Spirit of the ancient Maya: Mexico's Lacandon jungle

Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Robert Leon

The last surviving descendants of the ancient Maya cling to the only life they know in the depths of Mexico's Lacandon jungle.

Deep in the rainforest near Lacanja village my friend Pancho, a nine-year-old Lacandon boy, runs barefoot through the lush terrain. Jaguar-like, he outruns me, slides under a fallen mahogany tree and hides among the thick vegetation. I'm unable to go under the tree and so struggle over it, and he laughs innocently as he peeks out from behind the jungle plants to watch me. His is an intense laughter full of wild spirit, the sound of true freedom and one scarcely heard in the day-to-day bustle of modern life.

Waterfalls and snakes

We cross over rushing rivers on improvised bridges of fallen trees and wade waist deep through hot, rain-swamped jungle before finally arriving at the Cascadas Lacanja waterfall. The endless jungle canopy above us suspends over the falls like a protective den. We dive quickly into a pool of bubbling water and allow the waterfall to relieve us of the thick heat. Pancho splashes around like a happy fish and our friend, K'in Bor, swims fearlessly to the foot of the thundering falls. The wild earth envelopes the Lacandon's serene soul.

Refreshed, we leave the falls and head back into the jungle cover. The sound of the powerfully pounding water quickly dissolves into the increasingly loud buzzing of insects and calls of animals. We go deeper into the rainforest, the sun filtering through the canopy and casting a soft and dim glow. K'in Bor stops and points to the ground: ''Serpente,'' he says. I look to the spot, my eyes not more than one metre from the vegetation, but it takes me awhile to see the camouflaged snake on the covered ground. I wonder that the barefooted Lacandons can so easily spot a deadly snake or spider in this concealing environment — as easily as K'in Bor can sniff the air and smell out a wild pig, or taste honey in the air and lead me to a beehive. There is a wholly different palette of smells here to explore. The Lacandons, as part of this jungle, have senses that detect things some people aren't even aware exist.

They are descendants of the ancient Maya, who held the thrones of the Old Empire of Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchitlan. The roots of the ancient Maya run deeper still, to 1200BC within the Olmec civilization. The name Lacandon means ''those who set up stone idols'', referring to Olmec idols such as the gigantic stone heads found at La Venta in Mexico. For the Maya, the physical, spiritual and supernatural worlds comprised one universe, and within this understanding they developed advanced knowledge in mathematics, time, astronomy, hieroglyphics and the 365-day calendar.

During the 16th-century conquest of what is now called Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, the Lacandon Maya escaped devastation by retreating into the Selva Lacandona jungle in the far southeastern part of Chiapas —l; Mexico's southernmost state. Most of the recorded history of their great civilization was erased in 1562 when many books were burnt by the bishop of Merida, Fray Diego de Landa, in Plaza de Mani. He had them destroyed in an attempt to wipe out native beliefs and install the Christian faith.

Destruction of the Classic Mayan cities severed economic ties: astronomers, mathematicians, nobles and warriors became peasants cultivating land, and what remained of Mayan culture dissipated into the remote jungle. The Selva Lacandona's flooding rivers and impenetrable forest, thick with mosquitoes, held back the conquistadores. In this way, the Lacandona survived a destruction that was widespread elsewhere in the Americas, and managed to preserve some of their ancient culture. These survivors remained undetected for centuries and were completely untouched by contemporary civilization until recent times, and all that remains of the once great Mayan cities are the monuments — the so-called ''ruins'' — that millions of tourists continue to visit.

Ruinas Lacanja emerges through the jungle veil. We circle around the ruin to the side where the dense bush reveals a temple. A massive tree grows from its roof, a gauge of the amount of time that has passed since its construction. Here, we are alone for probably a 10-kilometre radius and in the stillness of this place I can sense a path through time connecting the ancient ruin and my Lacandon guides, blending the past and the present consciousness. It is with a sense of the metaphysical that my companions and I visit the world of the Lacandon Maya of centuries ago.

K'in Bor lies on the ground between the roots of a large mahogany tree, and he touches the tree holding him. Looking up at the ancient temple, speaking about his childhood, he says: ''Things were better in the jungle before gringos came. We hardly got sick — no coughs and diseases like we have now. Before the road was built there were many trees. Now only a few have seen our ancestors''.

Pancho wears a long earth-coloured tunic, a xikul. Sitting on a tree in front of the temple, with his long black hair, bare feet and serene look, he merges with the scene. A beam of sunlight passes through the canopy and touches him — and in his innocence and smallness he appears to me as a guardian angel of the jungle. I hope that this is so, for who knows more about the ways of the jungle than one born here, one whose parents and ancestors were born here. This place is the source of life and spirituality for these people, and its importance on this earth is profound. K'in Bor and I look at each other. I ask him, ''How can people kill their life source?'' He replies, ''That's what we have been asking the gringos for years''.

After a long period of misuse and ignorance about the importance of La Selva Lacandona, one of the world's most biodiverse rainforests, it is now partly protected by the Lacandon Maya and has been named the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

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