Photo: Alice Kealey

Between 250 and 1500 AD, the Maya thrived in advanced agricultural communities spanning much of south east Mexico. Today, though the captivating traditions were all but buried with the arrival of Europeans, Mayan influence eases through the cracks of many modern societies, displaying features unique to their history and yet enduringly important across societies.

Perhaps most significantly, the creation of the number 0 is the Mayans least appreciated invention. Debated widely by the ancient Greeks and ignored almost entirely by the Romans, it proves to be an extensively controversial topic throughout the course of history. As well as being highly advanced and skilled in intellectual pursuits such as astronomy, the Maya also excelled in their mathematics. Through the use of our numerical term 0 which essentially is the closest descendent of the number the Maya created, we can fully appreciate the extent to their intelligence.

The Maya zero, or nik, is depicted variously across uncovered stone sculptures and decorated pottery as a seed, a human eye or head, and a shell. As a philosophical and mathematical concept, it represented the absence of a quantity – much like the way it is used in today’s world – a link between past and future, and the implication of a beginning and an end. Though the philosophical features deeply reflect Mayan culture and heritage, the representation of 0 as a lack of quantity strongly resembles the way it is used today, and the Maya are one of the only groups in recorded history to demonstrate it in this manner. Nevertheless, the rightful attribution of the 0 is yet to be accredited to its authentic owners.

Another indispensable part of Mayan heritage not to be forgotten is the impressive array of natural medicine of the Yucatan peninsula. For thousands of years, the prehispanic community have relied on and utilised nature and plants with medicinal properties for healing purposes, and even made use of leeches and punctures made with animal and plant spines for remedies. Some of the most notable medicinal plants that are still used today for their health benefits include aloe vera, hibiscus and lemon balm to name just a few.

Photo: Alice Kealey

For the Mayans, the concept of illness illustrates an instability and lack of balance between body and soul. The inherent link to the earth and environment with mental and physical well-being is remarkable, with the idea of being ‘well’ coming from the establishment of the natural order, and ‘health’ demonstrating living in accordance with the rules of nature. As opposed to western medicine which prioritises the rectification and treatment of issues, Mayan medicine focuses on more preventive and prophylactic measures, enveloping a notion of health that comes from within and intertwines humans with the earth.

Of course, details about natural medicine and the origin of the 0 – specific knowledge relating to Mayan culture – are not often found online or in a textbook. Knowledge is passed orally, stored within people, families, and communities, and passed down through generations of intangible libraries. “The passing and storage of knowledge from generation to generation is one of the only ways we know and see Mayan culture today,” says Carlos Callejas Ramírez, plant agriculturist and descendant of the Maya. “With my family, I had the experience of my fathers fishing trade passed on, although it was not a strict educational way of transmitting knowledge”. The storage of knowledge in this way is imperative in preserving not just Mayan but indigenous groups across much of Latin America, and in the development of conversations with both indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike in invoking a genuine, personal appreciation of Mayan culture.

Needless to say, existing heritage from the Maya is not exclusive to these notions, but also permeates a wealth of others. Some of these include underground cooking or píibs, the haab which is an early variation of our modern Gregorian calendar, and also textile making from natural materials. Even the term ‘cacao’ is said to originate from the Mayan word for the bean ka’kau’, and chocolate’ from chocol’ha.

Photo: Alice Kealey

Across the Yucatán Peninsula, there are more than 1.5 million Mayans who, to this day, continue to practice their ancient traditions and beliefs of the world. However, due to pressures arising from globalisation, technology, and other social and political forces, the Mayan culture is rapidly diminishing, and of these 1.5 million, the vast majority do not consciously consider themselves descendants of the ancient civilisation. With less than one tenth of indigenous communities in Mexico being able to speak a native language, it is now more paramount than ever to generate the space for education, communication and celebration of Mayan heritage and tradition.

For Times Media Mexico, Alice Kealey