Oh Maya

Walk into Miami's Museum of Science on the second, third, or fourth Wednesday of any given month, and the cross-section of gray Tolstoyan beards, gelled Caesar haircuts, Pushkinian muttonchop sideburns, and assorted facial piercings might remind you of an L.A. film-school version of The Brothers Karamazov. The surreal effect deepens as the heads around you begin to mouth words like "Chichén Itzá" and "Chac Mool." The lights dim ceremoniously, a projector clicks, and suddenly you're passionately dissecting something called the Temple of the Warriors. You fear you have taken the brown acid. You haven't. You're just at one of The Institute of Maya Studies' three monthly meetings.

The Maya flourished from about 200 A.D. to 1450. They lived in all of present-day Belize, most of Guatemala, parts of Mexico, western El Salvador, and Honduras. Their incredible ability with astronomy, arithmetic, architecture, and art has fascinated casual thrillseekers, specialists, and scholars for centuries. Their strange practices of sacrificing humans, bloodletting to ensure the sun would rise, smashing newborns' heads and dangling beads in front of the disfigured kids' eyes to make them squint and resemble the snake god, attract the morbid-fascination posse. ("Their royalty claimed to have been born of the snake, so they smashed the babies' heads to exact a family resemblance," explains Ron Silvia, an institute member since 1992.) Creepy. And creepier still was their primitive basketball-like game, which featured a postevent celebration whereby the coach of the losing team would literally lose his head. But there is a lighter side to Mayan culture: their art (intricate murals, mosaics, sculpture) and architecture (hieroglyph-riddled pyramids, beautifully carved and painted columns).

Freaky or fascinating, all sorts of topics are covered at the institute's gatherings. Active in Miami since 1971, the group provides a steady diet of visiting lecturers, film/video/slide presentations, excursions, and events. The travel section gets together the second Wednesday of every month. Adventurers who have been checking out Mayan ruins for decades revisit them through various media, helping wannabe explorers plan their own trips. Info covered ranges from travel-package rates to which tour guide resembles heartthrob Fabio, and which looks like the late miniactor Herve Villechaize. A general meeting takes place on the third Wednesday and features discussions by scholars. The last powwow of the month concentrates on art and archaeology.

The recent unearthing of the Miami Circle would suggest that the Tequesta Indians are the trendy group to study at the moment, but the Institute of Maya Studies' huge membership and 28-year history belie that notion. When it comes to exploring the culture that crafted cryptic stone circles, examining the civilization that advocated human sacrifice, bloodletting, and beheading wins out every time.

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Rick Still