Part Twelve of “The Americas Connected” series
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Photo Above: The evening before this early morning photo was made, Ana and I had helped eat the mother of these piglets at a Maya wedding feast, because the Campeche Maya caretaker at Labna had mistakenly believed that we were newlyweds and that I was someone important. I wore an INAH photo ID that allowed me to go anywhere in a Mexican archaeological zone. That night the orphans repeatedly tried to sleep beside us inside the hut at . . . let’s say . . . at a very inappropriate time. Furious, Ana chased them out into the jungle with a broom. Having adopted Ana as their new mother, the piglets crept back to the edge of the door of the Maya hut and slept beside the broom.
Joke of the century: Almost exactly ten years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokees’ Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists jointly issued a national press release that among other pejorative statements announced that, “Mr. Thornton does not know anything about the Aztecs or Mayas. He has never been in Mexico and probably never seen a Maya.” Actually, I AM part Maya and so was Ana. Does knowing a Maya in a biblical way, count? LOL
TV network documentaries on the Maya and “Olmec” civilizations consistently distort the actual history of southern Mesoamerica and never provide the viewers with an understanding of the region’s varying landscapes and rich cultural traditions.
True or False?
A recent TV documentary stated that the Olmecs suddenly abandoned their cities around 500 BC. The jungle soon covered all evidence of a great civilization that produced the first known writing system.
False! The Olmecs had nothing to do with the first civilization in southern Mexico. They were a primitive Nahua-speaking people, who arrived in Tabasco around 1100-1200 AD. However, the invasion by the Olmecs is probably what propelled the ancestors of the Upper Creeks to immigrate to what is now eastern Tennessee. The ancestors of these people, plus earlier immigrants from southern Mexico, brought with them the cultural traditions of this civilization. That is the reason that “Creek” towns were laid out like “Olmec” towns.
The large city of La Venta was abandoned, but that was probably more related to the population being too large to be supported by dwindling soil fertility. Several cities continued. New ones were founded in southern Veracruz. The most advanced cultural achievements, such as a writing system, occurred AFTER the so-called collapse of the Olmec Civilization. However, they stopped building super-sized earthen pyramids. This post-500 BC period is known as the Epi-Olmec Period.
North American archaeologist Mathew Stirling visited the on-going excavations by Mexican archaeologists in Tabasco and southern Veracruz in 1938 then published the first English-language article on these discoveries, but the report was worded in a way to make readers think that he had discovered the civilization. He labeled the ruins Olmec to distinguish them from Maya sites. When Mexican archaeologists heard about this, they pointed out that the Olmecs were newcomers, but no one, north of the border was listening.
Stirling also repeatedly had himself photographed beside monuments, excavated by Mexican archaeologists, then published the photos in his articles and books. Thus, until recently even articles in Wikipedia credited Stirling with “discovering” the Olmec Civilization.
While studying the ruins of the indigenous towns of Tabasco and Veracruz states, I had a distinct advantage. My fellowship coordinator was Dr. Román Piña Chan, curator of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and later, director of the Institutio Nacional de Anthropologia E Historia. He wrote THE book on the “Olmec” Civilization . . . La Cultura Madre . . . to coincide with the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. “Los Olmecas” was added in the second printing, because most people did not know what the first printing’s title was about.
True of False?
Between 800 AD and 1000 AD all of the Classic Period Maya cities were mysteriously abandoned and Maya civilization disappeared.
False! All of the Maya cities that you will be visiting in these videos were founded between 600 BC and 300 AD. They remained continuously occupied until at least the early 1500s AD, when a smallpox plague swept through the Yucatan Peninsula. A few of the small cities, such as Xculoc, remain occupied until this day.
Accessing the interior of Maya country
In 1970, only three Maya cities were easily accessible by tourists . . . Chichen Itza, Mayapan and Palenque. The first two handled several tour buses a day from Merida, Yucatan. Palenque was served by buses from Villahermosa. While on the fellowship, I had to figure out how to reach 35 other Maya city sites.
A combination of first, second and third class buses enabled me to easily reach all of the assigned archaeological sites in central and southern Mexico . . . except the Yucatan Peninsula. Of course, it might mean sitting beside chickens, turkeys or a pig, but all the third class buses stopped at INAH archaeological zones. However, in southern Yucatan state, eastern Campeche and most Quintano Roo there was minimal bus service and very few paved roads.
The problem was solved in Yucatan State by hiring a Maya taxi driver for a bargain daily rate. He was more than happy to stop, when I wanted to photograph scenery, architecture or an unexcavated Maya town site. However, the roads were paved in Yucatan. Many in Campeche and Quintano Roo could only be traversed by Jeeps or Land Rovers.
That problem was solved by hiring a rising senior at the University of Campeche in High School History Education, who was also studying to become a Licensed Bilingual Maya Civilization Guide for the INAH. She went on to get a PhD in Anthropology and became a highly respected expert on Maya dances and music.
Ana and I roamed the most remote parts of the Yucatan Peninsula for a week. She always said afterward that I was the only man, she ever knew, who loved to explore the wilderness as much as she did. You are going to see images that you have never seen before!
Part Three of the series on Campeche contains particularly interesting images. It covers the three days when Ana and I explored a region of Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo, which few tourists see even today. It is to be made accessible by the construction of the controversial “Maya Train.” We visited a large city’s ruins that has never been excavated. We passed by large scale burning of jungle lands for “slash and burn” agriculture . . . a practice that now has been out-lawed in Mexico.