Last week, I stepped away from my duties as The HighBoy’s Marketing Manager for a getaway to Mexico. Naturally, I expected to return to the office relishing memories of crystal-blue waters and delicious margaritas. However, I was actually overcome with humility and intrigue over an ephemeral immersion into Mayan history and culture— a topic I hadn’t given much thought, until now.
More than a thousand years ago, 50 miles east of the Caribbean coast in present-day Mexico, a cosmopolitan city was overflowing with state-of-the-art architecture, groundbreaking ideas, and dynamic civilization. As the economic, political, religious, and cultural capital of its region, Chichen Itza was the central hub for the Mayans from 600 to 1200 AD. Now, Chichen Itza is once again bustling with people from many lands, albeit in an entirely different context: as explorers of the breathtaking ruins.
With the little written evidence from the ruins of Chichen Itza, archeologists and historians have still been able to piece together much of this Mesoamerican civilization’s story: The Mayans here made pioneering discoveries in astronomy and natural science, developed a comprehensive numerical and writing system, and, of course, constructed intricate temples and housing that remain today. Yet this city, so rich with accomplishment, collapsed—though no one knows exactly how or why.
Many people often (mistakenly) imagine hundreds of well-armed Spanish soldiers invading an unsuspecting indigenous city. But by the time the Spanish stumbled upon it, Chichen Itza was already in ruins—covered by fields of humid jungle, hundreds of years old. According to Mayan legends chronicled in hieroglyphics, a power-thirsty leader from a neighboring Mayan group, the Mayapan, assumed control over the establishment and proceeded to destroy the city. Historians once accepted this legend as truth; however, they’ve recently consented that the legend was merely folklore.
If another civilization did not destroy the once-powerful Mayan capital, how did a lively, major city just disappear?
Many modern Mayan communities still living in the Yucatan peninsula today theorize that, much like the fall of the Roman Empire, the Mayan people gradually separated themselves from an egocentric king into smaller, more sustainable, and de-centralized communities. This shift would imply that the civilization thoughtfully abandoned the government and economic power of Chichen Itza.
Now, all that remains are the magnificent structures and rescued artifacts in the possession of museums or in private hands. It is in these ruins and artifacts that we can recreate the narratives of the Mayans—from their daily rituals and cultural traditions—and imagine their social landscape.
And while it’s possible that archeologists may continue to put together pieces of the puzzle, the mystery of Chichen Itza and the disappearance of an entire civilization may forever remain unknown. The Mayans’ story will forever remind me that among the strongest testimonies to who we are as a society are the art, architecture, and materials we create and leave behind.
Photography by Lucia Tolosa and Mariana Tolosa.