The ancient Maya

The ancient Maya once occupied a vast geographic area in Central America. Their civilization inhabited an area that encompasses Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and parts of the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. From the third to the ninth century, Maya civilization produced awe-inspiring temples and pyramids, highly accurate calendars, mathematics and hieroglyphics, and a complex social and political order. Urban centers were important to the Maya during the Classic period; they offered the Mayans a central place to practice religion.

The Mayan culture can be traced back to 1500 BC, entering the Classic period about 300 AD and flourishing between 600 and 900 AD. The basis of the culture was farming. They cultivated food crops such as maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers. They also cultivated cash crops such as cotton and cacao . Maize was the principal food of the Mayas and maize production was the central economic activity. The Mayas, forced to cultivate in a tropical rain forest, used slash and burn agriculture. The growth is so rapid in the rain forest that the nutrients provided by dead plants and animal feces get used very quickly.

This causes the soil to be unfertile within a few years. The Mayans would then have to use new land. Because of this, the Mayans required huge amounts of land to feed their people. The population, throughout the Classic period, remained small. Slash and burn agriculture is also labor intensive. It required the people to spend an average of 190 days in agricultural work. Despite the difficulty of this labor, the remainder of the year was used to build and maintain cities, develop art, and continue to enhance their literature.

The cities, or urban centers, were built primarily as ceremonial centers. The priestly class lived in the cities, while the general population lived away in small farming villages. The priests would carry out daily religious duties, particularly sacrifices, and the peasants would gather periodically for religious ceremonies and festivals. They built the ceremonial centers in a specific design for religious practices. They constructed tall pyramid temples, warren-like single story palaces, and a ball court that was surrounded by a broad central plaza.

The architectural features of the Mayan pyramids include towering roofs, corbel vaults, and elaborate embellishment with stucco reliefs. It is amazing to imagine the detail that the Mayans were able to create in their architecture with only primitive tools. For the Mayans, science and religion were linked. Time was extremely important and their agriculture and religious ceremonies required a system that could record time. That need for structure is probably the reason that the Mayans developed such an amazingly accurate calendar.

They also developed a complex style of hieroglyphic writing that we have not fully deciphered. Through their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics they calculated the lunar cycle, predicted eclipses, and formulated a unique calendar system was very accurate. Their calendar was only one day off every 6000 years. That makes it more accurate than our calendar today. Two fundamental ideas in mathematics that were discovered by the Mayans are the position value and the concept of zero.

The Hindu was the only other antiquated culture to develop this and they did it 300 years after the Mayans. They are such a simple concept that is a distinct stroke of genius that these people discovered them. Mayan numerals were written with only three symbols. A dot represents one, a line represents five, and a glyph of a seashell represents zero. Mayan religion was obsessed with time. Mayan religion was a part of the Mayans entire life. One important aspect of their religion is that it is based on accommodating humanity to the cycles of the universe.

They believed that the universe functions in a logical, cyclical, and predicable way; human beings can exploit that cyclical nature by accommodating themselves to those cycles. Religious ceremonies involved dancing, competition, dramatic performances, prayer, and sacrifice. The gods required nourishment from human beings in order to work. The bulk of sacrifice involved some form of human sacrifice. The majority of this human sacrifice was bloodletting, in which a victim, usually a priest, voluntarily pierces a part, or parts, of their body and gives blood to the gods.

The parts pierced were usually the tongue, ears, lips, or penis. The higher one’s position in the hierarchy, the more blood they were expected to give. The Mayans did have a ceremony that required the living heart of a victim. The four chacs (elders) would hold the victim down on an altar at the top of the pyramid. The nacon (sacrificial executioner) would then make an incision below the ribcage and pull the heart out. The heart was then burned in order to nourish the gods. The Mayans had many gods.

Most of the gods were reptilian and they all had dual aspects, that is, each god had a benevolent aspect and a malevolent aspect. Among the most revered deities were Itzamna and Ix Chel, father and mother of all other gods, and the rain god Chac. KuKulcan was the Mayan name for the feather serpent, god of the ruling caste. The Mayans believed in an elaborate afterlife, but heaven was reserved for those who had been hanged, sacrificed, or died in childbirth. Everyone else went to Xibal, or hell, which was ruled over by the Lords of Death. The Mayans were a complex society.

It is hard to imagine that they accomplished so much when they were primary a farm-based society. The interconnectedness of their lives had a great impact on their advancements. They needed to create a calendar in order to plant and harvest, plan for religious ceremonies, and keep track of things. The religion offered them a way to come together in the cities. The cities offered them a place to develop art and writings. It gave them a reason to write down their history. They are a unique an interesting culture. The Mayans were a highly developed society for their time.


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