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 â€" 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 â€" 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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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