Who Were the Real Barbarians?
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Who Were the Real Barbarians?

Most people associate pyramids with Egypt and northern Africa, where almost 300 have been excavated. But pyramids were widely distributed among ancient peoples. The New World has larger pyramids, and more of them, than Egypt ever had; they number in the thousands in Mexico and Central America.

During the 2,500 years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Mayans developed a civilization that dominated Central America. When they abandoned their cities, for complex reasons still being unraveled, they left behind some of the most impressive and mysterious architecture. It is mysterious because their hieroglyphics are far from understood, and no Rosetta stone has been discovered that would help to decode them. Since the Mayan cities were abandoned, the dense foliage of the rain forest has buried more pyramids than existed in all of ancient Egypt; only an estimated 15 percent of the Mayan pyramids have been uncovered.

The Maya appeared in the land 3,000 years ago, building a culture that flowered while Europe languished in the Dark Ages and that survived six times as long as the Roman Empire. They were at the zenith of their development around a.d. 300. Their cities were far larger and more elaborate than anything in Europe at the time. Their complex and sophisticated culture lived by a calendar equal to that used today by modern western civilization. They independently developed the concept of zero in mathematics, predicted eclipses of sun and moon, and traced the path of Venus with an error of only 14 seconds a year. They reached the highest achievement throughout Central America in engineering, astronomy, stone carving, and mathematics, and they were the only group in the hemisphere to have a written language. Priceless records of history and cultures were kept in libraries.

The coming of the Spanish was their final undoing. A Mayan prophet had predicted that men with beards would come from the east, and so they did, beginning in 1517. The conquest began with ruthless slaughter by Pedro de Alvarado, to whom Cortez had assigned the conquest of Guatemala. Although Alvarado had been directed to bring the people into the faith without war, he pursued them relentlessly with the power of swords and guns rather than with gentle persuasion. Another conquistador, Francisco de Montejo, received permission from King Charles to conquer Yucatan at his own expense. It proved to be a very expensive effort and never was completely successful. The first two attempts, in 1527 and 1530, failed. The third and relatively successful invasion began at Can Pech, now Campeche, the oldest surviving European settlement in the Yucatan. The official surrender took place at Ichcansico, now Mérida, in 1542.

The all—conquering Spaniards looked on the Mayans as barbarians, although they didn't hesitate to confiscate Mayan gold and precious jewels. The practice of human sacrifice was an appalling part of the Mayan culture, and the "civilized" Spanish conquerors were horrified. In fact the Spanish were so taken back by the Mayan practices that Bishop Diego de Landa ordered all the records of "barbarism" burned. His orders were carried out immediately. Within hours almost all written records of a great civilization were gone.

Only three codices (manuscript volumes) of Mayan writings somehow escaped the holocaust. Even more ironic is that about 90 percent of the soldiers burning the records of Mayan history and culture were themselves illiterate and could neither read nor write. But they were skilled in conquest, slaughter, and destruction. Just who were the real barbarians?