The Maya: History, Culture & Religion

Mayans Civilization, dresden-codex 

The Maya ask both a modern-day people that are often found everywhere the planet also as their ancestors who built an ancient civilization that stretched throughout much of Central America, one that reached its peak during the primary millennium A.D. 

The Maya civilization was never unified; rather, it consisted of various small states, ruled by kings, each apparently centered on a city. Sometimes, a stronger Maya state would dominate a weaker state and be ready to exact tribute and labor from it.

Mayan calendar

A system of writing using glyptic symbols was developed and was inscribed on buildings, stele, artifacts and books (also called codices). 

The Maya calendar system was complicated. "By some 1,700 years ago speakers of proto-Ch'olan, the ancestor for 3 Maya languages still in use, had developed a calendar of 18 20-day months plus a group of 5 days," wrote Weldon Lamb, a researcher at New Mexico State University, in his book "The Maya Calendar: A Book of Months" (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). 

This calendar system also included what scholars call a "long-count" that kept track of your time by using different units that home in length from one day to many years (the unit in millions was rarely used). 

Contrary to popular belief, this technique didn't predict the top of the planet in 2012, the unit in many years providing evidence of this.

Also, contrary to popular belief, the Maya civilization never vanished. While many cities were abandoned around 1,100 years ago, other cities, like Chichén Itzá, grew in their place.

When the Spanish arrived in Central America effective within the 16th century, the diseases they brought devastated the Maya. Additionally, the Spanish forced the Maya to convert to Christianity, going thus far on burn their books (the reason why so few of them survive today). However, it's important to notice that the Maya people survive today and may be found everywhere the planet .

"Millions of Maya people sleep in Central America and throughout the planet . The Maya aren't one entity, one community, or one ethnos . They speak many languages including Mayan languages (Yucatec, Quiche, Kekchi and Mopan), Spanish and English. However, the Maya are an indigenous group tied both to their distant past also on events of the last several hundred years," wrote Richard Leventhal, Carlos Chan Espinosa and Cristina Coc within the April 2012 edition of Expedition magazine.

Maya origins

While hunters and gatherers had a presence in Central America stretching back thousands of years, it had been in what archaeologists call the Pre-classic period (1800 B.C. to A.D. 250) that permanent village life really took off, resulting in the creation of early Maya cities. 

"Really effective farming, within the sense that densely inhabited villages were to be found throughout the Maya area, was an innovation of the Pre-classic period," wrote Yale University Professor Michael Coe in his book "The Maya" (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Coe said farming became simpler during this era , likely due to the breeding of more productive sorts of maize and, perhaps more importantly, the introduction of the "nixtamal" process. during this process, the maize is soaked in lime, or something similar, and cooked, something that "enormously increased the nutritional value of corn," writes Coe. Maize complemented squash, bean, chili pepper and manioc (or cassava), which were already getting used by the Maya, a 2014 Journal of Archaeological Science study shows. 

During this point , the Maya were influenced by a civilization to the west of them referred to as the Olmecs. These people may have initially devised the long count calendar that the Maya would become famous for, Coe writes. Additionally, the invention of a ceremonial site dated to 1000 B.C. at the location of Ceibal sheds more light on the connection between the Maya and Olmecs, suggesting that it had been a posh one.

Archaeologists have found that early Maya cities might be carefully planned. Nixtun-Ch'ich, in Peten, Guatemala, had pyramids, temples and other structures built employing a grid system, a symbol of urban planning. It flourished between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C. 

Maya civilization at its peak

Coe writes that the traditional Maya reached a peak between A.D. 250 and 900, a time that archaeologists call the "Classic" period when numerous Maya cities flourished throughout much of Central America.

The civilization "reached intellectual and artistic heights which no other within the New World, and few in Europe, could match at the time," Coe writes. "Large populations, a flourishing economy, and widespread trade were typical of the Classic …" he said, noting that warfare was also quite common.

The Maya civilization was influenced by the town of Teotihuacan, located farther to the west. one among their early rulers, named Siyaj K'ak, who may have come from Tikal, ascended the throne on Sept. 13, A.D. 379, consistent with an inscription. he's depicted wearing feathers and shells and holding an atlatl (spear-thrower), features related to Teotihuacan, wrote researcher John Montgomery in his book "Tikal: An Illustrated History of the Mayan Capital" (Hippocrene Books, 2001). A stela recently discovered at El Achiotal, a site near Tikal, also supports the thought that Teotihuacan controlled or heavily influenced Tikal for a time. 

The numerous cities found throughout the Maya world each had their own individual wonders that made them unique. Tikal, as an example , is understood for its pyramid building. Starting a minimum of as early as A.D. 672, the city's rulers would construct a twin pyramid complex at the top of each K'atun (20-year period). Each of those pyramids would be flat-topped, built adjacent to every other and contain a staircase on all sides . Between the pyramids was a plaza that had structures laid bent the north and south.

Copan, a Maya city in modern-day Honduras, is understood for its "Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway." it is a pyramid-like structure that has quite 2,000 glyphs embellished on a flight of 63 steps, the longest ancient Maya inscription known to exist and appears to inform the history of the city's rulers.

The site of Palenque, another famous Maya city, is understood for its soft limestone sculpture and therefore the incredible burial of "Pakal," one among its kings, deep inside a pyramid. When Pakal died at about age 80, he was buried along side five or six human sacrifices during a jade-filled tomb (including a jade funerary mask he wore). His sarcophagus shows the king's rebirth and depictions of his ancestors within the sort of plants. The tomb was re-discovered in 1952 and is "the American equivalent, if there's one, to King Tut's tomb," said archaeologist David Stuart in a web National Geographic lecture.

Not all Maya settlements were controlled by a king or elite member of society. At Ceren, a Maya village in El Salvador that was buried by a eruption 1,400 years ago, archaeologists found that there was no elite class on top of things and therefore the village seems to possess been managed communally, perhaps by local elders. 


Contrary to popular belief the Maya civilization didn't vanish. It's true that a lot of cities, including Tikal, Copan and Palenque, became abandoned around 1,100 years ago. Drought, deforestation, war and global climate change have all been suggested as potential causes of this. Drought may have played a very important role as a recent study on minerals from an underwater subside Belize shows that a drought ravaged parts of Central America between A.D. 800 and 900.

However, it's important to notice that other Maya cities, like Chichén Itzá, grew, a minimum of for a time. In fact, Chichén Itzá has the most important ball court within the Americas, being longer than a modern-day American football field. The court's rings, through which competing teams tried to attain , rose about 20 feet (6 meters) off the bottom , about twice the peak of a modern-day NBA net. the principles for the Maya ball game aren't well understood.

Council Houses, which were gathering places for people during a community, played a crucial role in a number of the Maya towns and cities that flourished after the ninth century. 

As mentioned earlier, the arrival of the Spanish caused a profound change within the Maya world. The diseases they brought decimated the Maya and therefore the Spaniards forced the Maya to convert to Christianity, even burning their books. Today, despite the devastation they experienced, the Maya people survive , numbering within the millions.

Mythical origin

The Maya had a lengthy and sophisticated mythical origin story that's recorded by the K'iche Maya (based in Guatemala) within the Popol Vuh, the "Book of Counsel," wrote Coe in his book. consistent with the stories, the forefather gods Tepew and Q'ukumatz "brought forth the world from a watery void, and endowed it with animals and plants."

Creating sentient beings proved harder , but eventually humans were created, including the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who embark during a series of adventures, including defeating the lords of the underworld. Their journey climaxed with the resurrection of their father, the maize god. "It seems clear that this whole mythic cycle was closely associated with maize fertility," Coe writes.

The Maya universe

The late Robert Sharer, who was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in his book "Daily Life in Maya Civilization" (Greenwood Press, 2009) that the traditional Maya believed that everything "was imbued in several degrees with an unseen power or sacred quality," call k'uh, which meant "divine or sacredness."

"The universe of the traditional Maya was composed of kab, or Earth (the visible domain of the Maya people), kan, or the sky above (the invisible realm of celestial deities), and xibalba, or the watery underworld below (the invisible realm of the underworld deities)," Sharer wrote.

Caves played a special role in Maya religion as they were seen as entranceways to the underworld. "These were especially sacred and dangerous places where the dead were buried and special rituals for the ancestors conducted," wrote Sharer. 

Sharer notes that the Maya followed variety of deities, the foremost central of which was Itzamnaaj. "In his various aspects, Itzamnaaj was the lord over the foremost fundamental opposing forces within the universe — life and death, day and night, sky and earth," Sharer wrote, noting that "as lord of the celestial realm" Itzamnaaj was the Milky Way and will be depicted as a serpent or two-headed reptile.

Other Maya deities included the sun god K'inich Ajaw, the rain and storm god Chaak and therefore the lightning deity K'awiil, among many others. The Maya believed that every person had a "life force," and draining an individual's blood during a temple could provide a number of this vital force to a god. Recently an arrowhead containing the blood of an individual who may have participated during a blood-letting ceremony was identified. 

In times when water was scarce, Maya kings and priests would hold incense scattering ceremonies that they believed could provide wind and rain. A Maya pendant inscribed with 30 hieroglyphs that archaeologists believe would are utilized in these ceremonies was recently discovered in Belize. Hallucinogenic substances could even be wont to help the Maya contact spirits and seek advice on the way to affect problems or situations. 

Maya religion also included stories of dangerous creatures like the ocean monster "Sipak." Fossilized teeth from the extinct shark Carcharodon megalodon were used as sacred offerings at several Maya sites and up to date research suggests that stories involving "Sipak" were inspired by the fossilized remains of this massive extinct shark. 

El Castillo may be a pyramid with 91 steps on each of its four sides.

El Castillo may be a pyramid with 91 steps on each of its four sides. (Image credit: jgorzynik shutterstock)

Human sacrifices

Sharer wrote that human sacrifices were made on special occasions. "Among the Maya, human sacrifice wasn't an everyday event but was essential to sanctify certain rituals, like the inauguration of a replacement ruler, the designation of a replacement heir to the throne, or the dedication of a crucial new temple or ball court." The victims were often prisoners of war, he noted.

At Chichén Itzá, victims would be painted blue, a color that appears to possess honored the god Chaak, and cast into a well. Additionally, near the site's ball court, there's a panel that shows an individual being sacrificed. this might depict a ball-player from either the winning or losing team being killed after a game.

Writing & astronomy

Sharer noted that record keeping was a crucial a part of the Maya world and was essential for agriculture, astronomy and prophecy. "By keeping records of the rainy and dry seasons, the Maya could determine the simplest times to plant and harvest their crops," Sharer wrote.

Additionally, by "recording the movements of the sky deities (sun, moon, planets, and stars), they developed accurate calendars that would be used for prophecy," Sharer wrote.

"With long-term records, the Maya were ready to predict planetary cycles — the phases of the moon and Venus, even eclipses," he said. "This knowledge was wont to determine when these deities would be in favorable positions for a spread of activities like holding ceremonies, inaugurating kings, starting trading expeditions, or conducting wars."

The movements of the earth Venus appear to possess played a very important role in Maya religion. Both the Dresden and Groliercodices contain detailed records of the movements of the earth . the traditional Maya "were probably doing large-scale ritual activity connected to the various phases of Venus," said Gerardo Aldana, a science historian within the department of Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara .

Recent research reveals that a minimum of a number of the writers of Maya codices were a part of "a specific cohort of formality specialists called taaj," wrote a team of researchers during a 2015 American Anthropologist article. The team studied an area containing murals with inscriptions on them at the location of Xultun, Guatemala, and located that the writing of codices happened within the room which the "taaj" wrote them. 

Economy & power

Sharer wrote that while agriculture and food gathering were a central a part of lifestyle , the Maya had a classy economy capable of supporting specialists and a system of merchants and trade routes. While the Maya didn't develop minted currency, they used various objects, at different times, as "money." These included greenstone beads, cacao beans and copper bells.

"Ultimately, the facility of kings trusted their ability to regulate resources," Sharer wrote. "Maya rulers managed the assembly and distribution of status goods wont to enhance their prestige and power. They also controlled some critical (non-local) commodities that included critical everyday resources each family needed, like salt," he said noting that over time Maya rulers managed ever-larger portions of the economy. The Maya rulers didn't rule alone but were served by attendants and advisers who occasionally appear in Maya art. 

Sharer also notes that Maya laborers were subject to a labor tax to create palaces, temples and structure . A ruler successful in war could control more laborers and exact tribute on defeated enemies, further increasing their economic might.

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