It rained like hell, but the plazas were thick with the the energy of what was a major religious center to which the rest of the Maya civilization paid tribute and supported.
Theories proposed for Altun Ha's demise include vast overpopulation and increasing lack of sustainable land. Additionally, there seems to have been a critical loss of faith in the priestly caste, as well. Altun Ha's rise and fall presaged that of the other centers. It's an earlier site that developed earlier where expansion and implosion (and possibly abandonment) also came sooner.
It's not the largest site; but it's profound, being apparently a cite for religious rituals. In the main plaza, the most prominent structure is the Temple of the Sun, comprised of a three-part arrangement of Lizards (fertility), the Jaguar and the Crocodile. The Crocodile is the ecliptic – a heavenly/cosmic circuit image, the image of Time. Derived from this is the smaller circuit of individual being's life-cycles in the lizard. The Jaguar is the guide to and through the underworld and as at Copan, for example, all these images and the arrangement of the structures serve to maintain a visceral connection with the astronomical relationships in the sky through the calendrical cycles devised by the Maya in their day-to-day lives.
Altun Ha is one of the more recent excavations. It ws discovered in the 1950s with surveying/digging commencing around 1961 and continuing through the eighties. Use of infrared satellite technology since 2004 has been u utilized for non-invasive exporation with funding provided by the government of Belize and USAID.
Among other things, our guide Annemarie pointed out a large round head that looks distinctly un-Mayan. She asked me what I thought and I said it looked Olmec. It sits across from the Temple of the Sun and I opined that it could have been brought from Mexico as tribute. I personally don't think the Olmecs populated the area; but if so, I shouldn't be surprised. There's so much more we learn on a pretty regular basis about the Maya civilization. Through the infrared resources, some of the population centers were more populous and more dense than previously suspected. This lends extra credence to the environmental sustainability of the various Maya societies as well as lending weight to an economy that could no longer support the population.
|The "Olmec" Head. On reflection, it's not likely to have been brought from anywhere. It looks carved into the structure and there are two other similar faces that aren't as well-defined. I took this picture straight on.|
|Our "Olmec" friend with a bit more distance.|
Annemarie raised an interesting point specific for Altun Ha, but I think is probably applicable to the other centers, as well. The priests were taller than the average citizens and owing to a more diverse diet, longer lived. Live expectancy for the average Mayan was 25 to 35 years of age. The priests tended to live considerably longer so that if one lived to be seventy or seventy-five, say, the priest, the ruler or other members of an elite class would be veritably immortal. The “he was alive when my grandfather died” observation takes on a different meaning in this light; so along with the sense of the exceptionally long lived or even perceived to be immortal comes the association with wisdom, sagacity and probably occult skills, etc.
A body was found from around 750 CE with seals or tributes from Tikal, Copan, the Yucatec Maya and I think, Caracol. This was a ruler or a priest and the body was apparently well-preserved. Spiral ginger, all spice oak mango and cocoanut trees are all throughout the region and all spice resin was used to preserve bodies as a sealant against dessication of tissue.
There's no ball park and no stelae at Altun Ha but there was a good size population. I don't know but I could speculate that Altun Ha, in addition to being a ritual center (perhaps the ritual center of the empire?), might well have been where individuals were trained in priestcraft. I get the impression that the Maya by the time of the Classic period had pretty well defined classes. I wonder if like other civilizations, they sent novitiates to Altun Ha for education in their roles.
Copan seemed to be an artistic center and Tikal seemed to be the New York of the Mayan world. One suspects that these might be capitals of regions. But there is also the sense that there was a type of specialization, as well. In any event, I hope to get back to Central America one day and immerse myself more in the sites and history of this fascinating people.
I'm remiss that I didn't take more pictures once the rains stopped, but they reminded us that a hurricane was on its way. One of the jungle's denizens did come out to meet us though and tried to hitch a ride with me.
For further reading online:
Lonely Planet is a wealth of information and some good pictures, too: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/belize/images/mayan-ruins-altun-ha-belize$6984-5
For two great places to begin for more in-depth Mayan studies:
I also recommend any of the research done by Schele, Stuart, Fash, Coe, et al. The Maya seem to yield up more and more with each passing year. I can't do much more than hint at it.