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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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'.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.


To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”


There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”


Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]


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