The Mayan Civilization was an Ancient
Native American civilization that grew to be one of the most advanced civilizations
in the Americas. The people known as the Maya lived in the region
that is now eastern and southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador,
and western Honduras. The Maya built massive stone pyramids, temples,
and sculpture and accomplished complex achievements in mathematics and
astronomy, which were recorded in hieroglyphs.
After 900 the Maya mysteriously disappeared
from the southern lowlands of Guatemala. They later reappeared in the north
on the Yucatan Peninsula and continued to dominate the area until
the Spanish conquest. Descendants of the Maya still form a large part of
the population of the region. Although many have acquired Spanish ways,
a significant number of modern Maya maintain ancient ethnic customs.
The Pre-classic period is the span of
time in which the foundation of the more modern Mayan civilization was
formed. The people went through huge developments in society and
built up strength.
Early Mayans were farmers and helped the
community in keeping up the fields. They first used sticks to punch
holes in the ground, but later, assumed more advanced farming techniques.
Their main crops included maize (corn), beans, squash, avocados, chili
peppers, pineapples, papayas, and cacao, which was made into a chocolate
drink with water and hot chilies. Hunting and fishing were also a
source of food for the early Mayans. They often hunted rabbits, deer,
and turkeys, which were made into stews. When they were not hunting,
fishing, or working in the fields, Mayan men and women took part in crafting
useful items, such as stone tools, clay figurines, jade carvings, ropes,
baskets, and mats. Women specialized in making clothing, such as
ponchos, loincloths, and skirts.
Like other ancient farming peoples, the
early Maya worshipped agricultural gods, such as the rain god and, later,
the corn god. Eventually they developed the belief that gods controlled
events in each day, month, and year, and that they had to make offerings
to win the gods’ favor. Maya astronomers observed the movements of the
sun, moon, and planets, made astronomical calculations, and devised almanacs.
The astronomers’ observations were used to divine auspicious moments for
many different kinds of activity, from farming to warfare.
Rulers and nobles directed the commoners
in building major settlements. Pyramid-shaped mounds of rubble topped with
altars or thatched temples sat in the center of these settlements, and
priests performed sacrifices to the gods on them. As the Pre-classic period
progressed, the Maya increasingly used stone in building. Both nobles and
commoners lived in extended family compounds.
During the Pre-classic period the basic
patterns of ancient Maya life were established. However, the period was
not simply a rehearsal for the Classic period but a time of spectacular
Classic Maya civilization became more
complex as the population increased and centers in the highlands and the
lowlands engaged in both cooperation and competition with each other. Trade
and warfare were very important to cultural growth and development. Societies
became more complex, with distinct social classes developing.
Under the direction of their kings, who
also performed as priests, the centers of the lowland Maya became densely
populated jungle cities with vast stone and masonry temple and palace complexes.
During the Classic period, warfare was conducted on a fairly limited, primarily
ceremonial scale. Maya rulers, who were often depicted on carved stone
monuments, carrying weapons, attempted to capture and sacrifice one another
for ritual and political purposes. The rulers often destroyed parts of
some cities, but the destruction was directed mostly at temples in the
ceremonial precincts; it had little or no impact on the economy or population
of a city as a whole. Some city-states did occasionally conquer others,
but this was not a common occurrence until very late in the Classic period
when lowland civilization had begun to disintegrate. Until that time, the
most common pattern of Maya warfare seems to have consisted of raids employing
rapid attacks and retreats by relatively small numbers of warriors, most
of who were probably nobles.
Lowland Maya centers were true cities with
large resident populations of commoners who sustained the ruling elites
through payments of tribute in goods and labor. They built temples, palaces,
courtyards, water reservoirs, and causeways. Sculptors carved stelae, which
recorded information about the rulers, their family and political histories,
and often included exaggerated
statements about their conquests
of other city-states.
Mayan religion consisted of a wide range
of diverse and varied supernatural beings or deities. They considered
Hunab Ku to be the chief god and creator of the world, followed by other
varied gods, including Itzamna, the lord of the heavens; Yum Kaax, the
god of maize; and the four Chacs, the cardinal rain gods. They also worshipped
Ix Chel, the rainbow goddess associated with mothers; and Ixtab, the goddess
The Maya performed many rituals and ceremonies
to communicate with their deities. At pre-arranged events, such as the
Maya New Year in July, or in emergencies?such as famine, epidemics, or
a great drought?the people gathered in ritual plazas to honor the gods.
People would dress in elaborate costumes and dance, take hallucinogenic
drugs, take ritual steam baths, and play ritual games. Sacrifices in the
form of killing or burning would be made to the gods, such as corn, blood,
piercing, children, slaves, or prisoners of war.
SCIENCE AND WRITING
Although the Mayans were blessed with
being mechanically skilled, most of their major achievements were in the
department of abstract mathematics and astronomy. One of their greatest
intellectual achievements was a pair of interlocking calendars, which was
used for such purposes as the scheduling of ceremonies.
Maya astronomers could make difficult calculations,
such as finding the day of the week of a particular calendar date many
thousands of years in the past or in the future. They also used the concept
of zero, an extremely advanced mathematical concept. Although they had
neither decimals nor fractions, they made accurate astronomical measurements
by dropping or adding days to their calendar.
The Maya developed a complex system of
hieroglyphic writing to record not only astronomical observations and calendrical
calculations, but also historical and genealogical information. Scribes
carved hieroglyphs on stone stelae, altars, wooden lintels, and roof beams,
or painted them on ceramic vessels and in books made of bark paper.
COLLAPSE OF A CIVILIZATION
From about AD 790 to 889, Classic Maya
civilization in the lowlands collapsed. Construction of temples and palaces
ceased, and monuments were no longer erected. The Maya abandoned the great
lowland cities, and population levels declined drastically, especially
in the southern and central lowlands. Scholars debate the causes of the
collapse, but they are in general agreement that it was a gradual process
of disintegration rather than a sudden dramatic event.
A number of factors were almost certainly
involved, and the precise causes were different for each city-state in
each region of the lowlands. Among the factors that have been suggested
are natural disasters, disease, soil exhaustion and other agricultural
problems, peasant revolts, internal warfare, and foreign invasions. Whatever
factors led to the collapse, their net result was a weakening of lowland
Maya social, economic, and political systems to the point where they could
no longer support large populations. Another result was the loss of inestimable
amounts of knowledge relating to Maya religion and ritual.