The Maya: History, Culture & Religion

"Maya" is a term that refers both to a modern-day population and to their ancestors, who built an ancient civilization that covered much of Central America. The Maya civilization was at its peak in the first millennium A.D. Maya ruins can still been seen throughout Central America.
The Maya civilization wasn't unified. Instead, it was made up of many small states that were centered around a city ruled over by a king. Sometimes, a Maya state that is stronger than another would take over a state that is weaker and demand labor and tribute.

Mayan origins

For thousands of years, Central America was home to nomadic hunter-gatherers. The Preclassic period (1800 B.C.) is when permanent villages really began to take off. up to A.D.250. This led to the creation early Maya cities.

Michael Coe, the Yale University emeritus professor in anthropology, wrote that "Effective farming as expressed by densely inhabited village was an innovation from the Preclassic period" in his book "The Maya (Thames and Hudson 2015).

Coe claims that farming was more efficient during this time due to the introduction of "nixtamal" and the breeding of more productive varieties of maize. Coe explained that maize was cooked in lime or another similar solution, which "enormously enhanced the nutritional value" of corn. Researchers reported that maize was used to complement squash, bean and chili pepper, as well as cassava, in 2014's Journal of Archaeological Science.

The Olmecs were a civilization located to the west of the Maya in the present-day Mexican states Tabasco and Veracruz. Coe speculated that the Olmecs may have created the long-count calendar for which the Maya would be famous, The discovery of a ceremonial site dating back to 1000 B.C. however, was a surprise. Ceibal, an old Maya site, suggests that the relationship between Olmecs and Maya was more complex than previously thought. This ceremonial compound was built 200 years ago, before any similar structures were constructed by the Olmecs. It is possible that the Olmecs did not incite the Maya.

Archaeologists discovered that Maya cities of the early 20th century were often well planned. Nixtun-Ch'ich in Petn, Guatemala had pyramids, temples, and other structures that were arranged according to a grid system. This is an example of urban planning. Between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C., the city thrived. The city flourished between 600 B.C.

Maya calendar

(Image credit to Erich Andres/United Images via Getty Images

The glyphs system was a method of writing that used symbols to represent sounds and words. It is often inscribed on books, buildings and artifacts called codices.

Complexity was a hallmark of the Maya calendar system. "1,700 years ago, proto-Ch'olan speakers, the ancestor of three Maya languages, had created a calendar of 18 20 day months plus a set of 5 days," stated Weldon Lamb (retired adjunct professor of anthropology, New Mexico State University) in his book "The Maya Calendar: a Book of Months" (University of Oklahoma Press 2017).

The system also contained what is known as a "long count" calendar, which kept track of time using various units. These units ranged in length from one day to millions of year.

The baktun, a 144,000-day cycle of the year or almost 400 years long, is the cycle of the calendar. The Maya believed that 13 baktuns were a complete cycle of creation. Popular belief was that the end of the 13th baktun occurred on December 21, 2012. The 2012 end of the world was not predicted by the long-count calendar. Walter Witschey (a retired archaeologist who is also a Maya expert at Longwood University) said that the Maya had many rarely used units, which were larger than b’ak'tuns. This gave them the ability to count millions of years into future. This unit, which is millions of years long, shows that the Maya didn't believe that the world would end at the end 13th baktun.

According to Meaghan Pouramaki-Brown (an archaeologist, associate professor at Athabasca University in Canada), the Maya calendar system has many similarities with modern calendars. The ancient Maya would have known the combination of multiple cyclical and linear calendars (e.g. our lunar months, solar years, and a year count (e.g. 2020, 2021 and 2022). These systems are similar because they both are based on common natural phenomena. Peuramaki Brown told All About History magazine.

Maya civilization at its peak

Coe said that the ancient Maya reached its peak in A.D. 250 to 900. Many Maya cities flourished in Central America during this period, which archaeologists refer to as the Classic period.

Coe stated that the civilization reached intellectual and artistic heights that no other civilization in the New World and few in Europe could match. Coe wrote that the Classic period was characterized by large populations, flourishing economies, and widespread trade. He also noted that warfare was quite common.

Teotihuacn was the largest city in Western Hemisphere prior to the 15th century. It was approximately 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City. Inscriptions from the Maya city Tikal in modern-day Guatemala provide evidence of Teotihuacn’s influence.

According to the inscriptions, Siyaj K'ak was an early Maya ruler who may have been from Tikal. He is shown wearing feathers and shells as well as holding a atlatl (spearthrower) which are all features that are associated with Teotihuacn. John Montgomery, an art historian, wrote in his book Tikal: An Illustrated Historical History of the Mayan Capital (Hippocrene Books 2001). A Maya site called El Achiotal that was found a stele supports the notion that Teotihuacn influenced Tikal or controlled it for a while. The king of Teotihuacn overthrew Tikal's leader and replaced them with one his vassals.

Each of the many cities in the Maya world had its own unique wonders. For example, Tikal is famous for its many pyramids. The city's rulers built a twin pyramid complex at each end of each K'atun (or 20-year period) at least as early in A.D. 672. Each pyramid was built on the same side as its twin, and each had a staircase. A plaza was located between the twin pyramids. It had structures that were laid out to the south and north.

Copn is another example of a rare city. It's a Maya city located in modern-day Honduras that's famous for its "Temple of the hieroglyphic staircase." The pyramid-shaped structure is decorated with more than 2000 glyphs, a flight of 63 stairs and the longest Maya inscription ever found. These glyphs seem to be telling the story of the city's rulers.

Palenque is a Maya city located in modern-day Mexico. It is well-known for its soft limestone sculptures and its incredible burial of Pakal (one of its kings) deep within a pyramid. Pakal, who died in 1980 at the age of 80, was buried with six or five other human sacrifices inside a jade-filled grave (including the jade funerary mask he wore). His sarcophagus depicts scenes of Pakal's rebirth as well as representations of his ancestors through the use of plants. In an online lecture, David Stuart, archaeologist, said that the tomb was discovered again in 1952. He believes it is the American equivalent to King Tut’s tomb.

All Maya settlements weren't controlled by an elite member of society or a king. Archaeologists discovered evidence at Cern, a Maya village located in El Salvador, that was destroyed by a volcano 1,400 years ago. They also found evidence that there wasn't an elite class and that the village was managed communally by elders. Live Science has previously reported.

Photograph of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan (Image credit: Getty).

End of the Maya

Contrary to popular belief the Maya civilization didn't disappear. Many southern cities such as Tikal, Copn, and Palenque were abandoned in the first 100 years of their existence. These could be due to drought, deforestation or war, as well as climate change. A study of minerals taken from an underwater cave in Belize suggests that drought may have been a key factor. Live Science reported previously that the area was devastated by drought between A.D. 800 to 900.

It is worth noting that Chichn Itz and other Maya cities grew in the ninth century. Chichn Itz was established in the fifth century. However, it grew to be one of the most important Maya cities when the Yucatan peninsula to the north and the southern lowlands became more powerful during the tenth centuries.

Chichn Itz has several ball courts. One of them is the longest in America and longer than any modern-day football field. The court's rings were used to score by competing teams and rose approximately 20 feet (6m) above the ground. This was twice the height of an NBA net. Although the rules of the Maya game are still not fully understood, the Classic period saw an increase in ballcourts. This indicates that the Maya thrived.

Council houses were places where people gathered in a community. They played an important part in many Maya towns and cities that thrived after the ninth century.

The Maya were devastated by the Spanish diseases that arrived in Central America in 16 century. Many Maya were forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish, even burning their religious books. This is why today, so few Maya codices are still available.

The Maya people still exist today, and they can be found around the globe. "Millions of Maya citizens live in Central America and around the globe. The Maya are not one entity, a single group, or one community. They can speak many languages, including Mayan languages (Yucatec and Quiche, Kekchi, Mopan, and Kekchi), Spanish, and English. The Maya, however, are an indigenous group that is tied to both their distant past and to recent events over the past several hundred years," Richard Leventhal wrote, Carlos Chan Espinosa, and Cristina Coc in Expedition magazine, which was published in April 2012. It's a peer-reviewed magazine produced by the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

Stone relief carvings at Chichn Itz. (Image credit: Getty)

Mythical origins

The mythical origin story of the ancient Maya was complex and long. It was documented by the Quich or K'iche Maya, who lived in what is now Guatemala, in the Popol Vuh (the "Book of Counsel"), which Coe wrote in his book. According to Britannica, the Popol Vuh was composed between 1554-1558 during the prolonged Spanish conquest of the region. Popol Vuh stories tell of how Q'ukumatz and Tepew, the forefather gods, "brought forth the Earth from a watery Void and endowed it [with animals and plants]".

It was more difficult to create sentient beings. But eventually, humans were created. The hero twins Hunahpu (Xbalanque) set out on a series adventure that included defeating the lords from the underworld. Their adventure culminated with the resurrection their father, the maize goddess. Coe wrote that it was clear that the whole mythic cycle was inextricably linked to maize fertility.

The Maya gods

Robert Sharer, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, stated in his book Daily Life in Maya Civilization (Greenwood Press 2009) that the ancient Maya believed all things were "imbued in various degrees with an unseen force or sacred quality," which was called k'uh. This word meant "divine and sacredness."

Sharer wrote that the universe of the ancient Maya consisted of kab or Earth (the visible realm of the Maya people), kan or the sky above, (the invisible realms of celestial deities), xibalba (or the watery underworld beneath, (the invisible realms of the underworld gods),"

Caves were considered to be the entrance to the underworld and played an important role in Maya religion. Sharer said that these were sacred and dangerous places, where the dead were buried. Special rituals were also conducted for the ancestors.

Sharer pointed out that the ancient Maya worshipped a variety of deities, with Itzamnaaj being the most important. Itzamnaaj, in all his aspects, was the lord over life and death, sky and earth, day and night, day and nights, and the stars." Sharer wrote. He also noted that Itzamnaaj, as the Lord of the Celestial Realm, was often depicted as a serpent-like reptile or two-headed reptile.

The sun god K'inich Ajaw and the rain and storm god Chaak were other ancient Maya deities. According to the Maya, each person had a "lifeforce" and that a person could drain their blood in a temple to give some of that life force to a god. Archaeologists discovered an arrowhead that contained the blood of someone who had participated in a blood-letting ceremony in 2015.

Maya priests and kings held incense-scattering ceremonies to provide rain and wind during times of water shortage. Live Science reported that in 2017, archaeologists from Belize found a Maya pendant with 30 hieroglyphs inscribed on it. In religious ceremonies, hallucinogenic substances were also used to aid the Maya in trying to contact spirits to seek guidance on dealing with particular situations or problems.

Stories of dangerous creatures like Sipak were part of the ancient Maya religion. Research suggests that Sipak stories were inspired by fossilized teeth of extinct sharks Carcharodon megalodon.

El Castillo is a pyramid that has 91 steps on each side. shutterstock) (Image credit: jgorzynik

Human sacrifice

Sharer said that human sacrifices were only made for special occasions. Sharer explained that human sacrifice was an essential ritual to sanctify some rituals among the Maya. Sharer said that it was not common for them to perform such events as the inauguration or designation of a new ruler or heir to their throne or the dedication or dedication of an important temple or ball court. He noted that the victims were often captured during wartime.

Chichn Itz would paint victims blue to honor the god Chaak and then cast them into a well. A panel depicts a person being killed near the ball court. This panel may show a player from the losing or winning team being killed following a game.

Writing and Astronomy

Sharer pointed out that record-keeping was an integral part of the Maya world. It was vital for agriculture, astronomy, and prophecy. Sharer wrote that the Maya could keep track of the rainy or dry seasons to determine when it was best to plant and harvest crops.

Sharer also wrote that they "recorded the movements of the sky gods (sun, moon and planets)," and created accurate calendars that could have been used for prophecy.

He wrote that the Maya could predict the phases of the moon, Venus and eclipses using long-term records. This knowledge was used to predict when the deities would be in favorable places for various activities, such as initiating kings, trading expeditions or holding ceremonies.

The ancient Maya religion believed that Venus' movements played an important role. The detailed records of the planet's movements are contained in two Maya books called the Grolier and Dresden codices. Gerardo Aldana of the University of California Santa Barbara, a scientist historian, said that the ancient Maya probably engaged in large-scale ritual activity related to Venus' phases.

In a 2015 article published in American Anthropologist, researchers discovered that at least some Maya codice writers were part of "a particular cohort of ritual specialists named taaj". The Maya site of Xultan in Guatemala was home to a number of murals that had inscriptions. The team examined the room and discovered that codices were written there by the "taaj".

Maya priests trained scribes. Commoners couldn't read or write so they were likely to be elite members. Logosyllabic is a combination of logograms (signs that represent words) and symbols (signs that represent syllables). Although there are more than 1,000 Maya signs, scribes could only use 500 at a time. Many signs are not easily understood or interpreted today.

A relief depicting Maya writing (Image credit: Getty)

Economy & power

Many well-connected cities-states made up the Maya civilization. "At the elite and royal levels, this connection was in the form of official trips, occasional over-lordships, marriages and general ideological affiliations," said Peuramaki Brown.

Sharer stated that, while agriculture and food-gathering are a fundamental part of everyday life, the Maya had an advanced economy capable of supporting specialists and a system for merchants and trade routes. Although the Maya didn't create a minted currency, they did use different objects at different times as money. These were greenstone beads and cacao beans, as well as copper bells.

Sharer wrote that "Ultimately, power of kings was dependent on their ability to manage resources." "Maya rulers controlled the production and distribution status goods that were used to increase their power and prestige. He said that they also controlled critical commodities (non-local), which included essential everyday resources that each family required, such as salt. And that the Maya rulers have managed to control increasing amounts of the economy over time. Maya rulers were not able to rule on their own, but had assistance from advisers and attendants who sometimes appeared in Maya art.

Sharer also points out that labor taxes were levied on ancient Maya workers to construct temples, palaces, and other public works. A ruler who is successful at war can control more laborers and pay tribute to defeated enemies, increasing their economic power.

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