Just like the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, the Mayans are a massive part of human history and the history of the planet as a whole. As with other ancient civilizations with such a vast empire, their beliefs and practices flow in the veins of modern culture. The influence they have on us today are either subtle or undeniable, depending on where you look.
When people mention the Maya today, one of two images usually pop up: the first is of a calendar with a red X painted over December 21, 2012, and the second is of a brown dude on top of a pyramid with a staff and an iguana mask, chopping off the head of a human tribute and letting it roll down the pyramid stairs. While there is some degree of validity in both those images, we must keep in mind that the Mayan culture was unfathomably huge, and was in development for thousands of years. A civilization does not get that big or last that long by living solely off beheadings and doomsday prophecies. Scroll down to see what else they had going on.
10. Amazing Grasp on Medicine
Ancient healing techniques are making a great resurgence today, and a lot of these “alternative” medical practices are sourced directly from the Maya. Within the vastness of the Mayan medical philosophy (which included chia seeds and lots of chocolate as a dietary staple) the most important idea was that the health of the body was correlated to the health of the soul. The Mayans incorporated acupuncture, massage and prayer into their healings. While all that may seem like a flaccid process compared to the scientific methods we use today, modern research has shown that physical health can indeed be significantly related to emotional health.
9. Deadly Ball Games
Just like we have soccer today, the Mayans had their own hands-free spectator sport called Pitz. This game was played with a rubber ball ranging in size from a soft ball to a soccer ball, and weighing up to 20 pounds. The goal of the game was to maneuver the ball into stone hoops attached on either side of the playing field without using their hands. At the highest level, this game was a huge cultural event, attracting vast crowds of people. The winning team would be thrown a grand feast in celebration. The losing team? They were usually sacrificed. So it goes.
8. They’re Still Around
We love to talk about the Mayans as if they’re a mythical civilization locked away somewhere in the past. Although it’s true that the vast majority of the Mayan empire no longer exists, and their last stronghold was wiped out hundreds of years ago, there are still Mayans walking the Earth today. Seven million Mayans, actually, many of whom still maintain the traditions of their cultural heritage in their home regions. Most Mayans today live in various Mexican states such as Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán and Campeche. There are also Mayans living in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.
7. Physical Modifications
We find facial symmetry and a low body fat index attractive today, but the Mayans had a different view on beauty. The upper class Maya in particular employed bizarre techniques to ensure their children would look a certain way at a very young age. Babies would have boards pressed onto their foreheads over long periods of time to create a more flattened surface. If that’s not strange enough, the Mayans also valued crossed eyes, so they would dangle an object right in front of an infant’s face until the infant’s eyes were permanently crossed.
6. They Still Sacrifice Animals
Modern Mayans living in true connection to their archaic rituals still believe in sacrificing living things to the gods. Whether this process has ever had an effect positive enough to outweigh the blood spilt on its behalf we cannot say. But at least the Mayans today are sacrificing animals instead of humans. From Angela M.H. Schuster in her essay, Rituals of the Modern Maya: “An elderly woman had come with a shaman bearing fresh eggs and a chicken. Egg in hand, the shaman traced the woman’s body several times, praying aloud as he worked. He then broke the egg into a bowl, the pattern of its yolk revealing the affliction. With further incantations and offerings, the shaman ‘transferred’ the illness to the chicken, which he then sacrificed by breaking its neck.”
5. Drink of the Gods
“Báalché” was a very popular drink among Maya people. It was made in a hollow canoe or log filled with water, honey, pieces of tree roots and the bark of the balché tree. The Maya believed the drink granted them magical powers. This could be true, or maybe it got them wasted enough to think they had magical powers. Either way, the Spanish colony banned its use since it interfered with their plan to convert the Mayan people into Christians. The ban was held until the Mayans managed to convince the Spanish that the drink had serious health benefits for their people, and some were dying as a result of its absence.
4. They Invented Zero
The first known appearance of zero as a mathematical concept was traced back to the ancient Sumerians — who preceded the Babylonians — around 5,000 years ago. However the Mayans, with no connection to Sumerian knowledge, found zero independently circa 4 A.D. They used the unit of nothingness initially as a placeholder in their calendars before using it in elaborate mathematical equations. According to Robert Kaplan from the Harvard University Mathematics department, the Mayan invention of zero is the “most striking example of the zero being devised wholly from scratch.”
3. They Never Said The World Would End In 2012
Since it’s 2015 and most of us are still around, it’s safe to say that those who read too deeply (or not deeply enough) into Mayan prophecies were wrong when they said the world would end in December 21, 2012. The fact is that the Mayans had more than one calendar. The one that interests us most is the long calendar, which states that 2012 would mark the end of an age. An age, not the world. The Mayans actually marked this date as something to be celebrated. They believed it to be the point in which humanity would begin moving toward a great spiritual awakening.
2. They Used To Get Really High
Say what you will about the Mayan rituals of human sacrifice and bodily deformation, but you can’t deny that those folks knew how to party. The use of psychedelics derived from natural elements flowed heavily through Mayan culture. Drugs such as psilocybin mushrooms, salvia divinorum and peyote were all commonly used. Aside from being used as painkillers, these drugs were considered spiritual gateways, linking the Mayan people to other worlds. Aside from eating or smoking the substances, the Maya also injected them through enemas, which is arguably less common nowadays.
1. They Had A Phenomenal Run
The Mayan civilization began in its most basic form around 2000 BC, and it continued to grow and survive until the fall of their last city in 1697. That’s 3,700 years of Mayan culture. To put it in perspective, North American civilization as we know it is only a little over 500 years old. Think of the mind-numbing complexity that can evolve within a civilization in nearly 4 millenia. Despite some insane rituals, there’s certainly a nugget of wisdom or two to be taken from the Maya and applied to our current situation. The Mayans had a great run, and we salute them for it.