The Mayan Civilization
Maya civilization /
Pages: 10 (2473 words) /
Published: Nov 19th, 2013
The Great Mayan Civilization
The Mayan is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period (c. 2000 BC to AD 250), according to the Mesoamerican chronology, many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period (c. AD 250 to 900), and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures. What I plan to cover in this paper is how a culture so structured and advanced for their time could come to the drastic fall that the Mayan people suffered during the Spanish conquests.
“The Great Mayan Civilization”
A civilization built on religious beliefs and a unique way of living, the Mayan’s were known for their amazing pyramids and temples. They are known for various things like the hieroglyphics, mathematic skills that helped create two calendars, which are the Sacred consisting of 260 days and the Earthly calendar, consisted of 365 days, and astrology advancement. Musical instruments have been discovered and suggest that festival type activities took place within Mayan communities. Some of their typical physical characteristics are, they were short in height from 4ft. 8in. to 5ft. 2in., straight black hair, painted bodies, tattoos, and flat foreheads.
Mesoamerica had three major time periods: pre-classic (2000 BC-AD 300), classic (300-900), and post-classic (900-1500). During the six centuries of the classic period the Mayan civilization flourished first in the forests of the Peten in Guatemala and adjacent areas--creating such cities as Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, and Palenque--and then in the semiarid scrublands of northern Yucatan--constructing such pilgrimage centers as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, Old Chichen, and Coba (Rathje, 1971).
The ancient Maya civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica (a term used to describe Mexico and Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest). Unlike other scattered indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, the Maya were centered in one geographical block of covering all of the Yucatan Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala; Belize and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas; and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. This concentration showed that the Maya remained relatively secure from invasion by other Mesoamerica peoples (Rathje, 1971)
Within that expanse, the Maya lived in three separate sub-areas with distinct environmental and cultural differences: the northern Maya lowlands on the Yucatan Peninsula; the southern lowlands in the Peten district of northern Guatemala and adjacent portions of Mexico, Belize and western Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands, in the mountainous region of southern Guatemala. Most famously, the Maya of the southern lowland region reached their peak during the Classic Period of Maya civilization (A.D. 250-900), and built the great stone cities and monuments that have fascinated explorers and scholars of the region. The topography of the area greatly varied from volcanic mountains, which comprised the highlands in the South, to a porous limestone shelf, known as the Lowlands, in the central and northern regions (Guy, 2007).
The southern portion of the Lowlands was covered by a rain forest with an average height of about 150 feet. Scattered savannas and swamps, or bajos, appeared sporadically, interrupting the dense forests. The northern Lowlands were also comprised of forests but they were drier than their southern counterparts, mainly growing small thorny trees. February to May was the dry season characterized by air that was intensely hot and uncomfortable. At this time of year, the fields had recently been cut and had to be burned in accordance with their slash and burn form of agriculture. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air even more unbearable until the rains came in late May to clear the murky atmosphere (Guy, 2007). Many dangerous animals occupied this region of the peninsula 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, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti. Many varieties of monkeys and quetzal also occupied the upper canopy. The climate of the Highlands greatly contrasted with that of the Lowlands as it was much cooler and drier. Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to the presence of trade within the Mayan civilization. The lowlands primarily produced crops which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle cultigen being corn (maize). They also grew squash, beans, and chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope (Rathje, 1971).
The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade. Although the lowlands were not the source of any of these commodities, they still played an important role as the origin of the transportation routes. The rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers, of which the Usumacinta and the Grijalva were of primary importance, were vital to the civilization as the form of transportation for both people and materials (Sanders & Prices, 1987). The various groups spoke nearly 30 closely related languages and dialects, including the Mayan and Huastec. The Maya had 800 distinct hieroglyphs, with the first evidence of language written on stela and walls of buildings beginning CA 300 BC. Bark cloth paper codexes were being used no later than the 1500s, but all but a handful were destroyed by Spanish. An elaborate system of writing was developed to record the transition of power through the generations. Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood and used within architecture. Folding tree books were made from fig tree bark and placed in royal tombs. Unfortunately, many of these books did not survive the humidity of the tropics or the invasion of the Spanish, who regarded the symbolic writing as the work of the devil (Haug, Gunther, Peterson, Sigman, Hughen, & Aeschlimann, 2003).
The priests followed the ruling class in importance and were instrumental in the recordings of history through the hieroglyphics. The two classes were closely linked and held a monopoly on learning, including writing. The hieroglyphics were formed through a combination of different signs which represented either whole words or single syllables. The information could be conveyed through inscriptions alone, but it was usually combined with pictures showing action to facilitate comprehension. Among the earliest Maya a single language existed, but by the Preclassic Period a great linguistic diversity developed among the various Maya peoples. In modern-day Mexico and Central America, around 5 million people speak some 70 Maya languages; most of them are bilingual in Spanish (Haug, Gunther, Peterson, Sigman, Hughen, & Aeschlimann, 2003). The earliest Maya settlements date to around 1800 B.C., or the beginning of what is called the Pre-classic or Formative Period. The earliest Maya were agricultural, growing crops such as corn (maize), beans, squash and cassava (manioc). During the Middle Pre-classic Period, which lasted until about 300 B.C., Maya farmers began to expand their presence both in the highland and lowland regions. The Middle Pre-classic Period also saw the rise of the first major Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs. In addition to agriculture, the Pre-classic Maya also displayed more advanced cultural traits like pyramid-building, city construction and the inscribing of stone monuments Spanish (Haug, Gunther, Peterson, Sigman, Hughen, & Aeschlimann, 2003).
The late Pre-classic city of Mirador, in the northern Peten, was one of the greatest cities ever built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Its size dwarfed the Classic Maya capital of Tikal, and its existence proves that the Maya flourished centuries before the Classic Period (Sanders & Price, 1987). The Classic Period, which began around A.D. 250, was the golden age of the Maya Empire. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Unaxactun, Copan, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmui, Palenque and Rio Bec; each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people. At its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000. Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing (Haug, Gunther, Peterson, Sigman, Hughen & Aeschlimann, 2003). The Maya were deeply religious, and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain and corn. At the top of the Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession. They were thought to serve as mediators between the gods and people on earth, and performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals so important to the Maya culture (Rathje, 1971). The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days. Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls, showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture. This included the war between the rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual (Bennett, 2001). From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. Scholars have advanced a variety of theories over the years, pinning the fault on everything from internal warfare to foreign intrusion, from widespread outbreaks of disease to a dangerous dependence on mono-cropping, from environmental degradation to climate change. Some combination of these and other factors may well be where the truth lies. However, in recent years, evidence has mounted that unusual shifts in atmospheric patterns took place near the end of the Classic Maya period, lending credence to the notion that climate, and specifically drought, indeed played a hand in the decline of this ancient civilization (Bennett, 2001). Then there was the PostClassic Period (A.D. 1000-1500), where archaeologist findings indicated that it was not one of absolute demise. It was believed that the Maya traditions and ways of life did not disappear but rather changed from the central lowlands of Mexico to the northern highlands. According to Alexander Bennett, Post-classic, moreover, was divided into two periods: the Early Post-classic (A.D. 900-1250) and the Late Post-classic (A.D. 1250-1519). The Early Post-classic is marked by the dominance of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán. The Late Post-classic is the period that saw fall of Chichén Itzá and the rise of Mayapan, fragmentation throughout the northern Maya lowlands and, seemingly, the increase of maritime trade around Yucatán and beyond. It is in the latter part of this period that the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century (Bennett, 2001).
Politically, at the start of the Late Post-classic period Chichén Itzá, Mayapan, and Izamal were among the most prominent cities in Yucatán. The ruler of Chichén Itzá was Chac Xib Chac, and that of Mayapan was Hunac Ceel. A serious conflict arose between the ruler of Chichén Itzá and Izamal, resulting in the routing of the Itzá clan from Chichén. Eventually, many of the Itzá left Yucatán and settled in Petén (in Guatemala). After the fall of Chichén, the Cocom family of Mayapan became the most powerful family line of Mayapan. They demanded that the leaders of all the Mayan provinces live at Mayapan, thereby forming what has been termed the “League of Mayapan”, comprised of sixteen city-states. It is important to understand this organization of the Maya people as it has a bearing on the province of Chetumal, which extended from Quintana Roo to the Belize River (Bennett, 2001).
The capital of Chetumal was sited just outside of what is now Corozal Town, at the Santa Rita site (ancient Chetumal). The city of ancient Chetumal was under the Can family. In 1441, the Xiu clan rose up against the Cocoms, eventually defeating them. The leadrs of the Cocoms were sacrificed and their followers driven from Mayapan. With the disbanding of the League of Mayapan, the Maya state reverted to individual, rival provinces embroiled in civil wars, until the Spaniards arrived in A.D. 1519 (Haug, Gunther, Peterson, Sigman, Hughen & Aeschlimann, 2003). In conclusion, the Mayan Civilization left behind so much history and mystery that archaeologist both old and new hunger to discover. Its collapse left the world asking questions of what really happened. The division of periods indicated that the Mayans were able to adapt to new life and continuous changes, and have lived for long periods of time. They were capable of many things, their mathematic skills especially made them known for predicting the end of the world. The Mayans were religious people but also hunters and gatherers, farmers, and skillful individuals. The Mayan peoples never disappeared, neither at the time of the Classic period decline nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures.
Bennett, J. A. (2012, October 14). Maya Post classic Period and Historic Maya of Belize:
Current Research and Key Issues. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from Mayan Magick
Haug, G. H., Gunther, D., Peterson, L.C, Sigman, D. M., Hughen, K.A., Aeschlimann, B. (2003).
Climate and the collapses of the Mayan Civilization. Science, Vol. 299 no. 5613 pp.
1731-1735 DOI: 10.1126/science.1080444.
Rathje, W.L. (1971). The Origin and Development of Lowland Classic Maya Civilization.
American Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), pp. 275-285.
Sanders, W.T., Prices, B.J. (1987). Mesoamerica: the evolution of a civilization. Journal to
Archaeologist Findings, 33, 888-897. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.56.6.893
Guy, G. (2007, August). The Maya: Glory and ruin. Retrieved from Website: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/08/maya-rise-fall/gugliotta-text/1
References: Bennett, J. A. (2012, October 14). Maya Post classic Period and Historic Maya of Belize: Current Research and Key Issues Climate and the collapses of the Mayan Civilization. Science, Vol. 299 no. 5613 pp. 1731-1735 DOI: 10.1126/science.1080444. Rathje, W.L. (1971). The Origin and Development of Lowland Classic Maya Civilization. American Antiquity, Vol Sanders, W.T., Prices, B.J. (1987). Mesoamerica: the evolution of a civilization. Journal to Archaeologist Findings, 33, 888-897 Guy, G. (2007, August). The Maya: Glory and ruin. Retrieved from