Imagine living in a world where prices are denominated in quantities of chocolate – and not diluted milk chocolate, but the pure stuff. Maybe you could buy a basket of maize for fifteen cacao beans. As someone who can eat a 99% dark chocolate bar in one sitting, I probably wouldn’t survive in such an economy. After all, there was wisdom in ancient people’s tendency to phase out edible currencies in favor of bits of metal and paper!
I considered all this as I sat in a breezy room sipping a drink fit for an ajaw – a Maya ruler – in a hillside chocolate shop in San Ignacio, western Belize. Actual Maya rulers once sat drinking this very same drink in the now-ruined citadel on the hilltop above.
The cacao plant is indigenous to Central America, and the ancient Maya pioneered the use of its fruit for a variety of purposes, including as a beverage and as a form of currency in use as late as the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. They also made advances in many other areas, developing a hieroglyphic writing system, innovative mathematical concepts, and an extremely accurate astronomical calendar. The Maya worshipped a pantheon of gods and spirits, and erected great stone temples in their honor. The dozens of Maya cities throughout the tropical lowlands they inhabited were home to perhaps two million people.
Yet despite their achievements, Maya civilization declined dramatically around the ninth century. Their cities were abandoned to the rainforest, and the people who remained carried on in small agricultural communities. A handful of cities, such as Uxmal, persisted for a time, but couldn’t hold out when Columbus arrived with guns and disease.
The ancient Maya city of Tikal is reached by a dead-end road that leads deep into a national park in the northeastern corner of Guatemala. I took a small group tour to simplify the process of getting there from Belize. Our guide led us along the network of forest paths under a frenzied canopy of howler monkeys. The abandoned city has been reclaimed by nature, shielded from Guatemala’s modern cities by a dense rainforest. Most of the city remains un-excavated, and large overgrown with massive trees mark long-forgotten temples. Those that are excavated sit in grassy clearings where modern-day local shamans occasionally preside over Maya rituals. The rest of the time, the clearings welcome the chatter of picnicking families and the comical shenanigans of bandit-like coatimundis dashing around with their tails up like antennas.
When times got tough, the ancient Maya turned to their pantheon for assistance. The most common venue for making sacrifices appeasing to their gods was in the sanctuaries atop the steep steps of the pyramid temples. When you recreate that precarious ascent, you’ll certainly feel closer to the gods (or at their mercy!) when you look over the edge and find that the steps are too steep to even see.
But some Maya sought help not only skyward but also in the other direction, swimming into the depths of the underworld to make their offerings. On a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal – the “cave of the crystal sepulcher” – I had the (highly recommended) opportunity of journeying up one of Belize’s incredibly underground rivers to a cavernous chamber littered with broken pottery and the skeletal remains of human sacrifices. Photography is not allowed in the cave, but a photo wouldn’t capture the experience anyway.
Around the same time the Maya civilization was in decline, another empire was on the rise on the other side of the world, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of my time in Cambodia. The similarities between the architecture and symbolism of the Maya and Khmer civilizations are striking, even to the point of attracting conspiracy theorists. Nonetheless, both empires ultimately succumbed to a similarly mysterious demise, which historians speculate was in many ways tied more to environmental change than to violence.