10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck

Andrew Omalley - February 13, 2018

The Mayan Empire was centrally based in the tropical lowland that is now known as Guatemala. It was in the 6th century AD that they hit their peak in terms of influence and power. Some of the main areas in which they were renowned for were their amazing architecture, symbolic artwork, the creation of calendars, hieroglyphics, pottery and agriculture.

By approximately 900 AD, the majority of the massive stone cities they Mayans had were abandoned with the reasons why being debated at lengths over the years by historians. In historical terms, the Mayans are one of the most brilliant and successful civilisations. Researchers have been working hard for years to try and unravel some of the mysteries surrounding this group of people and here are 10 amazing secrets they have uncovered so far.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Mystery Of The Maya Blue Pigment And Its Unusual Chemical Composition – History Collection

10. Maya Blue Recipe

One of the things that the Mayans held in high esteem was a particular shade of blue, as they believed that it was a significant color for a couple of reasons. It has since been dubbed Maya Blue and was utilized to cover codices, palace walls and pots. Whenever there was a human sacrifice carried out, the body was also covered in third color. Scientists have figured out that the main ingredients in this color were palygorskite and indigo, but there was still a final ingredient which they could not figure out.

It wasn’t until 2008 that a team of researchers from the United States had their study published in which they made claims that this secret ingredient for Maya Blue was copal resin. A few years later in 2013, another study came out that claimed this theory was false. This team of researchers were of the belief that this final ingredient was actually dehydroindigo, as opposed to copal resin.

They also believed that the Mayans were able to get the exact hue of blue they wanted by changing the temperature when they were preparing it. One of the most interesting aspects of this color is that it proved to be extremely resistant to weathering. Despite the length of time and harsh weather conditions, a lot of the remaining artifacts on which Mayan Blue are seen, they have been preserved remarkably well. It has even seen to be resistant to different forms of acids and chemical solvents like nitric acid.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Portrayal of Mayan Human Sacrifice – Thomas Aleto, Flickr

9. The Life Force Ceremony

One of the main beliefs that the Mayan people had was that there is a life force that is embedded in every person. In particular, they thought that this life force acted as a form of nourishment for their gods. The Mayans would regularly hold ceremonies that were connected with these life forces. It was an unsavory ceremony in today’s terms.

Arrowheads that had been created using obsidian (a particular type of volcanic glass) to cut the given man or woman’s genitals. Earlobes or tongue and the blood would be then allowed to spill out. Their thought behind this ceremony was that the human life force was acting as a meal to the god. While the ceremony itself was gruesome, it is believed that the people who took part in this sacrifice were usually volunteers and the majority of the time they survived this encounter.

While blood was seen as a strong source of nourishment for the gods, the act of sacrificing a living creature was seen as the most powerful form of blood offering. For the most part, it was living animals that were fully sacrificed, but there are also many instances of human sacrifice, as this was seen as being the ultimate offering to the gods. Most of the prestigious and important rituals in the Mayan way of life involved a human sacrifice. When it came to these full-fledged offerings, most of the time those who were chosen to give their life was a prisoner of war that had a high status. Those prisoners who were of a lower status usually were used for labour means.

The usual way in which humans were sacrificed was by having the head decapitated and the heart extracted. Less common ways include shooting the person with arrows, throwing the person into a sinkhole, entombing the person alive when a noble was being buried and disembowelment.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Mayan Calendar – Wikipedia

8. Technology that is Sustainable

Tikal was one of the significant Mayan cities and it was found in a region whereby there would be no rain for one-third of the year, with not a drop of rain to be found in the skies. Even though they went these four months each year without rainfall, the city prospered for many hundreds of years.

In the year AD 700, there were more than 80,000 people who lived in this city. The question was then posed by historians, how exactly did these people manage to survive for so many years despite these significant droughts?

It has not been uncovered in recent years by archaeologists that the people in Tikal had an extremely sustainable water delivery system in place. This meant that they would have to have stores of water that was gathered during the eight months of the year when it actually rained. Therefore, they made a network of reservoirs that had been paved. Most of the reservoirs were able to contain many thousands of gallons of water. Some of the bigger ones could even hold up to 74 million litres of rainwater.

While looking from the outside, this may seem like straightforward technology, it was a system that was extremely sustainable and it was able to serve the population of this city for the four-month-long droughts that occurred each and every year.

One of the most important parts of Mayan life was that of trading. This is why they placed a particular focus on having efficient methods of transport. As the Mayan civilisation was based on areas of thick forests and jungles, it was hard to get around without getting lost or being severely slowed down. This is why the Mayans cut through the forests and created roads through them that were paved with concrete. This was revolutionary as now traders and other people could travel between cities with ease and this is believed to have been the first civilisation of that built roads from place to place in Mesoamerica.

They also relied on their ships to trade in a variety of places from Antigua to Cuba. It is even believed that on the 4th voyage of Christophe Columbus, they encountered a Mayan vessel. These ships were long and there were a significant number of paddlers utilised in order to move the ship.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Portrayal of the Mayans fighting one another – Millie Jamieson

7. Ancient Struggles between Dynasties

It was in 2013 that a group of archaeologists manage to discover a stone monument that had lain hidden in Guatemala under a Mayan temple that was over 1,500 years old. They were able to track the existence of this monument all of the way back to the year AD 564. It gave details regarding what was an ancient struggle between two dynasties in the Mayan world that took place over the course of seven years.

The team of researchers managed to decipher the inscriptions that were found on the monument and it showed that it had been made to honour a Mayan king by the name of Chak Took Ich’aak also known as “Red Spark claw.” When he died, there was a significant amount of unrest politically and this is what is narrated upon the monument. After a number of years, this struggle came to an end and the son of Chak Took Ich’aak then received the throne. His name was King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin or “He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle.”

Unlike the likes of the Incas from the Andes or the Aztecs from Central Mexico, there was never a unified or single Maya empire that was controlled and organized from a single city. It was instead made up of a combination of city-states that were in the same area that had links of trade, language and similar cultures, but they were very often at war with one another due to influence, power or resources. One of the main targets during these raids were capturing men and women that could be used as slaves.

The major cities such as Caracol, Calakmul and Tikal were very often at war with each other or going after some of the smaller cities. They often conducted small but swift raids upon their enemies as it was rare for a powerful city to be fully defeated and overtaken. All warfare was led by the King of the given city and usually the highest council in these areas was made up of spiritual leaders and military leaders from the city. This made them lucrative targets for capture when their enemies attacked. Most of the bigger cities had significant armies that were well trained when it comes both to defense and attack.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Depiction of Mayan Farming – Google Images

6. How normal Mayans lived on a Daily Basis

There is a village in El Salvador that is called Ceren and it has been dubbed by many as being the “New World Pompeii.” Pompeii is, of course, an island off of Italy where a volcano eruption killed everyone, with the city and streets being largely preserved after it had become submerged in ash which did not allow for the infiltration of air or moisture. This meant that historians were able to learn many things about how these people lived and they could even see as much detail as to where exactly certain people died.

Ceren has is said to be the Mayan Village that has been preserved the best throughout Latin America. The site itself was found in 1978 by a man called Professor Payson Sheets. As the village was so well preserved, like Pompeii, historians and archaeologists were given the rare opportunity to gain a clear insight into how the common Mayan people lived their lives on a daily basis. The evidence showcased how the people who lived in Ceren had not been controlled or influenced by those who were of the Mayan elite.

They were completely independent and autonomous which allowed them to control aspects of their society such as the economy, religion, selection of crops and architecture. If there was an important decision to be made that affected the entire village, all of the residents came together and decided amongst themselves as to the best course of action. The insights gleaned in this village were in contrast to the previously held belief that certain Mayan records had shown which claimed that it was the elite class who made all of the political and economic decisions when it comes to different regions.

Due to the heavy importance placed upon the growing of food for both sustenance and trade, the majority of the common Mayan folk were farmers when it was the growing season. When the harvest had been completed, these people would usually then go to work on the construction of the amazing Mayan cities.

This meant that the common Mayan life was filled with tough physical work. While these people led a simple life, they were well fed, with the main crop being that of maize, as well as growing the likes of squash, tomatoes, avocados, sweet potatoes and chilli peppers. Some of the families would have kept some livestock, such as turkeys, ducks and dogs. There were also those who hunted for wild pig and deer, as well as fishing in the oceans, lakes and rivers.

It wasn’t all work for the common people, every month at least there would be a religious festival in the cities where people would worship their gods and sing or dance. There were great feats at these festivals and usually there was a game of Pok-A-Tok taking place to entertain the crowds.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Mayan Ruins – Getty Images

5. What was the main factor in the Apocalypse of the Mayan World?

The main mystery that surrounds the Mayan world right up until this day is what happened to cause their demise. They had been a people who were extremely resourceful and advanced technologically. They had an in-depth understanding of areas such as math and astronomy, with amazing cities being built and their people having used what was believed to be the only form of the written word in all of Mesoamerica.

However, this civilisation seemed to suddenly collapse for no apparent reason. Of course, there has been a multitude of theories put forward over the years as to what happened, including the likes of civil war or invasion, but one of the explanations that people go back to again and again is that of extreme climate change. There has been evidence shown how there were two extreme droughts that the Mayan world that appeared to last over the course of decades. The first one of these occurred in the 9th century, with the other one taking place during the 11th century.

It is suggested by archaeologists that the drought which occurred first was the reason for the southern Mayan cities collapsed into ruin, with the next drought wiping out the cities that were in the northern part of the Mayan Empire. Therefore, the cities struggled to keep up with the demand for food as the crop was struggling due to lack of rainfall which possibly contributed towards a famine occurring.

It was through studies conducted at the Blue Hole in Belize that gives the most evidence to the drought theory. They estimated the occurrence of a long drought that took place roughly between 800 AD and 900 AD. There are also many instances of hieroglyphs that were discovered at many different Mayan sites which have been deciphered. This showcases that the Mayan Empire had been steadily growing for many years before collapsing silently following 904 AD.

Other theories abound include that of deforestation being the reason for their demise. There have been people in some circles who believe the combination of deforestation and excessive rainfall led to a cataclysmic combination. The Mayans went through timber at a fast rate due to the large number of structures they were creating which led to high levels of deforestation. As their cities expanded and the buildings became larger, this demand for wood expanded even further. It is believed that in order to carve out a single square metre of the city, there would be a need for approximately 20 pieces of wood to do so. They also had vast areas of crops in areas which had to be cleared of trees to have these sufficiently sized plots, especially as the populations of the cities increased, putting demands on the amount of food that was grown.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Mayan Hieroglyphics – Fedor Selivanov

4. Hieroglyphs

For a long time, researchers were of the belief that the hieroglyphs the Mayans used were originated from how the Zapotecs wrote. This was a civilisation that was pre-Columbian and they lived in a valley called Oaxaca which lay to the south of Central Mexico. This assumption was squashed in recent years after a new set of hieroglyphs that were discovered showed that the Mayan people had been writing at an advanced level over 150 years before it had previously been believed.

While they were not the inventors of the written word in the continent, this newly discovered script is unoriginal and had not been based on any other form of the written script such as that of the Zapotecs. The place in which these new hieroglyphs were found was within a pyramid building called Las Pinturas in the area of San Bartolo, Guatemala. To date, the researchers have been unable to make much headway in the deciphering of this script even though it clearly showcases how this was a written text that was carefully developed.

This form of writing was used right until the close of the 17th century. Most of the Mayan inscriptions were seen on stone lintels, stelae (stone slabs standing up in the ground), pottery and sculptures, with codices and Mayan books only very rarely having been found intact. This system had over 800 characters, with it being a combination of hieroglyphics and various signs that represented syllables. All of the hieroglyph characters were pictorial, meaning that they were clear pictures of actual objects in daily life, such as of people, possessions and animals.

It was not until the middle of the 20th of century that these symbols were able to be able to be somewhat deciphered. Up until then they had only figured out those symbols that were representative for dates and numbers. It had been believed that this writing system was completely logographic, which means that each of the glyphs would represent a complete word. They also thought most of these glyphs had a religious meaning.

It was in the 1950s that it was discovered that the system was a combination of hieroglyphic as well as being phonetic. This helped showcase that the writing was not overly religious and was more of a documentation of historical events related to the various Mayan rulers and their kin.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Mayan Toilet – Viking Latina America

3. Fountains and Toilets

It was in 2009 that there was a study published by a group of archaeologists which discussed how the Mayan people utilized water pressure in the way they constructed both toilets and fountains. This study went against was had been the held belief that it was the colonizers from Spain who had been the first people in the region to know how to create water pressure.

The way in which this team came to this conclusion was after they had thoroughly investigated the manner in which the detailed water management system in a major Mayan city operated. The city in question was that of Palenque which is to be found in Chiapas, Mexico.

This was a place where more than 6,000 people lived and there were over 1,500 different structures. The ancient Mayans dubbed it Lakamha meaning “Big Water” as a result of the 56 springs, nine waterways and the lengthy trails of cascades that existed in the area. After conducting a comprehensive investigation of this intricate water management system, the team of archaeologists can to the conclusion that the people in Palenque had developed this advanced system that utilizes water pressure at the latest by 750 AD, with the likely chances being that it was actually developed even earlier than this date.

Palenque had a system that was intricate when it came to the management of water and it was well-renowned across the region. These had a complex system of subterranean aqueducts that would manage the streams that were spring-fed and these created a natural divide in the landscape as there otherwise was the chance of erosion or flooding occurring.

Running water in these cities of course was more of a luxury than a necessity. It is believed that the presence of running water was a significant sign of wealth as there was already water at hand. The people in the city of Palenque were always within 150 metres of a water source. While the Mayan people were known to have very simplified building structures, their expertise seemed to lay in intricate systems they engineered and implemented for water management in their major cities. Researchers are currently spending a lot of time focusing on hydroarchaelogy in an effort to identify population levels, droughts and patterns of settlement throughout various time periods in these significant cities. This is an area that could yield to more great discoveries about the history and evolution of the Mayan people.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Mayan Sweat Room – InTheTemazCal

2. Sweat Houses in the Mayan World

While the Romans are well-known for their use of magnificent baths, the Mayans had their own version of the sweat-house. Around the turn of the 21st century, a research team that was headed by Boston Universities’ Doctor Norman Hammond managed to find a strange structure in the area of Cuello in the north of Belize. They could not figure out what this structure was for a long time.

They only managed to discover the true identity of this structure by accident. It turned out that it was, in fact, a sweat house and after this discovery, they began conducting further research in the matter and it was soon discovered that the Mayans had been utilising these sweat houses as far back as 900 BC and perhaps even longer ago than that.

The question that needs to be answered then is why the Mayan people used these sweat houses so often when they lived in such a tropical climate already. To answer this question, the researchers proposed three potential reasons for this. One of the reasons was that these sweat houses were used by the people as a cleanse of their body. Another potential reason is that they were used in order to heal different types of diseases. The final potential reason was that they used these houses in order to get in touch with the supernatural and communicate with them.

They were structures that were similar to a small hut and the heat originated from a fire that was lit and only about ten people could it inside of this structure at any given time. It is very confined inside and it is hard to find a place to sit and you are unable to stand. It has a low door which means only a single person can enter at a time by going in on their hands and knees. The baths would be dry and hot, leading to significant sweating for anyone inside. Very often these sweat houses would be used to help cure some form of ailment, usually fevers. It was also used extensively following the birth of a child, as well as by those who had been wounded by a poisonous animal.

10 Secrets from the Mayan Civilization that Will Leave You Dumbstruck
Monkey-Shaped Skull – Owen Jarus

1. Skull that is shaped like a Monkey

The Mayans had their own set of sports and one of the most deadly of them was a game in which the participants had to pass a ball to one another only by using their elbows, hips and knees. The reason why this game was so deadly was because whichever team lost the game could then be used as a sacrifice.

There was a myriad of ways in which players could get injured when playing this game, so they wore special types of clothing which also allowed them to move in certain ways that were conducive to doing well at the game. These pieces of clothing included the likes of wearing a hand guard that was secured around the wrist area. Archaeologists even found a skull that was shaped like a monkey that they believe was one of these handguards that were used during the game.

It was their belief that even when they died, they could still play this game. In order to give them preparation of playing this sport in the afterlife, there were stone versions created of the clothing which they would wear when playing this game in real-life. These were often found inside the Mayan tombs.

These skulls were actually made of limestone and were specifically shaped in a way that was similar to the head of a monkey. It is of a size that it can be easily held in the palm of your hand and it has been in laid with eight white teeth, which were made from shell and in the middle there is a black tooth which was created out of iron pyrite. The mouth is opened wide and it is thought that there would have been shells laid in the eyes originally. Limestone was often used as a material for art by the Mayans and monkeys were often represented in their art, with some of their gods even being depicted in monkey form.

There have been many rmours of similar crystal based skulls over the years, but these have widely been believed to be fake. It is believed that the skull pictured would have been placed inside of a tomb between 250 and 600 AD, a period in which the Mayans were growing rapidly. This particular skull is believed to be more of a symbolic representation of the hand guard that was worn during their games.