Breaking news … Mayan Civilisation wiped out by stucco!

Yes – the Mayans were mad about stucco. They used it to hold the stones together in their walls, and then covered all their buildings in a thick layer of stucco before colouring them.

Let this be a lesson to all those who slavishly follow the latest home improvement craze … it could lead to your downfall –

The Mayans discovered that stucco stops buildings falling down during earthquakes, but making it required huge amounts of trees to fire the limestone, which caused deforestation and changed their local climate, worsening droughts when they occurred. So, within decades, during a drought-ridden spell in the 9th Century AD, the advanced and prosperous Mayan society collapsed.

The Mayans were astronomers, scientists and architects. They built observatories and could predict lunar eclipses; they invented the concept of zero independently from the Sumerians; they had a hieroglyphic writing system; they understood the difference between magnetic north and true north; they had an accurate calendar, and they built huge temples without tools, pack animals or the wheel … all pretty impressive.

At Chichen Itza in Mexico the Great Pyramid is an imposing building –

But it’s more than that. It was built to capture the sun in a particular way at sunset at the spring and autumn equinox.

Here’s our guide’s picture –

The illuminated snake down the side of the temple is visible for about three hours on 21 March, and was the signal to the Mayans to start planting their crops. When it appeared again on 21 September, they knew it was time to begin the harvest.

But their reliance on signs from the gods did backfire occasionally. The royal family told their people that they were gods and they were the ones who brought about the rains every year. In reality, the royals knew from the position of the sun over the temple when the rainy season was about to start, and then they announced that they would hold the ceremony to start the rains.

The ceremony was surprisingly painful considering it was all a con, and they could have got away with waving their arms in the air and chanting a rain spell. What they chose to do was to stand on a public ‘piercing platform’ and pierce themselves and pull a thread through the hole. Women pierced their tongues and men went in for slightly more intimate piercing – and they all used magic mushrooms as a painkiller. When the rains duly arrived, their position as gods was reinforced and presumably made the whole painful episode worthwhile. But … one year the rains didn’t come, presaging a 19-year drought, and the people were so outraged that they killed the whole royal family, naturally holding them totally responsible. So, be careful what you take credit for, as taking responsibility for it is the other side of the same coin.

Chichen Itza once covered 30 square km and had a population of around 90,000 people. Now the central part of the city has been excavated, but the rest has been swallowed by the jungle, with just the occasional temple visible above the tree canopy.

Wandering around the Mayan sites, away from the main areas is fascinating – there are hundreds of jungle-covered mounds just waiting to be excavated. There are parrots, howler monkeys, toucans, tarantulas and I even saw a grey fox.

But one of my favourite things about the Mayans was their names – and I particularly like Chief Great Jaguar Paw, Lord Chocolate and General Smoking Frog.

And Mr Toad is so taken with the idea of General Smoking Frog, that he has decided to create an alter ego –

‘The name’s Frog – General Smoking Frog.’