Mysteries of the Maya

Illustrations by Samantha Hugueley
The Maya mysteries are…plenty. What we don’t know about them could fill a book, or rather has filled volumes. And what we don’t know is often informed by what we’ve misinterpreted. So we’ve got kind of a blind leading the blind in the dark scenario, at which we can only imagine an ancient Mayan time traveler being slightly bemused at what we think they did in their observatories, ball courts and pyramids. And just to be clear, there is no evidence that the Maya have time travelled—yet.

Presented here is a bit of what the Whalebone Anthropology and Archaeology division could unearth. Discoveries that give us our small window into the past are still being made and with them, our knowledge of this brilliant ancient (maybe extraterrestrial) civilization is ever expanding.

Known largely for their calendars, and that date that was largely misinterpreted (see also “what we don’t know”), the contributions the Maya made are vast—astronomy, mathematics and architecture—to name a few. And while the Maya were working out how to make rubber and tracking the planets, the Europeans were—not.

The Not-So-End-of-the-World Tablet

You might have been building a bunker yourself or at least known somebody who bought a few extra nonperishables as 2011 came to close. It was widely stated that the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world in 2012, due to the misreading of a very special tablet found at the Tortuguero archaeological site in Mexico. The Mayan writing system, though quite complex, was mostly deciphered by scholars, but due to damage to some of the symbols, it is impossible to say what the tablet says exactly. While it’s believed the tablet did indicate an end to their long-count calendar, it does not directly correlate to the end of the world. So it might have been more of an existential accounting statement. Modern language begs a straightforward answer, but that is not always the case. Two possible interpretations:  the tablet was acting as an inscription for the monument for which it was found or the ‘end’ actually represented a new start with a more positive connotation. Or maybe it said, “Don’t believe everything you read.”

It was widely believed that the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world.

El Caracol Observatory

The Maya had a thing for the stars—don’t we all. The planets dictated a great deal for our ancient friends, so much so that they built large observatories to ensure that scholars could have a full 360-degree view of the night sky. El Caracol Observatory, a spiral shaped structure used to track the movements of Venus, located at the ancient site of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan is an awe inspiring testament to the architecture of the Maya (the entire city is a marvel of early urban development). Ancient astronomer priests (same-same, basically) were able to use the height of the building, at 92-feet tall, and the naked eye (allegedly) to track Venus’s 584-day cycle around the sun within a margin of error of 2 hours. Let’s say that again, they got it down to within in 2 hours.

a spiral shaped structure used to track the movements of Venus…


This one might mean a lot to you, or it might mean nothing. The Maya people were one of the first Mesoamerican civilizations to use the concept of zero in their numeral system, which, if you’d like to know, is based on 20. The concept is thought to have been invented by the even more ancient Olmecs, and adapted by the Maya with their own symbols to serve as the placeholder to represent the absence of numbers, which is slightly different than our understanding of it as the absence of value. Different scribes used different glyphs to represent zero in their calendar systems and the earliest version was found as far back as 36 BC. You catch the joke at the beginning?

The Pyramid of the Magician

Thought to be some of the most well-preserved ruins of the ancient Maya civilization, Uxmal is located in the eastern portion of the Yucatan peninsula. In Uxmal stands the Pyramid of the Magician, which sounds like something out of GOT, and the legend behind it doesn’t disappoint. A witch wanted a baby, so she hatched one from an egg, as you do, and it grew into a small man, or “dwarf,” that stopped growing after a year. The witch told her son that he would be a great King and to go off and defeat the current King. The dwarf did as he was told and proceeded to challenge the King to a series of trials, and, with the help of his witch mom, surprise, he wins them. The King, not pumped about losing, told the dwarf that he had one night to build a house higher than any house in the city, or else he’d be killed. The next day the King wakes up to see the Pyramid of the Magician, standing taller. That’s not the end, the King wants to hit the dwarf over the head with a stick as a last strength trial, but of course, the dwarf has a magic tortilla on his head—so he wins.

…she hatched one from an egg, as you do, and it grew into a small man…


Okay, so it might not have been sweet, but the Maya were allegedly some of the first people to use cacao beans for consumption—and money incidentally. The cacao beans were crushed and mixed with water to create a warm frothy drink, which they called bitter water (told you, not sweet). And although the Maya were a very class-driven society, all people were allowed to enjoy a nice warm cup of bitter water, yum. The drink was held in such high regard that the images of the cocoa bean even appear in some of their murals—if Godiva Chocolate’s website is to be believed. Cheers.

*Fact check available upon request, though the Whalebone Anthropology and Archaeology division might refer you back to Nat Geo and/or our friend’s dad who has a Ph.D. in Ancient Societies of Middle America.