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Primary sources of Maya history - part one

Ronald A. Barnett ©

The most extensive documentation for the native historical tradition in Mesoamerica comes from the Valley of Mexico and surrounding area. This is hardly surprising, for the main thrust of the Spanish Conquest was aimed at the Aztec empire and its capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. Other conquests followed in the Petén and Guatemala, but the spectacular Conquest of Mexico attracted many historians and chroniclers who recorded the event and what remained of Aztec civilization. Consequently, we have many native historical documents, as well as the works of colonial historians.

The situation is somewhat different for the Maya. The Classical period ended around A.D. 900 and the making of stelae, stone markers bearing historical hieroglyphic texts, ceased long before the Spaniards arrived. The decipherment of the Maya script, and hence the reading of the historical records left by the Maya themselves, was delayed for decades because of technical problems and scholarly disagreements over the nature of the Maya writing system.

The archaeological evidence for indigenous Maya history comes down to us in several forms. Stone stelae, or monumental time markers found at many Maya archaeological sites, at first were thought to represent priests and scribes endlessly engaged in the contemplation of Time, making the Maya like no other people anywhere in history. Later, Maya scholars aided by decipherment of the Maya script revealed the historical content of these stone markers. Stela 31 at Tikal is the most extensive record found so far at that site. In the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, sculptured stone wall panels give the dynastic history of Palenque, forming the longest continuous Maya text from the Classic period. Maya history was also inscribed on lintels, such as Lintel 21 at Yaxchilán, in paintings, such as those at Bonampak, and even on ceramics. Written in hieroglyphic form with accompanying portraitures, the historical texts are based on an early form of the Maya language, probably Chol.

Unfortunately, only four Maya codices survived the Spanish invasion and these are mainly ritualistic-calendrical in content rather than historical. These documents, written in an early form of Yucatecan Maya, are in the format of a screen fold that resembles a European style book. The scholarly controversy over one of these codices, the Grolier Codex, illustrates some of the pitfalls encountered in trying to reconstruct Mayan modes of thought from the evidence available. But the evidence seems to be in favour of its authenticity.

Written documents presuppose a post-Conquest date. In this article we shall focus on written sources in the native Maya tradition. The Yucatecan civilization was located in the Lowland Maya region of the Yucatán peninsula. The famous Books of Chilam Balam (Books of the Jaguar Priest) are associated with various towns and cities in that area.

Among the dozen or so surviving books, the Chilam Balam of Tizimin is the most historical in content. Collected by the parish priest of Tizimin it was sent to the bishop of Mérida in 1870 and is now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico city. The Tizimin contains an outline history of Yucatán from the 7th to the 19th century with reference to each katun (20 year period) from 1441 to 1848. Like other such historical documents it is based on the Mesoamerican concept of cyclical time. This is a kind of "prophetic history" in which the events of one katunwould be repeated in another katun of the same number. The result is a "non-lineal codification of reality" (to use Marshal McLuhan's phrase). That is to say, the Maya did not think of time flowing in a straight line from the past through the present and into the future but rather in terms of vast cycles of time. M. Edmonson, a recent translator of the Tizimin, therefore fittingly entitled it The Ancient Future of the Maya.

The Tizimin is the story of the Itzá Maya, an elite family lineage in western Yucatán and Campeche in post-Classic and Colonial periods. They were later joined by the Toltec Xiu and together the Itzá and the Xiu agreed on the seating of the katun. Here we see the practical application of the cyclical concept of time. The city upon which this honour was conferred had dynastic and religious influence over the rest of the country for about 256 years, after which the city was abandoned and the katun moved to another site. But, as we now know, the Maya were not simply a race of star-gazers intent upon the passage of Time. The Xiu and the Itzá quarreled and in the early 16th century the ensuing "War of the Katuns" was further aggravated by the arrival of the Spaniards. Although the final chapter of Tizimin ends on a note of resignation at the ending of this final katun and the seating of the "Christian katun," the author apparently believed that a new Itzá cycle was initiated as late as 1824, a testimony to the remarkable endurance and continuity of Maya culture.

I greatly admire Edmonson's work, but he, like other "western" or European scholars, seems to feel the need to rearrange the Maya order of historical events in order to correspond to the European concept of linear time. He therefore reordered the sections of the Tizimin in chronological sequence. The rearrangement is based on the number of foreign words (Nahuatl and Spanish) found in each one hundred lines. A fairly constant occurrence of Aztec words through linear time contrasts with a dramatic increase in Spanish words "throughout the reordered text." This is said to show the true sequence of recorded events in linear time, presumably on the grounds that Spanish loan words and intrusions would become more common in later chronicles.

This kind of stylistic analysis reminds me of certain classical Greek scholars who edited ancient Greek texts to fit their theories. In his edition of the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, E. Fränckel altered the text unnecessarily because he believed that there had to be so many interpolations per 100 lines. The printed text of Pindar, poet of the Olympic Games, is broken up unmercifully to show the underlying metrical patterns. I am sure this was not what Pindar intended or how his audience experienced the Victory Odes. The ancient Maya thought in terms of cyclical time. Therefore it is perhaps a distortion of reality, in this case Maya reality, to reorder the mode of thought of an ancient people to fit in with our own preconceptions or ideas of correctness.

The town of Mani, about 100 kms south of Mérida, Yucatán, site of the infamous burning of the books by Bishop Landa in 1562, was founded after the fall of Mayapán and about 70 years before the arrival of the Spaniards. It is likely, therefore, that the Chilam Balam of Mani was brought to Mani from Mayapán, the last Maya stronghold. The author and the sources of the Mani are unknown, but it is likely based on a long oral tradition. This book has been much used by recent historians of Yucatán. The preponderance of Nahuatl names in the opening account of the katuns (20 year periods) in Maya suggests a Toltec origin of the Maya, or at least of the princely family of the Tutulxiu.

From Chicxulub, just north of Mérida, we have The Chronicle of Chicxulub, a year by year account of the arrival of the Spaniards in Yucatán, the setting up of churches, and various encounters with the Spanish invaders. The author, Nakuk Pech, was placed in command of the district of Chac Xulub Chen. The history and chronicle of Chicxulub, which begins in the "fifth division of the 11th katun" (1511), tells us that the inhabitants were forced to pay tribute to the Spaniards. The date 1511 also refers to the shipwreck of Aguilar and his crew on the eastern coast of Yucatán, another important episode in late Maya history. It is through the piecing together of these bits of the historical puzzle that we are able to form a composite picture of Maya history from the viewpoint of the Maya themselves.

These are only a few samples from the Books of Chilam Balam. While they are not an infallible clue to the Classic Maya period, they do provide us with an insight into the thoughts and minds of the latter-day Maya.

A second main category for primary sources of Maya history comprises the detailed questionnaires formulated by the Spanish friars in their efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity. For the Aztecs it was Sahagún, whose Florentine Codex remains one of the most comprehensive and well organized accounts of Aztec life around the time of the Conquest. The Maya have only the Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, by bishop Diego de Landa, ironically the man who also did the most he could to destroy the religion and culture of the people about whom he wrote. Because of its eye-witness accounts and first-hand information, the Relación must be considered a primary source of Maya history. Of particular importance for our enquiry is the account of native history as Landa heard it directly from the lips of his Maya informants.

The lesson we learn from even a cursory glance at the Maya concept of history is that we cannot import alien standards of historiography or inappropriate forms of analysis into our study of Mesoamerican historical narrative if we hope to understand better the Maya point of view.

Published or Updated on: May 1, 2006 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2006
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