Kiril Novoselsky, professor of economics and a consultant for several museums, recently conducted a field trip to the Yucatan Peninsula and Cozumel Island, Mexico. On his way through Mayan football fields, pyramids, and prophecies, he came across Russian influence from the past century.
Near the famous Chichen Itza Pyramid, he discovered Pre-Columbian fields that were created for ball games.
“I was very surprised by the fact that the Mayans were obsessed with football,” said Novoselsky, who is also a member of the Russian Geographical Society. “Football was a sacred game. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed to gods, and it was a big honor.”
The golden age of classic Mayan civilization ended in the late 9th century. Cities became empty and silent. Lianas and roots of trees penetrated stone walls of temples and pyramids, destroying them.
Archeologists classify several periods of Mayan civilization: pre-classic (2000 to 300 B.C.), classic (300 B.C. to A.D. 900), and post-classic (900 to 1530).
During these last centuries, highly populated and economically developed cities disappeared in jungles. The Mayan city Tikal, mentioned on a stela in 869, was the last historical mention of a Mayan city.
Invasions of other tribes as well as wars are considered possible reasons for the Mayan civilization’s decline. The true reason, however, still remains a mystery to scientists.
Mayan pyramids are different from their Egyptian counterparts. “These pyramids have huge steps, which probably served as a base for temples,” Novoselsky said.
Mayan pyramids aren’t isolated buildings in the desert like the Egyptian ones, but were built in populated areas in the jungle.
Novoselsky’s tour guide took the group to a place where, in the past, some hundreds of thousands of people would gather. Situated between several villages, the site served priests as a place to deliver speeches. Even if a priest talked quietly, everybody would be able to hear his voice.
The guide allowed the group to clap quietly. “The sound went through unique apertures in the top of a pyramid and returned as echo just like in an opera house,” Novoselsky explained the phenomena from an age that knew neither microphone nor other modern technologies.
Mayan civilization has developed in what is today southern and southeastern Mexico and also in Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. Other parts of today’s Mexico were inhabited by Aztecs, Olmecs, Toltecs, and other tribes.
The Mayan pyramids served astronomical purposes at least twice a year—on March 21 or 22 and on Sept. 22 or 23, the days of spring and autumn equinoxes.
“On these days, the rising sun throws a shadow down the pyramid steps in the form of a serpent and reaches up to the bottom steps where you can see an image of the deity Kukulkan, a feathered serpent that has the head of a man,” Novoselsky said.
If the shadow reaches the bottom step, the day of the equinox has arrived. “It’s constructed very precisely so the ray of the sun arrived at the head of the deity on this certain day. It means that astronomy, architecture, and technique were already developed in this time,” Novoselsky said.
When asked about the period of human civilization these pyramids belonged to, Novoselsky said: “If I hadn’t read anything about the topic before, I would think that these things aren’t from the current human civilization.”
In addition, underground pyramids, caves, and cities were discovered. Novoselsky met people who said that according to legends, Mayans were successors of Atlantis, which disappeared somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea or in the zone of the Caribbean Sea.
“There is a version [of the story] that part of the people who were saved from the catastrophe came to this continent and continued to live until the Spanish conquest,” Novoselsky said.
It is difficult to know how much was destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. As far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, it was possible to find many Mayan books. In each village, there was a temple with annalistic libraries.
The Spanish invaders destroyed most of it. They burnt paper books and broke stones with the Mayan hieroglyphic script. “Writing hasn’t reached our days, only some hieroglyphs, which are very hard to read,” he said.
Novoselsky sees this as common to all conquerors. “The Spanish thought they came to primitive people to teach and educate them. The only things that weren’t destroyed were books that Spanish priests saved for themselves out of curiosity.”
“Some findings were sent to the Spanish king so he could become familiar with things he ordered destroyed,” Novoselsky said.
Spanish invaders were not able to change people’s culture even though they burnt books and forced people to forget their writing. Mayan culture left behind pyramids, tablets, stelae with inscriptions, traditional clothes, and dances.
Initially, descendants of Mayan origin even knew the writing. As a result of Spanish politics, after several generations, children wrote with Latin letters although they still spoke the native language.
“As a result, a child grew, went to one of the temples, and saw the inscriptions there but wasn’t able to read them because he didn’t know Mayan writing. It’s just like Russia; most people are not able to read the old Slavic language,” he said.
This is the first of a two-part series. Find here part II.