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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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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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