Over the last couple of weeks we have delved into the lives and minds of the ancient Mayan civilisation. However, there is a large part of their history that I felt I needed to dedicate an entire post to and that is their warfare. Unlike the traditional view of history which mistook the Mayans for a peaceful race in comparison to the bloody Aztecs, it has been found through extensive archaeology that these people were influenced heavily by conflict.
Conquistador description of Maya warriors:
At around 20 different sites scattered around the Mayan region, archaeologists have discovered defence systems, fortifications and defensive constructions. This consists of multiple lined ditches, earthworks and stone walls combined with wooden parapets and palisades. This suggests that there were conflicts occurring at this time especially when those fortifications were built as an integral part of the cities foundations. In the state of Becan the stone walls were extremely high and were 1.8 km in circumference. It was built to withstand large and determined onslaughts by a horde of warriors.
In the height of the Mayan civilisation there is evidence of important stone buildings being destroyed and looted for their stone segments which have been found to have replaced or built sections of the defensive wall. These were most often left unfinished and the workman ship suggests it was set up in a hurry.
Despite the large amount of mass graves that can be found all around Mesoamerica, many stand out from the usual sacrificial grave mounds. That is because of the way they have been killed and buried. As mentioned before in the previous post (Part 2) sacrificial victims would have their hearts cut out and their blood would act as the prize given to the gods. However, in many sites in major political areas, mass graves have been found filled with severed heads which show no sign of other trauma apart from decapitation. For instance, in Cohla there is the Skull Pit where 20 adults and 10 children heads were found within a destroyed building. It suggests that these were not warriors or slaves but political enemies such as a royal household. It shows that there was an intense political conflict happening between the waring houses of the Maya monarchies.
Many historians feel like it is necessary to define what “warfare” is. It is not chaotic bloodshed but something with a means to an end and for our purposes warfare is the coming together of groups of people who share the same ideals whether that be spiritual or political. These people will pursue these interests to violent ends and that includes the killing of opposition in the context. This to them would not be murder but considered socially acceptable in the process of battling for those beliefs.
There are two main reasons why Mayans were a warrior civilisation. The first, is that the political economy during this time was extremely volatile. The Mayans were an extremely vast empire spanning over the length of many countries of South America today. They were not united and each state had their own family of rulers looking to increase their land and influence. They would fight each other to demonstrate their power and to gain a higher level of control amongst the Mayan monarchy and that would mean murdering the losing house. Secondly, their life was dictated by their religion which needed human blood to be spilled to appease the gods. Creating war always meant that captives could be taken from these battles for their spiritual sacrifices.
Society now knows the fierce Mayan way through images of war depicted within Mayan art forms. Despite this, warfare is hard to prove and find within archaeology due to the wet landscape they lived in. However, the following will show the evidence that war was an integral part of life:
It is astounding how historians and archaeologists were convinced that the Mayans were peaceful people who were the opposites of the Aztecs further north. In every Mayan site there is pictorial evidence to strongly suggest they held the same savage beliefs by way of human sacrifice and waging war. The Mayans depicted war and the sacrificing of victims on pottery, stone carvings and through paintings on murals. Many times they would depict their ruler standing over captives on their knees who are bound and the kind is holding them up by the hair.
Not to mention they are famous for their hieroglyphics plastered about each significant city. In those, it was deciphered that they told of religious events, detailed scenes of epic battles that ensued and described the way prisoners were caught and sacrificed.
Warfare Practices According to the Spanish Conquistadors
Batobs were nobles and high ranking leaders of civilisations who worked under the king the ajaw. The Batobs could be military leaders but mainly ran small districts within the king’s realm and ordered people to war. The “generals” were called nacoms and these were the fiercest warriors selected from the strongest tribes to lead the troops for a term of 3 years wherein they would be celibate and were treated like kings.
The Spanish accounts do not mention whether these Mayan warriors battled in any formations or higher level patterns, but it was mentioned that they were quick to form battle lines of thousands of men.
The nobles dressed differently than the commoner soldier. The high ranked officers wore heavier and more protective gear of cotton protection in the torso and a heavy cord pectoral most likely made of palm fiber. The attire was completed with a rigid waistband, a skirt of flexible strips and had knee protections sometimes made of shell. They also carried small shields, rigid or flexible. The rigid shield was round and fastened to the left forearm allowing the warrior to use both hands while fighting. These heavy warriors would have very poor mobility, but was supposedly ideal for the capturing of sacrificial prisoners as this was the most prestigious and awarded thing to do in battle.
Whereas, the troops had lighter body protection by way of a cotton loin-cloth, a cord pectoral, probably of twisted cotton or palm fiber, knee coverings and sandals with heel protection. The shields could be square, rectangular or round shaped, made of wood, wild reed, cloth or leather, padded with skin or cotton. These would be sometimes decorated with heraldic motifs or the face of gods.
Apparently, battles were most commonly held in the open but the Mayans were famous for the quickly built on field defensive fortifications made from wood and other materials. Another form of warfare the Mayans participated in where raids where a small number of elite warriors would go one something like a hunting party in order to capture sacrificial victims and to harass or provoke a neighbouring monarch. From the detailed records of the Spaniards, Mayan warfare was primitive but effective and against one another, however with the might of steel that Spain brought they would fail.
"This town stands upon a high rock: one side of it is skirted by a great lake and the other by a deep stream which runs into the lake. There is only one level entrance, the whole town being surrounded by a deep moat behind which is a wooden palisade as high as a ma's breast. Behind this palisade lies a wall of very heavy boards, some twelve feet tall, with embrasures through which to sheet their arrows; the lookout posts rise another eight feet above the wall, which likewise has large towers with many stones to hurl down on their enemy... indeed, it was so well planned with regard to the manner of weapons they use, they could not be better defended."