by wjw on July 1, 2014


After my week of diving was over, I set out on a field trip to the Mayan city of Lamanai.  It’s one of the few Mayan cities where we know its actual name, as the Mayans were still in residence when the Spanish arrived, and the Spanish missionaries recorded the name, which means “submerged crocodile.”  Crocodiles— caymans, really— are apparently represented in the local Mayan art, and may have played a part in the local religion, but I didn’t see any of the evidence myself.

The trip from Belize City was lengthy: there was a 90-minute bus ride to the town of Orange Walk, and there I caught a boat up the New River to the Lamanai site.  Along the way I saw the tall stack of the huge Orange Walk sugar refinery, which was pouring black smoke into the sky (it was sugar harvest time).  Farther up the river was a large alcoholism treatment campus, owned by Texans and quite luxurious, where well-heeled Americans can dry out. (Or not, as it’s conveniently adjacent to the distillery for Caribbean Rum.)  Among the sights available on the river trip were the Jesus Christ bird (Jacana), an attractive long-legged small waterfowl that appears to walk on water (actually on lilypads), and some really cute little bats clinging to the bark of a local tree.


The river passes through Mennonite country.  The Mennonites moved to Belize in the 1950s, when the country was still under British administration, and the royal governor gave them an incredibly good deal.  They got as much free land as they wanted, with the proviso that they maintain the country’s dairy industry.  Practically all milk and cheese in the country comes from Mennonite farms.  (And they seem incredibly fond of mozzarella, because I had several dishes that were just swimming in the stuff.)

No actual native Belizean has ever got such a deal from their government, despite much of the country being empty and perfectly available for exploitation.

The Mennonites have informally divided into two groups, one that remains in the horse-and-buggy era, and the other (“Modernites”) who accept modern technology.  Only the men speak English, the women being taught nothing but the antique German of their ancestors.  (Women always get to pay for the religious enthusiasms of their menfolk.)

(Apropos religion, there is a Mormon tour that gives a somewhat different version of Lamanai’s history from that given below, etymologically connecting “Lamanai” with the Lamanites, a group of swarthy evil people in the Book of Mormon.  I’m not sure I would find this convincing even if I were LDS.)

Lamanai sits on a very wide stretch of the New River, effectively a lake.  The availability of water probably accounts for the city’s long habitation, which was over 3000 years, pretty damn good for the New World.  At any rate, Lamanai was inhabited from the 1500s BCE to the 17th Century, and there’s a certain amount of cultural continuity in the artifacts, so it may have been the same people all along.

Though the river was probably crucial, much of the city is actually some distance from the river, so getting water involved a fair amount of exercise.  (Though the local royalty probably assigned that duty to peasants.)  Archaeologists estimate that the population at its height was around 60,000, though firm numbers will have to wait until the entire site is excavated.

Lamanai was unique in that it started before the other Mayan sites, and lasted longer.  When other cities of the Classical Mayan period were abandoned in the 10th century, Lamanai just kept on growing, building new pyramids and maintaining the old ones.   When the Spaniards moved in, built a couple churches, and established the encomienda system of forced labor, the Mayans revolted and chased the Spaniards out.   The city was abandoned shortly afterward.

The British turned up next, in the mid-18th Century, and established a sugar plantation staffed by 200 Chinese contract laborers!  (What were they thinking?)  The Chinese died, every single one of them, and the plantation was abandoned.

Lamanai remained obscure mounds in the jungle until the 1970s, when Canadian archaeologists uncovered some of the major structures: five pyramids and an extensive “palace complex” for the elite.  (Most of the city is unexcavated, and there are temple mounds that haven’t been touched.)  A stela was found featuring the image of a local ruler named Lord Smoking Shell, who may or may not be wearing crocodile-inspired headgear.  There is also the world’s tiniest ball court, roughly the size of a single lane at the Bowl-a-Rama, which suggests that each ball team consisted only of a single champion.  (It was the winners of the ball game, not the losers, who were sacrificed, as only the winners were deemed worthy of bearing messages to the gods.  I keep picturing players tossing the ball to their opponents and running away.)

The pyramids or temples are all different, and together differ architecturally from other Mayan sites.  (Mayan temple architecture tends to be unique to each city.)  The temple pictured is known as the “high temple” because it’s the tallest at 33 meters (though the Jaguar temple would be tallest if it were fully excavated).  I believe this temple was to the rain god, who had a nose like an elephant, and if you sort of squint at it you can see a face with a big trunk down the middle.

Having once sprinted up the main temple at Chicken Itza only to reel and stagger around the summit like a drunken coatimundi, I decided to respect the tropical heat and humidity and did not climb this one.

The worn faces visible on the face of the pyramid were actually from an earlier, smaller temple inside this one, but archaeologists moved them to the outside so they could be enjoyed by visitors.

The locals tactfully mention “blood rituals” conducted atop the temples, and knife points found up there.  (Only the tips of the knives, not the knives themselves.)  It’s not known whether there was human sacrifice or not, no evidence either way, but the blade tips might have been used by the royal caste to cut themselves in a blood offering.  (Royal blood was the best.)

Lamanai was rich, even in the late period.  Excavators found large pools of mercury, apparently intended as offerings, and lots of copper objects, bells and jewelry and “ritual objects,” meaning they don’t know exactly what they were for.  There were also some incredibly complex, swirly flint tools of no obvious purpose, and assumed to be ritual in nature.

It must be admitted that I do not fare well in hot jungle environments, at least when there’s no sea breeze.  I brought a water bottle which I emptied before my hike was complete, gulped down a bottle of Coke once I got back to the gift shoppe, and then had several glasses of rum punch on the way back.  At one point I found myself swaying in my walk, which I assumed at the time was due to dehydration, but which I subsequently decided was probably due to my sea legs not having faded yet.  (I swayed for several days after I got home, with far less excuse than a jungle hike.)

At any rate, I was more than ready to get back on the boat and race back to Orange Walk to pick up the bus for Belize City and my air-conditioned room.

Civilization has its contents.

TRX July 2, 2014 at 2:43 am

> Mennonites

There’s a lot of variation among groups, and the Amish. It causes a fair amount of friction between them. 20-odd years ago I had an electronics engineer make a prototype process control board for me. He was a Mennonite; wore the traditional clothes, hat, and everything. According to him his family was unhappy with his interest in electronics when he was a teenager and laid down the law: conform or leave. He left, worked his way through school, got a job in the electronics industry, and was raising his family among the “English” according to his own ideas.

Back thirty-odd years ago I was working the night shift in a machine shop. One night I turned from my CNC lathe and was face to face with a guy who looked like the “Tall Man” from the movie “Phantasm.” About 200 years old, 7 feet tall, and unhappy about all of it. In fact, there was whole herd of similar people with him. They were a group of Amish from south Arkansas, and they’d come up because the company had sold them an agricultural laser in 1963; the company claimed it had the first patent for a practical use for lasers. Agricultural lasers send a beam across a field; you use a little red reflector stick to see where the beam is. Normally you put the reflector on a grader or plow blade, and you use it to angle your fields for most efficient use of irrigation. In 1963, these guys had been using the latest space-age technology long before it was accepted for general farming… with horse-drawn plows. Which, if you think about it, needed precision measurement a lot more than a Diesel tractor would.

From what I gathered, their elders had decided the laser was functionally equivalent to the transit and level system they had used before; a measuring tool was a different thing from a labor-saving device.

There are Mennonite and Amish all over the place, not just Lancaster. For some reason my sister-in-law always got along well with them, even though she was from the Philippines and her English was iffy. One evening my wife and I were visiting for dinner, she got a call, and before any food got served, it was all wrapped in foil and she was loading it into the car. Half an hour later she was back with a different batch of food; our Filipino repast had turned into Amish food. Apparently exchanging dinners is an Amish social thing. I don’t know if what we had was some kind of ethnic German or someone’s attempt at Szechuan-Thai fusion, but those innocent-looking stuffed dumplings sure lit my fire…

Shash July 2, 2014 at 4:19 am

I worked with a Mennonite woman in Minneapolis who was a delight. She did invite me to play Scrabble with her, her pastor and a few others but I was unable to take her up on her offer at the time and I regret not staying in touch.
She put up with a lot from some of her coworkers including one who could not understand why she didn’t get pedicures or wear nicer looking sandals, get her hair styled, etc. When I was finally irritated enough with said coworker to take her aside and explain a few things, she insisted that the woman could not be Mennonite because she did not wear homemade outfits and a sheer cap but just cheap, serviceable clothing that fit. Sigh. I think ignorance may have still won the day.

Phil Koop July 2, 2014 at 3:57 pm

“the antique German of their ancestors”

The Mennonites of Belize hail from the geographical region called West Prussia, in modern Poland. It was also Poland when the Mennonites first fled there from the Netherlands, Poland being a beacon of religious tolerance at the time. Most Mennonites left when Prussia was annexed by the state of Prussia because they objected to military conscription, but a few hardy souls hung on.

In any case, the “antique” language they speak is a dialect of Low German (Plattdeutsch or Niederdeutsch in Standard German, Plautdietsch in the language itself.) It was the local language in coastal Poland and indeed around much of the Baltic coast (Low German was once spoken in all the cities of the Hanseatic League.) It still spoken by about 6 million people today.

Most Mennonites who speak Standard German learned it in Russia (modern Ukraine), as the Russian government considered them to be ethnically German. There are, however, streams of German-speaking Mennonites who never reached Prussia or Russia; one can still hear dialects otherwise spoken only in a single Swiss valley in the hinterland of Waterloo, about an hour’s drive from Toronto.

Jim Janney July 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Belize is for people who think Florida is too dry and cold 🙂 I visited Altun Ha in February, can only imagine what June is like. Though maybe when you get that close to the equator it doesn’t make much difference.

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