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15 Facts About the Maya Civilization

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Across Mesoamerica today, you can find sprawling ancient cities with towering pyramids, ballcourts, saunas, monumental sculptures, and enigmatic hieroglyphs—all thanks to the Maya. Here are 15 things you might not know about this ancient civilization.

1. THEIR PYRAMIDS AND CITIES ARE STILL BEING DISCOVERED.

It’s amazing to think that something as large as a pyramid could elude archaeologists today. But it was only a few years ago that a Maya pyramid more than 1000 years old was discovered at Toniná in the Mexican state of Chiapas. It had been hidden under what was believed to be a natural hill. In 2015, researchers said this newfound monument was actually Mexico’s tallest pyramid at 246 feet (75 meters) in height, surpassing the 213-foot Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. The ruins of two Maya cities concealed by thick vegetation were also recently discovered in Mexico’s state of Campeche.

2. THEY WERE CHOCOLATE EATERS.

Over 3500 years ago, the Olmecs of Mesoamerica became probably the first to realize that with some work you could consume chocolate, but the Maya turned it into an art form. Archaeological evidence suggests the Maya were processing cacao at least 2600 years ago; the chemical signatures of cacao have been found in Maya ceramic vessels in Guatemala that date back to 600 BCE. But the drink they produced wasn’t anything like the hot chocolate we drink today. The Maya would mix cacao with water, honey, chili peppers, cornmeal, and other ingredients to make a foamy, spicy drink. Maya art and hieroglyphs suggest drinking cacao was an important part of celebrations and rituals; the Dresden Codex, for example, shows an image of the god of sustenance K’awil holding a vessel with cacao beans.

3. THEY HAD A COMPLICATED SYSTEM OF HIEROGLYPHS.

Mayan writing, which dates to the late Preclassic period (300 BCE to 100 CE), is preserved on buildings, stone monuments, rare books, and pottery. While words in the English language are formed with combinations of 26 letters, written Mayan words are formed from various combinations of more than 800 hieroglyphs, each representing a syllable. The system is thought to be the most sophisticated of its kind in Mesoamerica. Only in the last few decades have Mayanists gained the ability to read most of the glyphs.

4. AN ACCIDENTAL ARCHAEOLOGIST CRACKED MAYAN HANDWRITING.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a Siberia-born American, trained to be an architect. When she couldn’t get a job in her field, she started sketching for a curator at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia in the 1930s, and she was invited on an expedition to the Piedras Negras Maya site in Guatemala. Despite her lack of formal academic training, Proskouriakoff eventually became a Mayanist in her own right. In the mid-20th century, there hadn’t been many advances in deciphering Maya glyphs. It doesn’t have the sexiest title, but Proskouriakoff’s 1960 paper “Historical Implication of a Pattern of Dates at Piedras Negras, Guatemala” was a bombshell. She was the first to recognize that the Mayas' “upended frog" glyph represented birth and that their “toothache” glyph represented the date the king ascended to the throne, which led to the identification of birth and death announcements as well as the names of the rulers for a Maya dynasty.

5. THE MAYA WROTE BOOKS … AND THE EUROPEANS BURNED THEM.

The Maya wrote books in their elaborate hieroglyphic script on long strips of durable paper made from the inner bark of fig trees. But there are just three Maya codices that survive today: the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex, and the Paris Codex. (There’s also the fragmentary Grolier Codex, but scholars dispute its authenticity.) Many more Maya books fell victim to the damp conditions of Mesoamerica—or the arrival of Europeans who purposefully destroyed Maya texts. Diego de Landa, a Franciscan friar from Spain who arrived in Yucatan in the 1540s, described one such scene: “We found a large number of books in their letters and because they had nothing in which there was not superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them sorrow.”

6. THEIR CALENDAR, WHILE COMPLEX, DID NOT PREDICT THE END OF THE WORLD.

There was a lot of talk in certain paranoid corners of the Internet that doomsday, as predicted by the Maya calendar, would come on December 21, 2012. The date came and went and the apocalypse never materialized, but any Mayanist could have told you that you had nothing to worry about. December 21, 2012 just happened to coincide with the end of a full cycle of 5125 years in the Maya’s so-called Long Count calendar. This calendar was impressive because it used zero as a placeholder—one of the earliest uses of zero as a mathematical concept in history. And that was only one of the calendars the Maya used. They also had a 260-day sacred calendar, or Tzolk’in, which was used to plan religious ceremonies, as well as a 365-day solar calendar known as the Haab'.

7. THEY HAD PRETTY INTENSE BEAUTY REGIMENS.

The Maya were not content with simply donning clothes and makeup to make themselves beautiful. In childhood, males and females alike had their heads bound to artificially deform their skulls into an elongated shape, which probably signified their social status. The Maya also drilled holes into their front teeth and inlaid them with jade, pyrite, hematite or turquoise. They basically invented the grill.

8. THEY TOOK RITUAL ENEMAS.

For the Maya, consuming hallucinogens and intoxicants were the best way to talk to spirits. They drank substances like balché, which was made with fermented (and possibly psychedelic) honey. But to get inebriated more quickly, and perhaps to avoid vomiting, they may have administered alcohol and psychoactives through the rectal route. There are a lot of scenes on Maya pottery depicting enemas in a ritual context. Researchers investigating the effects of an ancient ritual enema in the 1980s did some self-experimentation and tried it out for themselves, and reported that their results “certainly support the theoretical suggestion that alcohol is absorbed well from an enema.”

9. THEY PAINTED HUMAN SACRIFICES BLUE.

The vivid pigment known as Maya Blue has long fascinated archaeologists because it’s incredibly resilient, surviving for centuries on stone monuments even in the harsh conditions of Mesoamerican jungles. But the cheerful color was also used in human sacrifice. When the Maya wanted to please the rain god, they painted human sacrifices blue and cut their hearts out on stone altars or threw them down wells.

10. THEY APPRECIATED A GOOD SWEAT.

The Maya built sauna-like structures out of stone or adobe that were used for health purposes and ritual cleansing. Sweat houses have been found at sites like Tikal in Guatemala and Joya de Cerén, a Maya village that was buried in volcanic ash in El Salvador around 600 CE. The earliest known sweatbath was uncovered at Cuello, in northern Belize. At 3000 years old, it predates the famous baths of the Roman civilization.

11. THEY PLAYED EXTREME SPORTS.

Ballcourts take up prominent real estate at Maya cities like Chichen-Itza in Mexico. This is where the Maya staged a game known as pitz. Players would try to pass a heavy rubber ball (about the size of a soccer ball) without using their hands while wearing equipment to protect their ribs, knees and arms. The ultimate goal was to get the ball through a very high stone hoop. Playing the sport wasn’t exactly a pastime, but rather an important ritual, and losing could result in human sacrifice. According to the Maya creation story in their epic text known as Popol Vuh, life on earth became possible only after two brother deities defeated the supernatural lords of the underworld in a ball game.

12. THEY MAY HAVE DOMESTICATED TURKEYS.

Now a symbol of American Thanksgiving, turkeys may have first been domesticated by the Maya. Turkeys weren’t just used for food; the Maya also used the birds’ parts like bones and feathers to create fans, tools, and musical instruments. Mexican turkey bones dating to the Preclassic Maya period were discovered at the archaeological site of El Mirador in Guatemala. This location was well outside of the species’ range in the wild, leading archaeologists to conclude that the Maya had domesticated turkeys by this point.

13. ARCHAEOLOGISTS STILL DEBATE WHY THE CIVILIZATION WENT INTO DECLINE.

The civilization was really hitting its stride at the peak of the Classic Maya period (300 to 660 CE). But things started to go south in the 8th and 9th centuries. Maya cities in the southern lowlands that once boasted populations up to 70,000 people were abandoned. Scientists and archaeologists have pointed to a variety of culprits to explain what happened, including drought, rampant raiding and warfare among Maya city-states, migration to the beach and overpopulation, or perhaps some fatal combination of those things.

14. THEY DIDN’T VANISH.

Sure, many of the great Maya cities were mysteriously deserted, but the people didn’t disappear [PDF]. The descendants of the Maya are still around today, many of them living in their ancestral homelands, like Guatemala, where Maya people actually make up a majority of the population. “Maya” is really an umbrella term for many different indigenous ethnic group who may speak different Mayan languages such as Yucatec, Quiche, Kekchi, or Mopan.

15. THEIR ARTIFACTS AND MONUMENTS ARE AT RISK.

In Guatemala and Belize, locals apparently use the word huecheros—derived from the Maya word for armadillo, or huech—to talk about people who loot archaeological sites. Illegally excavated vases, statues, and other artifacts from Maya sites have made their way into the illicit antiquities market, and looters’ tunnels destroy archaeological sites in the process. In one striking example, a pyramid was cut in half by looters at the Maya city of Xultún in Guatemala. In some cases, Maya antiquities have been returned to their country of origin. The Denver Art Museum returned a carved wooden doorway lintel to Guatemala in 1998 when the artifact was found to have been taken from El Zotz, a Maya settlement just west of the great city of Tikal.

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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

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A Secret Room Full of Michelangelo's Sketches Will Soon Open in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Parents all over the world have chastised their children for drawing on the walls. But when you're Michelangelo, you've got some leeway. According to The Local, the Medici Chapels, part of the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy, has announced that it plans to open a largely unseen room full of the artist's sketches to the public by 2020.

Roughly 40 years ago, curators of the chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo had a very Dan Brown moment when they discovered a trap door in a wardrobe leading to an underground room that appeared to have works from Michelangelo covering its walls. The tiny retreat is thought to be a place where the artist hid out in 1530 after upsetting the Medicis—his patrons—by joining a revolt against their control of Florence. While in self-imposed exile for several months, he apparently spent his time drawing on whatever surfaces were available.

A drawing by Michelangelo under the Medici Chapels in Florence
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Museum officials previously believed the room and the charcoal drawings were too fragile to risk visitors, but have since had a change of heart, leading to their plan to renovate the building and create new attractions. While not all of the work is thought to be attributable to the famed artist, there's enough of it in the subterranean chamber—including drawings of Jesus and even recreations of portions of the Sistine Chapel—to make a trip worthwhile.

[h/t The Local]

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