Originally published 11th January, this year.
One of the legacies of the world financial crisis is that it showed how absolutely clueless pundits, politicians, and financial planners can be about the direction we are heading in. This also explains our growing fascination with the mysterious Maya and their reputation for fathoming the distant future by reading the stars and the courses of the planets.
With the great vacuum of ignorance that enshrouds the future, it is not surprising that this long dead civilization with an astronomical bent has been sucked into the role of providing gnostic hints of what is to come. It was either that or Madame Zaza’s tea leaves.
According to a lot of breathless twats on the Discovery Channel, the Mayans saw something very important lined up for 2012, namely the end of their Grand Cycle, scheduled to end on the 21st of December this year. Depending on who you speak to this will precipitate either the end of the universe in a cataclysm of fire, a new age with everyone being very nice to each other, or the election of Ron Paul as President of the United States.
But before we get carried away with the impending sense of momentous cosmic change, shouldn’t we pause to ask the all-important question, “Who the heck were the Maya?” just in case they turn out to be a bunch of jungle bums stoked up on fermented coconut juice rather than credible prognosticators of the end of humanity.
Like any semi-barbaric, non-European people, the Maya are nowadays talked about in the hushed reverential tones dictated by political correctness as one of the great civilizations, even though they lacked metal tools and wheels, and enjoyed a spot of human sacrifice.
Rather than evidence of their primitiveness, their lack of tools is often cited as proof of their civilizational superiority, as only a truly higher culture could have built pyramids with so little in the way of technology. In such encomiums little is said about the possibility that the threat of human sacrifice probably served as an extremely important motivator for the toolless masses.
The key to understanding the Maya is their astronomy. The basic problem all primitive agricultural societies face is timekeeping. In the case of Britain, this led to the founding of Neolithic sites such as Stonehenge, where the stones were aligned to measure changes in the position of the rising sun and thus the seasons.
Such a convenient and easily accessible way of determining the agricultural calendar was not available to the Maya. The point where the sun rose was difficult to determine due to the surrounding jungle, while even if it could be observed—presumably from the top of a pyramid—the seasonal variations in position were much less marked than in the North. It thus became very important early on for the Maya to study the stars and planets to get a grip on time, an option much less open to the Neolithic Brits in their cloud-enshrouded abode.
The development of and dependence on an astronomically literate elite also created a tendency towards extreme hierarchy because an ability to read the stars and planets was not knowledge that was easily transferable in a society where the only form of writing was a dense, impenetrable system of hieroglyphics. With such vital but esoteric knowledge in their hands the elite could imperiously lord it over the vast underclass.
By contrast, in Neolithic Britain almost any semi-intelligent tribesman could get the hang of the sunrise trick, making it easy to bypass the authority of would-be astronomer-priest-kings. Perhaps a contributory factor towards the greater democratic nature of Northern peoples was the reliance of our ancestors on solar observation to set the agricultural calendar, rather than the much more complicated stellar system.
An important aspect of extreme hierarchies is their inherent instability, while a major characteristic of any hierarchy is the desire to show social status. These two factors along with the peculiar way the Maya chose to display their status suggests a possible reason for the civilization’s downfall. This is a mysterious event that has thrown up a wide range of pedantic and unsatisfying explanations, ranging from invasion and disease to trendy notions of economic collapse and ecological exhaustion that seem little more than anachronistic projections from our own age.
One of the unique features of Mayan civilization was the fashion of head shaping. This was practiced by the elite on the still pliable heads of their infants, using a variety of squeezing techniques to get a sloping forehead and a pointed skull. The reason for this has been linked with veneration for the Mayan maize god, sometimes called Itzamna, who had a head shaped like an ear of maize, the Maya’s staple crop.
At first, the distortions inflicted on the craniums of the future ruling class would have been mild and have had a negligible effect on the workings within, but as with any popular fashion—whether it be the bound feet of the Manchus, the quiffs of 1950s teddy boys, or the neck rings of Karen tribeswomen—the impetus to outdo others no doubt kicked in, leading to extremes of head shaping that would have impacted on the mental abilities of those involved.
The cultural relativism now in vogue dictates that such obvious stupidity should not be criticized as this would in some way be racist or Eurocentric, thus the custom of squashing infant’s heads is routinely treated as no more odd or harmful than the modern Western penchant for wearing bum-crack-revealing pants—admittedly an equally stupid fashion statement but at least one that is a lot less physically damaging.
Extreme head-shaping is liable to weaken the sutures that join the cranial plates together by preventing them sealing properly and lead to conditions such as hydrocephalus, which in turn is linked to a wide range of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
With enough maize-aping head-shaping, the ruling class would have become mentally debilitated to the point where their leadership would have lost credibility and led to the underclass rising up, probably with the malformed skulls of their rulers being smashed in the process. There is much evidence for such conflict and violence in the archaeological ruins of the Mayan cities.
With the elimination of the astronomically literate part of the population, however, much of the knowledge of the correct times to plant would have been lost, leading to further miscalculation, famine, depopulation, and the reversion of the Maya back to humble forest dwellers eking out a bare existence, which is how the Spanish found them in the 16th century.
The way in which this oddball civilization is accorded undue respect, especially this year, shows that our own ruling and academic elites have chosen to distort the internal workings of their own brains as much as the Maya elite distorted the outer carapaces of theirs.
The cosmic predictions of a semi-barbaric civilization that didn’t even know what a wheel was and which disappeared back into the jungles that spawned it after a period of pointless pyramid proliferation and skull bending should merit slightly less attention than the palm readings of the average faux-gypsy.
If 2012 is to mark the end of the universe as we know it or the dawning of a new age, either event will be a mere coincidence unrelated to the stargazing of a bunch of Mesoamerican coneheads.