It is Tuesday, February 18th and we have been home in Kansas City since Saturday. It is good to be home, and a few days of “down time” after our week in Cozumel feel good. I intend to post some summary thoughts about our week on the island, but for now I want to address a particular experience off the Yucatan Peninsula.

The island of Cozumel is located approximately 12 miles east of the mainland and 50 miles south of Cancun. The island is 30 miles long (north to south) and about 10 miles wide. It is highly developed on the west, but virtually undeveloped the length of its east shore. Its chief economic driver is tourism. The name Cozumel is derived from the Maya language “Ah Cuzamil Peten” which means Island of swallows. Which brings me to its Maya roots and history.

Central America and the Yucatan, the area that was eventually the heartland of the Mayas, was populated over 10,000 years ago. By 2,000 BC settlements were established and the people were cultivating crops, developing pottery, and producing art. Cities and large monumental structures were developed by 750 BC. A complex system of phonetic and hieroglyphic script, the most elaborate in the Americas, was in use by 400 BC. Around the 3rd Century BC the Maya City of El Mirador had grown to cover an area of well over 6 square miles. It was one of many Maya cities connected by a well-developed system of transportation and trade. A number of cities in Mesoamerica ranked among the largest in the world in both size and population. The Maya civilization was among the most advanced in the world in astronomy, math (perhaps the first in human history to employ the use of zero as a placeholder), and agriculture. It has been estimated that over half of all crops cultivated world-wide trace their origins to agricultural Mesoamerica where maize (corn), beans, squash, tomatoes and peppers were first developed.

On Thursday Christine and I visited the Maya archaeological site, San Gervasio, located in the center of Cozumel. Small by the standards of better known Chichen Itza or Tulum, it was nevertheless very important to Maya women. Here the sun rose first in the land of the Maya and women sought to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the shrine of Ix Chel, a goddess of fertility, childbirth and arts of the home. It held this status for approximately 1,000 years until it was abandoned around 1550 AD, perhaps because of a smallpox epidemic of Spaniard origin that decimated the island. Archaeologists have identified 3 mass graves on the site that appear to contain the remains of disease victims.
The original site extends over several square miles, but the restored portion that is available to the public is much smaller. Restoration was conducted with the assistance of archaeologists from Harvard and the University of Arizona.
Here is a map of the site:

A virtual tour is available online.
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Admission to San Gervasio was a very reasonable 183 pesos (about $10.50 US). Visitors are free to wander the grounds on their own, but we had been encouraged to avail ourselves of the assistance of one of the guides.

My school derived notions that pre-Columbian America was a land of primitive savages had already been turned upside down and inside out.

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What was “new” to my understanding came in the form of our guide Pedro, a young Mexican who self-identified as Maya.

Through him we learned that a distinct Maya culture continues to this day. Pedro is a handsome young man with a winning smile and a baseball cap worn backwards. He spoke excellent English which we learned was largely self-taught. What is more, Pedro’s first language is Maya, his second Spanish, English is third, and he is currently working on learning Mandarin Chinese!
Pedro accompanied us for over an hour and provided a detailed explanation of the history of the site and his people. Pedro identifies as citizen of Mexico, but he speaks with great pride of his Maya language and heritage, much as I would of my own German and Lebanese roots. Over the course of our tour I often found myself doing a double-take that accompanying us was a bristling intellect disguised by loose slacks, backward cap, and a very relaxed bearing.

Among the buildings and structures that we visited were the small house shrine,

The altar platform,

The residence of an elite family,

The elite family shrine,

The archway and road to the coast,

The “Temple of Bats” (so named because when it was discovered it was full of them),

The celestial observatory,

The Palace and central plaza.

There was more, but our favorite part of the day was making the acquaintance of a delightful modern Maya gentleman.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. The Maya elite were highly literate. Their books were written on a form of paper that folded much like a map does. Only three examples exist today because of the efforts of conquistador bishops that resulted in the destruction of all of their literature.

5 thoughts on “The Mayas, Then and Now. Cozumel February 13, 2020.

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