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Maya Civilization

By simon100186 Jan 05, 2009 3624 Words

Maya civilization is an ancient American culture. It's one of the most developed civilizations in the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. People called the Maya lived in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. Those people built massive stone pyramids, temples, and sculpture; developed a system of writing using hieroglyphs; and recorded their achievements in mathematics and astronomy. Most archeologists said that the Maya culture attained its highest level of development from AD 300 to 900; this period was called the Classic period. Archeologists have found in northern Guatemala highly developed cities sophisticated art, and examples of Maya writing that date from 600 years before the Classic period began. After 900 the Maya declined in the southern lowlands of Guatemala and then reappeared later in the north of Yucatan peninsula and continued to diffuse until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Descendants of the Maya still form a large part of the population of the region. Many of the have adopted Spanish traditions but a significant number still practice the traditional culture.

Geography and landscape

The ancient Maya civilization occupied the Eastern third of Mesoamerica. The topography of the area greatly varied from volcanic mountains to a porous limestone shelf, known as the Lowlands. The southern Lowlands was covered by a rain forest with an average of 150 feet. The northern lowlands also contained forest but they were drier than their southern counterparts. February to May was the dry season with a hot air. At this period, fields had been cut and burned. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air more and more uncomfortable. Until the rains came in late May to clear the murky atmosphere.

This region contains may dangerous animals including the jaguar, the caiman (a fierce crocodile), the bull shark, and many species of poisonous snakes. These animals had to be avoided as the Maya scavenged the forest for foods including deer turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits. The highlands climate and air contrasted with that of the Lowlands as it was drier, fresher and cooler. Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to the presence of trade within the Mayan civilization. The lowlands produced crops and the principle cultigens being maize. They also produced chili peppers, manioc, cacao, cotton…The lowlands played an important role as the origin of the transportation routes. The rainfalls in the lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rives were a form of transportation for people and materials. The volcanic highlands were the source of obsidian, jade and other precious metals.

The Maya culture
Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan civilization was, like Greeks, multitude ofseparate entities with a common cultural background. They were religiously and artistically a nation, but politically sovereign states. As many as twenty such states existed on the Yucatan Peninsula, but although a woman has, on rare occasions, ascended to the ruling position, she has never acquired the title of "Mah kina".

Society and economy
Classic Maya kings carried the title K ’ul Ahau. In the classic period, kings took the decisions in religious and political situations. But in the post classic (AD 900 to 1521) period the king’s religious power declined because the institution of priesthood appeared. Merchants were important to Maya society because of the significance of trade. All the great Classic lowland centers were connected by the principle interior trade routes which also controlled the flow of good such as salt, obsidian, jade, cacao; animal pelts tropical bird feathers, and luxury ceramics. In the early classic period Teotihuacan was the greatest city in Mesoamerica. The religious and political power of Teotihuacán radiated throughout Mesoamerica. One result of Teotihuacán’s influence was a highly integrated network of trade in which the Maya participated.

Highland Maya who lived in the southern region brought obsidian for tools and weapons, grinding stones, jade; green parrot and quetzal feathers; a tree resin called copal to burn as incense; and cochineal, a red dye made from dried insects. People from the lowlands carried jaguar pelts, salt, cotton fibers and cloths, honey, smoked venison, dried fish. People either bought goods or exchange them for cacao beans. Wealth acquired from trade enabled the upper classes to live in luxury, although there was a development in the lives of the lower classes. A Maya nobleman wore the high quality cloths like jaguar skin, sandals, a robe of cotton and a large elaborate feather headdress. His head had been fashionably elongated, his nose was built up and his ears were inlaid with jade. The Maya noblewoman wore a tight white cotton robe that was often embroidered. His head had been fashionably elongated. These people lives in a big house built of cut stones and plastered walls that were often brightly painted. In the living room they put chocolate, deer, banquets of turkey, ducks…The guests should bring a gift with them and to give a banquet in return. A dead noble was buried in a stone covered with jade. Sometimes, human sacrifices were put with the jade and its aim was to serve him in the afterlife. The lower classes were village farmers and they were the large part of the Maya population. They gave two-thirds of their produce and much of their labor to the noble classes. Commoner men wore plain cotton loincloths with simple tunics. Women wore cotton blouses and skirts and they took care of their hair that was always attractive. And finally, the lower class in Maya society was the slaves who were criminals, poor and sold themselves into bondage. And after the death of their owners, they were sacrificed to serve them in the afterlife.

The Maya cosmos contained a large range of diverse and varied supernatural beings. The chief god and the creator of the world were Hunab Ku who was important in his manifestation and was too far above men. Itzamna was the sky deity who was the lord of day and night, the lord of heaven and he was who patronized writing and medicine. The maize deity was Yum Kaax who was closer to common people. The rain gods were the four chacs and each of them joined a cardinal direction. The most respectable god was Ix Tab, the god of suicide and all the Maya thought that suicides went to their own special heaven. They also admitted the existence of the gods who controlled each day, month and year. Many rituals and ceremonies were organized by the Maya to communicate with their gods. For example at Maya New Year in July and in case of emergencies like famine, epidemics, they gathered in rituals plazas to honor the gods. Groups of men or women danced in the plaza to the music of drums rattles, flutes and woods trumpets. They also showed respect to their deities by taking rituals steam baths and drank balche, ingesting hallucinogenic drugs such as mushrooms, and smoking a very strong form of tobacco with hallucinogenic effects. Young Maya nobles played sacred ball games and in some special and specific occasions and celebrations, players who lost the game would be sacrificed to the gods. To gain the favor of the god, many ceremonies were performed just for sacrificing. The sacrifices took place on the great stone pyramids that rose above the plazas, with stairs leading to a temple and altar on top. The temple, a resting place for the god, was deeply carved or painted with designs and figures and was topped with a carved vertical slab of stone called a roof comb. Some had distinctive corbelled arches, in which each stone extended beyond the one beneath it until the two sides of the arch were joined by a single keystone at the top. Before the altar, smoke rose from copal incense burning in pottery vessels. Some of the sacrifices that worships gave to their gods were a simple offering of corn, fruit or by doing a pierce in their own lips, tongue or genitals. For major sacrifices, they offered children, slaves or prisoners of war. They painted the victim in blue and they killed him on the top of the pyramid. Usually, they held their arms and legs while a priest cut open his chest with a special knife and took out his heart as a gift for god, or they decapitated the victims with an axe.

Science and Writing
Maya builders had a package of skills and talents and the most interesting and special was the developments and achievements in mathematics and astronomy. They created a pair of interlocking calendars and they used to use then in many purposes as the scheduling of ceremonies and celebrations, these calendars were their greatest and most important intellectual achievement. The second achievement was a sacred 260-day almanac used for finding lucky and unlucky days. The Maya used the sacred almanac and the solar calendar to design any day included the day name and number. The two calendars can be thought of as two geared wheels that meshed together at one point along the rim, with the glyphs for the days of the sun calendar on one wheel and the glyphs for the days of the sacred almanac on the other. By combining the name for the sun calendar day with the name for the sacred almanac day, they formed the name of each and every day. Finding the day of week of a particular calendar date many thousands year in the past or in the future was difficult but Maya astronomers could make it. They also used the zero that was an extremely advanced mathematical concept. They made astronomical measurements with having neither decimals nor fractions; they did it by adding and dropping days to their calendars. For example: "during 1000 years of observing the resolution of the planet Venus, which is completed in 583.92 days, Maya astronomers calculated the time of the Venusian's year as 584. The Maya ………. The method of reckoning time which includes counting from a hypothetical fixed point and expressing the date in time periods based on the number 20 and counted in intervals of 1, 20, 360, 7600 and 144000 days. These days are found on carved stones from the pre classic period and they are widespread throughout the lowlands on monuments from the classic period. An elaborate and complex system of hieroglyphs writing was developed to record the transitions of power through the generations, to record astronomical observations, calendared calculations, historical and genealogical information. The Mayan hieroglyphs were a combination between glyphs representing complete words and glyphs representing sounds, which were combined to form complete words. The information could be conveyed through inscriptions alone, but it was usually combine with pictures showing actions to facilitate comprehension. Maya hieroglyphs writing was formed of carved inscriptions on stone stele, altars, wooden lintels, and roof beams, or painted on ceramic vessels. Folding tree books were made of fig bark paper and placed in royal tombs but because of humidity of the tropics and the invasion of the Spanish who considered these writings as work of the devil, these books did not survive. Four of them are known today: • The Dresden Codex

• The Madud Codex
• The Paris Codex
• The Grolier Codex

Political organization
In both the priesthood and the ruling class, the practice among people with power or influence of favoring their own relatives, and that is called nepotism, was apparently the prevailing system under which new members were chosen. New kings were chosen by the form or the right of primogeniture as the king passed down his position, influence and power to his elder son. When an heir was born the king performed a blood sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering or a gift to his ancestor. And when a new king was installed in office, a human sacrifice was offered. To be a king, someone must have taken a captive in a war and this person would become a victim to be used in his accession ceremony. This ritual is the most important and interesting in a king's life because at this point he inherits the position to be the head of the lineage and the power to be the leader of the city. The religious explanation that supported and upheld the institution of kingship was that Maya rulers were necessary and indispensable for the continuance of the universe.

Mayan art
Each and every civilization has its own art which is a reflection of its lifestyle and culture. The art of the Maya was composed of delineation that showed their lifestyle and described it in detail. It was also composed of painting upon paper and plasters carvings in wood and stone clay and stucco models, and terra cotta figurines from molds. The technical process of metal working was highly developed but the Maya only created ornaments in this media because of the scarcity of resources. Mayan kings commissioned many of the great programs of Mayan art, inscriptions and architecture to ensure their royalty and their place in the history and to memorialize them selves. The prevailing and essential subject of their art is not about anonymous priests and unnamed gods but rather mankinds that serve to recreate the history of the people. The reflection of their society and the interaction with surrounding people made this artistic work. The hieroglyphic stairway located in Copan, is one of the greatest works of Mayan artistic ability and culture. The stairway is an iconographical complex composed of a central stairway which together portray many elements of Mayan society and also contain statues, figures, ramps…An altar, on which gifts and sacrifices are offered to Mayan gods, is present as well as many pictorial references of sacrifice and their gods. More importantly than all the imagery captured with in this monument, however, is the history of the royal descent depicted in the hieroglyphs and various statues. A seated captive who was killed in a bloodletting ceremony especially in the accession to kingship, is represented by his figurine of high rank as depicted by his very expensive earrings and his complicated and detailed parts of his woven hip cloth. The rope collar was usually used in these pictures indicate this man as a captive who is involved in a bloodletting rite. The basic staple diet in the Indian communities as it was with their Mayan ancestors is corn. The same cloths are worn as in the past. The type of embroidery, color, design and shape of the cloths determinate the village in which the clothing was made. Mayan dialects of Qhuche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, and Mam are still spoken today, although the majority of Indians also speak Spanish.

Mayan pyramids
The Mayan pyramids are very impressive, massive and are worthy of study. These pyramids are an important part of ancient Mesoamerica architecture. Two types of pyramids were built by the ancient Mayan. One type was meant to be climbed and the other type was not. The first type was used to give offerings to gods and the second type was sacred and nobody was allowed to touch it. These pyramids had not only religious functions but they also had other purposes. They were built so high to see the jungle. That's why the Mayan people were able to use them as landmarks. The other aim of building them so high was to use them as a reminder that the gods were ever present. The Maya also built pyramids stretching from Mexico to El Salvador and they were typically made of stone blocks sealed together with a lime mortar. The largest pyramid in volume, not only in Mesoamerica but also in the world is the great pyramid of Cholula in the Mexican state of Puebla. The location, orientation and design of the pyramids represent the three levels of ancient Mesoamerica cosmos: the celestial, terrestrial and subterranean.

Chichén Itza
Mexicanized Maya culture was brought by Itza to Chichén Itza in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. During their rule, the traditional Maya way of life was changed due to Mexican-influenced cultures. The result of this change was in the social structure where military lords rose in power and influence and the institution of a formalized priesthood separated from political rules. In the religious part, the change was that the serpent-god dominated all others. Sacrifices and gifts also changed as human sacrifice became more and more important and valuable. The Itza began to use a new form of sacrifice by throwing victims into a sacred ceneto, or natural well, along with offering of pottery, jade, gold and many other valuables to make the gift more precious. This cenote, in fact, determined the location of Chichén Itzá and was responsible for the city’s importance as a pilgrimage center. Chichén Itza was a very large city with a central area covering 5sq km. Its architecture and designs shows the introduction of columns, wider rooms and doorways, and sloping zone around the base of the buildings. The most important area includes significant number of temples and ball courts, which is one of the largest known in Mesoamerica. There is a round temple that functioned as an observatory which is the only distinctive structure of the city. Statues and motifs of Kukulcan can be found on buildings, staircases, roofs, columns and doorway lintels. The altars, on which gifts and sacrifices are offered to gods, were supported by a life-size stone figures and Chacmools which are great reclining stone figures, were sculpted. Warriors depicted in bas-relief columns lack the classic Maya distortion of head and eyes. Pottery changed from being multicolored in the classic era to became monochrome or single colored, but it was often carved or incised with many tiny designs put together in a complex way. Jewelry was made of gold, copper, turquoise and onyx. Codices which are painted books were made of bark fiber or deer skin. There was an increase in commerce and trade, especially maritime exchange.

Maya gods and goddesses
The ancient Mayans worshipped and showed the admiration and respect to their complex pantheon deities by offering gifts and human sacrifices. Rulers were believed to be descendants of the gods and they should give blood sacrifices, either through personal bloodletting which was the ideal sacrifice, or by offering one of the captives of royal blood. The Mayan vision of the universe is composed of many levels, above and below earth, positioned within the four directions of north, south, east and west. The underworld or Xibalba (shee bal bah) is the place where people would go after death. For them it's a fright place where sinister gods tested and tricked their unfortunate visitors. As with all myths about gods and goddesses- Mayan creational mythology discuss connections and relations with being from other countries ruled by a king or a queen that came to earth to seed the planet. For example: the story of Popol Vuh was connected with a story of extraterrestrial gods who made man in their own image after coming to earth. But the gods destroyed them because man was, at the first, perfect, living as long as the gods and having all o their abilities and power and all that create fear for gods. In the next revolution, a lower form of entity was created, it's called "human", as he exists today. Within Mayan culture they have stories and legends of visiting gods. Gods promise to return one day as in all creational myths, religions and prophecies. The patron god of the city Itzammal was Kinich Ahau. He was the sun god. Mayans believed that he visited his city at noon everyday. He used a macaw body to descend and he consumed all the prepared offerings and sacrifices, Kinich Ahau is usually presented with jaguar-like (ex: filed teeth). He also wears the symbol of kin which is a Mayan day. Kinich Ahau had also another name "Ah Xoc Kin" who was related to art especially music and poetry. The basic of the Mayan agriculture was the ripe grain which is represented by the Maize god Yumil Kaxob. In certain areas of Mesoamerica, like Yucatan, the Maize god is combined with the god of flora. Yumil kaxob is principally represented by a headdress of maize and a curved streak on his check. His youth is the principal notification to distinct him from other gods. But this youth didn’t influence him negatively because the maize god was powerless by himself. The control of rain and drought decided his fortunes and misfortunes. Rain god would protect and help him. However, he suffered when the death god sent and exercised famine and drought. The death god or the god of the underworld, where the soul of dead people is transferred, is called Yum Cimil and he also would be called Ah Puch. His body is predominantly shown as a skeleton and he has also been represented with a body covered with black decompositions. He also wears a collar with eyeless sockets. His adornments are likewise made of bones which are the typical symbol for the underworld and death.

The Maya is probably the best known of the classical civilization of Mesoamerica. These amazing people evolved the true writing system and diffused it in America. In addition, they were masters of mathematics and they construct very wonderful temples, buildings, cities, pyramids and many other impressive things knowing that they had no tools and no technology. Also they reached a high level of architecture and design especially the construction of the statues, pictures, motifs of their deities.

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