jungles of Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Guatemala, the ancient Maya created one of humanities
great civilisations, with stunning achievements in astronomy, mathematics and art. Sarteneja was a
significant Mayan port during the 1,500 years from the Preclassic (250 BC) to the Terminal
Postclassic 900 AD, and possibly was occupied to 1542 AD the date of the European
Mayan civilisation consisted of a number of city
states with a centralised city for rituals and ceremonies, and many manual
workers in the cities surrounds. These city states expanded and contracted in power and in
population, and frequently changed allegiances. Some consider that the polity of the Maya was
similar to that of the Greek city states.
However, centralised government never eventuated
probably because Mayan religion did not envision centralisation as part of the
The Maya were never politically unified and dunng the
heIght of the Classic period AD 250-909 were divided into a patchwork of more than 60 kingdoms.
Each ruled by a 'holy lord', they were locked in a constant struggle to preserve their autonomy or
achieve dominance over their neighbours. Especially successful rulers might establish themselves as
'overkings' operating far flung networks of political patronage - but in this turbulent landscape
no kingdom achieved a permanent hold on power (Martin and Grube, 2000).
When a Mayan city state conquered another they would
often establish a new cooperative ruling dynasty. Some city states, and perhaps Mexican
civilisations, appear to have had a major regional influence through conquest,
diplomacy, or through trade.
were rich in statues, and stone inscriptions called hieroglyphs or simply glyphs. Glyphs consisted
of abstract forms; spirits, animals, plants, body parts, geographical features, and astronomical
Glyph's were written in stone, and on pots and
personal objects, and in thousands of books. Glyph's are presented in grids and read from left to
right and top to bottom. Mayan glyph's are a work of
genius in art through combining the various possibilities of religion, symbology, mathematics, art,
The Maya scribes had tremendous latitude for visual
creativity. Their system had rules but each time a scribe wrote a phrase they could choose a
variety of sign and combine them in new ways. Originally the sylphs were one sign, but then the
scribes combined them into glyph's with up to 6 signs.
Written languages with between 20 and 35 signs are
alphabetic representing simple sounds, between 80 to 100 signs it is a syllabify representing the
possible combinations between consonant and vowel sounds, if it
has hundreds to thousands of signs the language is logographic or based on signs for whole
words. The Maya script did not fit any of these categories
and has about 800 signs and so initially proved difficult to decipher.
As the Mayan civilisation advanced, abstraction of
hieroglyphs went even further where a complex hieroglyph could be written as a single abstract form
such as a god or the head of an animal. One sign could be tucked inside another or hidden part way
behind another, two signs could be merges together hiding their attributes.
Of these Mayan glyph's we made
the sign "B'alam Ja Way" Jaguar water spirit
that welcomes visitors at our entrance.
Less than a dozen Mayan book remain as the Spanish
Christian invaders regarded them as demonic and destroyed many hundreds or thousands, and the
written history of one of the worlds greatest civilisations was almost
destroyed. The Spanish also victimised scribes, through
torture and death, until the profession of hieroglyph writing died out.
Subsequently, for over 400 years until the latter part
of the 20th Century the suppression by western industrial societies of Mayan heritage, language,
and writing has been part of Mayan culture. Mayan children were taught to speak in Spanish, given
Christian names, and discouraged from speaking Maya.
Mayan culture is one of the greatest strengths of
Belize. It provides a national identity that corresponds with the global effort for sustainability,
as the Maya maintained a sustainable civilisation for 2500 years in regions with poor soils and
with unpredictable rainfall.
Most fertile soils would have been farmed for crops
within a mosaic of highly utilised forest. Some areas of seasonally flooded tropical savannah may
have not been farmed. Some of the forest may have been inter planted, or at least cut, to promote
the growth of useful trees. The common presence of sapodilla trees throughout Belizean forests has
been attributed to Mayan land management. see Mayan Permaculture
A series of unusual droughts about 800-900 AD was
closely associated with the collapse of major Mayan cultural centers. Increased hostility between
city states, overpopulation, and loss of soil fertility through
intensive farming have also been suggested as causes for the collapse of Maya
civilisation. Perhaps these stressor's together, but with
different stressor's affecting different regions, proved too much for the survival of Mayan
civilisation and resulted in a gradual but accelerating erosion of the power and function of city
Even after intensive land use for over 1500 years the
areas occupied by the Maya now support a high and unique
biodiversity. This resilience suggests that the
region can be sustainability developed and still maintain most if not all of its
Combining the lessons in sustainability from the Maya
with the global resources of the 21st Century will provide a model for the management of the
Caribbean for human benefit.
History for recent history from 1542 AD until the
present, both anecdotal and written sources.
For more information about the Mayan culture of the
Sartenejan Region see:
Mayan Port of
Simon Martin and Nicolia Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the
Maya Kings and Queens - deciphering the dynasties of the ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson.