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Studying the Mayas is like studying Martians says Slovak Maya expert

Milan Kováč led the Slovak team participating in one of the biggest discoveries of Maya civilisation.

Milan Kováč on an exploration site in rainforest.(Source: Courtesy of Centre for Mesoamerican Studies)

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why do you study the Mayas?

Milan Kováč (MK): I am the stereotypical case of a childhood dream come true. Since I was small, I have been interested in Red Indians, and I have always wanted to know about and study them.

TSS: In the beginnings of your work in Central America, you lived with the natives, the modern Mayas for two years. As part of a ritual, they even gave you a new name – what is it?

MK: K’in, which means the Sun. My children were admitted as tribe members, and I became a Godfather to the local children. They were not able to get used to our names, and they cannot even pronounce them. For years, I have been called K’in there. I also have a house there, friends, as well as a kind of family, as they take godparenthood very seriously. So I go there regularly, and I am in contact remotely with the natives on a daily basis, in effect – we write to each other.

TSS: The research of your team in the Guatemalan jungle brought ground-breaking results in the study of the Maya civilisation. How did it change your view of the Mayas?

MK: We managed to learn all the things we know today about the Maya from small sites we managed to clear from the huge growth of the jungle. From these places, we developed certain ideas regarding who the Mayas were, and how their culture functioned. Now, we have aerial laser pictures of the rainforest, and the reality is different. Suddenly, we have thousand-multiples of information, and completely new connections have appeared.

TSS: Altogether, you have discovered more than 60,000 constructions in the jungle; more specifically, the Slovak team found 73 settlements and more than 5,000 architectural objects. What exactly did you find?

MK: The most discussed settlement buildings are made of stone; houses, palaces, pyramids, temples. It is an enormous variety of miscellaneous constructions, from tall pyramids to farmers’ houses. During the excavation works on the site, we found statuettes and hieroglyphic inscriptions. In six months or a year, we will be able to publish the results from these findings. For now, it has not been processed yet, but these are great and really beautiful things.

Read also:Slovak archaeologists discover a key to understanding the Maya

TSS: How come so many constructions and systems of inter-connected towns were hidden in a place you had been exploring for several years?

MK: Simply, those constructions are hidden in the jungle with enormous trees and compact growths. There are no roads, nothing. In the field, we are able to differentiate things two to three metres around us. We had hundreds of people who just cut small part of the jungle with machetes. This takes months of work which the LiDAR laser technology was able to manage in three seconds.

TSS: How did the cities and towns you discovered look on the laser images?

MK: When my colleague Tibor Lieskovský (main analyst of the laser scanning in Guatemala rainforest, ed. note) made some digital flights over this area, it was as if you were sitting in a plane 1,200 years ago. The landscape without the plants was slowly passing under you, and you flew above roads, towns, squares. We could see a complex past – it is like using a time machine.

TSS: What do you do with images?

MK: First, they are identified and interpreted. Then my team arrives at the site and the excavations follow. ´The navigation leads us wherever necessary and on a screen, we can see what the LiDAR has shown. On the spot, we see just loads of trees and maybe a small mound, three metres tall. We cut everything clear, start digging and see what is really there. Then we find that one type of mound hides a certain construction, and another mound a different construction. My colleague Lieskovský of the Slovak University of Technology then creates an algorithm z for the LiDAR-ový scanner which can then determine what is hidden behind all such mounds in the whole area.

TSS: Do you have a permission to intervene in the rainforest?

MK: I have permission from the Guatemalan government for 1,600 square kilometres of rainforest where we can intervene and dig. There are precise laws for that. We can cut a tree of up to 12 centimetres thick in diameter. Such trees can grow there back in one year. Mostly, they are bushes and succulents, and these can be renewed within two months. We clear them and a year later, we get back and everything is just like before, and we have to cut again.

TSS: Now, you are going to research other areas in Guatemala. Are there any more mysteries hidden in the rainforest?

MK: Definitely. Just in this one case, we found 73 sites in a tiny space (160 square kilometres, ed. note) . Those sites are not uniform, but unique, each with its own characteristics. We are still not able to find a clue as to why this is so. We do not have enough data. With a greater amount of data and exploration, we can uncover more and more of the nature of Maya civilisation.

TSS: American members of the research team compared Maya culture to that of ancient Greece and China. In what ways are they similar?

MK: One can compare it with China mainly through its density. The Yellow River valley civilisation is the densest known settlement of an ancient culture. We found an equally denser, or even denser one belonging to the Mayas. As for the Greeks, they lived in a system of city-states and it appears the Mayas lived just like that as well. They had a system of city-states which were connected into groups. In Greece, these were Sparta and Athens which were rivals. The Mayas had Copán and Tikal. They were also similar to the Greeks by way of being pioneers of cultural impulses, the Greeks for ancient Europe and the Mayas were for ancient America.

TSS: For Americans, this discovery is perceived as if we had discovered something in Athens but...

MK: In America, they learn about Mayas from elementary school. For us, it is not so familiar, as we are Europe-centric. But I think that a training in relating to otherness is very illuminating. The Mayas had everything different: a way of thinking, language, counting, perceiving the world. This is the most exciting thing for me – that I work with another world. It is almost like studying Martians for me.

TSS: Some newly discovered sites had been visited by someone else earlier. Why do tomb raiders manage to get to such monuments before anyone else?

MK: It has to do with Guatemala being so poor. The rainforest is uninhabited but there are already two villages there. And they are full of organised criminal groups focused on stealing from ancient Maya graves. Whole families – and maybe whole villages – here live from selling the artefacts, including the mayor. Farming cannot sustain them, so hundreds of these inhabitants depend on the constant theft of Mayan antiquities.

TSS: Can you say goodbye in the Mayan language?

MK: If you meet someone, you always tell them “bay ka metik”, which means “What are you doing?” The answer is “mix ba” – “nothing”. Even if you are doing something, the answer is always “nothing”, as it is a greeting. The second type of greeting is for example “ne sis”, which means it is very cold. And the answer is “it is very cold”. They greet people like this in the morning, even if it is not cold. They do not have much of a thank you; it is a different language world. For example, they do not have a word for love, and – most importantly – they do not have the verb “to be”. “In tzoi a wor” is very nice phrase. It means “I am satisfied”, but literally, it can be translated as “I have a very nice heart” but if you say it about someone else, you are expressing love for them.

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