Mayan culture has long been disputed over the years. Who was this ancient culture, what were their beliefs and how has their culture been depicted and portrayed throughout history? There have been various interpretations of this civilization, and who’s to decide which one is entirely correct? It’s hard to say, but we do have evidence available to help point us in the right direction.
Just like with anything, the individuals who recount history have a lens that they see it through. They carry with them values and beliefs that alter their perspective on what’s being presented to them. This is a critical component of understanding and describing history that the reader needs to consider when evaluating what is and what is not true.
Dr. Adam T. Sellen, a researcher in the Peninsula Centre of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, was kind enough to speak to our class about these very questions this past week with a lecture he crafted together entitled “The Mystique of the Ancient Maya.”
“Over time we’ve created these narratives that society has grown to assume are true, but what really is true, what steps can be retraced to try and recreate this truth?” he asked.
Dr. Sellen’s presentation dealt with the current representation of the Mayan culture and how society has come to these conclusions. From the mid 1800s until present day, a wide variety of explorers have visited the Mayan ruins that stretch from the Yucatan Peninsula, down to Belize and through parts of Guatemala. Each explorer carried with them a different perspective to see these ruins through.
From Jean-Frederic de Waldeck, a French explorer who saw these ruins through a very artistic lens, to John Lloyd Stephens, an American travel writer who depicted these ruins through a very romantic and literary-influenced lens, one can imagine that the understanding of the Mayan culture would vary based on the respective lens being used.
A common depiction of the Mayan civilization has been that they were this extraordinarily unique group; however, this is simply untrue. The Mayans shared many characteristics with cultures like the Egyptians, Assyrians and the Greeks. A distinct writing style, history of conquest and conflict, and writings of people of power and significance are all present in these ancient cultures. Despite that, modern society has completely idealized and sensationalized the Mayan culture to help reinforce the narrative that’s been created over time.
In simpler terms, the Mayan civilization is being used for contemporary purposes. Let’s be honest, if the Mayans weren’t sensationally depicted, would people be interested in their culture today? Another thing that often goes unconsidered is the fact that the Mayan people endured around 500 years of colonization by the Spaniards. It’s inaccurate to connect the Mayans back to pre-Hispanic times when such a significant period of colonization occurred after the fact.
Too often, the Mayan culture is grouped together into one large congregation. The narrative that has been constructed and carried out today is one that does no justice to the true diversity of this culture. When walking into the great historical site of Chichen Itza, guests are presented with the present day depiction of the Mayans, when in actuality, whose depiction is this and who’s claiming that these depictions are in fact truth?
Perspective plays a huge role in the telling of history. It’s impossible to say who has the answers and if they’re right or not, but it is our duty as citizens to question these so called truths and dig deeper for the reality that is trapped beneath these representations.
As the group is preparing for our longest trip of the program down to the southern state of Chiapas, it’s important to be aware of these depictions of the Mayan culture before coming into such a heavily Mayan populated region. The last thing any outsider wants to do is to hold onto the idealizations that are presented to us as fact before seeing the reality of the situation first hand.
More than anything, my time here in Merida has taught me a tremendous amount about perspective and the way I perceive things. At the end of the day, you can believe what anybody tells you, but you’ll never actually know what the current state of things are until you look them in the eye for yourself.