Lost Civilizations
San Jose Mercury
by Antoinette May

By Antoinette May

The jungle trail seemed to go on forever, aimless, constricted morning steam rising from compacted vegetation. I paused, pushing back my straw hat. This was the stuff of daydreams, but the guide had disappeared around the bend. I hurried on, realizing that Bonampak was still far away.

It was a tough trail overgrown with roots. Once I stumbled and found myself at eye level with a caravan of leaf cutter ants, each carrying a parasol of green. Above, tiny monkeys no bigger than fists pirouetted, chattering derisively at clumsy human intrusion. Here and there toucans with banana-yellow beaks beat the still leaves of branches that seemed almost black against the filtered sunlight.

The two ornithologists in our small party spent most of their time walking with heads thrown back, field glasses at the ready. They spotted numerous eagles, but it was I who pointed out the sacred quetzel bird, a flash of living jade.

I pushed on, and on, and on trying to keep pace with the others, every step an effort. Then quite suddenly, dead ahead, an improbable looking tower of massive stones appeered. Emerging from a chicle forest, we confronted the incredible city of Bonampak.

This is what must have happened early in l946 when a group of gum harvesters discovered the ruins quite by accident. Hearing their tales of a lost city with painted walls, photographer Giles C. Healy prevailed on the United Fruit Company to mount a mini expedition. He reached the site on May 21, l946.

The first thing Healy discovered was that this city deep in the interior of Chiapas, Mexico wasn't lost at all. The Lacandon Mayas had known of its existence for centuries and were still using the ceremonial center as a place of worship. God pots, censers and copal placed before the numerous altars bore mute testimony to recent devotions.

The next discovery made history. Until this time, the Mayas had been considered not only the intellectuals of the New World, but its pacifists as well. It had been pleasant to imagine them living in splendid isolation in their remote jungle retreats, star-gazing peacefully or working on their complicated calendar system, oblivious to war.

One look back inside the remaining building destroyed that notion forever. The walls and ceilings of the three inner rooms of an obscure temple are covered with murals. The figures depicted in these extraordinary paintings radiate aggression. The Mayas were intellectual, but they were also just as savage, just as implacable, just as ruthless, just as human as any other tribes in the Western Hemisphere.

Taken together, these three rooms form a narrative depicting a raid on enemy territory, a counsel of victorious chiefs, the judgment of prisoners and a sacrificial ceremony and victory celebration. Figures are close to life-size and possess a remarkable sense of motion momentarily arrested. The colors--vibrant reds, greens and yellows, and a black that seems to shine against a backdrop of Mayan blue--are spectacular.

This was a classic fresco in which plaster was applied to the walls and the original drawing executed almost immediately before it could dry. Then the artist's assistants--and there must have been many--applied the colors. The muralist who copied the work for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City believes that the entire mural was completed in 48 hours, a continuous effort of artists and plasterers working simultaneously. The result has been compared to the Sistine Chapel.

The 270 figures are rendered with remarkable naturalism. The sacrificial victims show anguish, the battle scenes bristle with sound and fury, and the presiding king and queen

are so regal in their style and bearing, so realistic in their arrogance that one expects at any moment to see a cool nod of dismissal.

But remarkable as these murals are as art forms, the statement they make about the Mayas is of far greater significance. The marauding warriors, the nude and defenseless farmers depicted on the walls of Bonampak are a far cry from the mellow star-gazers of earlier conjection. The treatment of the captives pictured on the temple wall belies the theory that ritual sacrifice was forced on the Mayas by Toltec invaders. This revolutionary discovery altered our understanding of Maya society.

Though exposure to light has caused the murals to fade since their discovery, they remain one of the world's great art treasures. The rest of the Bonampak site is also interesting, a jungle outpost with a variety of tumbling temples covered with curious red moss, stone idols wearing leafy spring bonnets of orchids, and carved stone pillars that tell more chilling stories of blood sacrifice.

The journey to Bonampak began with a four-hour ride out of the city of Palenque over washboard roads to a remote Lacandon encampment. From there it was a five-mile hike into the jungle. On our return to the village we were greeted with an excellent dinner of venison tortillas, beans and beer.

Early travelers, dazzled by the culture of the Mayas, compared them to Greeks because of their science, to Romans because of their well drained paved roads and to Egyptians because of their pyramids. An archaeologist studying Mayan nautical trade routes dubbed them the "Phoenicians of the New World." Today the descendants of these remarkable people live in comparative obscurity beside the ruins of a vanished civilization.

The Lancandon Maya are a splinter group descended from rebels who fled the conquistadors more than four hundred years ago, taking refuge deep in the jungle--where they still live. The Christian Maya in Yucatan call their heathen cousins "gentiles." The Lacandons ignore the distinction. The Yucatecs, they say, merely have "different saints."

The Lacandon compound where we stayed was made up of five chosas, palm- thatched roofs supported by poles without sides. The largest chosa was the communal kitchen, the others were used for sleeping.

Life is primitive. The men still hunt with bows and arrows. They grind corn on stone metates and weave cloth on small black-strap looms. Both men and women wear only one garment, a loose white shift that falls to the ankles; men, women, and children all wear their hair shoulder length.

This is a strongly patriarchal society. It is the man's responsibility to propitiate the gods. One means of doing this is to feed them. Before the family begins to eat, the male head of the household places food and an occasional cigar before the statues of the family gods. This ritual is not simply a prelude to a particular meal, but a means of sustaining the gods so they can continue to provide food for the family.

The following morning we left the Lacandon village and headed for the Usamacinta River in search of another Mayan ceremonial site, Yaxchilan, which is even more remote than Bonampak.

The mighty Usamacinta River, which divides Mexico from Guatemala, is flanked on either side by the largest surviving rainforest in North America. Giant mahogany trees rising as high as l50 feet and sacred ceibas with tall, straight trunks, leafed at the top like umbrellas, are sentinels guarding the banks. Orchids grow everywhere, begonias are waist high.

The journey to Yaxchilian, made by mahogany dugout with an outboard motor, is a triumph of white-water navigational skill.

Varying depths and a jagged, uneven bottom make for dangerous currents and boiling rapids.

There are exciting glimpses of monkeys, toucans, eagles and occasional crocodiles.

This is also the habitat of Guatemalan guerrillas.

The dugout comes to rest on a sandy spit. Just above it is a small compound where the caretaker lives. Beyond that is Yaxchilan, the "lost city" of a hundred Saturday matinees.

The Mexican government guards the unexcavated site carefully. No one goes far without a guide. The jungle, with its indefinable scent of ferns, leaf mold and green life, is particularly dense here. Getting lost could be fatal.

Despite the almost daily efforts of the caretaker to keep the bush at bay, Yaxchilan sits uneasily before the jungle juggernaut. Tree-size roots extend down through roofs, walls and subterranean chambers, tearing apart massive stones. Strangler vines creep through corbelled arches to enshroud figures of dead monarchs in leafy, winding sheets.

Believed to have been a city of seers, Yaxchilian remains a place of brooding mystery. A narrow rocky path leads through the jungle emerging before the two crumbling pyramids. Four pitch black entrances in the second structure lead into a labyrinth. At the end, one is confronted by the grim specter of sacrificial stones and the grand vista of a central courtyard.

There are 80 known structures. Some are located on the hill near the river, Others are found on still higher elevations. The labyrinth remains the most intriguing. Even today the Maya regard caves as entrances to the underworld and avenues of communication with the gods. During Yaxchilan's heyday, this may have been the heart of the peoples' religious devotions, magic rituals and secrets.

A recurring theme throughout is one of blood letting known to have induced altered states of consciousness. On bas-reliefs, the king performs the ritual act by stabbing his penis. It seems a painful price to pay for power, but perhaps no worse than that of his queen who pulls a thorn-embedded rope through a hole in her tongue.

Structure 33, considered by some to be the most interesting temple at Yaxchilan, is situated on a small rise overlooking the main plaza. Before the doorway is a headless statue of a humanized feline figure in a posture of worship. Many years ago mahogany cutters broke off the head, which can be seen a few feet away.

Lacandons still frequent this holy city, burning copal and offering prayers to the time when the head and body will be reunited. They believe the sacred union will mark the destruction of this world and the beginning of a new one, signaling the re-birth of the old gods and the final flowering of the ancient Maya culture.

Sitting in the central plaza of this forgotten city of seers, a long, long way from anywhere, almost anything seems possible.

Antoinette May, a biographer and travel writer who lives in Palo Alto, is author of YUCATAN; A Guide to the Land of Maya Mysteries.

PICTURES 1) Bonampak murals are a true confession 2) Lacandon Mayas retain their dress 3) The Usamacinta divides Mexico and Guatemala

WHEN YOU GO: GETTING THERE: In Palenque, which has some exquisite ruins of its own, visiotrs may hire a car and driver--both essential for the two-day expedition to Bonampak and Yaxchilan. Arrangements may be made by calling 1-800-451-8017. Both Mexicana Airlines and Aeromexico offer flights to Villahermosa via Mexico City at fares beginning $644 round trip. Visitors can rent a car for the ride to Palenque or take a local bus. the ride takes just over an hour.

Copyright © 2002-2010 Antoinette May