Tulum, Mexico: City of the Dawn — The North Star Reports – by Tayler Boelk. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

Tulum, Mexico: City of the Dawn — The North Star Reports – by Tayler Boelk. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal


Along the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea lie the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans. The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant indigenous societies in Mesoamerica, excelling in agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, pottery, mathematics, and calendar-making.


Tulum, which means “fence” or “wall” in the Yucatan Mayan language, is named after the large stone wall that surrounds the city. However, it did not always have this name. It is believed that Tulum was previously known as Zama, meaning “City of the Dawn”, because it faces the sunrise. This particular location was an important pre-Columbian trade site as it had access to both land and sea trade routes. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city of Tulum traded with areas all over the Yucatan Peninsula, Central Mexico, Central America, and sometimes beyond. Now, it is the most popular Mayan tourist site in the Yucatan and the third most visited archeological site in Mexico.


My tour guide, Gus, was very passionate about de-bunking common myths and misconceptions about the Maya. For example, one Mayan myth is that they performed ceremonial sacrifices, the most popular story being the human sacrifice of a virgin. Gus explained that these “sacrifices” were most likely public executions of criminals and that there is no way to discover if those killed were virgins or non. While they did have some interesting practices, such as making a small cut to the hand as a blood sacrifice, most of these savage and primitive rumors surrounding the Mayan people were the product of their Spanish conquerors (or “conquistadors”).


The Spanish conquerors, bringing with them weapons and disease, caused a rapid decline of the Mayan people.

However, by the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, the Maya were already weakening. In fact, many large Mayan sites had already been abandoned. Recent discoveries show evidence that drought, deforestation, and the decline of large game animals contributed to the Maya’s collapse of empire. While there were many reasons for the decline, the central cause was that the Maya’s cities grew beyond the capacity of the land. This phenomenon forced the Maya to separate into smaller villages, which made it much easier to conquer them.


As the Spanish pursued their quest of discovering and extracting gold and silver, they learned more about the Mayan people. Mayan warfare, as Gus explained, was somewhat like a game of chess. If the warring state injured or killed the opposing forces’ King, they were considered victorious and both sides put down their weapons. It is believed that the Spanish took advantage of this tradition as they conquered different Mayan communities by targeting the respective leaders.


Despite their numerous militaristic advantages , it took the Spanish 170 years to finally subjugate the Maya peoples. Their Mayan pursuit took significantly longer than their battles with the Aztecs and Incas, and they never found the riches they were seeking. The survivors were forced into slavery and were expected to convert to Christianity. Those who refused were often arrested and tortured. To further discourage pantheistic practices, religious texts and artifacts produced by the Maya were actively destroyed.


Gus emphasized that it was the Spanish who created the Mayan stereotype of “the stupid Indians” when, in fact, the Maya were far more advanced than the rest of the world in both in mathematics and astronomy. This stereotype was reinforced as the Spanish suppressed the surviving Mayans into slavery and deprived them of an education. This is one of many examples supporting the saying: “History is decided by the winner.” Fortunately, a great deal of Mayan history has survived to date, and an adapted version of the Mayan language and some of the culture’s practices have been recovered. Today, Mayan descendants continue to live in the Yucatan Peninsula and other parts of Central America and strive to keep their rich heritage alive and vibrant.


Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal’s online learning community and outreach program with undergraduate and K-12 classes around the world. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:


The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, Norway, northeastern China, Micronesia, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing reviews of books, documentaries, and films, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers. We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.

Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Tayler Boelk

26 responses to “Tulum, Mexico: City of the Dawn — The North Star Reports – by Tayler Boelk. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

  1. Roman Schnobrich

    “History is decided by the winner.” That is a great quotation that can assist us in realizing how far from the truth are textbooks often are in telling the actual truth. While we like to think more recent and “modern” textbooks become increasingly accurate of how historical events actually occurred, it’s highly difficult to know for sure. It’s absorbing to hear that so many American ideas (and opinions) about the history of the Mayans are simply false myths that our culture believes. Is it going to bug you to return to the States and hear all the stereotypes, knowing they’re completely wrong?

  2. Roman Schnobrich

    “History is decided by the winner.” That’s a great quotation that helps assist in us realizing that our textbooks paint historical events from certain perspectives, changing how the occurrences actually happened. It’s absorbing to read about how false all of American culture’s beliefs are about the Mayans. It’s as if we’ve falsified the truth so their history seems more interesting and appeals to us more. Will it upset you to return to the States and listen to all the stereotypes about the Mayans, knowing for yourself that some of them are completely false?

  3. Bryce Gadke

    The great civilization of the Yucatan has had the staying power to the point where they are still prevalent today despite the swift workings of the Spanish to stamp out the existence of their obvious mathematic and astrological brilliance. “History is decided by the winner.” The Spanish worked tirelessly to create stereotypes and stigmas about the mayans to justify their actions. They painted the mayans to be savages and less evolved than their european counterparts and that is obviously not the full story of history provided the examples found in the city of Tulum. This was quite an interesting article and it makes me contemplate what parts of US history are true and what are false based on our victories in wars and race battles against the native americans that were usurped and pushed away by the US government and the american settlers before them.

  4. Sarah Grace Devine

    AS a History Major colonization is a huge part of my studies, and believe me it can be incredibly hard to find information on and about the conquered people before colonization. It’s amazing the opportunity you have to see these buildings first hand and hear the history from the “other side”. Did this information shock you at all, or were you aware of this before your tour? Keep sharing this story, it is awesome! Thank you!

    • Tayler Boelk

      I think it was a little of both for me. I knew the Mayan were an advanced civilization but I think I believed the stories that no one really knew what happened to them. The whole, “Mysterious disappearance of the great civilization” stories. Also, embarrassingly, I was surprised that our tour guide Gus knew his own Mayan heritage and explained how many Mayan people still exist today. Since this tour, I have realized many young children feel the same way about Native Americans in the United States.

  5. Carley Nadeau

    Stereotypes can have a lot of power, and are especially evident pretty much everywhere through history. Just like how history is decided by the winner, stereotypes are decided by the winner. I think your article showed this concept quite well. The Mayans worked hard for what they had, but the Spanish did everything to crush that.

  6. I am so happy that people like Gus are educating tourists about the true past instead of the shiny sunshiny version we like to hear. I think it’s amazing that the Mayan people never lost their language or history, it’s truly a treasure to our global culture. Did people on your tour react poorly, or were you all very interested in hearing a new perspective? I thank you for taking the time to write this interesting and informative piece about your trip to Tulum!

    • Tayler Boelk

      I am not sure about other people on the tour, but for me, I was extremely interested but I was also surprised. It seems that most tour guides jobs revolves around telling the “sunshiney” version of history because they make money off of happy tourists. Can you imagine taking a tour of a museum and the tour guide saying something like, “Your ancestors robbed sacred grave sites to steal these artifacts so that we can look at them today! But it was totally justified because they were uncivilized and now we can learn about the culture we nearly wiped out.” They would never do that! Unfortunately it’s totally feasible that something like that may have happened.

  7. Connor

    The idea that history is written by the victor is important to keep in the back of our minds when we study history. Especially the history of colonization. It seems powerful nations paint targets as backwards in order to provide a platform for colonization. The stereotype of the Mayans as a civilization that sacrificed people to the gods in brutal ways exists in popular culture too, as seen in the movie Apocalypto. The stereotypes continue to be perpetuated. It’s important for everyone, not just those studying history, to think critically about biases that might be in play when exploring different historical events.

  8. What a wonderful opportunity to learn about history! I am glad that some truths were reveled via the de-bunking of popular myths by your tour guide. Thank you for sharing this history with us! It is wonderful to hear that the Mayan language and culture are still honored today by descendants as well.

  9. Rebecca Smith

    The Mayan story is definitely one where history is decided by the winners. It’s amazing how much bad history we learn in school – I remember learning about how the Mayans sacrificed people, and it was an honor to be chosen. I found the backstory of the Mayan empire prior to Spanish arrival fascinating as well. I’m glad you were able to write about this and inform us on the real truth of some of the Mayan history!

  10. Thomas Landgren

    This is a great example of how powerful stereotypes are. The stereotype of the Mayans has lasted hundreds of years. When you started to talk about how the Spanish conquistadors destroyed everything that pertained to the Mayan religion my heart sank in my chest. To think all of that history and evidence of their culture was destroyed. It’s awesome that Gus the tour guide was excited to reteach people about the Mayan culture. It is always interesting to learn about different cultures. Great Article!

  11. Tabetha Filzen

    It is always nice to learn new things. It is cool that you were able to learn the other side of that event in history. I am glad that there are people out here that are willing to learn and listen to the full story. I remember learning Mayan history in my Spanish classes in high school and not once did we learn anything that was written in this article. It is very true about those who win decide what is said in history books.

  12. Emily Hanson

    First off, I personally found it cute that your tour guilds name was Gus. It doesn’t seem much of a geographically common name.
    This article makes me wonder however, why the Spanish thought the Mayans would make great slaves? Because they had the intellect that the Spanish didn’t? It makes you wonder what the real motives people come up with are!

  13. Deng Dimayuga

    I admire tour guides like Gus. They have the power to dispel myths that many tourists might believe to be true. While most tourists go to these ruins to observe the architecture and make more of their trip, it’s very important to remind them of the price of colonization. The reason they can see these walls today is because these people have been wiped out. It’s sobering to be reminded of this, but it’s also important.

  14. Meghan Lozinski

    This is one of the reasons I think travel is so important. Without travelling there and hearing first hand from a tour guide who is very experience, you probably would have never learned that these were simply myths. Not only is history written by the victor, but living in the U.S. we are exposed to so much national news, information, and history and not so much international information.

  15. Matt Breeze

    The Maya were undoubtably an advanced civilization. Unfortunately for them the Spanish conquered them, even if it took the longer than anticipated. The point you make about the populations growing too large to be supported by the cities is a particularly interesting one that should maybe be thought about in today’s world. The cities may become unsustainable and people could have to spread out and settle in smaller communities as the Maya did. Great history and cultural information here!

  16. Delaney Babich

    This was beautifully written! I will admit I did not know anything about this specific civilization, and it was refreshing to learn! I was not surprised by the factors of the decline of the civilization, it seems that without the technology we have today, depleting the resources around you would result in a massive decline in the cities population as people would move to find other resources, as you mentioned. I hope to one day visit these ruins, and others alike, to get a first hand experience of the ruins and the people who once lived there!

  17. Katherine Grotte

    What great information! Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned on your adventure. It’s always fascinating to examine old myths or information that is assumed to be true. I especially thought the explanation of the large deserted cities (before the Spanish took over) was enlightening. Hope you had a blast. 🙂

  18. Jimmy Lovrien

    Those misconceptions are so persistent. I remember reading a college textbook that repeated the myth about human sacrifices, making it seem like they were common. Not to mention there are so many movies that depict mayans that way. For many, the myths and lore of a group of people may be all they know.

  19. Logan Davey

    I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel to see the ruins and they are incredible. The fact that diseases was the major cause of how the Mayans collapsed so fast is kind of scary to think about. It kind of makes me think of how diseases could potentially be used in our world today. Do you happen to know where the Mayans were sent to once they were forced into slavery? Overall this was a great review to further my knowledge.

  20. Kyle Hellmann

    Fantastic article about the history of the Mayans! It would be interesting to line up all the ‘myths’ or ‘facts’ about the Mayan people and investigate which ones are actually myths or facts. Its impressive that the Mayan people were able to hold out for so long, and had a great understanding of education! I wonder what would’ve happened if the Spanish didn’t conquer them. Thanks for sharing your story!

  21. It is disappointing that the Mayan people were forced out of their home by the conquistadors. Luckily, some of their culture has managed to stay intact to allow future generations the opportunity to some insight to the once great Mayan people. This was a phenomenal read and good article about the history of the Mayans! Thanks for sharing.

  22. The Spanish explorations that occurred during the time of conquest of the Mayans is a topic I feel people forget about. The oldest city in America was Spanish and Spanish culture still holds influence in the areas they explored. Yes what they did to the Mayans and other indigenous populations was awful but what would our world look like today if those events did not happen. I think this is a question of the significance of events that happen and how some event, no matter how terrible still shape the world that we live in today.

  23. Jan

    Great article sounds like you had a great experience in Mexico. “History is decided by the winner.” is such an accurate quote. I keep thinking and wondering how Maya civilization would look like now if the Spanish did not land in the Americas. How would Mayans contribute to worlds technology, and what could have been discovered that we don’t know about by this fantastic civilization.

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