2012. However, there have been other calendars found that end at other dates, such as the year 3,500 AD. Calculating out future dates is a time consuming process, because it all had to be done by hand. You have to stop somewhere. It doesn’t mean the world ends at New Year.
Mayans Practiced Head Binding to be More Beautiful
Attempting to bend and shape your baby’s skull into something more pleasing would likely get you arrested today, because it’s child cruelty. However, the practice of head binding in order to elongate the shape of the human skull is a practice that spans across many cultures. It goes back at least 10,000 years. The shape of the skull was a sign of status, with the higher status individuals with the more prominent deformations. It is debated among archeologists as to exactly why they pursued this form of beauty. Some say they were emulating the maize god, whose head was the shape of corn. Others say it was meant to imitate a jaguar’s skull. Whatever the reason, it was an instruction from the gods, that they might appear more noble.
One of the markers of modern technology is the use of rubber, from tires to ear buds. The Mayans were way ahead of the curb on many things, and this includes the invention of rubber. This took 3,000 years before it was re-invented by Charles Goodyear in the 19th century. It was made from local latex, and used in the rubber ball in Mayan sports. Although no physical specimens of them still exist to confirm this, the Spanish explorers who encountered the Maya reported back that they wore rubber sandals. It’s likely they were far more comfortable than anything made in Europe out of wood and leather, hence why it was one of the particular things the Spanish reported back on. Perhaps the most useful thing the Maya also used were rubber bands.
It’s never safe to build your civilization next to a volcano. The Mayans had to learn that lesson the hard way during the El Chichón eruption in 540 AD. The sky turned black with smoke, blocking the sunlight. That would not have been good for crops, but that would have been the least of their problems. The smoke from the volcano would have been filled with microscopic pieces of glass. Inhaling it would have resulted in irritation and microscopic cuts in their lungs. Even if you survived the initial eruption, the sulfur thrown into air would have blocked out so much sunlight as to decrease global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius! Crop yields would have been devastated. The poor harvests resulted in both the Maya and Inca revolting against their rulers. This was the beginning of the Maya Dark Age. For 100 years, no buildings were constructed.
Countless history nerds mourn the loss of the Library of Alexandria. However, the true History Chad will be shedding a tear over the burning of the Mayan Codices. One could easily condemn Bishop Friar Diego de Landa (1524-1579) as one of the most evil and ignorant men in history. His zealous persecution of the Mayan religion through torture and death by burning, in spite of the fact that the Church actually forbade abuse of the natives, drove many Maya to commit suicide. He nonetheless was convinced he was saving lives, as the Maya were still practicing human sacrifice in their rituals. De Landa himself documented a time when he burned about a hundred Mayan texts he believed satanic in front of a local community. He remarked about how much sorrow and regret was expressed by the Maya, and how strange he thought it was.
Modern technology truly is amazing. One of these technologies is something called LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection And Ranging. LiDAR uses laser pulses to map areas of terrain to exquisite detail. What’s especially useful is that it can see through foliage,making it perfect for places like a rain forest. Indiana Jones would have taken a lifetime to discover what can now be found in minutes. The use of this technology is what led to the discovery of a previously unknown Mayan city in Guatemala. This city is over 2,000 years old, and spanned for a huge 650 square miles. Previous research had concluded that the population was very small. The discovery of this massive city with canals, reservoirs, and ball courts, showed that the population was much higher and denser than originally thought. Modern technology is helping us connect to the beauty of the past.
No One Knows What Caused the Downfall of the Mayan Civilization
It remains a mystery to this day why the Maya Civilization declined and died off. The collapse did not happen everywhere and all at once, however. Mayan civilization appears to have had many local ups and downs, but the common pattern was that cities were eventually abandoned and lost. Why this happened exactly is a mystery. Scientists have theorized all sorts of causes from warfare, famine, overpopulation, trade disputes, drought, and environmental degradation. Though as some cities fell, others rose to prominence. Most of the northern cities were populated when the Spanish came and eventually conquered the Maya. Many Maya cities would be lost and forgotten until their rediscovery in the 19th century. The fact that the Maya still exist as a people and carry on their traditions today despite all the disaster and tragedy is a testament to both the sophistication and spirit of their people.
Mayans were badd asses. Even in the face of a technologically superior enemy that may have seemed almost supernatural, they refused to surrender. The warfare between the Spanish and the Maya lasted from 1517 to 1697. That’s 180 years! Imagine waking up one day and knowing you are fighting a war your father and grandfather fought, and it was a war your children and grandchildren would also fight. One might think that lack of political unity would be a weakness for the Maya against the Spanish. In reality, it was this division of power that made the Maya so hard to conquer. There was no single capital city to storm and take over. Whenever you conquered one Mayan Kingdom, there were still more who had not yet begun to fight. Nojpetén, located on an island in Lake Petén, was the last Mayan City to fall.
Sometimes old civilizations die hard. The Maya are still alive today. Though no longer at the height of glory, there are still 8 million people of Mayan ancestry who live throughout Central America. Both the Mayan people and modern researchers work passionately to try and recover as much of the Maya’s lost cultural past as they can. The Mayan language is even taught today in schools. There is hope among some researchers that ancient Mayan medicine will prove useful in curing modern diseases. Some of the Maya live as close to their traditions as they can. Others have decided to integrate into modern society. Mayan culture is attracting more and more attention and appreciation. It’s truly inspiring how far the Maya have come in the face of so many centuries of persecution and suppression. Perhaps one day we can see Mayan culture reborn, thriving in the 21st century.
Most of the Mayan Civilization Remains Underground
Despite being over 40% of the population of Guatemala, people of ethnic Mayan descent still often suffer discrimination for their ancestry. As recently as 1960 to 1996, the Mayan people were subject to genocidal oppression during the Guatemalan Civil War. Scorched earth tactics involving raping, pillaging, destroying crops and cultural artifacts. They killed almost 200,000 people during the war. The oppression of the Maya was done because they were “suppressing communism”. It’s no wonder why the Maya might want to integrate and abandon their heritage, or hide it. However, things are changing. Knowledge of and appreciation for Mayan culture is spreading in the West. Cultural tourism is now a huge part of the Guatemalan economy. This has had a negative effect, however, and traditions are sometimes invented at the expense of authentic ones in order to meet western tourists’ expectations.
You Can Still Experience Mayan Cacao Rituals Today
Since the first mass market chocolates got churned out of Hershey, Pennsylvania, chocolate has been an essential part of the modern western experience. We love chocolate! It is only natural that when someone discovers a culture that shares that love, because we want to know more and dive deeper into their unique and shared experiences. Mayan Cacao ceremonies are a key part of the shaman and yoga communities. They can be found in San Francisco, Portland, New York, and London. These eclectic groups use these ceremonies for meditation, spiritual reflection, and uniting the community. The ceremonies themselves vary. Some involve singing and dancing, others quiet meditation. Some try their best to be as ritually close and authentic as possible to Mayan tradition. Other groups add in other multicultural flares. The historical accuracy may be questionable in most cases, but one can’t deny the natural allure of experiencing spiritual chocolate.