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Ancient Maya Culture Brought Back to Life In Old Europe

An exhibition currently underway at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau museum showcases 300 artifacts from the ancient Mayan civilization.

Ancient Maya Culture Brought Back to Life In Old Europe
Martin-Gropius-Bau museum
Berthold Seewald

BERLIN — The fascinating history of the Maya is often overlooked in Europe, where Greeks and Roman reigned supreme. It's been more than two decades since Germany has seen a major exhibit on the Maya, the pre-Columbian people who shaped large parts of Mesoamerica for 1,500 years. Now, running through August 7 at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau museum is a truly remarkable exhibition, produced together with Mexico City's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) to kick off the German-Mexican Year of Culture.

The exhibit can only be described in superlatives. Instead of filling display cabinets with an excessive number of artifacts, curators chose only 300 pieces from the Mexican collections, and used this selection to help 21st-century Europeans better understand a culture so very different from their own.

The Maya did not have many of the advantages enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans. They had no draught animals, no metals that could be used for making tools, no carts or wheels, no throwing wheels for pottery. They could not engage in intercontinental trade or expeditions on the high seas.

Nevertheless, they followed their human instinct, which also meant that their culture included some very gory rituals. In the Mayan belief system, blood and twitching hearts were the only means of ensuring the earth's fertility, and so the Maya provided plenty of both through ritual sacrifice.

Inscriptions on Mayan ruins speak of endless wars among city states between 250 and 900 A.D., the Golden Age of the Maya. Entire cities were destroyed, the elite sacrificed and survivors enslaved. Kings and rulers, too, had to make personal sacrifices to preserve their status: depictions of nobles stabbing their penises with bone daggers to sway the Gods are among the most brutal rituals that testify to this.

Burning hair, sawing teeth

Very little Mayan written history remains due to the Spanish invasion; Franciscan inquisitor Diego de Landa is believed to have played a large role in the destruction of Mayan texts in the 16th century. Ironically, however, Landa's own Account on the Affairs of Yucatan was later used to decipher most of the Mayan hieroglyphs and interpret Mayan art and rituals.

His report, in essence a justification for the Spanish invasion, shed light on Mayan life and rituals. Tattoos, for example, were created by cutting the skin and then filling it in with earth or stones. Hair was burned rather than cut, owing to the absence of scissors. And one particularly painful adolescent ritual had the goal of filing teeth down "so they resembled a saw."

Unlike cultures of Mediterranean antiquity, Mayan civilization was structured around a deep respect for animals: The Maya believed that every animal had a divine counterpart. For this reason, birds, apes, dogs and large cats often appear in Mayan art, sometimes looking quite lifelike, and other times rather stylized.

Their image of the Gods was shaped by the extreme dualism the Maya perceived in nature: for instance, the sun could both nurture life and cause drought. Thus, in the Mayan view, the Gods were equally capable of creating the most wonderful things and bringing about demonic destruction.

Endless wars and a gradual depletion of natural resources appear to have led to the demise of the Maya, even more than the Spanish invasion. By 900 A.D., the Yucatan Peninsula and its metropolis Chichén Itzá saw the end of the Mayan heyday. Southern Mayan metropolises vanished from around 1000 — 1527 A.D., and northern cities' power soon waned, as well. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, it was easy for them to overpower what little remained of a once-great culture.

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