by William Latham
Ruins, Tikal Nat'l Park
Photo: José Carlos Flores
Guatemala is, unquestionably, the heart of the Maya world. Within its territory, the Mayas' greatest cities flourished, centers of commerce and culture for the Meso-American region. The greatest of these, Tikal, attracts thousands of visitors every year, but there are hundreds of other archaeological sites that scientists have not even begun to study. Guatemala City itself is built on the ruins of an impressive Maya city known as Kaminaljuyu.
Exactly what led to the collapse of Old Maya civilization remains a mystery, but today's Maya people retain many of the cultural traits associated with their ancestors. Maya culture permeates contemporary Guatemala, where two dozen Maya languages are spoken by more than 4 million people. Native traditions, such as agriculture, weaving and the count of days in the Maya calendar, have survived the influence of Spanish culture, missionaries, radio, television, and, most recently, globalization and the Internet.
Visitors to Guatemala's museums, archaeological sites, markets and towns will find themselves immersed in a living Maya culture, witnesses to the history of a complex and fascinating civilization that began more than 2, 000 years ago and continues to this day.
In the 16th century, an anonymous, native Guatemalan author wrote the country's greatest literary work, now known as the Popol Vuh, or the Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya Quiché. The book relates the history of the Maya-Quiché people, from the beginning of time, when the earth and human beings were created, to the moment of the Spanish conquest.
Sylvanus G. Morely, an authority on the Maya, has written that the Popol Vuh "is, beyond any shadow of doubt, the most distinguished example of Native American literature ... it is written in an exalted and elegant style, and is an epic of the most distinguished literary quality."
In the opening pages of the story, the creators Gucumatz and Tepeu, hidden under green and blue feathers beneath the water, decide to create earth, light, mountains, trees and animals. Then they try their hand at making men and women. First they attempt to make man of mud, but "he did not move, had no strength, he fell down, he was limp, he could not move his head, his face fell to one side."
The mud men were destroyed, and a second attempt was made with wood, "but they did not have souls, nor minds, they did not remember their Creator; they walked on all fours, aimlessly." Finally, the Creators hit on the magic formula of using corn dough (to this day, Guatemala's dietary staple), and the new humans "conversed, saw and heard, walked, grasped things... they were endowed with intelligence."
The stories of the Popol Vuh had undoubtedly been passed from generation to generation of the Maya, both orally and by written hieroglyphics. Today they constitute a rich legacy for archaeologists, piecing together the Cosmo vision of the Old Maya, for Guatemalan artists, who frequently return to the Popol Vuh for inspiration in their paintings, sculptures and literature, and for everyone who is interested in learning more about this fascinating civilization.
In the 19th-century, scientists began to explore the ruins of Old Maya cities, and have since painstakingly deciphered hieroglyphic accounts of their histories. One of the milestones in this work was the discovery that some hieroglyphs are used as phonetic markers for words from a language similar to those spoken by contemporary Maya. Guatemala's written history dates from the first century BC, when the Maya carved the earliest, dated inscription found so far in the country.