Once upon a time in Mexico, before the Spanish invasion, the land was alive with people who, like us, worked to feed their families, shared the joys and pains of life, and paid homage to the gods and leaders whom they believed made their existence possible. In the earliest days of human settlement in Mexico, which sprang in part from the development of a nutritious corn plant, people explored their talents, creating huge sculptures, delicate pottery, and jewelry from seashells that traders spread far and wide.
Like people today, these communities developed stories about where they came from and why they existed on earth. Their gods controlled the natural world — the sun, the moon, the birds and snakes. Leaders emerged, we don’t know for sure why or how, but many were endowed with the power to speak directly to the gods and they used this power to bring individuals together in a controlled community.
Take the Mayan kingdom of Pakal the Great who took power early in the 7th century AD. His kingdom emerged after an earlier society built the mighty pyramids of Teotihuacan further to the north. Some 500 miles to the south, Pakal and his elite followers must have considered their buildings, their art, their society to be another step up in the creation of a sophisticated kingdom that built on the achievements of the past.
Today, the ruins of the once mighty temples of Pakal spread through the jungle where thick vines and leafy plants twist around the tumbled walls, the secrets of a distant past waiting to be deciphered. For 100 years, archeologists have studied the piles of clues, the elaborate carvings and glyphs, to try to piece together what brought the kingdom down.
Faded patches of color are all that is left of the work of talented artists who were recruited to tell the story of Pakul’s royal family, his sons and grandsons, his wife and mother. Extracting brilliant colors from plants and rocks, they depicted the heroic fights and conquests of their enemies, emphasizing how their kings’ power came directly from the gods.
Little is known of the daily life of the citizens of Pakul’s kingdom, now known as Palenque, besides what they ate — corn and animals — and the ball games that were played outside the royal palace. What is clear is that the rulers were backed by military forces that were unleashed against neighboring kingdoms and human sacrifice played a role in the elaborate power rituals that ensured their control.
Then, as suddenly as Palenque emerged from the jungle floor, it was abandoned and survivors migrated or were forced to move to kingdoms that likely conquered a weakened Palenque state.
Why did Palenque, and ultimately all of the Mayan and Aztec kingdoms, collapse? Theories abound. Years ago, historians theorized that the overuse of natural resources, including water, led to environmental ruin. More recent theories argue that the intense militarization of life complicated the already dire lack of resources and the societies could no longer survive.
Unfortunately, the Mayans of Palenque did not leave a detailed historical record for us to understand their collapse. The codices, or hieroglyphics, they left behind tell stories but ones of power and conquest, not of internal conflicts and chaos that likely preceded the abandonment of the palace and temples.
Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, it is as simple as that.
Visiting the Palenque ruins, it is hard not to reflect on its lessons for the present. At its founding, the United States was imbued with a lofty mission that inspired generations to create art, great buildings and scientific accomplishments. But that great democratic spirit feels like it is eroding as our president seizes ever greater power and his most ardent supporters threaten violence if he fails. Is the beginning of the end of this great society happening around us? Will our great-great-great grandchildren struggle to understand what went wrong?