The Maya People of Belize
Although they left behind an impressive collection of causeways, pyramids, palaces, and irrigation networks, much about the ancient Maya remains a mystery. Beginning in the centuries before the Common Era, the Maya civilization soon spread across Central America, encompassing more than a million inhabitants at its peak. With a vast territory ranging from Central Mexico down south to what is now El Salvador, the Maya built a network of trading posts, stone cities, and farms.
The heart of the ancient Maya empire is in modern-day Belize, and three distinct groups of Maya continue to call the small Central American country home. The Maya of Belize are grouped by their dialect, known as the Yucatec, Kekchi, and Mopan Maya people. While many of their customs and traditions are similar, each sub-group speaks their own uniquely distinct dialect. The arrival of European settlers in the area was long after the bulk of the ancient Maya civilization had already collapsed. Today, the descendants of the original Maya are largely distinguishable by their skin tone, short and stocky stature, and straight, black hair.
At the heyday of their empire, the Maya were organized in a loose confederation of independent city states. Each separate kingdom was highly organized with a rigid bureaucracy and top-down administrative structure. Europeans living in the New World originally painted a number of romantic myths about the Maya civilization, drawing erroneous conclusions from the enormous stone structures and cities that had been abandoned to the jungle. After intensive work, archeologists and linguists managed to decipher the Maya’s unique system of hieroglyphic writing, unlocking a partial tale of a people highly skilled in warfare who offered up stiff resistance to the original Spanish conquerors in the region.
Although the Maya clashed repeatedly with Spanish forces in other parts of Central America, the heavily rural areas of Belize were largely untouched. Half-hearted attempts by the Spanish to convert the Maya to Catholicism and submit to the yoke were largely ineffectual in Belize, clearing the way for isolated bands of Maya living in the jungle to preserve their language, beliefs, music, and traditional ways. In later centuries, the arrival of the British along with large numbers of enslaved Africans radically changed the make-up of the country. Historical records in the British archives repeatedly refer to hostile “Indians” who would raid towns and villages before disappearing into the forest.
Of the surviving Maya population in Belize, the Mopan and Kekchi are the most numerous. The Yucatec Maya in Belize arrived in northern districts of the country such as Corozal and Orange Walk during the 19th century to escape the violence of the Caste Way in neighboring Mexico. Their descendants quickly intermarried and were absorbed by the larger culture, and few Maya today are able to trace their ancestry to Yucatac emigrants. Despite the fact that the Maya compose only a small portion of modern Belize’s population, their status as the original inhabitants of the region is respected and recognized. The legacy of the ancient Maya continues to contribute to the overall cultural richness and diversity of the country, and the Maya remain one of the most significant components of the melting pot that forms the modern nation of Belize.
Maya Masks And The Dance Of The Deer
Mayan culture has been around for thousands of years and is still alive and well today. Traditions such as elaborately costumed dances with carved, wooden masks are still performed at festivals and special events. One of these, the Dance of the Deer, is unique to Belize.
The “soundtrack” to the Dance of the Deer is a played on a 3-person marimba. They play more than two dozen distinct melodies. The dance portrays how the marimba called all the animals from the woods and mountains. Dancers with deer masks and clad in brilliantly colored costumes come forward as the marimba plays. Other dancers portray monkeys and jaguars.
As the story progresses, the Spaniards appear. Their costumes are typically adorned with lots of mirrors, which some say reflects the resistance of the Mayan people to the invading forces. Towards the finale of the dance, the performers act out how the Spaniards shot all the deer, which doesn’t end well for the Spaniards. The story holds the message of respecting animals and nature and about how nature may retaliate.
All of the dancers wear the traditional, carved masks. These masks are believed to have great power and they are not handled lightly. Only certain people are allowed to touch the masks. The costumes, too, are handled reverently.
While today the dance is about the Spanish Conquistadors’ disrespect for nature, many believe that the dance dates much further back. The characters of the Spaniards may have been substituted for a generalized “bad person” who would harm nature and kill animals indiscriminately.
This dance has been revived in many areas to highlight and preserve the Mayan culture. Children learn important aspects of their heritage through these ritualized dances. The Dance of the Deer is often performed as part of multi-day celebrations that include feasting and other activities. If you’re lucky enough to visit Belize during a cultural celebration, be sure to check out the dances and be immersed in the rich Mayan culture.
History of the Maya in Belize
The history of the Maya is integral to the history of Belize. Belize is located in one of the most important strongholds of this ancient civilization. That legacy can be seen today in the many well-preserved Maya ruins that are present in Belize. The best-known are those at Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Caracol, and Lamanai.
Who Were the Maya?
The Maya civilization began around 2600 BC and lasted almost 2000 years. The Maya established numerous city-states in what we now call Mesoamerica, most of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.
The Maya were the most advanced civilization of their time. Even today, people who explore Maya ruins are astonished at the construction and engineering skills they used to build their temples, pyramids, and cities. Maya architecture was far more complex and developed than that of the ancient Egyptians. Visiting these ruins today gives you a small glimpse into the detailed mathematical and engineering knowledge that they had.
Maya temples and palaces were built in ways that allowed them to view and study the constellation. They were fascinated by astronomy and show an advanced knowledge of it in their writing and architecture.
Mathematicians, Engineers and Farmers
Architecture and astronomy were not the only areas where the Maya excelled. Their language is considered the most sophisticated and advanced language in all of early America. The Maya improved the mathematical and calendar systems that were in place at the time. They invented the concept of “zero,” which allowed for more advanced mathematical calculations.
The Maya used advanced farming techniques, including underground water storage, irrigation canals, raised plots and terracing. The Maya grew corn, cacao, maize, squash, beans, cassava, and other crops.
They developed strong economies based on trading partnerships with other cultures and tribes in the region. Their social and economic structure was varied and it included the nobility, priests, merchants, skilled craftsmen, and laborers. However, the Maya did not use money, but they often used jade, seashells and copper bells as trading items.
The Maya believed in many different gods. Religion was an important part of their lives. They also believed that every living thing was imbued with a sacred essence.
To the Maya, caves were the most spiritual places because they were portals to the underworld which they called “Xibalba”. The Maya used caves to bury their dead and conduct their most sacred rituals. Today, explorers and archeologists in Mesoamerica are still finding important artifacts in these caves.
The End of the Maya Empire
The powerful city-states of the Maya empire began to fail sometime around 900 AD. The reasons for this are unclear, but many historians believe that a combination of prolonged draught, deforestation and wars was to blame. When the Europeans conquered the region, they did their best to wipe out all traces of the Maya civilization. However, many of them retreated to the highlands of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.
The Maya Today
The powerful empire may have faded into history, but the Maya have survived. Today, thousands of people in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize speak one of the many Mayan languages.