Whereas many are focusing on the Mayan calendar’s supposed world-ending climax in December, others are using this focus on the Mayans to educate on this lost civilization. Engineer and explorer James A. O’Kon has written The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology, a fascinating look at the technology of these people who were for so long considered Stone Age folk.
From pyramids, to grand cities, irrigation and bridges, the Mayans matched and often surpassed civilizations of the Near East and Asia. They didn’t follow the standard model of emerging along riverways, use of animals and stayed relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Yes, they were preceded by the Olmecs, traded and eventually ruled by the Aztecs, and some suggest had at least some transoceanic contact. Yet, they largely seemed to develop on their own the technology that supposedly the primitives of the New World were too simple to figure out.
Eventually, drought and overuse of the land would lead to their downfall. Their cities already abandoned by 1492. Like many peoples, they couldn’t predict the future and thought time was on their side. In their success they felt invincible and they thought their world would never end. It did, as many before and since.
Will humans ever take seriously the history of those who fell before us?
The current issue of American Archaeology (Vol. 15 No. 3, Fall 2011) has some interesting articles chronicling the latest changes in thought on Ancient America. The latest on the continuously receding date for man’s arrival here is detailed in “Making a Case for the Pre-Clovis.” Digs in Texas are contributing to the Clovis First theory’s decline. In “The Mesoamerican-Southwest Connection” we read about the influences of natives south of the border on the north. How far-flung were trade routes? How much influence and relations were there? Such things aren’t that surprising. For a long time we have allowed ourselves to be limited by modern borders, not thinking the ancients had very different lines. In “Polynesian Contact?” we see that the forbidden idea of pre-Columbus visits to America is starting to falter. Julian Smith writes:
“Historically, there has been lots of wild, crazy speculation about developments in the New World being ultimately caused by contact with the Old World,” says [archaeologist Terry] Jones. A lot was due to cultural biases against Native Americans, but ironically, the gradual acknowledgement of their homegrown achievements helped push the theory of trans-Pacific contact even more out of favor. As a result, by the end of the 20th Century, the idea had become almost taboo among American archaeologists.
I have discussed this in all of my books. First being decimated by disease, then forced off their lands and subject to the stereotype of being savages, people were easily convinced that the natives were nothing more than cavemen who couldn’t create earthworks, sophisticated structures or civilizations. The wild tales of Josiah Priest and others in the 1800s built on these misconceptions and wove Indian legends into their stories. Fantasies of races of the Old World building and warring here were commonplace. Ever since, natives have been wary of the idea of visitors lest they are given credit for anything found here.
Those who think this through first realize the stereotypes are false. They also conclude that no civilization lives in isolation for so long. All peoples are influenced by others. That doesn’t mean that the natives here can’t take credit for most of their history. Their own ancestors made it here. Other cultures were accomplished seafarers. To pretend no one could get here is as ridiculous as thinking Indians could do nothing on their own. Now, as the article mentions, some native tribes aren’t subscribing to the misconceptions created by their own people. In fact, some have said they “always [have] known [contact had] happened.”
Now maybe the rest of the people on both sides of the debate can catch up.