Making Sense of Mayan History?

Well, I love to explore ruins, and leading up to my vacation I thought I’d look into brushing up on my Mayan history - and now I’m confused.

When I first looked into it, many years ago, the “story” of Chichen Itza was pretty clear:
Evidence suggests that Chichen Itza was abandoned by the Mayans in the tenth century. This is concurrent with evidence of all Mayan cities being abandoned around this period. The abandonment has not yet been fully explained. The Mayans returned to and resettled their cities around 1000 AD. Chichen Itza’s architecture is seen to have two distinctive styles; traditional Mayan architecture, and more recent Toltec architecture. The Toltecs were another more warlike tribe who invaded Chichen Itza around the year 800 AD. The Toltecs were much more fierce than the Mayans and human sacrifice was a large part of their rituals. It is quite easy to decipher which structures in Chichen Itza were built before and after 800 AD.

So it is (or was) pretty clear: a Mayan city, invaded by warlike Toltecs from central Mexico, who made Chichen Itza their capital; and it is easy to see which buildings were built by which.

If you look around in books or the Internet, this is by far the most common explaination; often it is added that the king of these invaders was “Quetzalcoatyl”.

In addition, if you know about the history of the Aztecs, you know that the predecessors of the Aztecs were “Toltecs”, from whom the Aztecs derived their civilization (and taste for human sacrifice). One of the kings of the Toltecs was Quetzalcoatyl, who was booted from his throne and fled with his followers.

So it fits together, right? Quetzalcoatyl fled from the Toltec city of Tollan, and established a great capital at Chichen Itza, importing human sacrifice and Mexica-style militarism to the Yucatan.

While it is slightly counter-intuitive, the King Quetzalcoatyl was associated with just rule and an end to brutal human sacrifice. For this reason, he was deified - and hence the references to Quetzalcoatyl-worship at Chichen Itza.

Or so the story goes.

A more recent, scholarly account that shows up in some places (for example, in The Code of Kings: ) is that almost every element of this “traditional story” is wrong:

  • The term “Toltec” and “Tollan” are not necessarily refering to specific cities or cultures, but to any ancestral “golden age” culture; like the term “Roman” gets re-used in European History, so that in effect everyone adopts “Roman” terminology any symbology, everyone in Mesoamerica at one time or another claims descent from “Tollan”. The Aztec claim is much the same as (for example) Napoleon using “Roman” symbols or the Czars claiming Moscow as the “third Rome”. As a matter of fact, the term “Tollan” means “place of reeds” and is associated in Mayan iconography with a sacred mountain - making the most likely originator of “Tollan” the ancestral Olmecs;

  • at least one tribe/city adopted the name “Tollan”, but this does not mean that the name originated with them;

  • the name “Quetzalcoatyl” refers to a diety much older than the “historical Toltecs”, and almost certainly the king (if he existed) was named after the pre-existing god, rather than the other way around;

  • The “Toltec” buildings at Chichen Itza are now thought to have been built at the same time as the “Mayan” buildings;

  • The Mayans have always had a cult of human sacrifice and militarism - 19th century notions of “peaceful” Maya being invaded by “warlike” Mexica are probably quite incorrect;

  • The city now identified as the “Tollan” of the “Toltecs” was in fact probably built after Chichen Itza - making it unlikely that a refugee king from “Tollan” founded the “Toltec” capital at Chichen Itza.

All of this is complicated by the fact that the Maya viewed time as, in essence, cyclical - in that the same events happen over and over again; thus, rulers seeking legitimacy often try to insert themselves into the culture-history of the Maya by identifying themselves with ancestors or gods (this would explain a king calling himself Quetzalcoatyl, and the term being associated with both brutal conquests and an era of peace and an end to brutality).

It is all very confusing, but quite interesting. To me at least.