Unlike the Aztec, the ancient Maya were not empire builders. Instead, they formed independent polities. Their common culture, calendar, mythology and spiritual view of the world united them as Maya – True People, Halach Winik.

Each polity was ruled by it’s own dynastic nobility. The Maya ruling class claimed a divine lineage — theirs was the bloodline of the gods. No doubt there were alliances between polities, cemented by marriage and trade agreements. A vast network of paved routes and rivers, including the vast Usumacinta, facilitated trade and travel between cities.

During the Classic Period, great cities thrived in the Peten area, including Tikal, Uaxactun, Caracol, Copan, Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, Calkmul and Palenque. Apparently they fell victim to their own success. Some believe that populations grew faster than their agricultural system could sustain them, and the elite class grew top-heavy with would-be heirs. Warfare, originally engaged in to capture sacrificial victims, escalated into to a way of life. Artistic pursuits were abandoned in lieu of armaments. Within a generation the majestic Classic civilization had fallen apart. The Maya people abandoned their cities along with their embattled leadership, and started anew. By the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Maya had reorganized themselves into thousands of agrarian, communal-based clans throughout the Yucatan.

Contrary to the "Divide and Conquer" maxim, it was the Maya’s fractured political structure that thwarted attempts by the Conquistadors to conquer them. Cortez could take down the entire Aztec Empire, by simply toppling Tenochttilan. But conquest of the Maya would require winning battles with hundreds of individual clans scattered throughout the Yucatan. The campaign of foreigners to dominate and assimilate the Maya continues today, from the blatant attacks of government backed paramilitary gangs, and the intimidation of military troop build-ups, to the more insidious destruction of their culture by seemingly well-intentioned missionaries.

Throughout centuries of trials and tribulations, the Maya people have withstood the ravages of natural and manmade disasters. Along the way they have had to modify their religious and political systems as needed to survive. And yet, through it all, the Maya have retained a culture that is both unique and admirable. While pharmaceutical giants rush to rob them of their ancient medicinal knowledge, and oil-hungry nations contrive to steal the black blood in their underworld, and archaeologists search the ruins of their kingdoms for ancient remains, perhaps we are missing the greatest treasure the Maya have to offer us – that strength that sustains them; that resilience that resurrects them after every possible tragedy; that communal pride that binds them; that Maya way of life.

READ MORE ABOUT IT
A Forest of Kings : The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya
by Linda Schele, David Freidel (Contributor)
$14.36, Paperback, January 1992
Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City
by Carolyn Elaine Tate
$45.00, Hardcover, April 1992
Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya
by William L. Fash
Paperback, May 1993, 0500277087
The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City
by Peter Harrison, Colin Renfrew, Jeremy A. Sabloff
$42.00, Hardcover, July 1, 1999
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