This is by far the most comprehensive book about the ancient Maya. There are several excellent shorter ones; this is the go-to book for thorough reference. It has become almost as "classic" as Maya civilization. Sharer reminisces about being "hooked on" Maya studies by the third edition (by Morley and Brainerd, 1956); so was I, back when it was newly minted. How much has changed since. Scholars can now read Maya. We now can match written history, sculptured portrayals, and archaeological findings to identify the actual skeletons of some of the greatest and most famous Maya kings, such as Yax K'uk' Mo' of Palenque. We have entire dynastic lists covering centuries, for many of the major cities. We can use bone chemistry to find out what the Maya ate. All of this was almost beyond the wildest dreams of the 1950s.
The Maya turn out to have been as brilliant, original and creative as anyone ever thought, a truly homemade civilization, one of the few in a tropical forest environment. They are said to have "collapsed" due to ecological maladjustment, but this book notes that modern research shows the civilization lasted well over 1,000 years before the "collapse" around 900 AD, and it was a fairly local phenomenon. This local collapse was due to drought, warfare, and some ecological overshoot--too many people doing too much (including burning too many trees to make lime for stucco and cement). The Maya kept on. They took on the Spanish and often won. The last independent state held out till 1697, and Maya continued holding out in remote backlands; in 1846 the Mexican Maya rebelled again, and created an independent state, finally reconquered after 1900 and turned into the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As for what has happened since, suffice it to say that 3 days ago I saw an election sign painted in huge letters on a wall in central Quintana Roo: "PRESERVE YOUR PRIDE IN BEING MAYA!"
There are very few errors in this book, but some need correcting in the 7th edition. Most are in the very early sections, and are often left over from previous editions. Page 5, 16th-century Europeans are said to be "secure in the knowledge that they alone represented civilized life...." No, they revered China, and knew plenty about India, Persia and Arabia. P. 9, coffee is said to have come "soon" with the Europeans; not till the 19th century, at least as a major crop. 23, Nahuatl loanwords reflecting rise of central Mexico in the Postclassic: Well, a lot of those Nahuatl loanwords came with the Spanish (who had Nahuatl soldiers with them). Page 33, caiman: The book confuses the animal called "caiman" in English, an alligator-like creature not found within hundreds of miles of Mayaland, with the crocodile, which is called "caiman" in Mexican Spanish; also, pythons are claimed as native to Mayaland! The nearest they get is Africa; evidently "boa constrictors" are meant. Then nothing till page 640, where a typo (apparently two decimal places missed) has given us a preposterous yield figure for beans (in the table at the top of the page). The yields of maize are also pretty high, though not ridiculous. There are a few other errors in the book, but nothing of consequence that I can pick up.
The book uses the "new" transcription system for Maya languages, but sometimes slips and uses the "old" system, and sometimes mixes them up in the same word (e.g. "dz'onot" on p. 52). One related annoyance--not Sharer's fault; alas, it is becoming standard--is respelling "Yucatec" in the new transcription system. "Yucatec" is a SPANISH word, with no excuse in Maya, and should not be respelled. (For the record, the Spanish coined "Yucatec" from a misunderstood Maya phrase and a Nahuatl ending. They also popularized some Nahuatl ethnic names for Maya peoples. These names, like Huastec and Aguacatec, should be spelled in whatever system in now standard for Nahuatl--not in a Maya system. Better yet, they should be replaced with the actual Mayan names, like Teenek for Huastec.)
The one place I would respectfully disagree with this book is on ancient Maya population. Sharer has "tens of millions" of Maya in the 700s AD and around then. On the basis of some years of field experience with (mostly modern) Maya agriculture, I don't think this is possible. Granted that the old myth of purely-swidden agriculture is long dead, "tens of millions" would require agricultural intensity of a sort found, in preindustrial times, only in the wet-rice lands of east and southeast Asia. Mayaland is small, and only some of it is at all fertile. Sharer's evidence is a couple of surveys showing high densities of settlement in particularly favored areas; not only are they atypical, there is no guarantee the houses discovered were all occupied at once. I would guess the peak total for Mayaland was between 5 and 10 million; at least, the agriculture I know would support that many, if it had some additional intensification of the sort well documented. Beyond that, all is speculative.
One more thought. The Maya were supposed to be "peaceful" back in my student days. Then, with reading the Classic Period texts, scholars found they were pretty warlike. This led to some exaggeration the other way. Fortunately, Sharer is far too careful and comprehensive a scholar to fall for either the "peaceful" or the "warlike" view. The "warlike" view was justified by the big monuments in the Maya city squares. These commemorated wars and victories, just as do those in town squares in the midwestern US. Alas, we lack the ordinary writings--the equivalent of midwestern newspapers, with their record of marriages, births, corn and hog prices, store openings, and the like. Surely the Maya had their equivalents. What interests me here is the incredibly long life spans of Maya kings. Many lived, and even reigned, for 50, 60, even 70 years. Compare that with the Roman or Chinese emperors or the kings of France. Clearly, Mayaland in its glory days was a pretty peaceful, healthy place--though, indeed, not the paradise dreamed by romantic archaeologists of the early 20th century!
The ancient Maya are still a pretty mysterious lot in many ways, and there is a huge amount to learn. We had better do it soon. Sharer provides a long, excellent, very disturbing account of the looting that has destroyed much of the Maya heritage and will destroy all of it (at least in Guatemala) if a massive effort isn't mounted soon.
On the other hand, nothing is more heartening than the number of Maya who are becoming archaeologists and ethnographers, and studying their own past. More power to them.
While making a joke about (or reference to) the Mayan calendar is tempting, I'm just not clever enough -or perhaps I'm too earnest - to pull it off. Interested in pre-Columbian history, I stumbled across Sharer's _The Ancient Maya_. It was more - much more - than I had expected, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but it is something readers should be aware of. The book is near encyclopedic in its detail and the depth into which Sharer explores the Maya. While I was initially intimidated by the scope and level of specificity, there is so much here that even those looking for a brief synopsis of the Maya can (with a little attention to the index) have all their questions about this vibrant and tremendously important civilization answered.
The book is primarily an anthropological and archaeological study as the maps, photos, illustrations and figurative drawings of burial sites, buildings, communities and temples attest, and as explained in the opening chapters. This should not dissuade historians (such as myself) or others interested in this civilization (but not necessarily students of this discipline) from reading this marvelous book - the use of technical jargon is kept at a minimum, but the first three chapters (the first 100 or so pages) are devoted to a discussion of archeology in Mesoamerica. Sharer hits his historical stride about a third of the way into the book, elaborating, illustrating and discussing a very complex and long-lasting civilization.
Admittedly, the detail can be a bit overwhelming. Sharer includes dozens of "case studies" of various digs in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatamala and El Salvador providing a close-up view of current research on several aspects of Mayan civilization from 1000 BCE - 800 CE. While illustrative of the specific time periods (and regions), they can be distracting. I felt this feature was commendable. Likewise I was impressed with Sharer's transparency in discussing areas of academic disagreement. For example, while covering the end of Maya states in the Classic Period (800 - 900 CE), several explanations have been advanced. Rather than dismissing those with which Sharer disagrees, each theory is presented, a summary of the supporting evidence is discussed, and a brief analysis of the relative merits and flaws of the interpretation of the data is discsused. Not only is this good scholarship, its good teaching and is academically honest. I commend him.
I was most fascinated by the concluding chapters of the book, in which Mayan society and religion is discussed, and the final chapter that related the Spanish conquest of Mayan civilization. While much of Mayan art, writing and architecture was concerned with the social and religious elite, I was pleased to find so much included about gender roles and the daily lives of the common people.
While I strongly suspect this is a text for a 200-300 level archeology course on the Maya, it is very well written with a depth and detail that I wish more academic writers were able to pull off. For the non-academic, I still recommend this book, but read it judiciously and refer to the table of contents or index to highlight areas of interest. Highly recommended.
on November 22, 2015
I will start by saying that I am a huge history lover and a large portion of the books I read deal with history in one way or another. After reading all of the 4 and 5 star reviews I was certain I would enjoy this book. I'm an avid reader, reading fiction, nonfiction and everything in between.
Unfortunately this turned out to be one of the dryest and most painful reads of my life. The author is clearly very intelligent and an expert on the subject matter, but each page of the book is a huge struggle to get through. In actuality this is a textbook and it reads like one. Reading this was like a flashback to college. I would pick up the book and try to get engaged but found it impossible.
I realize that I'm in the minority and my review goes against the other reviews of this book. I hardly ever write reviews but I just had to give my opinion on this one to let any potential readers know that it's not an easy read. It's the exact opposite of a page turner. I love the topic of the book and have read many other books about ancient civilizations, but I couldn't get into this one. I've read hundreds, maybe thousands of books in my life, and this is only the second time I can remember not finishing a book. I closed this one for good and put it on my bookshelf after about 375 pages. I wanted to like this book. I expected to like this book, as I almost always find enjoyment in any book I read. For me, this book just didn't captivate me at all.
Obviously lots of people love this book and I actually hate leaving a two star review for any book. I contemplated rating it one star but the author clearly put lots of time and effort into this work and I couldn't bring myself to do that. This is only my opinion and I wouldn't try and talk anyone out of reading it. Unfortunately for me this one didn't work and it's on to the next book.