As kids we all studied the Ancient Civilizations and the Great Empires of the world – The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese dynasties, and of course the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans. We think about the stories, the structures, the monuments and artifacts they left behind. And it all seems so ancient, so distant and dusty, so primitive and historical. We tend to make comparisons between how they lived back then and how we live today, and how different those lives must be.
But that’s not the comparison we should be making, especially when it comes to the Mayan people. Not how the Mayans lived back then and how we live today. But rather how the lives of the Mayans compared with the lives of the European adventurers, explorers, invaders and conquerors ….
Our own history books have often – at least in the past – been written by and from the vantage point of the victors, of the conquerors. In our case, that’s the descendants of the British and French and some Spanish and some Dutch explorers. We know about their bravery, courage, their hardships, their dedication and hard work, their ingenuity, and their persistence and eventual success. Indeed, much of that may very well be true. But what of the positive qualities and contributions of the people who were conquered? That’s another story and one that is less well known. And that makes the proper comparisons all the more difficult.
The British, French, Spanish, Italians and the Dutch – big, powerful empires each of them. They were bold and ambitious and thought quite highly of themselves, and went out to explore and conquer the rest of the World. This was an unknown, wild and uncivilized, primitive and untamed world – at least in their minds. But when they went out and found this unknown world, they found …….people. Fellow human beings, cultures and societies …. Already in existence, already thriving …. With their own language, customs, religions, traditions and practices. Sometimes at war, often at peace. People with their own language, their own established culture, their own traditions, their own ways of living and organizing society …. To work together and accomplish their own social goals and objectives.
Who was “civilized?’ And who was not? What did the Europeans seek? How did their use their “gifts” from God? In what ways were they more civilized? Or more advanced?
Think about what you know about their society during that time period. What do we know about feudal or medieval society, and what came next? What was life in Europe like for the average person in the 1400s, the 1500s or even the 1600s?
The rich and powerful were few, and lived extravagantly in cold, dark and heavily armed castles. The vast majority were poor peasants, eeking out a living at the whim of their landed aristocratic masters. Democracy didn’t exist, even as a philosophical idea – at least not in the form that we would recognize it. What technology existed? Other than weapons of war? Crops were still planted and reaped by hand. Medicine? Reading and writing? The printing press was a tremendous innovation, but it was hundreds of years before more than a few elites were able to read and write.
So now let’s compare this with what we know about the Mayans. Hmmmmm, I’ve been told that the Mayans had highly sophisticated irrigation systems for farming and even indoor plumbing in their homes. They had sophisticated textiles, productive farms, their own mathematics and impressive architectural structures and temples. They studied the movement of the stars. Developed their own medicines from native plants. Had a sophisticated, highly-developed and complex social system, with religious practices and traditions.
What they seemed to lack, perhaps, were the weaponry of the Spanish invaders and the desire to build ocean-going craft with which they could conquer another continent.
Does that make the Mayans less “advanced” or “civilized” than the Europeans of the same time period? And what did the Europeans do when they encountered these previously unknown societies? How fair was the fight?
It is worth noting that the Europeans came to the Americas and not vice versa, and the implications are important. The encounter would take place in the villages of the Native Americans, on their land and their territory – their homeland, with its women and children, homes and livelihoods all exposed and at stake.
The Europeans were composed mostly – especially at first – of able-bodied men in the primes of their lives. Men with little to lose and everything to gain. Men with superior weapons, and no women and children to protect because they were far away and safely back home in Europe. What did they have to lose? Nothing. Or at least relatively very little. If the Europeans lost, they could turn around and go back home, or simply stay home in the first place.
The Mayans and other Native Americans, on the other hand, had everything to lose. Their homes, their families, their source of livelihood. Maybe it’s no wonder that they often did. And yet, here they are. Still today.