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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What The Hell Happened To the Maya?

Map of the Mayan Civilization, made by Microsoft, for some bizarre reason.

BOOK REVIEW
Maya History And Religion
by J. Eric S. Thompson
University of Oklahoma
p. 1979
Civilization of the American Indian Series No. 99

   I wouldn't say I was changed by my trip to the Andes.  That shit is amazing, but it's more in the category "delivered as expected" than "blew my mind."  If you are talking Pre-Columbian civilizations, there are really three ballers:  Aztecs, Mayans & Incans.  Unlike the Aztecs and Incans, who were in their "classic" phases when the Spanish showed up, the Mayans were in  a "Post-Classic" configuration.  Generations of western social scientists have created a narrative of collapse to explain the transition from the classic to post-classic phase, but in a move academically analogous to what has happened in the world of post-Roman European historical scholarship, the recent trend has been to paint a more nuanced picture of the move from "classic" to "post-classic."

  Thompson, writing over 30 years ago, was in the vanguard of this reappraisal.  Unfortunately, Maya History and Religion is so old that Thompson feels it necessary to make an academically intensive case to rehabilitate the post-classic era.  Throughout this book, Thompson makes the case that the dissappearance of classic Mayan civilization was most likely a case of peasant revolt against the priestly hierarchy.  In this way, the idea that Classic Maya is to Post-Classic Maya as the Roman Emprie was to the Early Midddle Ages has evolved along the same lines (from a view that civilization really fell apart to a view that the impact on day-to-day existence was not that big a deal.)

   Thompson also makes the case that post-classic Mayan civilization integrated heavy Nahuatl (Aztec/Mexican) influence via conquering elites.  Thompson painstakingly documents the existence of Mexican influence in post-classic Mayan codices and the names of individuals documented in Spanish archives of the 16th and 17th century.  This relationship, between Nahua and Mayan, is something that bears further investigation- a cursory search of Amazon revealed no other books on the subject- so I'm going to keep that in mind.

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