Lamanai - Maya Site

Many people who visit The Belize Zoo also travel to various Maya Sites throughout Belize. The following post describes one of those sites from our group trip to Belize at the beginning of January 2009.

On Tuesday, January 6th, our group got up early and had breakfast at 7 a.m. and departed on our bus for our trip to the Lamanai Maya Site. The bus ride was about 90 minutes long, and Peter, our guide, took that time to get on the mic and provide a very good historical overview of the Maya. We arrived at a boat launch on the New River to take a large tour speed boat to the Lamanai site. The boat ride was also about 90 minutes long. Our boat driver Amad had an eagle-eye for spotting birds along the way, and he would slow the boat down to show us various birds and plants and wildlife.

This was my second Maya site visit. Two years ago, we visited Xunantunich, located south and west of Lamanai.

Some of the things that Peter shared with us:

**There are many ancient cultures -- Aztecs, Incas, cultures in Asia and Africa. The Maya is believed to be the oldest civilization.

**Evidence has led to the opinion that ancient humans came to the New World via the Bering Strait (Russia-Alaska-South to Mexico) hunting large animals. Different tribes chased different animals, and drove those animals to extinction.

**The last ice age was approximately 10-11,000 years B.C. Over the years, hunters evolved to settlers and began planting corn and vegetables, domesticating plants. They stuck around rather than moving to wait for harvests. They began to develop pottery to store food.

**The Maya Chronology spans approximately 3000 years -- somewhere between 1500 B.C. to somewhere between 1340 A.D. There were three stages, Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic. The Pre-Classic spanned from approximately 1500 B.C. to approximately 300 A.D.; The Classic period was from approximately 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., and the Post-Classic was from approximately 1000 to 1340 A.D. The latter period was marked by decline and starvation -- believed largely to be a result of overpopulation and overuse of resources, coupled with probable drought.

**At peak, there were up to 20 million people in the Maya world. While other cultures had many similar aspects to the Maya (same sports, worship of multiple Gods, plaza architecture, governments), the Maya surpassed others in a key area: communication. They were the first tribe of ancient man to be classified as a civilization. They were the only culture that had a writing system -- hieroglyphics. (The Olmec culture of Mexico had a symbolic system, but the Maya refined the pictographic to ideographic in terms of writing.)

**The Maya mastered mathematics, construction, astronomy (they plotted the eclipses) and they created a perfect calendar! (They actually had two calendars -- a sacred/ceremonial calendar of 260 days, and then a long calendar for calculating the reigns of leaders). Some Maya sites were considered to be astronomy observatories. Others were trading posts.

**Lamanai is the second largest Maya site in Belize (only Caracol is larger). It is accessible by boat, and it is distinguished as the longest occupied site in all of the Maya world (probably due in large part to the fact that it had plentiful supplies of water.) Lamanai was a trading site (jade, obsidian, flint stone).

**The Maya didn't "disappear" or collapse quickly. It was a slow long process, and there are still descendants of the Maya today. The population of the Maya dramatically decreased in the Post-Classic period. They began to reuse/renovate buildings, by building over previous structures. They did not do a lot of new construction during this period, making it very hard for archaeologists to analyze.

**The Maya world is a fairly small area -- 100,000 square miles -- Yucutan Peninsula. The Maya map stretches across five states in Mexico, all of Belize, all of Guatemala, and the northeastern parts of El Salvador and Honduras. Archaeologists define the area by pottery, tools, masonry construction style and evidence of the culture (plants and trees).

**Approximately 100 years ago, sites were often discovered by chicle farmers/workers/hunters. Sometimes the sites would be reported and sometimes not. Today, NASA imagery helps to locate sites through analysis of topography and plant coloration. Culture influences or gives advantages to certain kinds of trees, so often near Maya sites, the trees they used are still growing: Breadnut, Copal, Cohun, Silver Thatch Palm, Ceiba.

**The Maya had raised roads/networks for communication. The rulers wore special feather headdresses and regalia. The burials did not involve mummification; the bodies were wrapped in cloth. Archaeologists found skeletal remains with necklaces, bracelets, anklets. The amount of jade is believed to indicate status. Sometimes people were buried with items that symbolized their roles in life. A musician would be buried with an instrument. A warrior with a weapon, etc. They were buried with food, pottery, water, etc. in order to navigate through the nine levels of the underworld before emerging to a new life after death.

**Rulers would be buried in a room of a house, and that room would then be filled in to serve as a foundation for the room of the next ruler, usually a descendant, to be built on top of it. The Maya believed that the first house/building had "life," so they would take some element of the prior structure and build it into the new structure (tricky for archaeologists to figure out). Different times would have different building styles, and the rooms would be built up and up.

**Lamanai was excavated between 1974 and 1986. Dr. David Pendergrass of the Royal Ontario Museum was the chief investigator, and the decision was made to map, but not uncover, all the buildings in the interest of true preservation. There were 714 buildings over a 4.5 square mile area located. Pendergrass noted that the quality of materials appeared to decline from the Pre-Classic to the Mid-Classic period (a phenomenon not unfamiliar to us even today . . . sometimes our older homes are made with much better quality materials than our newer homes.)

**It was determined that when the Spanish arrived at Lamanai in 1644 A.D., they met an active Lamanai Maya site -- one of only 2 active sites found by the Spaniards. Others had all been abandoned.

**The story is that the Spanish built a Catholic Church at Lamanai. When they left for Spain, the Maya burned it, and had buried a ceramic icon under the door depicting a human in a crocodile's mouth (with jaguar spots on the croc). When the Spanish returned 20 years later, they were angry to make the discovery of the burned church. So, they made Maya labor build another church. When they left again to go to Spain, de ja vu, the Maya burned it, burying another ceramic icon depicting a human in a crocodile's mouth. These two icons are pictured here, with a bit of the glare of the glass encasements from the museum center. I don't know about you, but if I were the Spanish back then, I would have taken these acts as a very clear rejection of their forced Christianity.

**It is estimated that at its peak in the Mid-Classic period, between 40,000 and 60,000 people lived at Lamanai. We looked at the epicenter of the plaza where the ruler class/government would have been located in stone and masonry structures with steep stairs. There would have been compounds for farmers and lower classes located in raised wooden structures with thatched roofs around the periphery.

**Rulers would have had knowledge due to their precise calendars. They could predict the agricultural cycles, rain, etc, which gave them power over their people. They had a large agricultural economy (not hunters largely), and the rulers would have history, both literal and symbolic, in being built atop their ancestors, which would reinforce their power and prestige. They knew geometry, shown in construction, and they had irrigation systems. Their knowledge was written down (until the Spanish burned all but three texts in order to write their own version -- none of which is maintained in Belize. One is in Germany, one is in Mexico, and one is split into two locations, and I didn't catch where).

**All in all, we spent about three hours hiking through the site, with beautiful lush trees and vegetation all around us. At about 2 p.m. we had a lunch, brought in by Amad, cooked by his mother. It was a most delicious stewed chicken, rice and beans, coleslaw, potato salad, homemade salsa, and soda in a bottle. It was a traditional Belizean meal, and food never tasted so good as it did that afternoon.

On the bus ride home, we discussed why the Maya declined. There are many theories including that the lower classes abandoned Maya civilization out of frustration with the upper class's failure to mitigate the drought, hunger and warfare among sites. Some may have wandered off/dispersed to farm their own lands. Overpopulation is believed to have contributed to the downfall of the Maya. They had likely deforested the land in the height of the Classical period; there was climate change and lack of resources at a time of great population growth. The natural resources were stripped due to overpopulation.
There are still Maya today, and a large number of Mestizos (Maya-Spanish descendants). A census of Maya was conducted recently, and it found that there are 11.5 people of Maya ancestry, half of which are direct descendants. Twenty percent of the Yucatan Peninsula is Maya, and many are in Guatemala.

We climbed to the top of N10-43, above. It was very steep, indeed. The photo on the right and below are from the top!

Below is our group shot, with our wonderful group of 16! Notice Matt is at the top of the pyramid. Also below is a little someone we saw on our boat ride back.

** As always, to see a photo or map in greater detail, click on the image to enlarge.

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