Maya civilization

The Maya Today

The Maya today number about six million people, making them the largest single block of indigenous peoples north of Peru. Some of the largest Maya groups are found in Mexico, the most important of these being the Yucatecs (300,000), the Tzotzil (120,000) and the Tzeltal (80,000). The Yucatecs live on the warm and tropical Yucatán Peninsula, and the Tzotzil and Tzeltal live in the highlands of Chiapas. Other large Maya groups include the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya of Guatemala, the Chontal and Chol Maya of Mexico, and the Kekchi Maya of Belize. Each of the 31 Maya groups throughout Central America speaks a different, mutually unintelligible language, although all belong to the Mayan language family.

In spite of modernization and intermarriage between the indigenous population and Spanish immigrants, many Maya communities have succeeded in preserving their identity and their ways. This is partly because, throughout their history, the Maya have been confined to a single unbroken area including parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the western edges of Honduras and El Salvador.

Among the most fragile of the Maya groups today is the Lacandón of the Chiapas rain forest. The Lacandón are a small group - numbering only 200 in the early 1980s - and have attracted great interest among researchers. This is partly because the Lacandón have never been Christianized, and are believed to practise a variant of the ancient Maya religion. The Lacandón are, however, under intense pressure from the modern world. In the 1950s, the Lacandón were still hunting with bow and arrow. Since that time, their forest home has been opened up to travellers and tourists, and the Lacandón often travel outside the forest to sell their handicrafts. There is great concern that the Lacandón way of life will not survive long into the next century.

The Maya face greater challenges, however, than those presented by tourism. Maya regions have also been subjected to intense political upheaval in recent decades, with significant loss of life and economic devastation. While many Maya have been killed during civil wars, others from countries such as Guatemala have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in countries such as Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Human-rights groups are calling for an end to these injustices and governments are working to find lasting solutions to the problems of discrimination and cultural genocide.

The Maya also face problems of their own creation, particularly in areas like Guatemala's Petén region, which contains the largest expanse of forest left in Central America. In the Petén, the tropical rain forest is being felled at an alarming rate to make way for corn fields. The population of the Petén has skyrocketed from 15,000 in 1950 to more than 300,000 today. More settlers arrive from southern Guatemala all the time, placing enormous pressure on available natural resources. A study by NASA and the National Geographic Society discovered that in the four-year period between 1988 and 1992 alone, 1,130 acres of forest had been felled by individual farmers. The problem became so grave that in 1990 Guatemala set aside 40 per cent of the Petén as the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

As the forest disappears, so do its treasures. Wildlife vanishes, ancient Maya sites are exposed to looters, and whole chapters in human and natural history are erased or threatened. Workers with government-sanctioned environmental groups such as Guatemala's National Council of Protected Areas also face constant death threats and the burning of guard posts by loggers and others who stand to profit from the destruction of the forests.

The Maya have faced formidable challenges, some of which continue today. Some ethnologists even doubt the ability of Maya culture to survive the onslaughts of the modern world. However, a look at the traits which have kept the Maya culturally and physically viable to date - their hold on the land, devotion to their communities, and a deeply held system of belief - offer some hope.

The Maya have managed to maintain many of the old ways in agriculture and trade. Like their ancestors, most Maya households engage in corn farming and many produce crafts, such as woven textiles, for sale in markets. Unlike their pre-Conquest ancestors, however, many of the men must also leave their villages for the lowlands where they work part of the year on coffee and cotton plantations.

The ancient Maya calendar has also survived remarkably well. In the Maya highlands, many communities still have shaman-priests or "day-keepers", whose job it is to keep track of the round of days according to the Maya calendar, and to conduct traditional rituals for individuals and the larger community.

Maya intellectuals have also begun to realize that diverse Maya language groups must band together if their culture and languages are to survive. Most heartening of all to some observers, Maya populations are actually increasing rather than dwindling in numbers, and some believe that the Maya's heightened awareness of their strength as one people with a glorious past and an ability to adapt may help them survive for centuries to come.

For further information see also:

Mexico: The New Land of Opportunity, by Lee Thurburn,
chapter 2: "An Introduction to Modern Ethnic Groups"

The Modern Maya of Todo Santos Cuchumatanes, Guatemala
by Lee Urbanski

IXCHEL A Women's Development Center

A Mayan Struggle: Photographs of the Mayan Indians of Guatemala
by Vince Heptig