Wednesday, July 11, 2007


“The cenotes, besides providing water, were considered sacred places where Chaac, god of the rain, used to live. That is why human beings and other precious objects were thrown* into the water.” Placard at the Museum of Anthropology, Merida, Mexico. (*Note: in Spanish the placard states, 'se realizaban sacrificios humanos y se depositaban ofrendas´.)

On Sunday we went to Dzibilchaltún. There were six of us Centro de Idiomas students, plus Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide.Dzibilchaltún is just a hop, skip and a jump from Merida. Consequently it suffered comprehensive looting in the years before Mayan sites were honored among the top wonders of the world. There aren't any carvings on the few remaining structures. No frescoes or stelae, either. We wanted to see the Casa de las Siete Muñecas where at both equinoxes every year, the rising sun shines straight through one doorway to the other. There´s a small but respectable museum on site, and also a cenote. Cenotes are limestone pools that form naturally throughout the Yucatan; according to some accounts, they were a site for human sacrifices. We were not planning to sacrifice anyone. We did not so much as ask about alleged human sacrifices. We thought maybe we´d go for a swim, but it was all the same to Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide.

If you ever wind up with Carlos, do not ask him how many people were thrown into whatever cenote you might be visiting. Do not mention sacrifice at all. Do not, for instance, say: “I really wanted to eat the last few nachos, but I didn´t. Let me tell you, it was really a sacrifice.” This would be a surefire way to set him off on the following spiel:

1. The story of virgins and children being thrown into the cenote at Chichén Itzá comes from the notoriously disreputable Diego de Landa. (Fray Diego De Landa was the author of one of the earliest European accounts of the Mayans. A Franciscan missionary, he was also a soulless scoundrel. He burned most of the pre-Columbian Mayan books in existence at an auto da fe. This was nothing less than cultural genocide – only three books now remain: the Dresden, the Berlin and the Madrid Codices.)
2. The only skeletons found when scientists dredged the cenote at Chichén Itzá were those of adults. They all featured the sharpened teeth and flattened skulls (ah, cranial deformation! Another delicious topic!) indicative of the noble class.
3. These skeletons probably ended up in the cenote as a form of honored burial (see Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide, 2007). In other words, the nobles were probably dead before they were (with utmost respect) tossed into the soup.
4. Anthropologists have been writing about human sacrifice among the Mayans for so long that none of them dare refute the others (again, see C.t.G.T. Guide, 2007), for fear of provoking the 'wrath of the academy'.

Carlos told us he does not believe the Mayans practiced human sacrifice at all. Maybe they killed criminals, he said, or soldiers from opposing armies. You could call it execution instead. There is nothing, he said, nada, in the records suggesting the Mayans killed humans in order to appease their gods.

We were still sitting on the benchs outside the museum. It was around 11am. That's the time of day when sun god K’inich is really starting to cook, and we´d barely made it past the entry gate. The mosquitos were circling. 'Ko’osh', I was thinking -- Mayan for 'let´s go'.

“What about self sacrifice,” asked Sarah. Sarah worked as an anthropology TA at USC last year. She’s a UCSC grad and one sharp cookie. “Didn't they practice self-sacrifice?”

“Possibly,” grumbled Carlos, reluctantly. “Perforating their own tongues and penises, yes, blood-letting, yes. But I wouldn't call that human sacrifice. Ready to get started?”

Walking to the Casa de las Siete Muñecas, you pass through classic central Yucatan jungle. The rocky soil is fertile enough to support diverse species of low growing trees and grasses, but you’re never completely in the shade. A tree with powdery yellow flowers fills the air with a familiar scent: Cherry Coke, I think. The trees host many bright butterflies. Birds call to each other in outraged shrieks. When you reach the clearing, the Casa de las Siete Muñecas appears before you, low but elegant in its sparcity. Sweaty and squinting in the light, you climb. From the top you see the remains of a chalky white trail. This is a sacbé, one of the stucco roadway the Mayans built to make it easy to get from one city to another. Serious traders, those Mayans.

Descending, you follow the sacbé along the path to the cenote. You find yourself on a broad platform, the foundation of a great city that no longer exists: Dzibilchaltún. You see another small structure. It´s different – it doesn't quite fit in. Yet it feels familiar. When you pass through the doorway and get a glimpse of the rounded arches, you realize it's a church. They call it an open church, meaning it has only three walls. Taking a closer look, you notice the cross-hatch pattern on the masonry. It's the same pattern you might have seen at Uxmal and other archeological sites in the Puuc region. That's when you realize: the missionaries not only destroyed Dzibilchaltún, they used the remains to build a temple to their own god. Using Mayan labor, no doubt: the Mayans were always good stone masons.

Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide has good reason to be grumpy. I may find his opinions a little reactionary. His statements may be somewhat extreme. But whether the Mayans participated in sadistic, ritualistic killings or not, we all know who was sacrificed in the end, and to which god. The evidence is there at Dzibilchaltún in a small, humble chapel, just about a hundred meters from the cleansing cool blue waters of the cenote.(This mural, painted in Oxkutzcab's main square, depicts Diego de Landa's destruction of Mayan artifacts in the nearby city of Mani.)