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Walking the ruins of Nim Li Punit

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

In the foothills of Southern Belize, lie the ruins of a Maya city: Nim Li Punit. This was a thriving community in the 700's AD. To put it into perspective, in the same era, England wasn't a country yet; the British Isles were a set of warring states, swamped with Viking invasions; pagans, and Christians battling for supremacy.

I remember going to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I was dropped off at a pow wow, and I didn't know anyone there. I hung out, ate, was polite, and mostly just watched. People were running for office, there were birthdays, marriage announcements, music, dancing, kids were given their tribal names, dogs begging for food, and it seemed like everyone was just catching up. I didn't know what to expect, but I ended up being shocked at how strong the culture was and how absolutely normal and familiar it seemed. I hitchhiked home, getting a ride with a dude, his girlfriend, and his chihuahua. He blasted Metallica and answered most of my dumb questions.

I suppose I learned in school that natives are something that used to be here, and it didn't occur to me that they are still a people, not just a story from history. I felt the same shock and embarrassment at Nim Li Punit that I had felt at Rosebud. In the communities surrounding the ruins, people still speak the old language and follow the old ways, but they're modern, and moving forward. They make chocolate from scratch, farm cassava and hunt, but they also drive to work, go to school, and they are developing their own brand of Maya tourism.

Nim Li Punit, it means something like "The Big Hat", a translation from Maya that is probably derived from the figures with elaborate headdresses carved throughout the ruins. The Maya are a staple part of Native American history, but if you visit Central America now, they are a major sector of the population. All over Belize, and for that matter, all over the Americas, there are indigenous people that live increasingly normal lives, but still carry their culture with them. These ruins are from another time, but the inheritors of that old civilization are still here

As an American, I love to connect to the history of wherever I live, and that isn't possible without looking into the people that have been here the longest. It isn't uncommon to be interested in the history of Native Americans, but I do think that it can be easy to forget or be ignorant of the fact that they are still here, and they have changed and grown over time just like any other culture. It was awesome to be reminded of all of this, walking through ruins older than the forest they lay in.

Maybe all of this sounds naive or earnest (or both!). I understand that people are people, and when it gets down to it, we are all sort of the same, but I couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement at gaining a new sliver of understanding.

(Darcy stands in the spot where champions once stood. The Maya had an ancient sport that doubled as a religious ceremony. Teams would reenact stories of the gods, and hopefully gain favor with them. Some scholars say the captain of the winning team would be sacrificed, which could have been the highest honor attainable as a mortal.)

(Flavio stands on the visible steps of an old structure. These are the excavated portions of massive complexes that still lie beneath the earth.)

(Forests can be taken for granted, but they have lives of their own. The forest covering the ruins is relatively young, and it hides a once cultivated and urban setting.)

(Small chambers are scattered throughout the ruins. Bat colonies have taken up residence in some of them. For the Maya, bats were aligned with the underworld, and its eerie that they now inhabit the ruins of their cities.)

(Massive ceiba trees tower over the ruins. It is strange to think that at one point, they were just seedlings, caught in the cracks between hand-carved stones.)

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