Every effort was made by the Spanish conquistadors to eradicate all signs of Mayan culture. They were helped by the Franciscan and Dominican friars who destroy all evidence of Mayan religious beliefs. The friars destroyed temples, shrines, and banned all ceremonial costumes. All native religions were banned, and instruction in Catholicism was mandatory. In addition, the Mayans were removed from their homes and forced to work on encomiendas. Under the encomienda system, the Spanish Conquistadors were awarded land grants as well as the services of the natives who were now property of the landowner. It was at the encomienda where the Mayans were expected to convert to Christianity.
It was at this time that a Franciscan friar named Diego Landa arrived in Merida, Mexico to serve in the local monastery of Izamal. It was 1549, and the spirit of the Inquisition burned brightly in his determination to perform his duties. Wherever he went on the Yucatan Peninsula he destroyed all signs of native religion, and administered torture whenever natives refused to accept Christianity. Before long, Landa became enraged as the Native Americans refused to renounce their beliefs. Time and time again he sought out more forceful ways to eradicate their pagan religion. Then, in 1562, Diego Landa found forty hieroglyphic books of amazing Mayan historical value. He ordered them confiscated and burned. In minutes, valuable evidence of Mayan literature, beliefs, and history were reduced to ashes. At the prescribed time of the burning, Landa stated that the books, “contained nothing in which there was not to be seen superstitions and lies of the devil.” At that moment, historians lost an archaeological treasure of amazing value. Today, only four of these codices or books still exist.
Our knowledge of the ancient Mayans comes from a variety of sources. Incredibly, the most important of these sources is a carefully written book by Diego de Landa entitled, “Relation de las Cosas de Yucatan.” In this richly detailed manuscript Landa vividly describes the customs of the Maya that he encountered upon his arrival in the Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula. Landa describes how the Mayans dressed, when and what they ate, and how they were educated. He also wrote about the laws, punishment administered, religious ceremonies, government, and systems of commerce.
One of the most important descriptions Landa left us was that of the Mayan calenders. He copied the twenty hieroglyphs that corresponded with the Mayan months, while carefully describing how each was pronounced phonetically. Much of what Landa learned about Mayan history came from a man named Juan Cocom. Cocom's knowledge of his ancient Mayan ancestors had been passed down from one ancestor to another. Thanks to Cocom and Landa's collaboration investigators have been able to interpret many of the surviving hieroglyphs.