The Mystery of the Ancient Maya Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Gallenkamp


The mystery of the Maya is their disappearance. Researchers, archaeologists, and historians have not satisfied their piqued curiosity about the lost culture. The Maya are not extinct: An estimated two million Indians of Mayan descent live in roughly the same geographical boundaries as their ancestors. These Maya are the second largest surviving indigenous American culture, after the Quechua of Peru and Bolivia. Long since divided into small, isolated groups, few Maya speak a tongue familiar to those of other Mayan populations.

John Lloyd Stephens, a lawyer in New York City who had the spirit of wanderlust, was one of the first nineteenth century explorers of the Mayan ruins. After working and traveling in the United States for a decade, he went on an extended vacation, on doctor’s orders, to recover from an illness. Stephens spent two extravagant years roaming Europe and North Africa. Upon his return, his peers convinced him that a financial boon was his in the writing of travel books. He had met Frederick Catherwood, an architect and artist whose penchant for travel matched his own, and they began travel plans for the lands of the Maya. Despite travail and severe discomfort, they chopped their way to Copan in Guatemala and spent the next six months in discovery and drawing. The Copan chieftain was under pressure to rid the village of these interlopers, and Stephens miraculously arranged a deal that matches the heralded purchase of Manhattan: He bought Copan for fifty dollars.

Stephens and Catherwood continued their journeys—visiting, writing, drawing, and being astonished by ruins of a magnificent civilization. They suffered dismal weather and deplorable conditions, and they fought health problems that few could survive. The ruins of Palenque followed those of Copan, and the rainforests of Uxmal finally drove them from the land. They were exhausted, ill, and...

(The entire section is 772 words.)