Maya Civilization, an ancient Native American culture that represented one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. 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 in the southern lowlands of Guatemala. They later revived in the north on the Yucatán 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.
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 Yucatán Peninsula; the inland tropical jungle in the Petén 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 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, 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 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, 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 people living in villages during the pre-Classic period. Rulers and nobles directed the commoners in building major settlements, such as Kaminaljuyú, in the southern highlands, and Tikal, in the central lowlands of the Petén 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 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 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. Kaminaljuyú 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 Kaminaljuyú to dominate trade networks. Economic and political institutions during this period were more advanced in the southern highland area.
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 Petén jungle and surrounding regions of the lowlands where major city-states, such as Tikal, Palenque, Piedras Negras, and Copán, arose and developed from ad 300 to 900.
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 2700 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, 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 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.
|A||Society and Economy|
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 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 Teotihuacán 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 Teotihuacán radiated throughout Mesoamerica. One result of Teotihuacán’s influence was a highly integrated network of trade in which the Maya participated.
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 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 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 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 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.
The Maya cosmos comprised a wide range of diverse and varied supernatural beings or deities. The chief god, Hunab Ku, the creator of the world, was considered too far above men to figure in worship. He was more important in his manifestation as Itzamna, a sky deity considered lord of the heavens and lord of day and night who brought rain and patronized writing and medicine. He was worshiped especially by the priests, and he appears to have been the patron deity of the royal lineages. Closer to the common people were Yum Kaax, the maize deity, and the four Chacs, or rain gods, each associated with a cardinal direction and with its own special color. Women worshiped Ix Chel, a rainbow deity associated with healing, childbirth, and weaving. All the Maya revered Ixtab, goddess of suicide, and thought that suicides went to a special heaven. The Maya also recognized the gods who controlled each day, month, and year. See also Pre-Columbian Religions.
The Maya performed many rituals and ceremonies to communicate with their deities. At stated intervals, such as the Maya New Year in July, or in emergencies—such as famine, epidemics, or a great drought—the people gathered in ritual plazas to honor the gods. They hung feathered banners in doorways all about the plaza. Groups of men or women in elaborate feathered robes and headdresses, with bells on their hands and feet, danced in the plaza to the music of drums, whistles, rattles, flutes, and wood trumpets. Worshipers took ritual steam baths and drank intoxicating balche. Participants often ingested other hallucinogenic drugs, such as mushrooms, and they smoked a very strong form of tobacco with hallucinogenic effects. Young Maya nobles played a sacred ball game on specially constructed courts. Without using their hands, players tried to knock a rubber ball through one of the vertical stone rings built into the walls of the court. On special occasions players who lost the game would be sacrificed to the gods.
Many ceremonies focused on sacrifices to gain the favor of the gods. The sacrifices took place on the great stone pyramids that rose above the plazas, with stairs leading to a temple and altar on top. The temple, a resting place for the god, was deeply carved or painted with designs and figures and was topped with a carved vertical slab of stone called a roof comb. Some had distinctive corbeled arches, in which each stone extended beyond the one beneath it until the two sides of the arch were joined by a single keystone at the top. Before the altar, smoke rose from copal incense burning in pottery vessels.
Worshipers sometimes gave the gods simple offerings of corn, fruit, game, or blood, which a worshiper obtained by piercing his own lips, tongue, or genitals. For major favors they offered the gods human sacrifice, usually children, slaves, or prisoners of war. A victim was painted blue and then ceremonially killed on top of the pyramid, either by being shot full of arrows or by having his arms and legs held while a priest cut open his chest with a sacrificial flint knife and tore out his heart as an offering. Captured rulers were sometimes ritually sacrificed by decapitating them with an axe.
|C||Science and Writing|
Although Maya builders possessed many practical skills, the most distinctive Maya achievements were in abstract mathematics and astronomy. One of their greatest intellectual achievements was a pair of interlocking calendars, which was used for such purposes as the scheduling of ceremonies. One calendar was based on the sun and contained 365 days. The second was a sacred 260-day almanac used for finding lucky and unlucky days. The designation of any day included the day name and number from both the solar calendar and the sacred almanac. The two calendars can be thought of as two geared wheels that meshed together at one point along the rim, with the glyphs for the days of the sun calendar on one wheel and the glyphs for the days of the sacred almanac on the other. With each new day the wheels were turned by one gear. The name for each day was formed by combining the name for the sun calendar day with the name for the sacred almanac day.
Maya astronomers could make difficult calculations, such as finding the day of the week of a particular calendar date many thousands of years in the past or in the future. They also used the concept of zero, an extremely advanced mathematical concept. Although they had neither decimals nor fractions, they made accurate astronomical measurements by dropping or adding days to their calendar. For example, during 1000 years of observing the revolution of the planet Venus, which is completed in 583.92 days, Maya astronomers calculated the time of the Venusian year as 584 days. The Maya method of reckoning time involved counting forward from a hypothetical fixed point and expressing the date in time periods based on the number 20 and counted in intervals of 1, 20, 360, 7200, and 144,000 days. Such dates appear on carved stone monuments dating to as early as the late Preclassic period, and they are prevalent throughout the lowlands on monuments from the Classic period.
The Maya developed a complex system of hieroglyphic writing to record not only astronomical observations and calendrical calculations, but also historical and genealogical information. Many recent advances have occurred in the decipherment of the Mayan script. These breakthroughs made it possible to conclude that Mayan hieroglyphs were a mixture of glyphs that represent complete words and glyphs that represent sounds, which were combined to form complete words. Scribes carved hieroglyphs on stone stelae, altars, wooden lintels, and roof beams, or painted them on ceramic vessels and in books made of bark paper. Discoveries reported early in 2006 indicate that the Maya were writing more than 2,300 years ago, at least 600 years earlier than previously thought.
|D||Collapse of Classic Civilization|
From about ad 790 to 889, Classic Maya civilization in the lowlands collapsed. Construction of temples and palaces ceased, and monuments were no longer erected. The Maya abandoned the great lowland cities, and population levels declined drastically, especially in the southern and central lowlands. Scholars debate the causes of the collapse, but they are in general agreement that it was a gradual process of disintegration rather than a sudden dramatic event.
A number of factors were almost certainly involved, and the precise causes were different for each city-state in each region of the lowlands. Among the factors that have been suggested are natural disasters, disease, soil exhaustion and other agricultural problems, peasant revolts, internal warfare, and foreign invasions. Whatever factors led to the collapse, their net result was a weakening of lowland Maya social, economic, and political systems to the point where they could no longer support large populations. Another result was the loss of inestimable amounts of knowledge relating to Maya religion and ritual.
After the collapse in the central and southern lowlands, Maya civilization continued and even flourished in the northern lowlands of Yucatán and in the southern highlands of Guatemala. The decline of the older powers in the south led to unprecedented growth in the Yucatán Peninsula and the rise of a number of new cities in that region. Among these were Uxmal, Sayil, and Labna, characterized by a distinctive architectural style known as Puuc, which features elaborate mosaic decoration.
In Postclassic times (ad 900 to 1521) the city-states of Yucatán were ruled by a hereditary halach uinic (also called ahau) who was also the highest religious authority. The halach uinic had very broad powers. He formulated domestic and foreign policy and appointed batabs (lesser lords), who administered the surrounding towns and villages. Local councils made up of clan leaders aided the batabs. Other local Maya officials collected taxes and kept order. Postclassic merchants and professional craftworkers composed a kind of middle class.
A high priest, known as ahaucan, conducted major ceremonies and was in charge of the education of priests and nobles. He was assisted by a hierarchy of priests who took part in ceremonies, kept vigils in the temples, performed healing rituals, taught, and served as oracles for the gods. Although similar features and patterns existed in the Classic political structure, the institution of priesthood appears only in the Postclassic.
At the same time, during the 9th century, a new group of Maya, known as the Putun (or Chontal) Maya, began to arrive in Yucatán from their homeland in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico. The Putuns were warriors and traders without equal in the Maya area. At first they were interested in trade along rivers and overland routes. Eventually they became seafaring people whose merchants plied coastal trade routes around the peninsula and beyond in canoes. These large oceangoing canoes traveled the coast transporting huge loads of heavy and bulky goods much more efficiently than was possible in earlier times. Italian-Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus encountered such a canoe off the Caribbean coast of Honduras on his fourth voyage to the Americas in 1502.
Ports of trade, such as Xicalanco (now in Tabasco, Mexico), served as international meeting places that attracted not only Maya but also traders from highland Mexico to the west and Central America to the south. Wealthy Maya merchants organized expeditions that traveled great distances in fleets of canoes or over well-constructed stone roads and causeways. Along the routes they built warehouses for goods and rest houses for their carriers. The need to protect the trade networks led the Putuns to develop very aggressive military forces.
Ethnically Maya, the Putuns adopted many stylistic influences from central Mexico in their art and architecture. Especially common was the image of the feathered serpent representing the deity known as Quetzalcoatl in Mexico and as Kukulcan to the Maya. One very powerful Putun group, the Itzá, founded their capital at Chichén Itzá.
The Itzá brought their Mexicanized Maya culture to Chichén Itzá in the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. During their rule, Mexican-influenced cultures produced certain changes in the traditional Maya way of life. In the social structure military lords rose in power, and the institution of a formalized priesthood separated from political rulers. This change was echoed in religion, in which the feathered serpent-god Kukulcan dominated all others. The use of human sacrifice in worship became increasingly important. There were also new forms of sacrifice; the Itzá threw victims into a sacred cenote, or natural well, along with offerings of pottery, gold, jade, and other valuables. This cenote, in fact, determined the location of Chichén Itzá and was responsible for the city’s importance as a pilgrimage center.
Chichén Itzá was a very large city with a central area covering about 5 sq km (2 sq mi). Its architecture shows the introduction of columns, wider rooms and doorways, and sloping zones around the base of the buildings. The core area includes numerous temples and ball courts, one of which is the largest known in Mesoamerica. One distinctive structure of the city is a round temple that functioned as an observatory. Statues and motifs of Kukulcan appeared on buildings, staircases, roofs, columns, and doorway lintels. Life-size stone figures supported the altars, and great reclining stone figures, called Chacmools, were sculpted. Warriors depicted in bas-relief columns lack the Classic Maya distortion of head and eyes. Pottery became monochrome, or single-colored, instead of multicolored, as it had been in the Classic era, but it was often carved or incised with intricate designs. Gold, copper, turquoise, and onyx were used in jewelry. Painted books, called codices, were made of bark fiber or deerskin. Trade and commerce, especially maritime exchange, increased.
In about 1221 Mayapán, which became the dominant state in the northern lowlands, conquered Chichén Itzá. Mayapán was smaller than Chichén Itzá but more densely settled. Among its 3500 buildings were houses for nobles and commoners, and it was surrounded by a fortified stone wall 8 km (5 mi) long to protect it against neighboring groups. Structures were packed very tightly in the 4 sq km (1.5 sq mi) area of this walled city. Warlords and merchants continued to gain in importance, and the continual call to arms took up the time of the common people, who spent less and less time on their crafts. Architecture, pottery, and carvings of the period are crude in comparison to those of earlier periods. Finally, in about 1450, a competing lineage defeated the rulers of Mayapán, and the entire peninsula fell into civil war. The following 100 years of warfare left the Maya vulnerable to the invading Spaniards.
The first Spaniards to encounter the Maya were a party of shipwrecked sailors who landed in Yucatán in 1511. Next came the expedition of Francisco Fernández de Córdoba in 1517. In 1527 Francisco de Montejo attempted to conquer Yucatán, and in 1546 his son succeeded. By 1524 Spanish explorer Pedro de Alvarado had conquered the southern highland area, which had also fallen into tribal warfare. Spanish domination of the entire Maya region was achieved in 1697, when the small group of Maya in the central Petén area was conquered by Martin de Ursua, the Spanish governor of the Yucatán. Many Maya were killed or died of European diseases that the Spanish brought with them. The Spanish forced most of the remainder to labor on Spanish farms or in gold and silver mines.
The modern descendants of the Maya still live as peasant farmers throughout the Maya region. They speak a mixture of Mayan and Spanish. One group, the Lacandón people of Mexico, still retains some ties with the past. They make pilgrimages with copal-burning incense pots to worship the old gods among the ruins of ancient pyramids and temples.