Mu Sigma Upsilon Celebrates Mayan History

Photo by Nicole Williams

This month, Ramapo and the rest of the country celebrate the many rich cultures and contributions of the indigenous people of the Americas during Native American History Month. Ramapo’s Mu Sigma Upsilon hosted an informative event last week on the history of the Mayans.

The Mayan Empire was at one time one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica. This influential civilization was centered in the tropical lowlands of North America. Spanning across Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula and a good portion of Central America, the Mayans had a large sphere of influence. Founded around prominent city-states, this great civilization was the heartbeat of the ancient American world.

The event was hosted by Patricia Bergamasco, vice president of Mu Sigma Upsilon. The program was also in conjunction with Omega Phi Beta. Andrea Sanchez, vice president of Omega Phi Beta, was the event’s co-host.

Bergamasco has a fascination with the Mayans that began during a spring break she spent in Belize when she visited a Mayan city.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Bergamasco. “A personal tour guide climbed with us to the top of the pyramid. We were just in the presence of one of the greatest civilizations ever.”

Reaching the peak of their power in the 6th century C.E., the Mayans constructed great city-states. Cities like Tikal and Chichen Itza still stand to this day. However, around the 9th century C.E. these large city states were abandoned, and eventually overtaken by the jungles of Mesoamerica. Their rediscoveries in the 19th century were awe inspiring to the world.

The magnificent temple-pyramids and cities had been preserved, along with much of the Maya’s accomplishments. Their cities had hospitals, observatories and even sports areas for their basketball-like games.

The Mayans had an advanced counting system. Very different from the Arabic numeral system we use today, the Mayans only used three symbols. A dot signified one, a single bar meant five and a shell represented zero, a concept Mayans knew centuries before Europeans.

Bergamasco and Sanchez led the audience through Mayan math quizzes, which were especially challenging: “If I solve this, I am for sure a Mayan,” joked one audience member.

Codices and many other paper books were discovered in these ancient cities. On their pages and temple walls are a highly elaborate hieroglyph system. Historians only understand the meaning of a handful of these intricate and colorful symbols. No one alive today can understand these inscriptions.

Along with their advanced writing system and advances in mathematics, the Mayans also had a deep and accurate knowledge of astronomy. Their study of the heavens was steeped in their religion and perhaps their understanding of our place in the universe was greater than that of than any other ancient civilization. The Mayans charted the cycles of the moon and stars and developed a precise 365-day calendar.

Bergamasco stressed the advanced contributions the Mayan civilization made. “Their buildings, books, math, writing systems and even their innovations in discovering chocolate should be celebrated,” said Bergamasco.

By the time the Spanish came to the Americas, the Mayan Empire had shrunk considerably. They still existed, just in smaller villages. In fact, the descendants of the Mayans today still live in Central America and many still speak a variation of the Mayan language.

This semester Bergamasco and the co-host Sanchez are taking an anthropology class that focuses on the Mayans.

“For people of Mexican descent, our culture, it all traces back to the Mayans,” said Sanchez at the end of the event. “For our future it is important that we can know where all this stuff stems from. It helps us understand our world a little better today.”