Lucky me finds myself pondering life on a patio in Akumal, Mexico, while enjoying the iridescent blues of the balmy Caribbean Sea. This tranquil place offers powdery white sand in contrast to snow in Idaho and tumultuous American politics.
That serenity wasn’t the case 66 million years ago when an asteroid struck off the northern coast of the Yucatan. The impact is estimated to have killed off three-fourths of all life on the planet, and there is a high probability it ended the era of dinosaurs that had survived for 165 million years. Most would agree 2020 was no picnic either; however, looking back a mere 66 million years does provide perspective for what is truly apocalyptic.
Another fascinating facet to this part of Mexico is the Mayan culture. Centered in the Yucatan Peninsula, it extends farther north into Mexico and also south into Central America. At its height, the Mayans built over 40 large cities, and their kingdoms especially flourished from A.D. 250 to 900. The descendants of this civilization still live peacefully in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Mexico.
Two early explorers — John Stephens, an American lawyer, and Frederick Catherwood, an English artist and architect — first brought attention to the marvels of the ancient Mayan world during their explorations from 1839 through 1842. Stephens’ books, “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, Vols. I & II,” are great adventure reads and include masterful drawings by Catherwood.
The world has been intrigued by the Mayans ever since these two men spent several years traversing the roadless jungle. Countless buildings still lie buried beneath the dense foliage, and our knowledge continues expanding from ongoing excavations.
What did the Mayans bring to the world? They are one of the earliest civilizations to have independently invented the number zero which is a critical concept for much of modern math.
It has been my experience women love chocolate — some consider it divinely inspired, but they can thank the Mayans. This ancient culture was also one of the first to chemically process rubber for use in ball games and for making sandals.
The Mayans had the most complete and sophisticated written language of all the pre-Columbian cultures. Their understanding of astronomy was unparalleled and development of advanced mathematics allowed them to create sophisticated calendars unmatched in the ancient world; they had calculated the orbit of Venus to within several hours of accuracy.
A true wonder are the extensive ruins found at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. The central temple of Kukulcan has two large stone serpent heads residing at the temple’s base. People still gather to worship during the autumn and spring equinoxes when the late afternoon sun produces triangular shadows creating the illusion of a snake crawling down the pyramid. It’s an engineering marvel by any standard of measurement.
Sadly, an idiot Spanish Priest, Diego de Landa Calderon, the Archdiocese of the Yucatan, ordered the destruction in 1562 of all Mayan books as being “lies of the devil.”
Given what we know of Mayan intelligence, untold knowledge was likely lost as a result. Only three or four of these books, called codices, have survived. Given recent political events, one does have to rhetorically wonder, how can humans still be so intelligent and stupid at the same time?
On that subject, the Mayans were also known for human sacrifice and engaged in internecine warfare. Drought is the primary suspect for the final collapse of their vast civilization that overall lasted approximately 2,000 years, but warfare from within surely didn’t help its chance for survival. The Mayan kingdoms never did coalesce as a nation state like the “United States.”
Perhaps currently fractured America should take note of the Mayan civilization’s demise. George Santayana said it well in “The Life of Reason” (1905): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Americans are at odds politically to the point of violence, and Trump’s presidency revealed flaws that exist in our Constitution and government when politicians are unwilling to hold a president responsible for criminal activity.
If you are looking for a compelling read, McKay Coppins’ article, “The Most American Religion” in the January/February 2021 Atlantic provides great insight regarding American politics and the history of the Mormon religion.
McKay discusses Mitt Romney’s campaign for president, and the lonely pinnacle he sat upon when his ethics compelled him to vote to impeach Trump. Far less destructive actions would be resulting now if Idaho’s Senators and other Republicans had shown similar courage then to remove Trump from office. Words do matter, and Trump’s incendiary lies challenging the validity of the election have fueled violence in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Coppins astutely observed in closing his article that “the reality, of course, is that America will never be ‘saved’ by a single person, or even a single group. What holds the country together is its conviction in certain ideals — community, democracy, mutual sacrifice — that it once possessed, and now urgently needs to reclaim.” Those principles were on trial in our nation’s capital this past week and the jury is still out.
Ronald Reagan observed, “Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
Our country could outlast the ancient Mayan civilization if we return to the ideals of democracy that have kept us united since the end of the American Civil War.
However, apropos to our current turmoil, John Lewis said, “Not one of us can rest, be happy, be at home, be at peace with ourselves, until we end hatred and division.” Amen to that!
Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native educated in Idaho. He works as a mediator and insurance claim consultant, but his passion is public art. Robison has spearheaded art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Kizuna Garden located at the Pocatello airport, and serves on the Bistline Foundation.