The Maya The Maya The Maya were once considered one of the greatest civilizations in North America, and possibly the world. They built many pyramids and temples to honor their gods and to preserve their religion. Their lives revolved around their king and sacrifice of his blood. The cultural achievements of the Maya along with the educational achievements came centuries before other cultures. These achievements still exist today along with the Mayan culture, which has spanned over two thousand years.
The Mayan people of today still hold these traditions sacred and want to preserve them. Only about two million Mayan Indians exist today, but their culture reflects that of their ancestors, along with the Spanish, who invaded the Maya around the sixteenth century. Archeologists who have dug up and studied many Mayan sites trace the Mayas back ten thousand years when their ancestors migrated from Asia to the Yucatan peninsula and northern Central America. The history of the Maya is divided into three major time periods: preclassic (two thousand BC AD three hundred), classic (AD three hundred AD nine hundred), and postclassic (AD nine hundred AD fifteen hundred). Early Mayan settlements date back to twenty four hundred BC, but few traces of Mayan culture before AD four hundred have been found.
In the preclassic era of Mayan history, corn was farmed and the early Mayans laid a base for their culture, which was believed to have been influenced by the Olmec Indians near-by. The very first hieroglyphics were written, and cities started to appear. The early Mayan economy was based on agriculture and the exchange of farm goods. The Maya grew Indian corn, or maize. It was a staple food of many Indians in Central America for centuries.
The Mayans developed the slash-and-burn farming method. A Mayan farmer would clear the cornfield by cutting bushes and girdling trees, and then he would allow the piled brush to catch fire under the hot sun. The ashes were then scattered among the stumps of the trees, and a sharp stick called a mattock was used to poke holes in the ground for the seeds to be laid. This method was used for centuries and it made farming the basis of the Mayan economy. It is estimated that as many as one hundred and fifty days out of the year were free from farm labor. Using the time off from farming, the Mayans built magnificent cities and temples to honor their many gods. In early Mayan history, homes were built with wattle-and-daub walls in an oval shape with a thatched roof of palmetto fronds.
These homes stayed dry when it was raining, and cool when it was hot. They contained very little furniture, and were used only for eating and sleeping. Decedents of the Maya still continue to build and live in these huts today. The Mayans used stone to construct temples and pyramids. Some of their best creations include: the Caracol, an astronomical observatory in Chichen-Itza, the tomb of Lord Pacal (inside the Temple of the Inscriptions), the royal palace, which was used to look out for invaders over the Usumacinta River, El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent), and finally the Temple of the Magician, which was rebuilt five times to follow the rounds of the Mayan calendar every fifty two years.
The great architecture was only one of the many aspects that made the Maya such an advanced civilization. The Maya reached their height in the classic period (AD three hundred to AD nine hundred). Over one hundred cities existed during this time, and some of the most advanced included: Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, Old Chichen, and Coba. All of these cities served as cultural, religious, and spiritual centers for the Mayan people and rulers. Culture was a very important aspect of Mayan life. The Mayans favorite way to express their pride and religious devotion was to build many temples, pyramids, and building that would all form large cities.
The Mayan workers who constructed these dwellings often decorated the walls with many pictures and symbols that would tell anything from a persons life to an important religious belief or tale. Cities that flourished during the Classic period were located in current day Guatemala and were led by the large city of Tikal, which had many pyramid-temples that rose over two hundred feet high. These pyramid-temples contained numerous carved slates that acted as time markers and reign recorders. When the Mayan empire collapsed, these cities, which can be compared to the city-states of ancient Greece, collapsed also and were lost from memory forever. Another part of the Mayans culture that made them far more advanced than most other ancient civilizations was the Mayans learning and their educational advances. The Mayans recorded their history in hieroglyphics, a writing system that used pictures and certain symbols.
Archaeologists today are still trying to decode the many hieroglyphics found on religious temples, stairs, and the walls of homes and palaces. Another educational advance was the development of an advanced mathematics system. This system was not perfected in Europe until centuries later. This system contained the number zero. The Mayans also developed a three hundred and sixty five day calendar that was modeled after the movement of the sun, moon, and stars.
This calendar (in the Mayans time) was the most accurate since the Gregorian calendar centuries before. The Mayans were heavily involved with astronomy. Mayan astronomers calculated the movement of the moon and the sun, calculated the age of certain stars, and made many astronomical predictions that would later be proved to be only years (even months!) off. Other mentionable aspects of Mayan culture included: the making of textiles out of cotton, and the production of paper out off tree bark. Despite all these advancements that took the work of many Mayans, the Mayans were never really united into one single empire. The Mayans were divided into many city-states, each ruled by an elite family organized into a hierarchy.
These royal families claimed decent from the gods and were looked upon by the people as undisputed, untouchable beings. Part of the Mayas decline was in part to warring city-states and families. Each city-state had a center of pyramids and other structures for the performance of religious ceremonies and government activities. The center also contained a court for ball games, shopping plazas, and places were jewelry, pottery, weapons, and other craft objects were made. Outside the city-state were fields were people grew corn, beans, squash, and sweet potatoes.
All of this contributed to the pride of the city-state and its people. The important discoveries, predictions, and advancements of the Maya were very important, but the most fascinating aspect of the Maya doesnt lie in their temples or pyramids or their hieroglyphics, it lies in their religion. Religion was the driving force of the Maya; they based their lives, their buildings, and their whole existence on pleasing the gods. Many men were sacrificed just to please the gods. Many kings gave their own blood because they believed it would help the crop harvest.
When it came to religion, the Maya didnt argue. The Mayans who studied astronomy believed that several gods, who would make the day favorable or unfavorable, controlled each day. Priests made important astronomical calculations to show which god ruled at which time. The priests were also the ones who ordered the construction of many temples and buildings. Religion even controlled a ball game the Maya played at night.
The game was similar to todays version of soccer, but players would use their stomachs, knees, and anything else to control the ball. The losing team would be sacrificed to the gods while the winning team would be spared. Many buildings and temples in the Yucatan peninsula were decorated with the face of Chac, the Mayan rain god. Chac was a very important god in a dry, agriculture-influenced society. Chac can be recognized by his elephant tusk nose.
Many other gods were used, but there are too many of them to all be identified by todays archeologists. After the classic period (AD three hundred AD nine hundred) most of the Maya started to decline. Many of their cities were war-torn, their crops destroyed, and their civilization in chaos. This era marked the beginning of the post classic period (AD nine hundred AD fifteen hundred). During the post classic period, many civil wars plagued the Maya. On top of that, the Toltec, a warring people took over Mayan cities and made Chichen-Itza their capital.
The Mayan culture survived though, and soon the Toltec were absorbed in Mayan civilization. In AD fifteen nineteen, Hernando Cortez came to present day Mexico and took over the Maya. He defeated their armies, conquered their cities, and changed their culture. He banned the old religion and tried to introduce the Mayans to Christianity. One of the Spanish bishops, Diego de Landa, ordered all Mayan texts burned.
Only four books survived and today are in museums. In AD fifteen-forty two, the Mayans were completely in the hands of the Spanish. The magnificent cities were deserted and became overgrown with jungle and thicket, and the most advanced civilization in North American history disappeared after over two thousand years of dominance. Bibliography and sources used in this report 1. http://www.classroom.com/mayaquest / 2. http://www.civilizations.ca/members/civiliz/maya.h tml 3. New Standard Encyclopedia, volume 11, M, pages M221-M224 4. Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Copyright 1994 5.
Witlock, Ralph. Everyday life of the Maya. (Dorset Press, 1987).