Timeless pursuits

A new interpretation of texts from a civilisation that flourished 1,000 years ago reveals its uncanny similarity with modern times

Published: Sunday 15 January 1995

Mayan hero Quetzalcoatl depict (Credit: Mexican Embassy)Although the Mayan civilisation of central America flourished almost 1,000 years ago, archaeologists are increasingly intrigued by the modern echoes of its political and social life.

A generation ago, when its language was still Greek to researchers, the Mayan civilisation was imagined to be a haven for mystics and astronomer-priests. But the cracking of the Mayan script belied this image. Researchers narrated a fascinating story of political intrigue and brinkmanship among warring city-states. Now, a new interpretation of Mayan texts by epigraphers Simon Martin of University College, London, and Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn in Germany has drawn uncanny parallels between the Mayan civilisation and modern times (Science, Vol 266, No 5184).

Martin and Grube find that the small city-states in the Mayan civilisation were divided into loosely knit "empires", as in 16th century Spain. These little empires were subdivided into 2 chief political entities, just like the modern NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Force and intermarriage were the chief instruments of making vassal states stay loyal to a particular organisation.

Even more intriguing, the researchers speculate that one of the camps may have fallen apart, like the erstwhile Soviet Union, in the middle of the 8th century, leading to Balkanisation and prolonged strife. This theory, if validated, could explain the mysterious collapse of the Mayan civilisation in AD 800.

But detractors of Martin and Grube's work say they may be taking the texts too literally. They concede that there were some domineering hierarchies in the Mayan politics, but to say that marriages, leagues, warfare, and other realities of Mayan life were part of a superpower culture is a little far-fetched, they contend.

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