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Mayan Warfare

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Mayan Warfare

A four inch long conical arrow made of animal bone sits wedged against the spine of a skeleton buried in a residential area of Copan. During the days of this excavation I had wondered more than once at how this individual met his end. Now I know. He was killed by another human. Probably another Mayan. An arrow pierced through his abdomen and struck against his spinal column, as he died by a turn of violence. The history of the Maya, like all civilized peoples, is strew with the vestiges of warfare.

I stood in awe over the curled up skeleton that still harbored the sharp bone point that was plunged into him over a thousand years ago. He died in a flash of a bow string, but the story of his death has survived through the ages. Archaeologists now gaze upon the remnants of his skeleton and pick through his dry and brittle bones.

I think about the seemingly inlayed violent attributes of the human species.

Some blame warfare and inter-group violence on the advent of civilization, on the point in human prehistory that humans stopped wandering, built fences, stone houses, reared sheep and grain, and became sedentary. This is a romantic notion. I too like to dream into the glory days of past migration when humans lived in cohesive, egalitarian, peace loving, ever traveling communities. I like to think of the wandering way as being gentler and kinder than the systematic, status seeking, and spiteful ways of the cities. But I do not know if I can go this far.

I know that I am being romantic.

As Bruce Chatwin stated, “the argument, roughly, was as follows: that in becoming a human, man had acquired, together with his straight legs and striding walk, a migratory ‘drive’ or instinct to walk long distances through the seasons; that this ‘drive’ was inseparable from his central nervous system; and that, when warped in conditions of settlement it found outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new.”

It seems to be a compelling argument, and one that I love to support up and revel in. I like the way these words sound as they roll off of my tongue. They make me feel as if I am just acting in accords with my own humanity, that I am the one who is vindicated.

But the place where I must diverge from this argument is that I have no evidence that the “nomadic alternative” – pastorialism, hunting and gathering, regular and continuous human migration – produced societies that were without war and violent conflict. I have read deep into the ethnographic annals, and some of my favorite studies were on peoples without fixed abodes, people who wandered in the jungles of the Ituri or Southeast Asia. But one thing that has struck me as curious is that even these people, so far removed from the improprieties of the civilized world, knew inter-human combat very well. The ever migrating Mbuti Pygmies were once known as the best fighters in Central Africa (and often served as missionaries); the peoples of the southern Asian jungles would often extensively tattoo themselves with their tribal marks so that they could identify friend or foe at a distance, as such distinctions often meant life or death. As much as I would love to blame civilization, I must assume that mortal combat has always been an attribute of the human species.

We kill each other.

Always have, and probably always will.

As I sit upon the ruins of an ancient city of the Maya, a city that sits on the graves of men and children who had died violently, I have come to terms with the fact that I do not believe in world peace.

But I still know that the world is beautiful.

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
March 11, 2008

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Filed under: Archaeology, Central America, Culture and Society, Honduras

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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