Posted by: ktzefr | December 13, 2012

10 Things the Maya got right…

1)  Architecture.  They were outstanding architects and builders.  El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza in Yucatan is almost 80 feet high.  Each side has 91 steps and with the addition of the top platform equal 365 — one for each day of the year.  It has perfect proportions and at the spring and fall equinoxes thousands of people gather to watch the shadow of Kukulcan appear to slither down the side of the pyramid.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Photo:KFawcett

El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Photo:KFawcett

2)  The calender.  The Maya developed a highly accurate calender based on their study of astronomy.  El Caracol (The Snail) is one of the few round buildings they built.  There’s a spiral staircase inside this observatory and eight tiny windows precisely aligned with the points of the compass rose.  Maya priests studied the planets and stars and were able to accurately predict the orbits of Venus and the moon, as well as the appearance of comets and eclipses.

Observatory, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Photo:KFawcett

Observatory, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Photo:KFawcett


3)  Zero.  Although there are different theories as to the origin of the concept of zero (“much ado about nothing” — Scientific American), it occurred independently in the New World — in the Mayan culture.

4)  Hieroglyphic writing.  The style and complexity of Maya glyphs are like no other writing system.  All of our words come from combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Maya words are formed from various combinations of nearly 800 signs.

Glyphs on the columns of the marketplace, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Photo:KFawcett

Glyphs on the columns of the marketplace, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Photo:KFawcett

5)  Chocolate and Vanilla.  In the same forests where Mayans grew cacao for chocolate hundreds of years ago, they also grew orchids that produce vanilla.  New research (according to Smithsonian magazine) suggests that the Mayans were the first to hybridize two species to make the popular Tahitian vanilla.

6)  Hammocks.  Did the Mayans invent hammocks?  I couldn’t find a definitive answer, but notes about Christopher Columbus “discovering” hammocks on his travels to the Americas pop up in a number of searches.  One thing is certain — the Mayans do it better.  Yucatecan artisans are known for creating some of the best hamacas in the world.  They even make king-sized hammocks for two and familiares or matrimoniales especiales for the entire family.  (Yucatecans tend to be small and lie diagonally in hammocks.)

7)  Chicken.   Pollo Pibil — chicken cooked in banana leaves.  In the Yucatan the traditional chicken is cooked in a pib, a pit that is dug in the ground and lined with hot coals and stones.  But it can also be cooked on the stove.  You can check out a traditional recipe for Pollo Pibil and watch how it is made at Cocina al Natural (the video is in Spanish, but if you don’t speak Spanish you can still see how the preparation is done to approximate a pib, if you don’t want to dig a hole in the yard).

8) Chewing gum.  Although people round the world have been chewing on natural materials for centuries, our sweet chicle-based gum comes from the same source the Mayans used — the sap of the sapodilla tree that grows naturally in the Yucatan Peninsula.

9)  Acoustics.  Chichen Itza’s main ball court is almost 500 feet long.  Juego de Pelota is the largest in Mesoamerica.  Yet, if you stand at one end of the playing field and whisper something to a friend at the other end, you will be heard.

10) Saunas.  The ancient Maya created the sweat bath or the zumpul-che.  It’s similar to the modern-day sauna, but sweat baths were constructed of stone walls and ceilings with a small hole in the top.  Water is poured onto hot rocks creating the steam inside.  The Maya believed the baths sweated out impurities and they were used when someone was ill or needed to be revitalized or just refreshed.

No, the Maya did not predict the world would end this month.  The ancient Mayans would celebrate as we celebrate every year on New Year’s Eve — the ending of one calendar year and the beginning of the next.  For the Mayans this month would mark the end of their long-count calender and the beginning of a New Age.


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  1. […] See also “10 Things the Maya Got Right” […]

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