JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written about 20kms (12mi) southwest of
Chichén Itzá Ruins, in
Yaxunah, Yucatán, MÉXICO

September 27, 2015

HISTORY IS LIKE ECOLOGY
When I was kid back in rural western Kentucky I didn't like school at all. One of the classes I disliked most was History. Despite all the dates we were obliged to memorize for tests, I think the only ones I recall now are 1492, 1776 and 1792, the latter being when Kentucky was granted statehood.

Only after I'd been in college a few years did history start appealing to me, when I was struggling to figure out which religion I should belong to. As I studied how the various religions came about, how they evolved, and what events in history enabled them to survive, on the one hand I got disgusted with all religions, but on the other I became fascinated with how history documented human behavior. History was like ecology, in that it taught that no event occurred in isolation, everything was interdependent, and that everything evolved.

As in ecology where to a certain extent you can predict what will happen in a given ecosystem if the ecosystem's resources are manipulated in certain ways, to a certain degree historical events can predict what the future will be like.

That's only one appealing feature of history, though. Mainly, history helps us understand why things are as they are now. Somehow that gives a person a sense of power with regard to how one's life should be conducted. I can choose to be part of some ongoing phenomenon, or I can walk away from it. Making such choices is easier when you understand where something is coming from and have a good idea as to where it's going. You can get on that train, or just let it pass, or maybe even start your own train company.


*****


YAXUNAH RUINS
Last weekend some professors from UADY, the Autonomous University of Yucatán, visited Yaxunah Community Center to tell anyone who wanted to listen about Maya astronomy. During the noon break one of the professors told me that something needed for the young people here was a simple outline of the history of Yaxunah Ruins just a ten minute walk out of town.

I was surprised at this request, because the Community Center's library is filled with good books, including copies of some of the publications and Ph.D. dissertations resulting from when Yaxunah Ruins were partly excavated back in the 1990s. When I looked at the library, however, soon I understood: There was plenty of very technical information, and detailed studies of certain features of the ruins, but no easy-to-understand outline of the ruin's overall history. So, this week I've worked on that.

It was a hard job. For one thing, one author may refer to Burial B while another calls the same burial Tomb 24. Sometimes they use terms like "post-classic" but other times the same time period may be called the "terminal" phase. And no one agrees on dates, so who knows whether Chichén Itzá was conquered in 1000 AD, 1200 or some other time?

Maybe by now some of the questions that plagued me this week have been answered -- maybe they even know the exact date when Chichén Itzá was taken over, and by whom and why -- but I don't have Internet here and can't Google such matters.

Anyway, here's the English version of what I came up with, based on literature in the Community Center library. If anyone spots an inaccuracy let me know.

*****

A BRIEF HISTORY OF YAXUNAH RUINS
Around 4000 years ago, south of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the general area of Guatemala, Honduras and Chiapas, a culture arose displaying what nowadays we think of as distinctive Maya features. Current thinking is that the first Maya inhabitants settled at Yaxunah between 2750 and 2500 years ago -- well over a thousand years after Maya civilization arose farther south. Here are major events in the history of the Maya at Yaxunah:

To the people of Yaxunah, each of these events had profound effects, as discussed below:

POTTERY FRAGMENTS

The main archaeological evidence for establishing dates for discoveries at Yaxunah site comes from pottery fragments. Different cultures at different times in their histories produce distinctive pottery. Oftentimes a pottery expert can look at a piece of pottery and say where it came from and how old it is .One feature of pottery dating is, "the deeper in the ground it's buried, the older it is relative to what's above it." Of course the ground must be undisturbed for this dating method to be used. When looters shovel up the ground, they destroy critically important information. Below you can see ancient pottery fragments picked up in the streets and yards of Yaxunah, on display in the Yaxunah Community Center museum.
pottery sherds from Yaxunah, Yucatan

YAXUNAH'S FIRST INHABITANTS
Based on pottery fragments excavated at Yaxunah, a good guess is that around 750 to 500 B.C. the people who first settled Yaxunah came from Belize and/or Guatemala's southern Petén area.

The oldest buildings at Yaxunah are situated along a north-south axis, suggesting that the structures were built for ceremonial purposes, probably for ancestor worship. Usually such temples are possible only when there's an elite group within a population, such as a royal family.

Yaxunah's early pottery style slowly evolved and then stayed the same, and the population continued to grow, until around A.D. 400. That suggests that during this time no successful invasions from the outside took place at Yaxunah.

BURIAL B
To date, the most spectacular discovery at Yaxunah is Burial B -- also called Burial 24 or Tomb 24 -- dated between 400 and 500 A.D. The burial holds the remains of eleven men, women and children, apparently Yaxunah's royal family. The king's head had been removed, and the bodies appear to have been thrown into the tomb haphazardly. Yaxunah's monuments associated with the royal family's dynasty were purposely damaged, to make the point that a new dynasty was being established. In the image below you see part of a reconstruction of Burial B -- notice the King's missing head -- exhibited in the Yaxunah Community Center museum.

Burial B YaxunahEvidence at Burial B suggests that the people who killed the royal family knew things that only someone close to the family would have known. Perhaps those who took power were cousins of the royal family. Much mystery still surrounds the dramatic events relating to Burial B.

Pottery fragments indicate that up to this point in Yaxunah's history, Yaxunah maintained strong ties with other Maya settlements, mostly with the traditional Maya homeland to the south. The people who killed the royal family in Burial B didn't maintain these contacts. Now pottery from Ek Balam to the north appeared. Most construction ended at Yaxunah, but the little that appeared was made from local sources. After the royal family was killed and dumped in Burial B, then, Yaxunah society seems to have suffered a certain isolation and impoverishment.

YAXUNAH DOMINATED BY COBÁ
Around A.D. 600, Cobá, 100 kilometers to the east, violently took control of Yaxunah. Now Yaxunah's population dramatically increased and robust building began again Surely the most impressive constuction at this time was the Maya world's longest elevated road, or sacbé, built between Yaxunah with Cobá. The remarkable scale of that sacbé is shown below:

sacbé at Yaxunah

ARCHEOLOGICAL PUBLICATIONS
ON FILE IN THE LIBRARY AT
YAXUNAH COMMUNITY CENTER

Numerous papers are available but these are the most important:

Ardren, Traci Ann. 1997. "The Politics of Place: Architecture and Cultural Change at the Xkanha Group, Yaxuna, Yucatan, Mexico." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.

Johnstone, Dave. "The Ceramics of Yaxuna." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Stanton, Travis W. 2000. "Heterarchy, Hierarchy, and the Emergence of the Lowland Maya: A Study of Complexity at Yaxuna, Yucatan, Mexico (400-B.C.-- A.D. 600." Ph. D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Stanton, Travis W. David A. Freidel, Charles K. Suhler, Traci Ardren, James N. Ambrosino, Justine M. Shaw and Sharon Bennett. 2010. Archaelogical Investigation at Yaxuná, 1986-1996 Results of the Selz Foundation Yaxuna Project. Bar International Series 2056, Archaeopress, Oxford, England

Toscano, Hernández, Lourdes, Diana Trejo Torres, Luis Cabrera Paredes, Gustavo Novelo Rincon. 1998. "Proyecto Yaxuná: Investigación y Restauración Arquitectónica en el Grupo del Juego de Pelota Informe de la Temporada 1997-98." Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historica Centro INAH Yucatán. Yucatán, Mérida.

Despite the obvious importance of these events, archeologists find it hard to agree on the story of who did what to whom, and why. A good guess is that at this time Cobá was competing for power in the Peninsula with other Maya kingdoms, and obliged Yaxunah to be part of its military alliance. Later the city of Uxmal joined the alliance. Probably this alliance was felt necessary because of the ever-growing power and   militaristic nature of Chichén Itzá only 20kms to the north.

Yaxunah's increased population may have come about through colonization from Cobá and other cities in the alliance. Also, in the ancient heart of Maya power -- in Guatemala, Belize and Chiapas -- Maya society was "collapsing," with great cities being abandoned. Maybe refugees from that still-unexplained event worked their way north and settled at Yaxuna. The new settlers built wherever they could find space, even in what earlier had been considered sacred ground, so clearly Yaxunah's society changed dramatically with the occuplation of Cobá.

YAXUNAH CONQUERED BY CHICHÉN ITZÁ
By ± 900-950 A.D., Chichén Itzá had become so powerful that it conquered Yaxunah and drove out Cobá-led forces.

Apparently Chichén Itzá had no interest in colonizing Yaxunah, for their forces remained only briefly, maybe less than a year. This was probably because Chichén Itzá had its own problems. Around 1200-1300 A.D. or so, Chichén Itzá itself was conquered by people using pottery from Mayapan, the last significant Maya center of power. With this defeat, Chichén Itzá lost much of its population and no longer remained a force to deal with.


YAXUNAH "COLLAPSES"
After being conquered by Chichén Itzá, Yaxunah's population drastically diminished. Only a small number of Maya stayed in the area to farm, Sometimes pilgrims would visit to conduct simple rituals there. This situation endured into colonial times, and to some extent to this very day.

*****

TEACHINGS OF YAXUNAH
After Yaxunah ruins were excavated and all the dissertations and publications resulting from the gathered data were produced, the excavation pits were filled in or covered up, and the Mexican government restored the ruins. Today you can see a few scattered mounds with walls here and there displaying hieroglyphics, but otherwise the ruins are not terribly impressive. A while back a dry-season fire burned the area, so today the archaeological zone is choked with weeds. To get from one mound to the other, someone with a machete needs to hack at weeds overhanging the trails. It's hard to imagine the centuries of alliance-making, murders, and wars that took place exactly where today those weedy fields and brush-covered mounds present such a forlorn face.

The history outlined above isn't unlike the histories of other ruins in this area. Nor is it unlike the histories of North America, both of its early indigenous populations and later the people who made the US, or in fact of Europe itself during all its various wars, or of anyplace else on Earth where people have gathered for long. Throughout history there's always someone wanting to take what someone else had, always a reason for fighting, and one wonders whether there might be something in human nature making such histories inevitable.

But, in this Newsletter, many times I've stated the belief that humans can -- at least some of us can some of the time -- rise above the destructive impulses arising from the early primate, Africa-savannah programming in our genes. The possibility of our rising above such programming is offered by what I refer to as the Sixth Miracle of Nature -- the Miracle that when mentality evolves to a certain level, the organism bestowed with that mentality has the possibility of behaving rationally, and lovingly, and sustainably. I've outlined the Six Miracles of Nature at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

If enough of us can rise above our native impulses for unrestrained procreation, power over others, and conspicuous wealth and consumption, together we can simply turn the current of history aside, and begin living in a new, better way.

The main teaching of Yaxunah ruins is, then, that if we want to put the end to such outrages as those testified to by Burial B, and suggested by the defensive walls surrounding the ruins, this is as good a time in history as any to attempt the change.

*****

STILL NO INTERNET CONNECTION
I've given up on the hope that we'll get Internet connection at Yaxunah. Last week I took a taxi to Pisté and uploaded a batch of Newsletters, and probably in a week or two I'll take another taxi to upload this one and next week's.

I'm looking around for a new place to go to, to barter services for a place to stay. If anyone has a suggestion, let me know.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Acquittal" from the May 12, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080512.htm

"Ants in My Casita" from the May 19, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070519.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.