The Maya seem to get a raw deal when it comes to the study of ancient cultures. They are lumped with the Aztecs in regards to bloody sacrifices, and any of their achievements are thanks to the Olmecs, an earlier culture that did not live in the Maya area.
The Maya was one of only five cultures in the world to have independently developed a writing system with which they could write anything they said; they were one of only two cultures in the world to create the number zero; they had an elaborate and accurate calendar system; they built cities in the rainforest and some of the largest pyramids in the world—so why are they given such a raw deal?
How about if I turned the tables on us, the Brits, and gave a tongue-in-cheek description of British history, much in the same way Maya history is told?
Meet the Ancient Britonians
The Britonians, for this is what the people were called, inhabited an area that is now called England.
In 2500 BC, when great civilizations of the day were building pyramids 500 ft (152 m) high, the Britonians were placing abandoned stones upright. Sometimes, if they were feeling artistically inclined, these stones were arranged into shapes such as squares, rectangles, or circles.
There were no carvings or inscriptions on these stones, or anything of interest.
It appears that all that the people were doing at this time was getting drunk and binging on food, evidenced by the abundance of drinking and food vessels found in archaeological excavations.
Very rarely would an archaeologist find the remains of a skeleton without a drinking vessel (beaker) in their hand, hence we use the term “Beaker culture” for these people.
The standing stones may have been the result of drunken gatherings. Perhaps some of the men would test each other’s virility by challenging each other to move them. Or perhaps the stones that were found in alignment across the landscape might represent the exit areas, being used as a support to hold people up on their drunken way home.
How do we feel about having our culture’s name spelled wrong and our achievements belittled…
The Britonians then were very primitive, unlike other cultures in the world with their great cities, architecture, art, writing, and math.
Fortunately, in 43 AD the Romans conquered England and helped to civilize them, particularly in regards to hygiene—the Britonians were extremely dirty and smelly. The Romans constructed many aqueducts and a great sewage system, and pleaded with the natives to use them.
The Romans were also surprised to see that apparently educated members of the society would dress up in silly outfits and carry out human sacrifice, which included many humans being burned alive in a large wooden effigy, the wicker man, a god to these people. These druids also aligned themselves with the drunken beaker people and their misshapen stones.
Later, a religion was introduced that revolved around a god sacrificing himself for the people, and so effigies of this gory scene were placed in every temple. Re-enactments of this sacrifice were carried out annually.
There were also extremely gruesome daily rituals which involved cannabilism in these temples. The pinnacle of the ritual involved the people eating parts of the body of the god as well as drinking his blood!
Is Catholicism or Druidism portrayed accurately here?
The Romans withdrew from England in the fifth century AD, in the hope that the Britonians could rule for themselves. This period became known as the Dark Age.
The people reverted to being savages again, losing the ability to make fire; so, in the darkness, they constantly tripped up and bumped into each other.
Thankfully, the Britonians were saved again, this time by the French, who conquered England in 1066. William the Conqueror tried to civilized the people again, and taught the English how to speak properly.
Although the Britonians spoke now rather than grunted, they still remained quite ignorant. To them, the obvious explanation for the Black Death of 1348 was God’s anger, and in response many people were left to die, particularly lepers, who were offered up to God in penance.
Were the Maya the only superstitious people in the world then?
One would have hoped that the Britonians would move into an age of rationality after the Black Death, and look to practical causes of disease and illness. Unfortunately, this was not the case. From the mid-1500s onward, if there was sickness or crop failure in the community, women who lived alone, kept to themselves, or had more than two brain cells were blamed.
The church encouraged calling the women who gave remedies to a whole host of diseases in both humans and animals “witches”—evil people who had made a pact with the devil.
Evidence of guilt was also ludicrous. “Swimming the witch,” widely practiced in England, involved tying the witch’s wrists to her ankles and throwing her in the water. If she sank and died she was innocent, if she floated it was confirmation that she was a witch, and she would be hanged!
The government even went as far as hanging women who were accused by children. One such case, the Pendle Witch trial, occurred in 1612. In this case, a nine year-old, Jeanet Device, accused her family and others of witchcraft. 10 people were hanged as a result!
Aside from being extremely superstitious, the Britonians were terribly blood-thirsty, evidenced in their most popular entertainment of the day: public shows of people being hanged or guillotined. In guillotining, the head would roll down the steps, and the first person to catch it would receive good luck.
In case anyone missed a show, the government made sure that these heads were placed on spikes along London Bridge for anyone to see at any time.
Another favorite pastime was hanging, drawing, and quartering, which involved a person being fastened to a wooden panel and drawn by a horse to the arena where are the public were waiting expectantly.
They were hung for a bit, and just before dying they were then taken down, beheaded, disemboweled, and chopped into four pieces. Each piece was taken as a prize to be displayed in popular places across the country.
I bet the Maya don’t seem so blood-thirsty now!
We don’t see anything quite like this in other areas of the world, so we can only put it down to extraterrestrials. There have been historic sightings of spaceships in the area, so we can only assume that the Britonians were aided by aliens!
This post originally appeared at Maya Archaeologist.