Lessons From Civilizations Past

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What can we learn about ourselves, and possibly our future, from contemplating the Mayan civilization? The beliefs and values that our society holds influence the way we live, our evolutionary strengths and weaknesses, and the shape of our fate. If we ask ourselves the right questions, we can learn from history how to confront life’s challenges wisely.

Recently, my wife and I had the opportunity to vacation along the beautiful coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Vivid images of the impressive landscape, the magnificent beaches, and memories of our warm encounters with the wonderful people we met will all remain with us for a very long time. But perhaps the most memorable part of our experience was the excursion we took to the archaeological site built by the pre-Columbian Mayans in the middle of the northern lowlands and known as Chichen Itza. In addition to being one of the wonders of the ancient world and a true spectacle to behold, this now popular tourist attraction has the power to speak to you in ways you don’t expect and about things you rarely consider, especially if you listen closely. Its structures and history, as well as the people who created both, have a powerful and intriguing story to tell, not only about our past, but also about our present and possibly our future.

Their towering pyramids were built with large blocks of limestone, progressively stacked upon prior foundations without the use of modern construction implements; this would have been impossible without a substantial understanding of mathematics, astronomy, and physics. To behold them is enough to make anyone give pause. A few moments of careful reflection on the nature of ancient Mayan society — the things these ancient people valued, the gods they worshiped, the beliefs they harbored, the adversity they overcame, and in the end, the things that likely caused the collapse of a civilization advanced for its time — can really get you thinking.

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The people who inhabited the land around Chichen Itza during its most prosperous and influential years (roughly 100 B.C. — 600 A.D.) believed some things and engaged in some practices that most of us would regard as fairly advanced. For example, they constructed a large stadium for playing a popular ball game that was one of the centerpieces of sports activity as well as public entertainment. And the acoustic properties of the complex were such that spectators could actually hear what was going on in the field of play without the benefit of electronic amplification devices. But these same people also harbored beliefs and conducted rituals that most of us would find perplexing if not abhorrent today. For example, to appease one of the many gods they worshiped, they frequently (some authorities suggest on a daily basis) rounded up the most physically fit, intellectually gifted, and talented young persons among them and sacrificed them by bending them over backwards against a large rock, cutting open their chest cavity, and pulling out their heart before casting their remains into one of two “sacred” natural wells. Still, this civilization thrived for many years, until some type of calamity caused a major decline in the level of sophistication and ushered in an era of more primitive living. Some historians suspect a 200-year drought and drought-related conditions, diseases, crop failures, etc. were the main culprits. But others suspect this once robust culture did itself in by systematically divesting its ranks of its best and brightest.

Most students of history know that the human record is full of examples of advances and declines in various civilizations. Taking the long-range view, it’s very clear that ours is still very much an evolving species. And the cultures we spawn are no less subject to evolution. So, while we are learning more each day about where we came from, we still face the ever-present challenge of “Just where are we now, really?” and, most especially, “Where do we truly want to go?” There’s no doubt that, from a technological perspective we’ve come a long way. While we know that ancients gazed regularly upon the moon, it’s doubtful any actually conceived of a person setting foot upon it. But our remarkable progress in technological areas doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve advanced accordingly in other important areas. When you think about it, many of us still worship some strange gods (e.g., money, physical beauty, power, political influence, status) and are willing to sacrifice some really valuable commodities to appease them. We also live in a manner that ignores the ever-present possibility that nature will have the ultimate say about whether we’ve had enough respect for its importance and power to survive and prosper for another millennium or two.

Perhaps the ancient Mayans have more than a few lessons to teach us. Maybe “Where are we really?” and “Where are we going?” are not even the right questions for us to ask. Perhaps the bigger questions are: “What do we really value; how do we distinguish between what we seem to want and what we really need; and how do we best protect and secure ourselves in an inevitably changing and occasionally catastrophically unstable environment?” We may have come a long way, but we still face many of the same challenges to our well-being and way of life that have been confronted by many civilizations before us. And some pretty impressive cultures have fallen from the level of prominence and sophistication they once enjoyed. What will be our fate? Have we learned well enough from the experiences of our predecessors? Will future generations look upon the monuments we once built and say to themselves “What were they thinking?” Keeping in mind the lessons of the past and giving serious contemplation to these age-old questions today might just help us secure a more confident tomorrow.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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