Nearly 2,000 years before Christ was born, the jungle lowlands of Central America gave birth to a civilization that would introduce the Western Hemisphere to its first fully developed writing system, amazing art and architecture, a complex calendar and a startlingly accurate astronomical system based on precise mathematics that used the concept of zero.
The Maya Classic Period, the civilization’s high-water mark that lasted for more than 600 years, gave rise to cultural and artistic achievements and learning that defined it as one of the ancient world’s most advanced cultures.
But after six centuries of spectacular growth and unparalleled achievement, the civilization over the next 100 years was totally transformed as it dealt with massive population loss, a reorientation of the economy and the crumbling of the notion of divine kingship.
How did such a great civilization develop in the tropical rain forest, and what caused the fundamental changes leading to its collapse?
As with any good scientific who-done-it, there is no clear answer. But Jason Yaeger, professor of anthropology, and M. Kathryn Brown, assistant professor of anthropology, have dedicated their careers to trying to solve the puzzle.
A single catastrophe didn’t cause the collapse, Yaeger said. Instead, he points to a combination of culture, climate and the environment as the likely culprits.
But the mystery lingers.
That’s one reason the pair has been leading summer excavations in the sweatbox known as the Belizean jungle. Along with more than two dozen UTSA graduate and undergraduate students, Yaeger and Brown are working to dig up clues that may one day unlock ancient secrets.
As they have for the last two decades, the professors spent this past summer in the humid Mopan River Valley, home to jaguars, jungle bugs and fire ants, exploring two distinct Maya time periods.
Yaeger’s research focuses on the changing relationships between two Belizean cities, Xunantunich and Buenavista, and documenting how competition between the two impacted the people who lived in the nearby countryside during the Maya Classic Period, from roughly 250 to 900 A.D.
Brown, who earned her M.A. at UTSA in 1995 before completing her doctorate at Southern Methodist University, is heading fieldwork at Xunantunich as part of the Mopan Valley Preclassic Project, focusing on a time period starting less than a millennium before Christ. While much is known about the Classic Period, relatively little is known about the Preclassic Period, she explained.
Brown remains amazed at the Maya’s ability to build elaborate architecture using simple tools. She noted that like many of her students, the archaeology bug bit her during her first field experience.
For Yaeger, his fascination with the Maya came early in life, when as a middle-schooler he visited Chichen Itza, one of the best-known sites in the Mexican Yucatan.
"I was amazed at the massive pyramids, the militaristic art and the hieroglyphic writing, all of which was so different from anything I experienced as a farm boy growing up in rural Michigan," he said.
"Maya civilization is so different from Western civilization in terms of technology, religion and environment," Yaeger noted. "And yet there are many parallels—archaeologists spend their careers understanding the similarities and differences among civilizations, which helps us better understand our species and our own civilization."
Around A.D. 200, the Maya, already numbering in the millions, populated a vast area of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Central America within the larger area known as Mesoamerica.
At the civilization's height, the Maya were busily expanding a string of powerful city-states containing elegant, elaborately-painted palaces, temples with vaulted ceilings and pyramids, some nearly as tall as the length of a football field. Remnants of many pyramids are popular tourist sites today. There are also troves of valuable archaeological sites long buried under centuries of earth.
"We have a great deal of information about the Classic Period, but Preclassic buildings are often deeply buried and difficult to excavate," Brown said. "Recent research is discovering that the ancient Maya developed a complex civilization much earlier than we previously thought."
One hallmark of the civilization’s complexity was its sophisticated perception of the passage of time, and of past and future. Time was crucial for the Maya, not only to know when to plant crops, but also to determine the best time to wage war and to make other decisions.
They believed in recurring cycles of creation—and corresponding destruction—so they plotted and tracked an era that lasted more than 5,000 years. This calendar, known as the Long Count, set their creation cycle as having begun more than 3,100 years B.C., more than a millennium before their first settlements were established along the Mexican Pacific Coast. The calendar also looked far into the future, December 2012, when this era ends and the next one begins.
The Maya also had an understanding of mathematics that was more advanced than the Egyptians, Greeks or Romans. It allowed them to monitor the movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets via the many observatories they built to mark the equinox and solstice.
The Maya expanded trade routes extending northwest to present-day Mexico City and south to Panama. They used maize—from which they believed the gods made humans—and cocoa beans as currency in return for jade, shell ornaments, obsidian and other precious metals.
They were also highly skilled farmers, draining swamps and clearing large tracts of forest for terraced fruit orchards and gardens in which they grew maize, cacao (chocolate), chilies, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados and pumpkins.
The Maya’s system of government was both earthly and divine. They were ruled by men who were considered to be human representations of the gods. Those god-kings used elaborate rituals to display their majesty as they commissioned written records in pottery, stone and elaborately painted murals to describe their military triumphs and other significant events.
They paid the price of leadership: during special events, the leaders used stingray barbs to cut themselves, drawing royal blood to be offered to the deities.
Brown likes to tell her students that it was a great life to be a Maya king—except on bloodletting days.
The Maya also offered animal and human sacrifice, especially children, young women and slaves, but also captured warrior captains from rival cities, in a constant effort to appease the gods.
They created what they termed "tree stones," large stone slabs known as stelae on which they carved complex hieroglyphic texts about their gods, their mortal leaders, their genealogy and their military conquests. The slabs were built not only to celebrate significant events of the day, but also for posterity.
Over the years, archaeologists have poured over remnants of this lost culture, carefully piecing together bits of bone and slivers of ceramic to fill in the blanks of history.
"The more I know about the Maya, the more I am amazed at what they were able to accomplish," said Eleazar Hernández ’12, first-year anthropology doctoral student who joined Yaeger and Brown in 2011 and again this summer in Belize. "Their architectural prowess is amazing."
Hernández, who holds a master’s degree in art history with a focus on the Maya, was invited by Brown to attend the summer field school at Xunantunich after researchers thought they might be on the verge of uncovering a sacred ceremonial mask.
"Unfortunately, we did not find a mask, but I did find my future," Hernández said with a grin. "Once I had the opportunity to see everything that goes into Maya archaeology, I was hooked. I had only seen Maya architecture and artifacts in books or museums. Now I am front and center, excavating and working at a Maya site with people who will be my lifelong friends. Some of us have built up a special bond while we are there."
Brown said she became hooked in 1986, when as an undergraduate she participated in uncovering a burial site at San Juan Island, off the coast of Belize.
"Excavating the burial site allowed me to connect with the human side of the ancient Maya past and made me want to learn all that I could about not only the individual, but the society to which he belonged," she said.
That sense of discovery—being the first to touch something that was last touched by Maya hands millennia ago—was renewed this summer. As her students painstakingly dusted away dirt, inch by inch, they hit the proverbial archaeologist’s jackpot—a burial site. Two skeletons were found face down, with the heads facing south. One had a ceramic snuff bottle in its hand, a personal item of the deceased.
While such critical information as the sex, approximate age and general health of the individuals is still being analyzed, it is clear they were people of some importance because of the location of the burial site.
"The excitement and awe that our students experienced last summer ignited an interest in archaeology that they will carry forever, whether they become archaeologists or not," Yaeger said.
"Students usually get bitten by the archaeology bug in their first field experience," he added. "Sometimes they find something unusual or unique, like a burial. But for many it is the simple excitement of being the first person in 1,000 years to see a wall or touch a piece of broken pottery that they’ve excavated."
Hernández has his own puzzle. Not far from the burial site lies a large ramp dating from around 600 B.C., one of the first Preclassic ramps to be discovered in Belize. Because of its location, Hernández said it might have served as a meeting point where the population would gather for important festivals. His task is to determine the ramp’s physical dimensions and the possible reason for its construction.
While steps at tall buildings and pyramids were commonplace, large ramps are rare at Maya Preclassic sites, Brown said.
The Maya did not use wheels for transport, Hernández said. "So why was there such a large ramp there? Was it used to control water flow or to channel water away from the structures during the rainy season? [The questions of] why is it there, what are its dimensions and what sort of purpose did such a structure serve [are what] I will help explore next summer," he said.
Most of the structures that Brown and her students are excavating date from the Preclassic Period. Brown calls Xunantunich "an interesting research location," because it has a large Preclassic ceremonial center that had been abandoned by A.D. 250. The site was later reoccupied, and a larger, more impressive ceremonial site was constructed in the Late Classic Period just up the hill from the abandoned location.
The site is one of the largest Maya ceremonial centers yet discovered in Belize. It also is the country’s longest established archaeological park; the first organized dig there was in the early 20th century, but Europeans first visited the site in the mid-1800s. The area also contains El Castillo (The Castle), a 43-meter-tall pyramid complex that is the second tallest building in ancient or modern Belize.
Brown said Xunantunich was strategically located along important river trade routes that provided a link between some of the ancient Maya’s largest, most important city-states and the Caribbean Sea.
"River systems were critical for transportation and trade routes," Brown noted. "But also water sources were crucial for planting, and periodic flooding was important, creating good silt that was productive for agriculture."
Brown said she is especially interested in understanding the development of public buildings in the area because so few Middle Preclassic pyramids have been excavated, in part because the Maya custom was to build in layers, placing newer structures atop older ones.
One of Brown’s goals at the site is to determine the size and form of specific structures and to analyze construction techniques used by the ancient architects. Extraordinary mathematicians, they were also proficient engineers, building large rainwater reservoirs and cisterns.
And they did it all without the use of metal tools or beasts of burden, Brown noted.
Descendants of the Classic Maya still live today scattered over 150,000 square miles in Mexico’s Yucatan as well as in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Roughly 6 million people speak Mayan today. Some Maya eke out a subsistence living, others are merchants and manufacturers, while others are government ministers and professors.
Yet their ancient forefathers were a commanding presence in the jungles, swamps and mountains of Mesoamerica for nearly 3,000 years, from about 1,200 B.C. to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early part of the 16th century. In fact, the last independent Maya kingdom—Tayasal in Guatemala—wasn’t conquered until 1697.
"The Maya is a success story, with regard to human ingenuity," Brown said. "They were incredibly adaptive and they tamed and transformed the lowland jungle environment into a productive agricultural landscape filled with large and impressive cities."
It is hard to imagine that such an advanced civilization could rise from such a harsh jungle environment, she said—but it did.
The Maya not only survived, but also thrived like no other civilization before—or since.