Our young tourist guide must have often heard this question because he doesn’t react immediately. I know that it's just a repeated utterance, carried by prejudices and it just wants to be a provocation. I also know, the Maya have not disappeared. I came to Guatemala to present seminars one being with the Q’eqchi Maya. I have also met with the Quiché and Mopan Maya. There are 22 distinct Mayan denominations in the country and they are the largest group among the Guatamalan population next to the “Castillians” - because they speak Spanish- and the Garifunas, a negroid people with a mysterious origin.
“The Mayan people haven’t disappeared, it’s their culture that has” suggested a Mexican friend who was accompanying me on the trip. My background in anthropology questions this: a culture doesn’t disappear either, it just changes. The experience from the seminars and the visits to the Q’eqchi communities proves it for me. “Yes”, states our guide breaking his silence, “the Mayan people and their culture are still with us; what has gone for good is the city of Tikal along with its economic and religious power.”
Conscious of his role as Mayan tourist guide to two foreigners, he leads us via a short cut to Temple Number 3. “Its numbering is deceiving”, he says. ” The temples and pyramids have been numbered according to their date of ‘discovery’ in an etymological sense and not according to their construction. Historically, Temple Number 3 was the last one built by the Mayas. Next to it is an altar which according to experts explains the reason for the disappearance of the Maya. Look”,… and with a gesture he points out the wording on the bas-relief which decorates the altar, number 6.
The image speaks very clearly for him, not so much for me though, if I’m honest. He assures us that there is nothing mysterious about the disappearance of the imperial city & priesthood of Tikal.
“The first nucleus of Mayan priests and chiefs arrived here, like every movement of people, looking for a place that was not only comfortable to live in but also ideal for their studies in astronomy. The area pleased them like no other: it had forests, mountains, dense vegetation and an agreeable climate…”
I start to think of a priest friend: “When I get back home tired from visiting the Q’eqchi communities”, he confided, “I stop at a turning in the road: I just love to contemplate these mountains, shaped in pyramid form, breathe in the energy that bursts forth from this emerald green vegetation, allow my imagination to run wild among these tranquil valleys, follow the course of the rivers and get mixed up in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Then I feel having been revitalised.”
“They settled down there”, continues our guide, “and began to cut down trees to build a temple to their gods. All the pyramids, the temples & altars were made from material drawn from the earth. At the same time they cut down trees so as to make space for growing crops such as their staple, maize. They became successful and their township grew, other priestly families joined them as well as nobles and peasants who accepted to become their servants; in recognition of their gods, they built yet more temples and grew more food in case, which in turn led to more trees being cut down as the population increased. And the city reached the pinnacle of its splendour. In the period known as classical, Tikal had 150,000 inhabitants and included temples, pyramids and altars by the dozen. Look…” and he explained that the numerous mounds found in the forest are actually pyramids or temples that as yet have not been “discovered”, in other words stripped of their vegetation that 1000 years of abandonment left them in such a state. Various bits of wall that show here and there above the hedgerows and fields are proof.
Towards the 9th century AD whilst at the peak of its splendour and power, Tikal suffered a decline. The forest had been cut down, the rains diminished gradually whilst the population continued to grow. The priests cut down more trees to build more temples and invoke their gods for rain while the peasants cut down trees to create more land to grow food: this vicious cycle led inevitably to a prolonged drought of around 30 years by all accounts. The rich and the nobility abandoned the city, accompanied by their serfs, to areas less inhospitable. The priests put all their effort into the final temple to make rain, but in vain. It didn’t rain and they abandoned the place. The peasants were desperate and revolted; the guide reverted back to the image of the bas-relief: “here one can see where some of them cut off the head of the rain god”. And they in turn scattered in different groups: the forest began to re-possess what men had taken from it; centuries passed and the memory of the Mayan brilliance and the empire of Tikal was forgotten in the forest. Without satellite photography who knows when this sacred area will be returned to the history of humanity.
With their last riches, their utensils, their families and serfs the Mayan priests also took with them their knowledge. Far away from Tikal, absorbed by having to reconstruct their lives, the priests abandoned their astrological calculations and their calendars have got stuck in 2012 or according to other discoveries in the year 2032. Le Petén, the actual province where Tikal is situated, became almost uninhabited apart from the few Mopan Maya who stayed.
About 30 years ago the government began its policy of repopulation; above all it was the Q’eqchi Maya who became installed here, occupying this abandoned region. “They were the former serfs of the soil, the poor, who had always been farmers: they left as slaves and, by an allegorical revenge, returned as masters, in family groups, to repopulate the ground that had enslaved them as masters, priests and noble Mayas. Mother nature, challenged and destroyed, had taken her revenge by ridding herself of a suicidal culture, and taken on a new life.”
The repetitive cycle of years seems to remind one of the cycle of peoples and civilisations. The rich leave empty-handed whilst the poor take on their inheritance; he who destroys sees life rebound against him until he learns to live in harmony with nature and practise justice.