Maya Civilization

Maya Civilization, an ancient Native American culture that represented one of the most advanced civilizations in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans ( "see "Native Americans of Middle and South America). The people known as the Maya lived in the region that is now eastern and southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and western Honduras. They thrived for more than 2,000 years. The Maya built massive stone pyramids, temples, and sculpture; developed a system of writing using hieroglyphs; and recorded their achievements in mathematics and astronomy. Archaeologists long believed that Maya culture reached its highest development from about ad 300 to 900, during what is known as the Classic period. Recent discoveries in northern Guatemala, however, have challenged that assumption. There, archaeologists have found highly developed cities, sophisticated art, and examples of Maya writing that date from as early as 600 years before the Classic period began.

After 900 the Maya mysteriously declined

After 900 the Maya mysteriously declined in the southern lowlands of Guatemala. They later revived in the north on the Yucatn Peninsula and continued to dominate the area until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Descendants of the Maya still form a large part of the population of the region. Although many have adopted Spanish ways, a significant number of modern Maya maintain traditional cultural practices.

Preclassic Period

Many aspects of Maya civilization developed

Many aspects of Maya civilization developed slowly through a long Preclassic period, from about 2000 bc to ad 300. By the beginning of that period, Mayan-speaking Native Americans were settled in three adjacent regions of eastern and southern Mexico and Central America: the dry, limestone country along the north coast of Mexico`s Yucatn Peninsula; the inland tropical jungle in the Peten region of northern Guatemala; and an area of volcanic highlands and mountain peaks in southern Guatemala near the Pacific Ocean.

The earliest Maya were farmers who lived

The earliest Maya were farmers who lived in small, scattered villages of pole and thatch houses. They cultivated their fields as a community, planting seeds in holes made with a pointed wood stick. Later in the Preclassic period, they adopted intensive farming techniques such as continuous cultivation involving crop rotation and fertilizers, household gardens, and terraces. In some areas, they built raised fields in seasonal swamps. Their main crops included maize (corn), beans, squash, avocados, chili peppers, pineapples, papayas, and cacao, which was made into a chocolate drink with water and hot chilies. The women ground corn on specially shaped grinding stones and mixed the ground meal with water to make a drink known as "atole" or to cook as tortillas (flat cakes) on flat pottery griddles. The Maya also drank "balche" made from fermented honey mixed with the bark of the balche tree. Rabbits, deer, and turkeys were hunted for making stews. Fishing also supplied part of their diet. Turkeys, ducks, and dogs were kept as domesticated animals.

When they were not hunting

When they were not hunting, fishing, or in the fields, Maya men made stone tools, clay figurines, jade carvings, ropes, baskets, and mats. The women made painted pottery vessels out of coiled strands of clay, and they wove ponchos, men`s loincloths, and women`s skirts, out of fibers made from cotton or from the leaves of the maguey plant. They also used the bark of the wild fig tree to make paper, which they used primarily for ceremonial purposes. Since the Maya had neither draft animals nor wheeled vehicles, they carried goods for trade over the narrow trails with "tumplines" (backpacks supported by a strap slung across the forehead or chest) or transported them in dugout canoes along the coasts and rivers.

The early Maya probably organized themselves

The early Maya probably organized themselves into kin-based settlements headed by chiefs. The chiefs were hereditary rulers who commanded a following through their political skills and their ability to communicate with supernatural powers. Along with their families, they composed an elite segment of society, enjoying the privileges of high social rank. However, these elites did not yet constitute a social class of nobles as they would in the Classic period. A council of chiefs or elders governed a group of several settlements located near one another. The council combined both political and religious functions.

Like other ancient farming peoples

Like other ancient farming peoples, the early Maya worshiped agricultural gods, such as the rain god and, later, the corn god. Eventually they developed the belief that gods controlled events in each day, month, and year, and that they had to make offerings to win the gods` favor. Maya astronomers observed the movements of the sun, moon, and planets, made astronomical calculations, and devised almanacs (calendars combined with astronomical observations). The astronomers` observations were used to divine auspicious moments for many different kinds of activity, from farming to warfare.

The Maya did not remain an entirely agricultural

The Maya did not remain an entirely agricultural people living in villages during the pre-Classic period. Rulers and nobles directed the commoners in building major settlements, such as Kaminaljuy, in the southern highlands, and Tikal, in the central lowlands of the Peten jungle. Pyramid-shaped mounds of rubble topped with altars or thatched temples sat in the center of these settlements, and priests performed sacrifices to the gods on them. As the Preclassic period progressed, the Maya increasingly used stone in building. Both nobles and commoners lived in extended family compounds.

During the Preclassic period the basic

During the Preclassic period the basic patterns of ancient Maya life were established. However, the period was not simply a rehearsal for the Classic period but a time of spectacular achievements. For example, enormous pyramids were constructed at the site of El Mirador, in the lowlands of Guatemala. These pyramids are among the largest constructions in the ancient Maya world. By about 500 bc El Mirador was a major population center that served as the seat of a powerful chiefdom. Pyramids also were built on large plazas at Cival, a royal metropolis near Tikal in Guatemala. Cival probably had 10,000 inhabitants.

The highland and the lowland regions were

The highland and the lowland regions were in close contact at this time. Obsidian, a smooth volcanic rock used to make weapons and tools, from highland Guatemala has been found at El Mirador, and a sculptural style that originated in the Pacific lowland region of Chiapas and Guatemala was common in the southern highlands. Kaminaljuy was the most powerful chiefdom of the highlands, and it probably controlled the flow of obsidian to the lowlands. Control of this important resource allowed Kaminaljuy to dominate trade networks. Economic and political institutions during this period were more advanced in the southern highland area.

Classic Period

Classic Maya civilization became more complex

Classic Maya civilization became more complex in about ad 300 as the population increased and centers in the highlands and the lowlands engaged in both cooperation and competition with each other. Trade and warfare were important stimuli to cultural growth and development. The greatest developments occurred in the Peten jungle and surrounding regions of the lowlands where major city-states, such as Tikal, Palenque, Piedras Negras, and Copn, arose and developed from ad 300 to 900.

Society became more complex

Society became more complex, with distinct social classes developing. Families of nobles formed a hereditary ruling class that stood apart from the common Maya. At the top of society, a hereditary king ruled over each Maya city. Kings were similar to the earlier ruling chiefs except that they formed a distinct social class along with other nobles. Under the direction of their kings, who also performed as priests, the centers of the lowland Maya became densely populated jungle cities with vast stone and masonry temple and palace complexes. The core area of Tikal, for example, covered about 9 sq km (about 3 sq mi) and included about 2,700 structures with an estimated population of 11,300. The total area of Tikal, including the core, peripheral, and rural areas, is estimated at 314 sq km (121 sq mi) with an estimated population of 92,000.

During the Classic period

During the Classic period, warfare was conducted on a fairly limited, primarily ceremonial scale. Maya rulers, who were often depicted on "stelae" (carved stone monuments) carrying weapons, attempted to capture and sacrifice one another for ritual and political purposes. The rulers often destroyed parts of some cities, but the destruction was directed mostly at temples in the ceremonial precincts; it had little or no impact on the economy or population of a city as a whole. Some city-states did occasionally conquer others, but this was not a common occurrence until very late in the Classic period when lowland civilization had begun to disintegrate. Until that time, the most common pattern of Maya warfare seems to have consisted of raids employing rapid attacks and retreats by relatively small numbers of warriors, most of whom were probably nobles.

Lowland Maya centers were true cities with

Lowland Maya centers were true cities with large resident populations of commoners who sustained the ruling elites through payments of tribute in goods and labor. They built temples, palaces, courtyards, water reservoirs, and causeways. Walls, floors, and other surfaces in a lowland Maya city were smoothly covered with red or cream-colored limestone stucco, which shone brilliantly in the tropical sun. Sculptors carved stelae, which recorded information about the rulers, their family and political histories, and often included exaggerated statements about their conquests of other city-states.

Society and Economy

Classic Maya kings carried the title "k`ul

Classic Maya kings carried the title "k`ul ahau" (supreme and sacred ruler). In the latter part of the Classic period, kings were assisted in governing by a hereditary ruling council. The power of the king existed as both a political and religious authority in this period. In contrast, the king`s religious power declined during the Postclassic period (ad 900 to 1521) because the institution of priesthood appeared.

Merchants were important to Maya society

Merchants were important to Maya society because of the significance of trade. Principal interior trade routes connected all the great Classic lowland centers and controlled the flow of goods such as salt, obsidian, jade, cacao, animal pelts, tropical bird feathers, and luxury ceramics. In the early Classic period Teotihuacn in central Mexico emerged as the greatest city in Mesoamerica, an area that included modern Mexico and most of Central America. The religious and political power of Teotihuacn radiated throughout Mesoamerica. One result of Teotihuacn`s influence was a highly integrated network of trade in which the Maya participated.

Highland Maya from the southern region

Highland Maya from the southern region carried 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. Those from the lowlands brought jaguar pelts, chert (flint), salt, cotton fibers and cloth, balche, wax, honey, dried fish, and smoked venison. People either bartered goods directly or exchanged them for cacao beans, which were used as a kind of currency. Wealth acquired from trade enabled the upper classes to live in luxury, although there was little improvement in the lives of the lower classes.

A Maya nobleman wore an embroidered cotton

A Maya nobleman wore an embroidered cotton loincloth trimmed with feathers; a robe of cotton, jaguar skin, or feathers; sandals; and an elaborate feather headdress that was sometimes as large as himself. His head had been fashionably elongated by being pressed between boards when he was a few days old, and his eyes had purposely been crossed in childhood by having objects dangled before them. His nose was built up with putty to give it an admired beak shape, and his ears and teeth were inlaid with jade. A noblewoman wore a loose white cotton robe that was often embroidered. Her head was also elongated, and she filed her teeth to points.

Nobles lived in houses of cut stone with

Nobles lived in houses of cut stone with plastered walls that often bore brightly painted murals. In the living room nobles gave banquets of turkey, deer, duck, chocolate, and balche. The guests were expected to bring gifts and to give a banquet in return. A dead noble was buried in a stone vault with jade and pottery ornaments, and occasionally with human sacrifices, which were provided to serve him in the afterlife.

Most of the Maya people were village farmers

Most of the Maya people were village farmers who gave two-thirds of their produce and much of their labor to the upper classes. Commoner men wore plain cotton loincloths and simple tunics. Women wore woven cotton blouses and skirts or loose-fitting sack dresses with simple embroidered patterns. Women and girls wore their hair long and took care that it was always combed and arranged attractively. Different hairstyles signaled the marital status of women. Both men and women tattooed their bodies with elaborate designs.

At the bottom of Maya society were slaves

At the bottom of Maya society were slaves who were convicted criminals, poor commoners who sold themselves into bondage, captives of war, or individuals acquired by trade. Slaves performed menial tasks for their owners and they were often sacrificed when their owners died so that they could continue to serve in the afterlife.

Maya Civilization 1 | Maya Civilization 2 | Maya Civilization 3 |

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