Exploring and learning about ancient cultures is one of the most rewarding things about travel. Cultivating an understanding of the powerful communities that came before our own, helps us appreciate both historic and modern-day social structures.
It’s one of the reasons I so often encourage travelers to seek out these experiences and adventures. Sure, go to the beach, enjoy that Margarita, go snorkeling. But don’t miss the opportunity when traveling to grasp something about the majesty of the ground you are standing on and the hundreds of generations of people who have walked it, worked it, became part of it in their end.
Cradle of Civilization
We have spent the last four months in Central America, where several amazing cultures played a significant role, long before the Spanish arrived. One of the most ancient of these was the Maya people. Considered one of the six “cradles of civilization” world-wide, the Central American countries of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador were home to this fascinating civilization. To clarify the term Cradle of Civilization, here is Wikipedia’s explanation;
“The term cradle of civilization has frequently been applied to a variety of cultures and areas, in particular the Ancient Near Eastern Chalcolithic (Ubaid period) and Fertile Crescent, Ancient India and Ancient China. It has also been applied to ancient Anatolia, the Levant and Iranian plateau, and used to refer to culture predecessors—such as Ancient Greece as the predecessor of Western civilization.”
Our travels have taken us to ancient lands of Egypt, Jordan, India and Bangladesh. We have also learned fascinating ancient history about Eastern Europe, Northern and Eastern Africa, China, Southeast Asia, and Greece. And so it was with great interest that I began to understand that right here in Central America another great civilization thrived.
The Maya People
But before I go on please understand that Maya is a living culture. More than half the population of present day Guatemala are Mayan. Though the ancient civilization communities are no more, the Mayan people continue their traditions.
The oldest Mayan findings are in Belize, dating back to 2600 BC. Ruins of great civilizations are strewn all around this
region, some excavated, many not. Archeologists don’t all agree as to what caused the demise of the massive Maya communities in approximately 900 AD (well before the Spanish arrived). But warfare between cities, over production of the land and drought are all thought to have contributed.
The Maya people, like many other ancient civilizations, had an advanced calendar, written language and hierarchical social structure. They were known as great architects (hence so many temples and entire cities still standing), artists, weapon developers and cultivators of the land. They used the local raw materials in remarkable ways. In Guatemala the cultivation of the cacao was (and is) important and cacao was used as currency.
In addition it is known that they believed cacao offered both a cure and a sacrifice, and drinking cacao mixed with blood was a common ritual as was bloodletting.
Visiting Mayan Ruins
During our time in Central America we visited many interesting ruins; two in El Salvador, four in Belize and the granddaddy of all, Tikal (outside the town of Flores) in Guatemala. Each offered its own perspective on the rich and powerful Maya tribes.
Today Maya people in these countries can trace their ancestry back to these ancient societies and be very proud. Many local Maya work hard to preserve the culture, arts and traditions and share them with visitors. However, the Maya, particularly in the poorest countries like Guatemala, struggle. During the Spanish occupation and more recent political unrest the Maya have been continually pushed out of their lands…many to the mountainous regions no one else wanted. Today you will find them subsisting in agricultural communities in the hard-scrabble rocky soil, or in the more populated cities such as Antigua selling crafts or food products.
I was particularly struck by the beauty of the Maya women, the colorful traditional clothing they still maintain today and the sense that family, hard work and religion is their life’s priority.
During my short time in beautiful Central America I have been intrigued and surprised by the beauty of the people and the geography and especially intrigued by the history of the ancient people. Muy Bien! A fabulous experience when visiting Central America.
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