Oh Me, Oh Maya!
The history of the Maya dates back nearly 3,000 years to southern México and parts of Central America, including Belize. Caracol was a huge and fairly important political city during the height of the Mayan civilization, know as the Classic Period (250 CE to 900CE.) It wasn’t as large or as impressive as the Maya city of Chichén Itza in México, but would have been comparable to present-day Atlanta or Miami in size.
As I walked through the hundreds of ruins at Caracol, I was told it covered more land than modern-day Belize City. The biggest pyramid here, called Caana, is still one of the largest man-made structures in the whole country.
The Maya were a powerful and creative civilization, and were the only people to have a full written language in the Americas before Christopher Columbus and the Europeans arrived. They had a unique and simple counting process, with a circle representing the number 1, a bar representing 5, and a special symbol which looks like a shell meaning zero. These symbols were grouped together into a base-20 counting system that could easily represent very large numbers. This numbering system can be seen on Mayan temples and on their unique and complex calendar.
The movement of the stars and sun were significant to Maya culture. Temples and monuments were typically built based on how the Maya understood the stars to move. For instance, the Maya could tell when to plant and harvest crops based on how the sun and stars aligned with their temples. As I stood atop the towering pyramid of Caana, I could imagine the Maya gazing up into an inky black sky full of stars learning about their place in the universe.
It amazes me, given how green and lush Belize is, that archaeologists believe a drought may have caused the decline of the Maya. Starting around 900 CE the Maya civilization started to collapse, and one possible reason is their lack of clean water sources. Deforestation and over-farming may have worsened a natural drought, which would have made food much harder to come by.
The Maya still existed by the time the Spanish came to colonize this region, though, and they suffered under colonization as other native cultures did. The Spanish imposed their religion, laws, and customs on the Maya, and even used them as a cheap labor force. Thankfully the Maya never fully disappeared, and their language is still spoken in some areas of Central America.
The population of Caracol started to shrink, and eventually the city was abandoned by 1050 CE. The surrounding jungle grew over the city, hiding it under a thick green canopy. It wasn’t until almost a thousand years later, when a logger went looking for more trees to cut, that this whole city was rediscovered. Since then, archaeologists have been extremely busy excavating all the buildings and monuments here, and learning more and more about a once great civilization.