Universality and commonality in the world of the Maya
Despite the colonialism that attempted to extinguish indigenous cultures in what is known as Mesoamerica, Mayan culture and civilization have survived.
And thanks in part to the travel and tourism industry, the Mayan worldview has experienced a kind of rebirth. This is also the case elsewhere in the world where a renewed respect for the fundamentally scientific (not “primitive”) earth sciences of indigenous peoples are providing wisdom, lessons, and solutions for a planet on the verge of climatic disaster.
Given the nature of the physical environment in which they lived, the Maya are role models for a sustainable way of life in what was both a challenging and resource-rich, but highly interconnected and interdependent ecosystem.
Like so many other indigenous peoples of the world, the Maya were frequently forgotten and marginalized over the centuries of “progress” in what was known as the New World. As we learned from Mayan people with whom we interacted in Quintana Roo, their Mayan heritage was not celebrated; sometimes even by themselves. Several times we were told by Mayan people who are our contemporaries that when growing up it was not “cool” to be Mayan; and in fact, as children, they were discouraged from speaking their native tongue or simply being Mayan. And history has clearly shown that when the language disappears, the fundamentals of the distinct culture are at risk and can disappear into the mists of time.
Fortunately, however, a new generation of Mayans has achieved a renewed sense of self-determination and self-affirmation; and a new generation of enlightened traveller has been introduced over the last few decades to a culture and a civilization in which they will find inherent truths. In addition, the Mayan language is now experiencing a renewal, and is not only being taught again in schools in this part of Mexico but has also become a source of pride and a catalyst for a renewed collective sense of self.
Humans are mythological beings; we tell stories in which universal symbols, metaphors, images, imagery, and concepts are embedded. To a great extent our psyches “see inter-relationships” because we have internalized representations of the physical world that surrounds us. But the heart has its reasons too; we also “see” the world around us on a higher level. Some call it a spiritual level; others refer to iconic thinking, or the power of the imagination.
Mayan culture also has a highly developed conceptual approach to life that reflects universal themes and issues found just about anywhere on the planet. One of the best examples may be the Mayan Tree of Life, often represented by the Ceiba tree.
Symbolically, the Tree of Life is an axis mundi around which a stable, sustaining, and self-perpetuating world revolves. Like the Earth, Mayan culture (classical Mayan culture especially) is balanced by this axis. And the Tree of Life motif is also analogous to the classic temples or pyramids found in Mayan sites throughout the region. These elegant structures emphasize elevation and reverence, themes common to human civilization elsewhere.
The Mayan Tree of Life is a kind of conceptual trinity uniting three worlds: the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. It is an especially appropriate and real manifestation of this triad notion because of its protective canopy, immensely strong trunk, and its highly buttressed roots that firmly root it to the world below the surface.
Sustainability and the Maya
Maya territory in Latin America comprises over 450,000 square kilometres of territory that once was a great civilization and trading empire. As a “commercial” empire it was rich in natural resources, especially its flora and fauna. The diverse vegetation and topography of the Mayan landscape provides one of the most colourful and culturally abundant regions in the Americas today.
From an environmental point of view, this landscape has many anthropological and ecological scenarios that serve as templates for the modern world of how the planet and nature are made up of geologically and climatic dynamic forces with which, if we are wise, we can integrate our modern ways of life.
In the area where the ancient Mayans lived, there remains today approximately 8000 different species of plants and flowers. And it is a region that over millions of years has witnessed great geological events; earthquakes, elevation and sinking of the land, and the compression of it. In the Yucatan, tropical deciduous forests cover the region and there are a wide range of ecological systems from semi-deserts to high forests.
The Maya have always had a highly integrated relationship with this land and, as is the case in so many regions of the planet, they have developed a sense of themselves and an identification with their land. They have always used the land wisely, treating it with reverence and care, but also with intelligence.
The other life forms that they have lived in harmony with for many centuries (both land and marine) are also themselves iconic in nature. Of the animals that the Maya revered, the jaguar, iguana, snake, and white-tailed deer have figured prominently in their mythology.
The worldview of the Maya is one of shared power, collective history, and a natural heritage from which the secrets of the past continue to be revealed.
Images and imagery of Coba and Tulum
Of the Mayan sites I have had the privilege of visiting over the years, you could not find two more different sites than Coba and Tulum. And yet, as different as they are in their topography, they are also interconnected in terms of their architectural styles, their beauty, and their roles as great cultural and commercial centres in the Mayan classical civilization.
Take a virtual tour of Coba
Descend with us into a Mayan cenote.
How to get a grassroots and authentic appreciation of Mayan culture
The Mayan “experience” outlined below will give you a much deeper appreciation of these people, their lifestyle, their heritage, and their interdependence with their environment — a lesson for the 21st-century world of travel and tourism.
Using Cancun as a point of departure, you can immerse yourself in an alternative, indigenous travel experience. And if you are an amateur (or professional) historian, cultural anthropologist, geologist, geographer, ethnologist, or environmentalist, the indigenous Mayan experience is for you.
For more information, see www.kanche.org
For those in the MICE market (Meetings, Incentive travel, Conferences, and Expositions) Cancun is an excellent choice.