We’ve all heard the phrase ‘it’s not set in stone’, but in Chichen Itza it is.
Over 2,ooo years ago Mayans built enormous stone buildings, temples and pyramids in some of the hardest places to live imaginable. They adorned these structures with carvings to reflect their surroundings. In 1984, I climbed to the top of the Mayan’s highest pyramid, found in the ancient city of Tikal, deep in the northern jungle of Guatemala. I stood on top of the altar and, as I looked over the wide expanse of jungle, I was compelled to raise my hands above my head like an ancient warrior who had conquered the earth.
Every Mayan settlement tells a story about their relationship with the environment, from the seemingly impenetrable resource-rich jungles of Guatemala where Mayan buildings are still being discovered, to the marine lookout of the northern Yucatan’s Isla Mujeres, used by the Mexican Coast Guard today.
Chichen Itza is not only an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but is also considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This ancient city, located in the heart of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, was thought to have had the most diversity in the Mayan Kingdom. This diversity can be seen in the structures and art derived from Mexican influences and that of all other ancient Mayan cities. The influences were cultivated through trade from the oceans, central Mexico, and the southern regions.
To get there I drove more than an hour from the Caribbean coast, through a monkey refuge in a large mangrove forest. Even early in the morning the park was full of international tourists, all there to get a look at what human civilization looked like 2,000 years ago. The bustling crowd gave one an idea of what this city was like originally when fifty thousand people inhabited it. As you walk down the streets from temples to outlying structures there are countless merchant booths selling handmade souvenirs of Mayan culture while iguanas walk across ancient stones engraved with depictions of local animals, war, and people.
The largest pyramid in Chichen Itza, The Temple of Kukulcan, is about eighty feet tall, smaller than the Maya’s largest in Tikal at one hundred feet. This may be a natural reflection of the shorter local forest system, still allowing for the necessary trajectory of the sun and moon to accentuate the pyramids astronomical aspects, like the 365 steps, snake features, and windows and doors of other buildings. The population was only half of Tikal’s one hundred thousand. However, the ball court in Chichen Itza is six times larger than that of Tikal, at 166 meters long by 68 meters wide, with 12 meters high walls; no doubt an early influence of Mexican futbol.
At the end of one of the streets is a giant cenote, a Mayan word for accessible ground water. Here I took a break in the shade from the tropical heat and listened to the jungle as I gazed over the aqua green water. With the impacts of this large civilization, it’s understandable that pollution of the drinking water from the cenotes may have played a role in the collapse of the Mayan empire. Lack of clean water, pollution, famine, and war are all problems associated with overpopulation and continue to plague the sustainability of civilizations today.
Mayan cities like Chichen Itza are great examples of ancient ecology economies. It is through the depictions and evidence of their relationship with the environment, the use of their resources, and geography that help us come to some understanding of the Mayans and their civilizations. These cities stand as indicators to the size, scope and strength of the great Mayan empire and leave us asking, ‘what happened to the Mayans?’ Was it War? Was it overpopulation? Was it a destruction of their environment? What could they have done to make their civilization sustainable?
What lessons can we learn from these ancient people and the remnants of their existence? What warnings should we heed about our own civilization and how we walk the earth? What brought about their demise and how can we avoid a similar path?
Information on Maya history and architecture is available through UNESCO World Heritage. Boyd Smith can be contacted for further information on the Maya or any sustainable environment issues.