Central American Civilizations: A Journey Through Time and Space

Over thousands of years, Central America has developed many civilizations that use different languages ​​and have significant cultural differences, but communicate closely with each other. In the pre-colonial period, Mexico was one of the six ancient civilizations in the world: the center of Mesoamerican civilization. Except for some Mayan ruins distributed in Guatemala, Honduras and other countries in Central America, most of the large-scale Central American civilization relics are located in Mexico.
From 1200 BC to 400 BC, the Olmec civilization developed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and is considered to be the mother body of all civilizations in Central America. The Olmec civilization has preserved a large number of carvings and handicrafts, and the giant stone statues are even more well-known.
During this journey, I visited the Mayan civilization in southeastern Mexico, the central plateau of Mexico, and the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico. They are the most important civilization development centers in Central America. I hope to outline the civilizations of Central America The history of their development, showing their different characteristics and the process of civilization exchange.
Calakmul: Reign of the Serpents

The Mayan civilization spread from southeastern Mexico to Honduras, centered on the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan civilization began in the pre-classical period of Central American civilization (2000 BC – 250 AD). The Maya began to settle and gradually developed from a small village to a city-state. Agriculture and pottery were fully developed. The Mayan civilization developed to its peak during the classical period (250-900 AD), and its architectural skills matured, creating many large city-states that have survived to this day. The writing and calendar at this stage are also unique in the entire Americas. The Maya writing system is the most mature writing system in the Americas, and the phonetic writing is composed of syllabic writing and glyphs. Each character has both ideographic and phonetic parts, which are quite similar to Chinese characters. Mayan characters are arranged in squares, similar to Chinese characters. The Mayans had their own book literature, paper made from the inner bark of the depilated banyan tree. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Mayan manuscripts were burned by the Spanish colonists. Most of the extant Mayan texts are stone inscriptions in city-state ruins. These inscriptions provide us with precious historical materials for reconstructing Mayan history, and also make Mayan civilization the most clear and detailed ancient American civilization with historical information. In addition to writing, the Mayans relied on a highly developed level of astronomical observation and developed a sophisticated calendar system. The date of the Mayan Long Calendar often appears on the inscriptions on stone tablets, so that when we trace Mayan historical events, we can be accurate to a certain day of a certain year, a certain month.

Olmec stone statues in the National Museum of Mexico

Most of the important Mayan city-states of the classical period were located in the dense forests of the southern Yucatan Peninsula. The city-states were either alliances or hostilities. Among them, Calakmul (Calakmul) in Mexico and Tikal (Tikal in Guatemala) had the most intense confrontation throughout the entire classical Maya era. As the two largest city-states at that time, they each had many allies, and several large-scale wars broke out.
The Calakmul site is located in the dense forest near the border with Guatemala in the southern part of Campeche, Mexico, and is still inconvenient to access. I set off from the nearby big city of Campeche, and it took me 3 hours to reach the entrance of the ruins area. I changed to an off-road vehicle and walked on a dirt road for another hour before finally arriving at the core area of ​​the ruins. The ruins are submerged in the tropical rainforest, and the towering pyramids emerge from the dense forest with a spire, not much different from when they were first discovered. Epiphytic orchids and bromeliads hang from the giant trees growing on the site, and the low-pitched calls of howler monkeys can be heard everywhere.
Calakmul (Calakmul) is what modern people call it, which means “the city of two connected pyramids” in Mayan. But according to Calakmul’s inscriptions, it was the capital of the city-state Kaan (meaning “snake” in Mayan), and was called Ox Te’ Tuun at the time. Therefore, the Calakmul Dynasty is known as the “Snake Dynasty”, and the image of the snake representing the city-state often appears in the inscriptions of other city-states.
At its peak, Calakmul was home to around 50,000 people. The current site covers an area of ​​about 2 million square meters and has about 1,000 buildings. The tallest building in the ruins, Pyramid Structure II, is over 45 meters high and covers an area of ​​about 120 square meters. It is one of the largest buildings in the Mayan civilization. This north-facing pyramid has been continuously expanded during the development of Calakmul. There are many steles describing historical events at the bottom, temples and tombs for religious ceremonies in the middle, and the royal palace where the royal family lives at the top.

The building used for astronomical observation in the Calakmul ruins, standing on its top, can determine the time of year according to the position of the sun falling on the opposite building.

The most notable building of the Palenque Palace is a four-story tower used for astronomical observations.

The tallest building in Palenque, the Cross Temple, is dedicated to the gods and symbolizes the source of imperial power.

The jade mask unearthed from the tomb of the 11th king of Calakmul is currently preserved in the museum of the city of Campeche.

In the southeast direction of Pyramid Structure II, there is also Pyramid Structure I with a height of 40 meters. In addition to mausoleums and temples, there are three round boulders near the base, which are considered to be the origin of the name “Three Stone City” in Calakmul. . These 3 stones will be exposed to direct sunlight at certain times of the year, and have the functions of astronomical observation and indicating the season. On both sides of the main square on the north side of the pyramid structure II, a group of building structures VI and IV facing each other are also used for astronomical observation. Standing on the platform at the top of the structure VI on the west side of the square, you can see the different positions of the opposite structure IV according to the sunlight , to determine the solstices and equinoxes of the year.

The pyramid structure VII on the north side of the main square once excavated the tomb of the 11th king of Calakmul (Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, reigned from 702 to 731), and the image of this king also appeared on the nearby stone tablet. The exquisite jade mask and various accessories unearthed from the mausoleum are currently preserved in the museum of the city of Campeche.
Palenque: The Pinnacle of Mayan Art

In addition to Tikal, Palenque (Palenque) in the west has also continuously challenged Calakmul’s supremacy. As a medium-sized city-state, although Palenque is not as large as Calakmul, it has the most exquisite architecture, reliefs and crafts of the Mayan civilization. Mayan art developed here to its peak.
At the center of Palenque is a complex royal palace, where administrative offices and ceremonies are held. The most notable building in the palace is a four-story tower for astronomical observations. There are a large number of lifelike figure reliefs on the stone pillars of the palace, showing the images of kings, warriors and priests, which fully embodies the realistic style of Mayan sculpture art. There are a large number of inscriptions on the stairs of room C, which record the history of Palenque’s fall by Calakmul in 599 and its revival under the leadership of Pakal the Great (603-683).

The Uxmal Magician Pyramid hovering around the vulture is about 28 meters high. Unlike other Mayan pyramids with sharp edges and corners, it presents a curved oval shape.

Reliefs in the temples of Palenque. On the right, the son of Bagal the Great dances, and on the left, the mother presents a deity symbolizing the royal family.

On the outer wall of Uxmal’s “Nun’s House”, there are exquisite images of rattlesnakes and rain god masks.

On the square in front of the Uxmal Palace, a two-headed lion statue is used as a throne.

The tallest building in Palenque is the Cross Temple, which is dedicated to the gods and symbolizes the source of imperial power. The visiting Spanish colonists attached the world tree in the murals to the cross in Christianity, hence the name. The Sun Temple next to the Cross Temple is dedicated to the Sun God, which symbolizes the king’s military power. One of the reliefs depicts the succession ceremony of the son of Pagar in 684, led by the dead Pagar. In the center of the relief is a sun shield surrounded by figures of various gods. Another temple is dedicated to the god of lightning, imperial power and agriculture, symbolizing the king’s productivity. There is another exquisite relief in the temple marked XIV next to the Sun Temple, which was created shortly after the death of the son of Bagal and his mother. You can see the son of Bagal on the right dancing, and the mother on the left presents the gods symbolizing the royal family .
In the Temple of Inscriptions to the southwest of the palace, there are a large number of inscriptions describing the history of Palenque and the life of Bagal. Among them is the tomb of Bagal the Great, whose coffin lid is one of the most outstanding works of art in the entire Maya and is now in the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico. The coffin lid depicts the process of Bagal’s ascension from the underworld to the heavenly realm. Like the maize god, he rises from a bowl painted with the sun symbol, and above him is a world tree symbolizing the heavenly realm. On the side of the coffin and on the wall of the tomb, there are portraits of Bagal’s ancestors.
Beginning in the 9th century, the classical Mayan city-states began to decline collectively. The cities were abandoned, the population decreased significantly, and the records of the steles came to an abrupt end. There are different theories about the reasons for the collapse of Classic Maya. Some people think that the long-term drought destroyed the Maya civilization that lacked surface runoff, or that inefficient agricultural production could not keep up with the rapid population growth. These prosperous city-states were gradually swallowed up by the jungle. The former allies and enemies have been lost in the long river of history together.
After the end of the classical period, the center of Mayan civilization shifted to the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. During the postclassical period of Mesoamerican civilization (900 AD to the Spanish conquest in 1521), the Mayan city-states still built a large number of magnificent buildings, but no more inscriptions were engraved, so we have no way of knowing more about the history.
Uxmal: Ornate and Intricate Mayan Decoration

Uxmal, located in the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula, is an important center for the transition of the Maya from the classical period to the post-classical period, and it is also one of the most exquisite Mayan ruins in existence. Uxmal flourished from the 7th to the 9th centuries and was abandoned around the 13th century. Its name may come from the Mayan word for “three reconstructions”, but this remains controversial. The Uxmal site is a representative of the Puuc architectural style. The Puuc building is gorgeous and elegant. It prefers to be decorated with geometric patterns, stone brick mosaics and Mayan false arches. The site also has a certain Chenes style. Embodied in the intricate reliefs and masks, both styles are highly decorative, like the “Baroque” in Mayan architecture.
The most magnificent building in Uxmal is the Magician’s Pyramid (Adivino), which is about 28 meters high. According to Mayan legend, it was built overnight by a magician. Unlike other angular Mayan pyramids, the Magician’s Pyramid has a curved oval shape. The entrance of the Che’en-style small temple on the pyramid is wrapped with exquisite masks and patterns, and a huge rain god mask (Chaac) is on top, making the entrance look like the mouth of a giant beast. The source of water is especially important to the Mayans, and the god of rain is at the center of the Mayan belief. In many buildings in Uxmal, you can see his image with an upturned long nose like an elephant.
Behind the pyramid is a rectangular square, which the colonists called the Nunnery because it resembled a European monastery. The buildings on the north side of the square have the most complicated decorations. On the walls, you can see various exquisite sculptures of animals and gods, such as owls, rattlesnakes, etc., as well as triangular Mayan false arches. The load-bearing effect of the stacked arch is far inferior to that of the real arch. Many Mayan false arches were sealed and blocked in the later stage, probably to prevent collapse.
In the north of the pyramid, there is an exquisite building called the royal palace, which is nearly 100 meters long and is the longest existing building in Central American civilization. A two-headed lion statue on the square in front of the palace was used as a throne. The decoration of the outer wall of the palace is a typical Puke style, full of mosaic patterns, you can see eagles and abstract swirling snake patterns. There is also a unique temple decorated with turtle reliefs near the palace. Since turtles are closely related to water, this temple may also be used for water-related sacrifices.

Walking in Uxmal, it is hard to imagine that these fine carvings were made by craftsmen more than a thousand years ago. Standing on the hillside of the royal palace, vultures hovering over the top of the magician’s pyramid, everything looks like it was thousands of years ago. I couldn’t help but think of the verses of Uxmal, a Mexican poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature: “When the sun blinks, time is emptied in an instant, and the bird hovers in the air.”
Chichen Itza and Tulum: Post-Classical Maya

Due to its proximity to the resort town of Cancun, Chichén Itzá, more than 100 kilometers east of Uxmal, has become the most visited Mayan site. Chichen Itza means “the mouth of the well in Itza” in Mayan language. It arose in the late classical period and reached its peak in the post-classical period from 900 to 1200 AD, slightly later than Uxmal, and the latter may There is an alliance. At this time, the influence of the Toltec (Toltec) civilization in the central plateau of Mexico had spread here, bringing the belief of the feathered snake god (kukulcán). The center of Chichen Itza is the 24-meter-high Feathered Serpent Temple. Every spring and autumn equinoxes, the setting sun casts a serpentine shadow at the corner of the temple, and gradually descends as the setting sun sets, just like the Feathered Serpent God descending on the world.
The Warrior Temple to the southeast of the Feathered Serpent Temple is very similar to the temple in the Tula (Tula) site near Mexico City, the center of the Toltec civilization. There are a large number of stone pillars carved with warrior images in front of the temple. At the top of the temple are stone pillars engraved with the image of Feathered Serpent and a stone statue of Chacmool. Chac Moore is a symbol of a dead warrior. It is half-lying on its back in human form, with its head on its side, and various sacrifices including the heart of a human sacrifice can be placed on its abdomen.
Chichen Itza also has the largest court in Mesoamerican civilization, with a length of 166 meters. Similar courts can be seen at many Mesoamerican sites. In ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, the game of ball was a ritual activity that pleased the nobility and had religious connotations. Players need to send the ball across the stone ring in the center of the court with their elbows, waist and knees. There are stone slabs carved with images of players on both sides of the court, and you can see the scene where the captain of one side beheads the captain of the other. The executioner holds a knife in one hand and a head in the other. The blood of the beheaded turned into a python gushing out from the neck like a starburst.
From Chichen Itza to the Caribbean coast, the ruins of Tulum against the blue sea and blue sky are particularly beautiful. Tulum, built between 1200 and 1450, was the last major city-state built by the Mayans before being conquered by Spain. The Temple of the Winds guards the entrance to the bay of Tulum, and the thick city walls play a defensive role, showing the unstable local situation at the end of the post-classical period of Mesoamerican civilization and the urgency to strengthen defenses.

Chichen Itza has the largest court in Mesoamerican civilization, with a length of 166 meters. Similar courts can be seen at many Mesoamerican sites. Figure 1 is the ring for pitching in the center of the field.

The center of Chichen Itza is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent 24 meters high. Every spring and autumn equinoxes, the setting sun casts a serpentine shadow at the corner of the temple, and gradually descends as the setting sun sets, just like the Feathered Serpent God descending on the world.

A unique and exquisite carving in Tulum’s style – the descending god in the temple of the descending, with his feet facing up and his hands facing down in front of his head, showing a posture of descending from the sky.

The extensive use of stone pillars for support in the building is one of the characteristics of the Mayan architecture on the east coast represented by Tulum, which has the flavor of a Greek temple. Located in the center of Tulum is a 7.5-meter-high pyramid with python patterns carved on its lintels. Tulum also has some exquisite carvings in a unique style, such as the Descending God in the Temple of the Descending, with its feet facing upwards and hands placed in front of its head downwards, showing a posture of descending from the sky. There are also shocking large-scale mask reliefs on the four corners of the mural temple, which are speculated to be the image of Itzamna, the god of creation.
The Mayan ancestors in the 16th century, perhaps in the Temple of Fengshen, overlooked the first group of Spaniards who visited by boat. Due to the humid and hot climate in the Yucatan area, it is not suitable for living, and it is covered by tropical rainforest, making it difficult to cultivate. The Spaniards have always lacked interest in this area, which makes the Mayan civilization suffer much less damage than its neighbors in central Mexico. . Today’s Mayan descendants still speak Mayan. Many Mayan city-state ruins are still waiting to be rediscovered by archaeologists.

error: Content is protected !!