The Fall of the Maya Empire
by Lawrence H. Freeman
July 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 16, Number 11

Mention the 'Maya Empire' and most people conjure up a picture of an idyllic civilizatíon ruled by kindly, wise, priest-scientists spending the days in prayer and their nights in astronomical pursuits. Whatever happened to them? Great picture, except almost nothing about it is true.

We are only now at the beginning of the serious study of the Maya peoples. Now that real progress has been made in the translation of the Maya glyphs, a window has been opened to a dífferent world, a different time. There was no Maya Empire. If there had been, history might very well have been very different, and there is a real question as to whether Mexico could have existed as a single country.
While many think of 'The Maya' as a homogeneous grouping, the fact is that they are actually composed of 13 separate tribes, each speaking a different language and inhabiting a different territory.

If you want to know what happened to the Maya, the answer is - nothing. Go to the Yucatan, or Chiapas, or Guatemala, or Belize, or even Honduras. All those little short, big-nosed people wandering around are all Maya. You can easily recognize their faces on the ancient Maya sculptures. The truth is that there are likely as many Maya today as there ever were. Pretty amazing, considering that it is estimated that the diseases brought by Cortes killed some 95% of the population at the time. The fact is that, other than the depredations caused by Cortes' coming, nothing happened to the Maya people. They never went away, rather it was their leadership that failed.

Though the jury is still out, the real líkelihood is that entire Maya collapse was the result of their own success. Buildíng their extensive ceremonial centers on prime land, thus removing it from agriculture, armory, deforestation and crop failures, all combined in a failure to provide nourishment for the high population levels. Their downfall was an ecological disaster.

While most people think of a Mayan Empire, the Maya were actually more like the Greek City States, each autonomous and also hostile to each other. Yes, hostile, for the history of the Maya is a history of warfare between and among the City States, of Empire building by Lords such as 18-Rabbit and Shíeld Jaguar, who brought other cities under their sway. Their ruling classes were more like the English system of royals under King Richard and King John. Lords, Barons,, Earls, Knights, Princes and Dukes, powerful families who drifted in and out of floating alliances while the Ahau, the King, rode uneasily upon them all like a bailing boat surrounded by ravenous sharks.

Lintel 25, a limestone carving in the seminal City-State of Yaxchilan on the banks of the Usamacinta River, the border between Mexico and Guatemala, which even in its present ruined condítion, is stíll revered as the residence of the Lacandon god Hachakyum, provides a window into the everyday world of the Mayan peoples of Yaxchilan on Ociober 23, 60l A.D. Most prominent in the image is the figure of Lady Xoc, the wife of Lord Shield Jaguar, and the sculpture is in celebration of the accession of her husband to the throne of Yaxchilan. Her appearance as the central figure is one of the few times that a woman was ever the dominant image, and her appearance is the result of the extraordinary power of her family, which raised Shield Jaguar to the throne and kept him there for an unprecedented reign of more than 60 years. She was the actual power behind the throne, the Hilary Clinton of her day.

Seated in the corner of the sculpture, she is in a trance, induccd by piercing her own tongue with a maguey thorn and abrading it so that it bled into sheaves of paper placed in a 'God Pot,' which were then set alight to produce the sacred tendrils of smoke that are transformed into an 'Och Kan,' a holy serpent. The 'Och Kan' can be thought of as a sanctified telephone line, a means of communication with the Maya Underworld of Xibalba, the place where the dead ancestors live. Here, the Holy Serpent has brought forth from its mouth the figure of 'Penís Jaguar,' also known to the politically correct as 'Progenitor Jaguar,' the founder of the Jaguar clan line, who has come to bestow his blessing on his descendant.

Lord Shield Jaguar became extraordinarily powerful, living to the unheard of age of 92, even extending his rule to Palenque, and his line was crucial to their society, so much so that when he was 62, Lord Shield Jaguar took a younger, foreign wife, Lady Evening Star of Cakamu. She gave birth to Bird Jaguar who later married the Lady Great Skull Zero, daughter of another powerful Yaxchilan family. In spite of this, the Lady Xoc supported the accession of Bird Jaguar, even over her own son, though the political infighting between the families lasted for more than ten years.

Such were the machinations of the ancient Maya.

The so-called 'Last of the Maya' are the Lacondon, who inhabit the tiny towns of Naja, Lacanja and Metzabok in the Lacondon Selva, the darkest rainforest on the Mexico side of the Usamacinta River. Though many of the approximately 250 Lacondon left have already been converted (some several times) by the Christianízing evangelists that have, invaded the area, there is still a remnant that practices the ancient Maya ways within the venerable confines of Yaxehilan.

The Lacondon are really not a Maya tribe. They are the rebels, remnants of all the other Mayob, thougb they have now so intermarried that they are the genetic inheritors of strabismius and albinism. But these are what is left of those who would never submit. Not to the Spanish. Not to the priests. Not even to the Mexicans. Finally, not even to the evangelizers.

The Lacondon were the ones who retreated back into the rainforest until their backs were against the Usamacinta River. But they were unable to resist the westernizing influences, and in a generation or two, they will be gone and with them what remains of the old ways.

The last leader of the Lacandon, really the last Lord of the Maya-meaning the last person to combine leadership and shamanistic qualities, was Chan K'in Viejo, literally the Old Son of the Sun.