Sarteneja was a significant Mayan port during the 1,500 years from the Preclassic 250 BC, to the Terminal Classic 1000 AD, and possibly was still occupied to 1542 AD the date of European invasion. see Maya port of Sarteneja

In Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Guatemala, the ancient Maya created one of humanities great civilisations, with stunning achievements in astronomy, mathematics and art. At its peak, it was one of the most densely populated and culturally dynamic societies in the world.

Mayan civilisation consisted of a number of city states with a centralised city for rituals and ceremonies overseen by an elitist theocracy, and many smaller centers and plazes surrounding the city center. 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 for all the Maya never eventuated probably because Mayan religion did not envision centralisation as part of the cosmological order. 

The Maya were never politically unified and during the heIght of the Classic period AD 250-900 were divided into a patchwork of more than 60 kingdoms. Each kingdom was ruled by a 'holy lord', these kingdoms were locked into 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, however, in this turbulent political 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.

Mayan cities 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 signs.  

 Maya statue  Maya statue  Maya statue
 Maya statue  Maya statue  Maya statue

Glyphs were written in stone, on pots and personal objects, and in thousands of books. Glyphs are presented in grids and read from left to right and top to bottom. Glyphs are a work of genius in art through combining the various possibilities of religion, symbology, mathematics, art, and writing.

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 gylphs were one sign, but then the scribes combined them into glyphs 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 syllabafy 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 Maya 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 merged together hiding their attributes.

Of these Mayan glyphs we made the sign "B'alam Ja Way" Jaguar water spirit that welcomes visitors at our entrance.


  Balam Ja Way Maya heiroglyph sign
 Balam Jaguar  Maya water heiroglyph  Maya spirit heiroglyph

Mayan hieroglyphs in B'alam Ja Way sign - Jaguar Water Spirit

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 world's greatest civilisations was almost destroyed. The Spanish also victimised scribes, through torture and death, until the art of glyph writing died out.

Perhaps driven by the needs of astronomy and the Maya calender, Maya mathematics was developed quite early with very sophisticated number system, possibly more advanced than any other in the world at the time. The Maya used a vigesimal number system using base 20 and base 5. The numerals consisted of only three symbols, zero as a shell, dots representing one, and bars representing 5. After the number 19, larger numbers were written using powers of 20: 1, 20, 400, 8000, 160000, etc although in calendar calculations they gave the third position a value of 360 instead of 400.

The pre-classic Maya independently developed the concept of zero by at least as early as 36 BC, and worked with sums up to the hundreds of millions and very large dates. The Maya were able to measure the length of the solar year to a far higher degree of accuracy than that used in Europe 365.242 days, compared to the modern value of 365.242198, and the length of the lunar month, 29.5308 days compared to the modern value of 29.53059.

However, due to the geographical disconnect, Mayan and Mesoamerican mathematics didi not influence European and Asian numbering systems and mathematics.

Subsequently, for over 400 years until the latter part of the 20th Century the suppression by western industrial societies of Maya heritage, language, and writing has been part of Maya 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 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 Maya 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 as an elitist theocracy. Perhaps these stressors together, but with different stressors affecting different regions, resulted in a gradual but accelerating erosion of the power and function of city states.

However, Maya civilisation did not collapse after the decline of many city states but continued with an emphasis on more commercially based elites and with trade until after the European invasion.

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 biodiversity.

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.

see Sarteneja History for recent history from 1542 AD until the present, both anecdotal and written sources.

Simon Martin and Nicolia Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens - deciphering the dynasties of the ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson. p7.