History at its most exciting

Sometimes you have to go to one place to learn something fascinating about another.

When I was in school, I didn’t enjoy history. It took me years to figure out that some stories of the past are intriguing, even if those tales never seemed to be covered in my history classes. Ancient civilizations, distant lands and forgotten peoples all amazed me with surprises, while everything in school seemed no more than a predictable, boring parade of Western Civilization’s wars, conquests and discoveries.

Later, I would learn that my own culture is also filled with such tales, as marginalized peoples and quiet heroes of all types faced small human dramas that seldom made my history books but, in my opinion, should have. Decades after my last history final, I came to understand that history is these thousands of fascinating stories woven together in the way that got us to where we are now.

IMG_5531My love of poorly understood tales from the past would lead to a fascination with the many advanced cultures in my hemisphere that were demolished by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That lead to a burning desire to visit Machu Picchu, and a few weeks ago I finally got to do so. The whole trip was amazing, and I’ll be posting more about it soon. But this isn’t about that.

While I was in Peru, I got asked what I knew about the massive Maya discovery being made in the Petén region of Guatemala. What??

“Oh yes,” I was told. “It is so big and amazing that soon people will want to visit it instead of Machu Picchu.”

Really? How could I have missed that.

Well, it turns out it never made much of a splash in the U.S. press. Then, I was traveling without my laptop, and trying to use no data on my phone, so my usual sources of news were gone. Instead, I was glancing at newspapers in Spanish as I walked, scanning frantically for pictures of Trump and/or nuclear clouds, in hope of seeing neither. I hadn’t looked for much else.

Once I got back, the story about the great discovery in Guatemala was easy to confirm.

“Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed,” National Geographic  informed me.

The famous Maya site of Tikal is just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis Credit: Wild Blue Media/Channel 4

“A vast network of lost Maya cities discovered deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala could rewrite the history of the ancient civilisation, experts say. Researchers found more than 60,000 previously unknown structures including pyramids, royal tombs, palaces, roadways and defensive fortifications hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest canopy. Pioneering lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) laser scanning technology was used to map 800 square miles from the air, revealing a “treasure map” of the Maya ruins,”  The Telegraph informed me all the way from the UK.

Most enticing of all  was this report from the London Times.

“The ancient Maya had no metal tools, no wheels, no cattle and no pack animals. They lived in a swamp-ridden and storm-battered region of central America where the landscape seemed resistant to the presence of humans.

Yet, boy, could they build. An aerial survey using lasers to penetrate the vegetation of the Guatemalan jungle has revealed more than 60,000 structures, including pyramids, canals, fortifications and causeways stretching from city to city.

Historians say that the finds point to a society of city states like the world of classical Greece, but with a population of between 8 and 13 million people living in a rainforest the size of Italy.”


Back in 2012, I did a deep dive into the Petén region of Guatemala as it was in the late 1600’s, as I created an imaginary Maya woman to design the clever puzzle that my modern day treasure hunters would discover and attempt to understand. As Nimah took shape in my mind, she developed her own clear voice, and soon her two sons did as well. I spent a happy year in their company.

This is how the resulting book, z2, begins:

When the time came, she knew it, just like her father promised her she would. She saw the signs as her rulers became friendly with the strangers, and she listened with fear as they became ever less cautious. Nimah watched with her own horrified eyes as the singers and priests of the others were finally allowed to walk brazenly into her city and she cried as her neighbors welcomed the invaders.

Of course, the strangers’ warmth disappeared quickly when they did not get their way. When Nimah’s king would not convert to the new religion like they had so clearly expected, the strangers responded to the fine hospitality of the Itza by sending soldiers to convert them by force. The Itza fought back valiantly.

“The day on which you must act will not be long after that,” her father had cautioned. So in the months since that attack, Nimah had been actively preparing herself and her two sons for today. At twenty-six, Nimah thought of herself as responsible and mature, one who took her obligations seriously. She had learned well her people’s history and religion, and because her people kept fine records, there was much to know.

She knew that she was part of the Kan Ek, the ancient race whose rulers were descended from the Gods. She knew that once, more generations ago than there were days in a moon cycle, her people had been far more organized. The lands were bigger then, with many more families, and there had been many cities and giant gatherings where customs were shared. There had been much more wealth and, some had said, much more greatness. But Nimah thought not. She had also learned that lives had been more stringently controlled back then and that there had sometimes been cruel penalties for those who failed or wandered astray.

Many people of that time appeared to have believed that the greatness of the Maya would go on forever. Nimah knew, she had studied their texts. But, over hundreds of years, the carefully recorded famines and droughts and wars had brought an endless string of hard times to the seemingly invincible people. Nimah had studied how, over time, her people had been forced to huddle closer together for strength and how the resulting battles for food and water had shrunk her world. Finally, her own people’s realm encompassed only the area around Tayasal itself, the beautiful town built on the remains of the great old city of Noh Peten.

Now her people, those of the majestic Lake Peten Itza, were free to develop their own rules and more flexible ways. Nimah personally thought that they had evolved, that they were now an older race, one filled with more enlightenment and compassion. So Nimah was glad that she had been born when she was, not at the time when her kings ruled over the most amount of land, but at the time when her people themselves had never been better.

Nimah, of course, is fiction, but she left traces of herself in my brain and heart, as most of my characters do. I’m happy to discover that her world was larger, richer and more complicated than I knew, and I look forward to hearing of the many true tales to be discovered near her home. To me, this is history at its most exciting.

It is more than a little ironic that I had to go all the way to Peru to learn about it.


What stays the same?

mayan numbers 300

Can you figure out how to write the number 20 in Mayan?

The story behind z2 is that of a clever 26 year old Maya woman who devises a puzzle to hide a secret she has promised to protect. I did a fair amount of research on Maya culture as I prepared to write z2, but it was only after I finished the book that it occurred to me that I had simply assumed that at least some of the Maya enjoyed riddles and brainteasers  Why? Well, the truth is that I assume that some people from every culture that has ever existed have enjoyed puzzles.

Is this true? I recently stumbled on a book called “Ancient Puzzles: Classic Brainteasers and Other Timeless Mathematical Games of the Last 10 Centuries” by Dominic Olivastro, and I am treating myself to copy. Reading through the reviews, it appears that riddles, mental games and brainteasers indeed span all continents and several millennium, not to mention being common among more trivial divisions like age, gender, religion and educational background if any.

Yes, things keep on changing and generally that is good. It’s also true, however, that some things do stay the same and I’m glad that a love of puzzles is one of them.

Of course, in z2, the puzzle has more to offer than just the satisfaction of solving it …. but that’s another whole part of the story.