MAYA, A History of The Mayans

Author: Various

Date 2004

The Maya of Mesoamerica, along with the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, made up the high civilizations of the American Indians at the time of the Spanish conquest. Both the Aztecs and the Incas were late empires (about AD 1300-1533), capstones of a sequence of civilizations in Central Mexico and the Andes in South America, respectively. But the Maya of Yucatan and Guatemala exhibited a cultural continuity spanning more than 2,000 years (1000 BC-AD 1542), and many aspects of their culture continue to the present.

Mesoamerica had three major time periods: preclassic (2000 BC-AD 300), classic (300-900), and postclassic (900-1500). During the six centuries of the classic period the Mayan civilization flourished first in the forests of the Peten in Guatemala and adjacent areas--creating such cities as Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, and Palenque--and then in the semiarid scrublands of northern Yucatan--constructing such pilgrimage centers as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, Old Chichen, and Coba.

The post classic period in Yucatan was marked by the invasion of the Toltecs from Central Mexico and the establishment of their control at Chichen Itza (987-1200). Later the coastal trading town of Tulum grew in significance following the decline of military leagues led by Mayapan. Pyramids and temples were built in more than 40 cities, each with a population of about 20,000 people. The Spanish conquest by Francisco de Montejo, whose house still stands on the central plaza in the capital of Merida, completed the downfall of the Mayan civilization in 1542.

Today more than 2 million Mayan Indians live in northern Yucatan and highland Guatemala in a style similar to that of the common people among their ancestors. Excavations at Dzibilchaltun near Merida revealed house sites from 1000 BC that resemble today's huts in rural regions. The same style of construction--wattle-and-daub walls in an oval shape with a thatched roof of palmetto fronds and little furniture--serves the native Maya, who continue to resist racial mixing and the dilution of their culture.

The design of the native house from antiquity is reproduced in stone as a decorative art motif in the Puuc style at such sites as Uxmal and Labna (800- 1000). The Puuc style, named for a region of low limestone hills in northern Yucatan, is characterized by an unadorned lower level that contrasts sharply with an elaborately sculptured upper level. Examples are the Nunnery Quadrangle and the governor's palace. It is possible that the stone columns, or cylinders, also featured in this art style represent posts and wickerwork of the daub-and-wattle native huts.


The Mayan civilization in all stages--formative, flourishing, declining, and continuing--has been based on agriculture. Indian corn, or maize, was domesticated from a wild grass in central Mexico about 7,000 years ago and sustained most sedentary Indian civilizations from that time.

In the humid Peten a surplus of water and rapid growth of trees and vines encouraged the slash-and-burn farming method. The farmer cleared the cornfield 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. Then the wood was burned and the ashes scattered among the stumps. A mattock of stone or wood to scoop the earth into a hummock and a fire-hardened pointed stick to poke a hole for the seed were used.


The productivity of the corn farmer sustained the Mayan civilization. It is estimated that as many as 150 days a year were free from daily drudgery in the fields. This surplus time was utilized by the nobility and the priests in a stratified society to build the cities, pyramids, and temples. There was sufficient leisure to support skilled craftsmen in arts and crafts. The Mayan workers who constructed the great stone structures and decorated the walls with artistic embellishment, however, were unaided by draft animals and wheeled carts. The lords of the land oversaw civic matters, while the priests conducted religious rituals, pursued intellectual studies, and corrected the calendar.

Cities that flourished in the classic period in lowland Guatemala are exemplified by Tikal, which has pyramid-temples more than 200 feet (60 meters) high and numerous carved stelae as time markers and reign recorders. Then the Old Empire collapsed. The stable city-states, comparable to ancient Greece in cultural accomplishment and administrative acumen, faded from memory.

No one knows why the culture declined and the cities were covered by encroaching forest until rediscovery in the 19th century. Possible causes include exhaustion of the cornfields by overpopulation, climatic changes, hurricanes, pestilences of epidemic proportions, wars, and insurrection.

Far to the north at the tip of Yucatan the New Empire waxed while the Old Empire waned. Archaeologists trace transition routes through Palenque in Chiapas, via Mirador and Rio Bec in Quintana Roo, and around Coba, where a network of causeway roads called sacbes connect distant cities.

The physical environment of the peninsula of Yucatan differs from that of the Peten. It too is lowland and limestone but arid and covered with desert scrub. Water is scarce and seasonal, draining underground via sinkholes and subterranean streams. Where the water table reaches the surface or the limestone layer can be breached, a cenote, or well, provides water for settlement and cultivation. Chaltunes are man-made cisterns lined with plaster to catch rainwater runoff. Such sites are typified by Uxmal and Chichen Itza with the Sacred Cenote, or Well of Sacrifice.

Palenque presents two notable features: the tomb of Lord Pacal (615-683), located inside the Temple of the Inscriptions, and the royal palace with a four-story square tower used not for defense observation but to notify the hospitable lords that visitors were approaching along the Usumacinta River, the artery of trade and travel to Tikal.

Uxmal (750-1000) is distinguished by the Temple of the Magician, which was rebuilt five times to comply with century cycles every 52 years according to the rounds of the lunar and solar calendars. The tracery of Kukulcan, or "feathered serpent" in the Mayan tongue, is intertwined through the mosaic of fretwork on the upper wall of the Nunnery Quadrangle.

El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the "feathered serpent" in the Nahuatl language of the Toltecs and Aztecs, is the outstanding feature of Chichen Itza (1000-1200). It heralds the coming of the Toltecs from Central Mexico and their dominance of the Maya of Old Chichen (800-1000). The themes of art and architecture duplicate Tula, the original capital in the highlands, with emphasis on the images and symbols of the feathered serpent. The Quetzalcoatl portal supported the lintel over the entrance to the Temple of the Warriors, and the memoirs of the associated military orders of Jaguar and Eagle are carved into the Court of the Thousand Columns. The head, body, and tail of the creator deity--the giver of corn and civilization--outline the grand staircase rising to the temple atop El Castillo. Inside, the red Jaguar throne is encrusted with pieces of precious jade. The Quetzalcoatl legend predicted the return of the god to Mexico, which happened to coincide with the arrival of the conquistadores, and Cortez astutely assumed the mantle of the deity to befuddle the superstitious Montezuma and complete the Spanish conquest.

Religion and the state among the Maya were as closely interconnected as among the Spaniards who conquered them. This convergence of customs and beliefs facilitated the merging of religions and the acceptance of authority during the colonial period. The Indians were converted to Roman Catholicism, but pagan practices persist, particularly in rural villages. In ancient days religious rites were conducted in temples by priests, and the government was administered by the aristocracy. The palace at Sayil and the governor's palace at Uxmal represent the residences of the landed elite.

Architecture achieved distinction in the Mayan cities of Yucatan, though the designers and builders were restricted by the technical limitations of the corbeled arch as compared to the Roman arch. The Roman model features a keystone, which affords wide coverage of space, whereas the corbeled arch contains a capstone, which allows only narrow spaces.

The huge arch approaching Kabah on the causeway from Uxmal is the largest in Mayaland, and the great gate at Labna is balanced with native huts in stone. A temple at Labna atop an unrestored mound illustrates Mayan construction methods: a one-room interior vaulted with a corbeled arch appears to be two stories high and is heightened still more by a roof comb for prestige. The roof comb exhibits an open lattice to reduce air pressure during windstorms.

Such special structures as the Caracol at Old Chichen and the observatory at Copan had an astronomical purpose. They were operated by the priests to devise and maintain a calendar more accurate than any except the Gregorian. The Maya invented a numerical system that involved the concept of zero, which was positional like the decimal system but based on 20 instead of 10. The symbols were dot-and-bar combinations and hieroglyphs. Scholars developed a system of hieroglyphic writing similar to the ideographic type of the ancient Egyptians but more primitive. The glyph inscriptions with narrative content are being translated with partial success.

Many buildings of Yucatan in the Puuc style are decorated with the face of Chac, the Mayan rain god, an all-important deity in a society dependent on agriculture. Chac can be recognized by an elephant tusk nose. Sometimes there are three or four Chacs stacked over a doorway, giving security in numbers, and on the corners of buildings with eyes surveying two sides at the same time. The use of Chacmools--the bearers of messages to the pantheon of deities--so prominent at Chichen Itza, was introduced by the Toltecs of Tula from Central Mexico.

The Maya located in the highlands lived in a third type of physical environment--the volcanic mountains and intermontane valleys of Guatemala. Kaminaljuyu arose as a notable urban center in the classic period, much influenced by Teotihuacan in Central Mexico. The region was harshly conquered by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 after the submission of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The myths and traditions of the past are preserved in the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya, and the customs of the ancient Maya can still be observed in Quetzaltenango and Chichicastenango near Lake Atitlan. The Maya are a most resilient people.

Classical Mayan Civilization

While Teohihuacan and Monte Alban flourished, Mayan peoples farther south
in Yucatan and Guatemala produced the most splendid cultural achievements of
the classical era and perhaps of native American societies in any time.
Artistic and intellectual activity rose to new heights in numerous Mayan
centers, each boasting its temples, palaces, observatories, and ball courts.
Although it borrowed from Teotihuacan before the latter's fall in the seventh
century A.D., Mayan civilization subsequently cast a brilliant shadow over the
whole of Mesoamerica.

The earliest Mayas are thought to have migrated from the northwest coast
of California to the Guatemalan highlands during the third millennium B.C.
From that homeland, Yucatec and Cholian speakers settled the northern and
central lowlands between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 100, respectively. Mayan villages
developed steadily, many becoming ceremonial centers by the Christian era. In
the highlands, Kaminaljuyu had by then developed architecture and primitive
writing under the influence of Oaxaca and Teotihuacan. In the early classical
period before A.D. 550, Tikal in the central lowlands assumed the Mayan
leadership, as it traded with Teotihuacan and allied with Kaminaljuyu. The
fall of Teotihuacan brought temporary confusion, soon followed by the glorious
renaissance of the late classical era at Tikal, Palenque, Yaxchilan, Uxmal,
and many other Mayan centers.

Mayan communities were supported by productive economies, based upon
agriculture but heavily involved in handicrafts and long distance trade. In
the rich soil, improved by clearing, irrigating, and terracing, the Mayas
raised squash, chile peppers, and many other crops, including maize, which
supplied 80 percent of their food. Slaves did the hard labor in the fields and
in construction. On the next social rung were common peasants, craftsmen, and
merchants. The governing class of priests and nobles, drawn from elite
lineages, performed overlapping functions because religion and government were
so closely allied. This social structure was rigidly differentiated, with each
class distinct in rights and responsibilities.

Mayan women were respected and sometimes honored, but they exercised
their limited freedoms within the bounds permitted by a culture characterized
by male domination. As keepers of households and experts in handicrafts, they
did all of the weaving and alone produced the highly artistic pre-wheel
pottery, for which the Mayans are famous. In performing such important roles,
Mayan women earned a modicum of respect and status. When a maiden married, her
husband came to live in her family's house until he proved himself. She could
divorce him and marry again, if she waited a year. She was also permitted to
hold property. In many other ways, however, Mayan women were subordinated.
They were prohibited from looking directly at men; they waited on men at
meals, eating later with other women; and they could not hold public office or
enter a temple. Those in elite or royal families were regularly exported for
marriage into foreign families, serving as political trade goods for cementing
alliances or clinching trade agreements.

Each Mayan center was governed by a hereditary priest-king, although some
very few states may have had ruling queens in earlier times, before the sixth
century. The typical ruler in the late classical period was considered to be a
descendant of the sun god. He was assisted by a council of priests and nobles.
His government levied taxes, supervised justice, conducted foreign relations,
and made war - indeed, as time passed in this era, warfare became increasingly
common. Headmen, selected after passing examinations, were appointed to
administer affairs in outlying villages. They commanded local militias,
subject to strict control by the top military officers of the states. Some
centers remained independent, but most were members of loosely organized
leagues, based on common religions, royal marriages, or diplomatic alignments.

Religion permeated all phases of Mayan life. Law and taxation, for
example, were interpreted as religious principles and religious offerings.
Education was conducted mainly as training for priests, who made reading,
writing, and learning caste specialties. They conducted the numerous public
rituals, including some human sacrifice by decapitation. Mayan thought was
more ritualistic than scientific; mathematics and astronomy were considered
necessary to schedule ceremonies honoring the divine heavenly bodies. These
were but some among a vast hierarchy of deities, ruling the universe under a
supreme god and his consort.

The two most enduring achievements of the Mayas were their calendar and
their writing system. Neither of these was original, but both were more
efficient than those of earlier Mesoamerican peoples. The Mayas perfected a
solar calendar with eighteen months of 20 days each and a five-day period for
religious festivals. Using an ingenious cyclical system of notation known as
the "long count," they were able to date events of the distant past for
accurate record-keeping and astronomical observations. Their notational
mathematics, based on 20 rather than 10 in the current decimal system,
employed combinations of dots and bars, in vertical sequences, to indicate
numbers above 20. For non-numerical records, they combined pictographic and
glyphic symbols, which have only recently been partially deciphered.

Their remarkable accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, and writing
were more than matched by their truly magnificent art and architecture. The
plaza of each Mayan community was marked by at least one pyramid, topped by a
temple. With their terraced sides and horizontal lines, these buildings
demonstrated a prevailing sense of proportion. The highly stylized sculpture
which decorated their terraces is regarded by some authorities as the world's
finest, even though Mayan sculptors accomplished their intricate carving with
only stone tools. The Mayas also developed mural painting to a high art. Even
their lesser arts, such as weaving, ceramics, and jewelry making, reveal
aesthetic sense, sublety of design, and manipulative skills superior to
artistic creations in many other high civilizations.

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