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The Mayas

The Maya {maay’-uh} was considered to be one of the greatest ancient Native American civilizations in the Americas, and possibly the world. Archeologists who dug up and studied many of the civilization sites trace the Mayas back tens of thousands of years. Their ancestors migrated from Asia across the Bering Sea and Alaska to the Americas and the Yucatan peninsula during the last ice age (Prentice 448). Early Mayan settlements date back to 2400 BC. They built massive stone pyramids and temples to honor their gods and preserve their religion. They also accomplished complex achievements in mathematics and astronomy, which were recorded in hieroglyphs. 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. The Mayas dominated the land until their mysterious decline and the European conquests.

Most Mayas lived mainly on the Yucatan peninsula in what is now Mexico (Knopf 12). Some lived in southern Mexico, which is presently the states of Chipas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Other Mayas lived in Central America in the countries of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Mayas were divided into three main classes; the nobles-who wore elaborate clothes and jewelry. Their Daily life was envied, respected, and portrayed in many murals on temple walls. The Middle Class-which consisted mainly of scribes, potters and entertainers. And the Lower Class-which was made up of laborers and farmers (Whitlock 69,85). The occupation of a person was believed to be passed down from generation to generation. It was extremely rare for a person to change social classes. Entire Maya families lived together and everyone helped with the work. Men provided food and women provided clothing for the family. Maize (a type of corn) was the main crop the civilization grew (Whitlock 4). The Maya women prepared corn in a variety of ways. They could make tortillas or alcohol. Along with maize, Maya farmers raised beans, squash, avocados, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, pineapples, papayas and many other crops. It is known that the Mayas enjoyed chocolate (Benson 62). They had it in many forms from a frothy drink to a pulpy mush. The Mayas referred to chocolate as “The Drink of the Gods.” They had other food such as cornmeal, black beans, roasted meat, rabbit stew, turkey and other meats. Many people chewed of the leaves of the sapodilla tree as a gum-like substance. The Mayan culture had many arts, such as dance, music and clothing (Galenkamp 128). They had more than 5,000 dances and adored music. Dancing was a huge part of religious ceremonies. Musicians played wooden flutes and trumpets made of wood, seashells, or clay, the drums were made from turtle shells. For clothing the men would have worn an ex (pronounced eh-sh) which is a loincloth (Galenkemp 130). The women would wear loose sack-like dresses. The clothes of the nobles and priests were made up of finer materials and had many shells and beads on them. In ceremonies they would wear beautiful headdresses for religious purposes. As for beauty, the Mayans had a sense of beauty that would be seen as hideous in our present society. They practiced skull deformation by tying boards to the forehead of newborn children (Galenkamp 126). They had also filed their teeth down to a point and then placed jade into the holes. The ancient Chinese also deformed their bodies by foot-binding. Many Mayas traded their possessions for many things such as gold, copper, jade, cotton, salt, feathers, and cacao. These are all examples of art to a Maya. Religeon was the most important aspect of Mayan life. The Maya culture worshiped many gods and goddesses. Each God or goddess influenced some part of Maya life. Each city-state had a center of pyramids and other structures for the performance of religious ceremonies and government activities (Prentice 448). 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. 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 their food. All of this contributed to the pride of the city-state and it s people (Benson 156). The important discoveries, predictions, and advancements of the Maya were very important, but the most fascinating aspect of the Maya doesn t 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 didn t argue. Mayans believed that there were two levels of the world. The first level was the physical world and the second was the spiritual world, which consisted of the dead ancestors, gods, and other supernatural creatures. The Mayan kings and spiritual leaders would tell the lower levels of the society what would please the gods. The gods were modeled after animals for sacrificial purposes and religious ceremonies. 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 (Benson 47). The game was similar to today s version of soccer, but players would use only their stomachs, knees, elbows, feet and anything else except the hands to control the ball. They wore special padding to protect themselves from the hard rubber ball. The losing team would be sacrificed to the gods while the winning team would be spared. 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 of suicide. Many buildings and temples in the Yucatan peninsula were decorated with the face of Chac, the rain god (Benson 113). Chac was a very important god in a dry, agriculture-influenced society. Like other ancient farming peoples, the early Maya worshipped many agricultural gods, such as the rain god, and later, the corn god. Eventually they developed the belief that gods controlled events of each day, month, and year, therefor they had to make offerings to win the gods favor. An illustration of Chac can be recognized by his elephant tusk nose. Many other gods were worshiped, but there were too many of them to be identified by today s archeologists. There were many other interesting facts about the people. During droughts, the Mayans would eat their pets to survive, they were the first people in the New World to keep historical records, and had a law that stated that Mayan men would have to marry by the time that they were 20. The women would also had to be wed at a young age, usually around 16 (Galenkamp 129). There are many wonderful facts about the Maya culture because of the time that they were around was quite long.

The history of the Maya is divided into three major time periods: preclassic (2000 BC AD 300), classic (AD 300 AD 900), and postclassic (AD 900 AD 1500 s). (Benson 27,31)

The Pre-classic period is the span of time in which the foundation of the more advanced Mayan civilization was formed. The people went through huge developments in society to built up strength. Early Mayans were farmers and helped the community in working the fields. They first used sticks to punch holes in the ground, but later, assumed more advanced farming techniques. 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, people 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 (Galenkemp 130). In this 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 large cities started to appear. The early Mayan economy was based on agriculture and the exchange of farm goods. The maize was a stable food of many Indians in Central America for centuries. In the humid areas, a surplus of water and rapid growth of trees and vines encouraged the slash-and-burn farming method. A Mayan farmer cleared the fields by cutting bushes and girdling the trees, usually near the end of the rainy season, allowing the piled brush to dry under the hot sun of the dry season and catch fire. The ashes were then scattered among the stumps of the trees, 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 a year were free from farm labor. Using the time off from farming, the Mayans built magnificent cities and temples to honor their 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 (Stuart 22). 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), (Stuart 97) 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 300 to AD 900). Over one hundred cities existed during this time, and some of the most advanced included: Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Kabah, Old Chichen, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, and Coba (Meyer 53-57). A Mayan City ruler would be succeeded by his younger brother or son. This led generations of a single family to rule for hundreds of years. The Mayans had constant cultural and commercial contact from other tribes such as the Aztecs. They were with the central and coastal Mexican civilization that had influenced them and influenced other cultures (Harrison). Each Maya City governed it’s surrounding area and some large cities each controlled one or more smaller cities. 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 Mayas favorite way to express their pride and religious devotion was to build the temples, pyramids, and buildings that would form large cities. One temple, The Pyramid of the Sun, was larger than any pyramid in Egypt. The Mayan workers who constructed these dwellings often decorated the walls with many pictures and symbols that would tell anything from a person s 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 200 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 development of their educational methods. The Mayans recorded their history in hieroglyphics, a writing system that used pictures, certain symbols, and pictographs. Their extensive written language was both phonetic as well as ideographic. One of only five independently created writing systems in human history. Maya words were in hieroglyphs, each picture with its own meaning (Whitlock 113). Unlike other ancient Central American civilizations, the Maya could write whole words, sentences, and even stories. Arranging several pictures together in a logical form would create the story. Archeologists today are still trying to decode the many hieroglyphics found on religious temples, stairs, and the walls of homes and palaces. The Maya covered all their cities and buildings with hieroglyphs carved into the stone. Most of the Maya could read some hieroglyphs, but the priests and nobles were the only people who actually had knowledge of the entire language. The Maya would use quills made of turkey feathers to write in books made of soft bark taken from a type of fig tree. 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. In 1880, a brilliant German scholar cracked the code of the Mayan calendar. This made it possible for scholars and explorers to translate the Mayan writing. 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. They believed that the Sun, Moon, and other planets, had been journeys of the gods. The Mayan priests studied the measurement of time. The Maya had a calendar with 18 months each containing 20 days, plus 5 unlucky days that made up the year (Galenkemp 75). They also had a religious calendar that had 260 days in it. Each day was given a name and a number. They believed that each day was a god that carried the weight of the day on its back. 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 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 beings. Part of the Maya s decline was in part to warring city-states and families. After the classic period (AD 300 AD 900) 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 900 AD 1500 s). (Gallencamp) 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 (Gallencamp 7). The Mayan culture survived though, and soon the Toltec were absorbed in Mayan civilization. In AD 1519, Hernando Cortez came to present day Mexico and took over the Maya (Meyer 20). 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 1542, 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.

The Mayas central philosophy was a belief of time going cycles and the fear of the day the world would come to an end. The Mayans believed there had been four ages prior to our own. The Mayan believed that the sun, which they nourished with sacrifices, would one day no longer send its life force, therefore bringing an end to the fifth and last age of man (Cotterell). Mayans counted days by two calendars. The first calendar was called tzolkin and it had 260 days. The second calendar was called Haab and it had 365 days (Cotterell). That meant that the Mayans had two names for every day. Therefore, the same name combination would not recur for 52 years. Each 52 year time period was known as a century to the Mayan (Cotterell). Whenever a Mayan century came to an end the Mayan people would leave the cities and go up into the surrounding hills and watch the stars. The Mayas would look up into the sky and watch out for the Pleiades star group. “The sign they were looking for was the Pleiades star-group, symbolizing for them the heavens for them a cosmic snake’s rattle, crossing the southern meridian at midnight”. The Mayas believed the head of the serpent was the sun and that the sun was the source of all life on earth. The Mayan holy number was 1,366,560; known as the birth of Venus, which began in August 13, 3114 BC and was the basis of their calendar (Cotterell). The Mayan calendar was divided into uinals of 20 days, tuns of 360 days, longer periods of 7,200 days were called katun and 144,000 days were called baktun. The number 13 was significantly important to the Mayan because they believed that after 13 baktuns the world would come to an end. In our own date the Mayan prophecy points out to December 22, 2012 (Cotterell). In the 1886 Maurice Cotterell made a theory about the Mayas concerning astrology and sun cycles. He suspected that the sun’s magnetic field had an effect on life on earth. The sun has a complicated field that loops and twist itself into knots. It is believed by scientists that these loops give rise to sunspots. The size, number, and location of sunspots are continually changing. Maurice Corttell believed that sunspots have an effect on the earth’s magnetosphere (Cotterell). Maurice Corttell devised a program that would calculate the relationship between the earth and the sun’s magnetic field. He predicted that the sunspot cycle took about eleven and half years. He also found evidence for longer cycles including a period of 1,366,040 days (Cotterell). He therefore, proposed that the Mayan Holy number was some how related. Corttell had evidence that the Mayan Calendar was based on knowledge of the effects of sunspots. He believed that this was the cause for the obsession the Mayas had for long cycles of time and for their belief of the rise and downfall of four previous ages of man. Maurice Corttell, while in Mexico got to together with another Maya expert, Adrian Gilbert, and decided to work together on the Mayan philosophy and in figuring out some of hidden messages and codes of the Mayas. Adrian Gilbert, discovered some curious similarities between the Mayas and the Egyptians, even though they were separated by a thousand years (Cotterell). The Mayas were interested in the Pleiades star cluster while the Egyptians were more interested with the movements of Hyades, Orion, and Sirius (Cotterell). Since the Mayas believed that there had been four ages prior to our own, therefore Gilbert believed that one of the four ages of man prior to our own was Atlantis. Gilbert began to investigate the prophecies relating to this lost civilization. Adrian Gilbert believes that the origin and the survivors of the Mayas and Egyptians came from Atlantis (Cotterell). He believes that after the downfall of this fabled city the people separated and some went to Egypt and the others to Central America (Cotterell).

Descendants of the Maya still form a large part of the population of Yucatan. Although many have acquired Spanish ways, a significant number of modern Maya maintain ancient ethnic customs. The Mayan culture still exist today, which has spanned over two thousand years. The people today are holding their ancient traditions sacred and want try preserve them. These descendents still continue to build homes with wattle-and-daub walls in an oval shape with a thatched roof of palmetto fronds, and live in these huts today. 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 16th century (Benson).

The Maya were an incredible civilization. Nobody knows exactly why the empire had fallen. Maybe it was when the peasants got sick of the priests telling them what to do and had abandoned villages, causing the collapse. There could have been many other reasons such as plague, natural disasters, soil exhaustion and other agricultural problems, internal warfare, foreign invasions or the rebelling of peasants. Whatever factors led to the collapse, their net result was a weakening of Maya social, economic, and political systems to the point where they could no longer support large populations. The Mayan people had accomplished many things that few other ancient civilizations have accomplished, including their ability to write, have a good comprehension of astronomy, and still survive the changing world for many years.

Works Cited :

Benson, Elizabeth. The Maya World. New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1967.

Cotterell, Maurice and Adrian Gilbert. The Mayan Prophecies. 1995.

Galencamp, Charles. The Riddle and Discovery of a Lost Civilization. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985.

Harrison, John. History of Latin America. The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Cd- Rom. Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc., 1995.

Knopf, Alfred. The Route of the Mayas. Paris: Alfred Knopf Inc., 1995.

Meyer, Carolyn and Charles Galenkamp. The Mystery of the Ancient Maya. New York: Margaret McElderry Boks, 1985.

New Standard Encyclopedia, volume 11, Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 1994.

Prentice Hall. World cultures. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1993.

Sherman, William and Michael Meyer. The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Stuart, George and Gene Stuart, The Mysterious Maya. National Geographic Society, 1977.

The Mayas. Web site.

Time-Life Books. The Magnificent Maya. New Jersey: Time Warner Inc., 1993.

Whitlock, Ralph. Everyday Life of The Maya. New York: G. P. Putnam s Sons, 1976.

Whitlock, Ralph. Everyday life of the Maya. Dorset Press, 1987.


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