Climate Change and Drought

One of the forces that brought the civilization down Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, 2008 In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and difficult to see the bottom on either side. I estimated them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.   Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something… Read More

Copal Incense

The sweet-smelling blood of trees Copal (Pom) tree with bamboo growing alongside it The process of making copal incense begins by scraping the bark with a blade. When the sap comes out it’s collected on a piece of bark or corn husk. The resin, which wards off insects from the tree, is thick and sticky and has a white to yellow color. In contact with the air, it becomes hard like a shiny rock, so saliva is applied to keep it malleable. Copal was traded locally as a resin in maize husks,… Read More

Dowsing / Divination

Are there underground forces that can be felt? Xunantunich, Belize Dowsing is a type of divination, typically used today to locate ground water, buried metals, gemstones, oil and grave sites without the use of scientific instruments. It’s consider a pseudoscience and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance; the dowsing rod only moves due to accidental or involuntary movements of the person using it. The entry in Wikipedia says it probably originated in Germany in the 16th century. I used to believe that. Then I… Read More

Dugout Canoes And Mythology

Paddler gods escorted the Maize God across the Milky Way Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala By 400 B.C., salt was being “shipped” by canoes from northern Yucatan to Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle by way of Cerros, Belize down the New River. In 1502, Ferdinand Colon, a member of Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage, described an encounter with a large group of Maya—or Maya-related people—in a seagoing canoe around the Bay Islands off modern Honduras.   By good fortune there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide,… Read More

Prophecy And Order

What happened before will happen again Prophecy was a prominent feature in all the known ancient cultures. Feeling at the mercy of the gods who represented the forces of nature, complex societies needed a way to understand their behavior so they could brace themselves for the next god-made flood, drought or other catastrophe and hope the gods would yield to the petitions and bargaining sacrifices of their kings and holy men. Maya kings established order by relying on observations of the motions of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies. Remarkably, because… Read More

A Lineage House And Temple

Where Maya kings held council and conducted shamanic rituals Cerros is a gem! It’s one of my favorite sites and home to Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist in my novel,  Jaguar Rising. Overlooking Corozol Bay, this small-to-mid-size Late Preclassic site of 140 structures is located within two miles of the New River. With proximity to an even longer river, the Rio Hondo, and given the evidence of certain trade goods, scholars believe that Cerros may have been established by the “Snake Kings” of El Mirador—111 miles northwest—as a trading port where cargo… Read More

Kenep: A Delicious Tropical Fruit

My guide at the Maya site of Cerros, Belize picked up a small unripe fruit that had fallen from a very tall tree. There were dozens, lying all around. “This is kenep,” he explained. “It’s a local name. It ripens in the warm summer months and becomes bright orange—very tasty. Some of them get twice this size. You peel away the shell and suck on the fruit until the flesh is gone, then you spit out the stone. Kids pop ‘em like candy and make necklaces from the seeds. Believe me, it’s one… Read More

Deer Hunt: First Initiation Trial

Vase rollout courtesy of Justin Kerr They joined together in companies of fifty and roasted the flesh of deer so it would not be wasted; they make presents of it to their lord and distribute the rest among friends.                                           Fray Diego de Landa, Bishop Inquisitor of Colonial Yucatan Deer were treated like gods because their main god had appeared to them in that form. In some places there were deer parks… Read More

Termination Rituals

  Caracol Structure B5 For the ancient Maya the most important interaction was not between persons, objects or buildings, it was their relationship with the spirits that resided in them. While everything was perceived as being alive, only those things that were useful were ritually ensouled with a guardian spirit—or a god in the case of temples, palaces and sacred places. When a ceramic vessel was made or a house built, a och’ k’ak’ “fire-entering” ritual was held to invite a spirit, often a deceased ancestor, to take up residence in it…. Read More

Kakaw (Chocolate)

  Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil.  The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in… Read More