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Mayan Civilization

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Throughout history, there have been many indigenous tribes. However, one of the most known tribes has been the Mayans. The Mayans were once one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica. They are a remarkable group that sparks many people’s curiosity. They have an interesting culture and mysterious historical background. Their historical background is best characterized as cycles of rise and fall. A lot of achievements were made and city-states rose in prominence, but fell into decline and replaced by others.

Originating in the Yucatan Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala, they covered Belize, parts of Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. The topography of the areas varied from volcanic mountains, which consisted of the highlands in the South, to a porous limestone shelf, known as the lowlands, in the Central and Northern regions. The lowlands produced crops which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle cultigens being maize. The volcanic highland was the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like the cinnabar and hematite that they used to develop a lively trade.[1]

Culture was a very important aspect of Mayan life. Building on the ideas of earlier civilizations, such as the Olmec, they developed astronomy, calendrical systems, and hieroglyphic writing. Their favorite way to express their pride and religious devotion was to build many temples, pyramids, and building that would all form large cities. 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. [2]

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. And although the cosmological beliefs of the Maya are not fully known, from what could be told, religion was the driving force of the Maya. With their polytheistic view, they based their lives, their buildings, and their whole existence on pleasing the gods. To them, science and religion were one in the same. Many men were sacrificed just to please the gods. Many kings gave their own blood because they believed it would help the crop harvest.

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. It is known that the Maya believed that the cosmos had three major planes, the Earth, the underworld beneath and the heavens above. Their view of the afterlife consisted primarily of a dangerous voyage of the soul through the underworld, which was populated by sinister gods and represented the jaguar, symbol of right. Majority of the Mayans (including rulers) went there. Heaven was preserved for those who had been sacrificed or died during childbirth. [3]

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, untouchable beings. Part of the Maya’s decline was in part to warring city-states and families. Each city-state had a center of pyramids and other structures for the performance of religious ceremonies and government activities. Basically, there were three main classes. At the top was the royalty who lived in the palaces. Next, was the wealthy class who lived in large houses near the palaces. Lastly, was the poor class who lived in the outskirts of town in huts. The social pyramid consisted of Priests – Nobles Wealthy – Commoners and Low Level Officers – Slaves and Servants. All of this contributed to the pride of the city-state and its people. And relating to the ruling class is the Mayan social structure. [4]

The history of the Maya is divided into three major time periods: pre-classic (two thousand BC – AD three hundred), classic (AD three hundred – AD nine hundred), and post-classic (AD nine hundred – AD fifteen hundred). In the pre-classic 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 cities started to appear. The early Mayan economy was based on agriculture and the exchange of farm goods. It is estimated that as many as one hundred and fifty days out of the year were free from farm labor. Using the time off from farming, the Mayans built magnificent cities and temples to honor their many gods. 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), 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 three hundred to AD nine hundred). Over one hundred cities existed during this time, and some of the most advanced included: Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, Old Chichen, and Coba. All of these cities served as cultural, religious, and spiritual centers for the Mayan people and rulers. 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 hundred feet 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 Mayans learning and their educational advances. The Mayans recorded their history in hieroglyphics, a writing system that used pictures and certain symbols.

Archaeologists today are still trying to decode the many hieroglyphics found on religious temples, stairs, and the walls of homes and palaces. 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. 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 (in the Mayans time) 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. After the classic period (AD three hundred – AD nine hundred) 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 nine hundred – AD fifteen hundred). 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. The Mayan culture survived though, and soon the Toltec were absorbed in Mayan civilization. In AD fifteen nineteen, Hernando Cortez came to present day Mexico and took over the Maya. 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 fifteen-forty two, 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.[5]

Because of this mysterious disappearance, many would seem to believe the Mayans themselves disappeared for good. But over six million Mayan people live in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico today. The Maya hold on to some of their old beliefs but have also modernized in their attitude and practices. Their modern life is somewhat difficult in that there are many rebels and a government that they are caught between and see the worst of. The Maya culture and lives are at jeopardy every day but they continue to exist. Most Mayans today speak Spanish but back when their empire was at its peak they spoke Yucatecan and Cholan. These two have since developed into about thirty different languages and are heard throughout different communities today. Spanish is now considered the main language, however, and is used in their religion and government. As far as religion goes the Maya continue to partake in activities as the old Maya did. This has been combined, however, with some Catholicism. They continue to participate in rituals just as they did previously in the beginning of the Maya culture but their old gods have been replaced with santos. The rituals include sacrificing and drinking a certain type of alcoholic drink. The Maya are on a 260 day ritual calendar which is kept by a shaman, or day keeper.

Healings of the sick and cursed also occur in these modern civilizations. These ancient ways of the Maya take place is caves and places of the sort. The Maya culture can be easily identified by their dress and can be further broken down into different communities also by their dress. Overall women usually wear certain patterns or colors depending on what community they originate from. Their blouses, called huipiles, are loose and hand-woven. They wear these to this day but may also be found wearing a more modern western style blouse. Men usually do not dress in traditional Mayan clothes because they could bring attention upon themselves and possibly be harmed. Women are famous for their weavings in Mayan communities.

Men run the communities which includes taking on all financial responsibilities for their entire community. As far as holidays go the Maya celebrate mostly the basic Christian holidays. Christmas is one of the main ones along with a week of celebration referred to as “Holy Week” which is the week prior to Easter. Other interesting facts about the Maya include their new practices. Soccer is now a common sport among these people and they love to play. They can be found listening to a mariachi band on a Sunday at a park. Schooling among the Maya is usually in public or Catholic schools. Mayans who wish to further their education will attend boarding schools. The Maya are a very interesting group of people but are beginning to lose touch with their history and ancient ways of life.[6]

So while even today the disappearance of the Mayans from Tikal stands as a great mystery, it should be no mystery on whether or not the whole Mayan civilization still exists or not. To say that they disappeared is not only an inaccuracy, but a great disservice to the Maya today. And while they may not go on in the way they had once before, they still exist.

“Maya History and Religion (Civilization of American Indian) [Hardcover].” Maya History and Religion (Civilization of American Indian): J. Eric Thompson: 9780806108841: Amazon.com: Books. .

“A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya [Paperback].” A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya: David Freidel, Linda Schele: 9780688112042: Amazon.com: Books. .

“Mayan Geography.” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation. .

“Geography.” Geography. .

“TimeMaps.” The TimeMap of World History. .

“Caribbeanedu.com | Caribbean Odyssey.” Caribbeanedu.com | Caribbean Odyssey. .

“Mayan Religion.” – ReligionFacts. .

“Politics of the Ancient Maya.” About.com Latin American History. .

“Maya Social Structure.” Tarlton Law Library. Web. .

“Mayan History.” Mayan History. .

“The Maya Today.” The Maya Today. .

[1] “Mayan Geography.” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation. .

[2] “Caribbeanedu.com | Caribbean Odyssey.” Caribbeanedu.com | Caribbean Odyssey. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. . [3] “Mayan Religion.” – ReligionFacts. .

[4] “Politics of the Ancient Maya.” About.com Latin American History. Web. : “Maya Social Structure.” Tarlton Law Library. Web. .

[5] “Mayan History.” Mayan History. . [6] “The Maya Today.” The Maya Today. .

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.” –Rigoberta Mench’u Tum, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

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