Palenque, Evidence of the Rise and Fall of a Mayan Civilization

“Over five thousand hippies showed up here in December of 2012 expecting the world to end at the end of the Mayan long-count calendar.” our guide told us, “Boy were they disappointed.” It’s true the Maya had advanced knowledge of astronomy and developed a calendar that was more accurate than any other for hundreds of years to come. Like any calendar though they all have a last day and as we now know it was not the final day of the earth’s existence.




Like many Mesoamerican sites Palenque was a large city with an advanced civilization built with enormous stone structures used for political governance, religious rituals and the entombing of elites of the day. They managed storm water with aqueducts and underground “piping” to the point where the elites had toilets and even sewage waste treatment.

Mayan toilet, complete with sewage treatment.


The rulers were considered deities that had special connections to the spiritual world and were held accountable for the rising and setting of the sun as well as the turning of the seasons with announcements as to the times to plant and harvest. With their vast knowledge of the earth’s movements and cycles this wasn’t too difficult, though the knowledge was closely guarded to the point of incestuous inter-marriages among the rulers. There is evidence of deformities within the ruling class as a result of these unions. The deformities were considered outward signs of their connection to the gods.


Less than 10% of Palenque’s ruins have been excavated leaving over 1,000 buildings still buried deep within the jungle.
We visited in the dry season but that didn’t stop the rain from falling all day long.


The building of the temples was very costly in terms of natural resources. The 20 cm (about 8 inch) thick plasters that coated the walls and floors used an inordinate number of trees whose wood was used in the process. At the peak of the civilization in about 900 AD there was an extended drought with serious consequences for the crops that fed the people. Recent studies have proved that there were some years during that time with no discernible pollen whatsoever indicating a very bleak situation indeed.


The ruling elite increased human sacrifice especially of captured neighboring peoples and their elites in a desperate attempt to return the rains and prosperity of former times. Unfortunately this didn’t work and since they were “in charge” of the order of things in the universe the people rose up and “deposed” them or more accurately murdered them. In the end the civilization collapsed and scattered even devolving into cannibalism. At least that what our guide told us.

If you’re going to Palenque, an excellent value for lodging is at Margarita and Ed’s in El Panchan just outside the park boundaries. An immaculate room with a very comfortable bed, windows on three sides facing out to the deep jungle, a sizeable bathroom with hot and cold water and a ceiling fan cost 340 pesos ($20). At night the spine-tingling roar just outside our window was not a Jaguar as we thought but Howler monkeys.

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