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Hank talks about the Maya, and helps dispel some myths about their historic civilization, revealing how, ultimately, they were just like us: smart, flawed, and awesome.

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Hank: The Winter Solstice, the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere has been celebrated all over the world for thousands of years because for many cultures, perhaps most famously the Maya, it marks the end of one unit of time and the beginning of another, you know, the year. I just like it because it means that the days are finally getting longer, it gets dark at like 4:30, it's the freaking afternoon in Montana right now.

(Intro plays)

Now I'm not going to insult you by getting into what the winter solstice does not mean vis a vis the end of the world, but I can think of no better time to open up a big can of anthropology and dispel some of those pernicious myths about Maya civilization.

#1: This is not a Maya calendar. People, please, for the love of Pete, if you get anything out of this, just remember that this symbol that you've been seeing everywhere on cheap t-shirts and even cheaper websites, has nothing to do with the Maya or how they track time. It's called the Sun Stone and it was actually carved by the Aztecs, a Mesoamerican culture that followed the Maya in the late 1400s, about 500 years after the Maya city-states began to fall apart. The face in the middle is of the Aztec sun god, and the ring around it features the 20 days of the Aztec month, but still, even this is not a calendar, it was carved to commemorate the ascension of the ruler Itzcoatl, kind of like, it's like a giant commemorative plate. The Maya did use wonderfully elaborate and accurate systems for measuring time that you can learn more about here, but there's no rock carving or anything else that could be described as a Maya calendar that's like analogous to the thing that's hanging in your kitchen and tells you what day it is and has pictures of kittens or firemen on it.

Myth #2:The Maya language is indecipherable. For a long time, it was, actually until pretty recently, for centuries, anthropologists tried and failed to translate ancient Maya writing, which led to the meme of the Maya code, but it's not a secret code, it's a language just like any other. It consists of about 700 glyphs written from left to right and top to bottom and lines two glyphs long. Bit by bit, one clue at a time, scientists figured out how the system worked, one of the biggest breakthroughs came in the late 20th century when anthropologists realized that glyphs represented both sounds or syllables and individual ideas, and that each ancient city-state had its own dialect, just to get a little more confusing for you. So to write out the word 'jaguar' for instance, 'B'alam', one group might use a glyph that literally represents a jaguar, while another might write it out phonetically, like Ba' la ma. Today, we can read about ninety percent of all of the carvings and handwritten books produced in the original Maya language and modern Maya throughout central America are writing in it again for the first time in centuries.

Myth #3: The ancient Maya were peaceful geniuses. A hundred years ago, all we knew about the Maya was how smart they were, how they could predict the movement of the sun and the moon and the planets, down to the minute, and how they built huge stone temples without metal tools and farmed in the mountains by terracing the land, so for a long time, most scientists thought that the Maya were peaceful people whose main interest was looking up at the sky. But once we became able to read what their monuments and books had to say, we realized that much like us, they were smart about science and dumb about people. They actually spent a lot of time warring with each other, and on rare occasions, even sacrificed people for ritual purposes. Not virgins, though, usually people captured in battle, but the Maya didn't do anything near the scale that the Aztecs did, trust me, you do not want to be caught downtown in Tenochtitlan after a bad corn harvest or when the king was cutting the ribbon on a new temple or something.

Basically, the Maya were like everyone else, smart, flawed, and awesome. Thank you for watching this SciShow Dose, if you have any questions or comments or suggestions for us, we're on Facebook and Twitter and of course, down in the comments below, and if you want to keep getting smarter with us here at SciShow, you can go to and subscribe.