The Mayans are Mesoamerican civilizations developed by their people called the Maya. It is known for its advanced and beautiful writing system, culture, arts, math, calendar, and astronomical system. Click here to see more posts in this category.
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Mayan symbols are a rich source of material culture for the Central American civilization and are among the most important archeological finds that have helped piece together their economics, farming methods, politics, and social practices.
Symbols carry the heart of every culture, and every culture’s symbols represent its inner reality to the people of that culture. Symbols can be anything, a gesture, a song, a phrase or an image. They often carry many layers of meaning that everyone in the culture understands intuitively.
Hundreds of Mayan symbols can be found carved on stone, which allows archeologists and other researchers to gain an understanding of their culture. In fact, Mayan writing consists of symbols called glyphs. Of the hundreds of Mayan symbols, some appear more often on the carved stelae and temple walls in Mayan cities, revealing their importance to the culture. Glyphs of animals were powerful symbols to the Mayans, especially the jaguar and the eagle. The following shortlist describes a few important Mayan symbols.
The Mayan feathered serpent deity Kukulkan was known to other Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs and Olmecs who worshipped the god under different names. The myth surrounding this deity mentions the god as a creator of the cosmos in the Popul Vuh, the Kiche Maya sacred book. The serpent god is also called the Vision Serpent. Feathers represent the god’s ability to soar in the heavens while as a serpent the god can also travel the earth. Kukulkan cult temples during the Post-Classical era can be found in Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan. The serpent cult emphasized peaceful trade and good communication among the cultures. Since a snake can shed its skin, it symbolizes renewal and rebirth.
The jaguar, to the Mayans, was a powerful symbol of ferocity, strength, and valor. Since the big cats can see well at night, it symbolizes perception and foresight. As a god of the Mayan underworld, the jaguar ruled the celestial forces of night and day. As such, it represents control, confidence, and leadership. Mayan warriors wore jaguar skins into battle as a sign of honor and courage. The Mayans held the jaguar second only to Kukulkan in religious importance.
In the Yucatec Mayan language, Hunab Ku means one god or the only god. The term appears in the 16th-century texts such as the Book of Chilam Balam, written after the Spanish had conquered the Mayans. Hunab Ku is associated with Itzama, the Mayan creator god. Mayan scholars believe the concept of a supreme god over all the others was a belief that Spanish friars used to convert the polytheistic Mayans to Christianity. Hunab Ku was popularized by a modern Maya day-keeper, Hunbatz Men, who considered it a powerful symbol associated with the number zero and the Milky Way. He calls it the sole giver of movement and measurement. Scholars of the Maya say there is no pre-colonial representation of Hunab Ku, but New Age Mayans have adopted the symbol to represent universal consciousness. As such it is a popular design used for modern Mayan tattoos.
6 Reasons Why the Mayans Were an Awesome Civilization
Over the last few decades, the Mayan civilization has deeply captured our interests and imaginations. Generations of curious explorers have dived headfirst into the deep jungles of Central America and discovered buried cities, remarkable pyramids, spiritual mysteries, and astronomical and mathematical wonders that caused our fascination with this ancient culture to grow.
They left behind intricate architecture, unique cuisine, and languages that have had a tremendous impact on our modern world. Yet, the deeper we dive into the Mayan universe, the more obscure our vision of it becomes. After years of research and excavations, historians are still unable to tell us who these people really were, where they came from, and how their great empire collapsed. However, the little that we have learned reveals that the Mayans were an impressive, sophisticated and awesome civilization.
They Invented the First Organized “Ball Game”
When we think of sports, some of the first things that come to mind are ball games such as football and basketball, cheerleaders, and expensive halftime shows. We rarely think about the origins of these organized games, which date back thousands of years to the subtropical regions of Central America. Today’s sports fans have nothing on the Mayans. These people were serious about their games, deadly serious. Matches were life or death competitions accompanied by complex religious rituals.
Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the largest excavated site in the entire American continent, houses five ancient ball courts that date back more than 3000 years. Researchers believe that the first organized team ball game in history was held there by the Mayans. Forget about golden medals and million-dollar contracts – the Mayans competed for their right to live. The winning team kept their lives, and the losing team was sacrificed to the gods and got to spend eternity in the Underworld.
Ballplayers wearing jade necklaces, little protective gear, and scary face paint would step out into hard stone courts seeking victory. They used a heavy eight-pound rubber ball with a human skull in the center of it. The game consisted of passing this ball around without it touching your hands, and then getting it to pass through a small basketball-like hoop. That is some serious ball!
They Developed Some of Our Favorite Foods
A lot of today’s favorite foods were developed in the ancient Maya world. For instance, the Mayans were the first to take out the seeds of cacao and toast them to make hot chocolate. They didn’t make M&Ms or Snickers bars, nor did they add milk or sugar to make the cacao taste sweeter. Instead, they drank their chocolate straight up as part of religious ceremonies. The Mayans saw cacao as a sacred fruit sent to them by the gods and even used it as currency. When the Spaniards got to Central America, they adapted the drink and added sugar and milk to make it taste better.
They were also responsible for other popular foods such as guacamole, corn tortillas, micheladas, and tamales.
They Used Glitter to Make Their Temples Shine
In 2008, scientists discovered large traces of mica, a shiny glittery material, while analyzing a Mayan temple in Honduras. It is believed that they painted their sacred temples with mica in order to make them sparkle in the sun. The paint would give their holy buildings a mystical appearance during the day.
They Built Pyramids to Reflect Astronomical Events
The Mayans were probably the most advanced astronomers during their time. Many of their amazing structures, such as the temple of Kukulcan, were built solely to depict astronomical events. During equinoxes, a shadow called the serpent slithers in a snake-like motion along with one of the temple’s staircases. This effect is caused by the sun’s angle, and how its light hits the building terraces.
At the Chichen Itza temple, the front staircase of the building marks Venus’s most northern position. The corners of the building also align with the sun’s position during summer solstice and winter solstice.
They Developed the Concept of Zero
While many historians believe that the idea of zero first originated in Babylonia, the Mayans independently developed it during the fourth century. Zero was represented as a shell-shaped glyph.
They Built a Great Civilization in the Middle of the Rainforest
One of the most intriguing things about the Mayans is how they were able to build, develop, and sustain a great civilization in the middle of the rainforest. Other large civilizations typically built their great empires in dryer climates, where centralized management systems formed the foundation of their cities.
The Mayans took advantage of the area’s natural resources such as limestone, salt, and volcanic rock, and were able to thrive in it despite unstable climates.
Mayans at War
Environmental challenges, disputes with neighbors, and scarcity of resources led to the Mayans being at war. For many years, archeologists thought the Mayans a peaceful people, capable of war, but rarely indulging in it. However, as archeologists explored more Mayan cities and more evidence was uncovered, they realized that Mayans often fought wars, especially during the Late Classical era of 600 to 900 A.D. In fact, during that time a series of misfortunes hit the Mayans:
- population exceeding the carrying capacity of the land
- deforestation leading to soil erosion
- decrease in soil fertility
- sustained drought
- malnutrition and disease
- decreased trust in Mayan rulers
- growing hostility among city-states as resources became scarce
- endemic warfare
Earlier wars were fought for captives for human sacrifice, and for land, natural resources, and control of trade networks. City-states might even have arranged battles for captives as the Aztecs did with their Flower Wars.
However, the population growth and environmental destruction of the Late Classical era meant less food to feed the hungry cities. War for resources became endemic with battles fought between big city centers that dragged in many smaller polities. As warfare became more extensive and constant, Mayan societies began to fall apart. Finally, surviving Mayans abandoned their lowland cities and disappeared from that area.
The Mayans were fierce warriors, while not quite at the level of the Mongols, still a deadly threat to their neighbors.
Mayans at War: Long Distance Weapons
The Mayans had both long-distance weapons and melee weapons. The long-distance ones included bow and arrow, blowgun, slings, and throwing spears. When the atlatl or spear-thrower was brought to the Mayans from Teotihuacan around 400 A.D., it was quickly adopted and became the Mayans’ dominant long-distance weapon. The atlatl greatly increased the accuracy, force, and range of the spear; when thrown from an atlatl a spear reportedly could pierce the Spaniards’ metal armor. The blowgun was predominantly used for hunting, but it had some wartime uses as well. Mayan warriors used bows and arrows more during the Post-Classical era.
Mayans at War: Melee Weapons
When armies clashed in battles, they used melee weapons, including clubs, axes, stabbing spears, and knives. The Mayan war club resembled the Macuahuitl of the Aztecs in that it was lined with obsidian blades on three sides. These 42-in long clubs could stun, break bones, or cut. They were capable of cutting off a horse’s head. Mayans also used axes with heads of stone, obsidian, flint, or bronze. The sharp edge of the ax could kill, but the dull edge could stun. The object of the battle was often to capture, not kill, enemy warriors, making the ax a good weapon. In hand-to-hand combat, the Mayans used the same 10-inch blade knives they used in sacrifices.
Mayans at War: Defensive Weapons
The Mayans built fortifications around some of their cities. Examples of this include Seibal and Tikal. For defense, warriors carried shields, and elites and veterans wore thick, cotton armor treated with rock salt that could withstand obsidian. Helmets were unknown and warriors wore elaborate headdresses instead. Warriors also used body paint and animal skins to show their status.
Mayans at War: Unusual Weapons
The Popul Voh, the book of the Kiche Maya, tells of hornets and wasps used as defensive weapons. When attackers came, defending warriors had gourds filled with hornets that they threw into the midst of the attackers. Hornets erupted out of the gourds and angrily attacked, killing many warriors. The defenders won the battle.
Mayan Art of the Tattoo
Mayans practiced many forms of body modification, including deforming a baby’s skull to create a pleasingly elongated shape, fostering crossed eyes, filing teeth, inlaying jade into a tooth, piercing, and tattooing. The Mayans did this to be pleasing to the gods, for social status, and for personal beauty. The noble class performed as many body modifications as they could, as Mayans believed the more extreme a modification, the higher the status of the individual. However, even Mayan commoners filed their teeth and tattooed their skin.
Both Mayan men and women got tattoos, although men put off tattoos until they were married. Mayan women preferred delicate tattoos on their upper bodies although not on their breasts. Men got tattoos on their arms, legs, backs, hands, and faces.
Getting a tattoo was painful. The tattooist would first paint the design on the body, then cut the design into the skin. The resulting scar and paint created the tattoo. The process often led to illness and infection. Mayans who got tattoos were honored for their bravery during the process, as it meant they had the fortitude to deal with the pain and suffering.
Mayan tattoos depicted symbols of the gods, power animals, and spiritual symbols to express harmony and balance or the power of night or day. Powerful animals such as serpents, eagles, or jaguars were favorites of nobles and warriors. Feathered serpents, a symbol of the powerful god Kukulkan, represented spirituality and wisdom. Eagles symbolized foresight and flight. Jaguars embodied bravery, stealth and power. These are still popular Mayan tattoos today.
Mayans honored their gods by depicting their myths in tattoos. When the Spaniards first saw tattooed Mayans, they were horrified to see people with “devils” pictured on their skin. Cortez found a Spaniard who had been shipwrecked living among the Mayans. Cortez asked the man, Gonzalo Guerrero, if he wanted to return to Spain. Guerrero replied that he couldn’t since he had tattooed his face and pierced his ears.
Mayans were intensely spiritual people; to them, tattooing held deep meaning. First, tattoos designated their social status, specialized skills, and religious power. Tattooing was also a sacrifice to the gods, to give the gods their suffering and blood. The symbols they chose as their tattoos represented their totem animal or the gods, who would then imbue their lives with a measure of power.
As a difficult and dangerous process, tattooing was the charge of the Mayan god Acat. While all Mayans were encouraged to get tattooed, many did not. The painful process of getting a tattoo turned many away. Getting a tattoo required time, as tattooists worked carefully one step at a time to create a tattoo. People often got sick during the process and would have to take time to recover. Overall, the Mayans loved body modifications and considered the pain a part of the process in order to honor the gods.
The Mayan Calendar
What we call the Mayan calendar is actually a set of three interlocking calendars, the sacred calendar of 260 days called the Tzolkin, the solar calendar of 365 days known as the Haab, and a Long Count calendar of much longer time periods. When the Mayans inscribed a date on a temple wall or a stone monument, they wrote the date using all three calendar notations. Every 52 years, the Tzolkin and the Haab come back in sync with each other. This was called a Calendar Round.
The Tzolkin or sacred calendar consisted of 20 periods each with 13 days for a 260-day count. Each day had a number and a name, the numbers from 1 to 13 and 20-day names. When the 13 numbers were gone through, they began again, and the 20-day names continued. When the day names were gone through, they repeated, and the numbers continued up to 13. The cycles of 13 and 20 repeated until they came back to the first number, the first name again in 260 days. The priests who kept the calendars used the Tzolkin to determine days for sowing and harvest, military triumphs, religious ceremonies, and divination.
The solar calendar or Haab has 365 days made up of 18 months of 20 days each, which adds up to 360 days. The remaining five days at the end of the year is an unlucky, dangerous time known as the Wayeb. Mayans stayed home and neglected all activities during this time to avoid disaster. In the Haab calendar, a day is represented by a number in the month, then the name of the month. There were 19-month names, plus Wayeb for the dreaded five-day month, making 20-month names.
Long Count Calendar
In order to keep track of longer periods of time, the Mayans used the Long Count calendar. The Long Count counts all the days since the beginning, which the Mayans marked as August 11, 3114 B.C. The Long Count calendar is cyclical as each period of time will begin again, but it is also linear. Because it is linear, it can take into account dates far in the future or in the past. The basic unit of this calendar is the tun, a year of 360 days, the basic Haab year without the five-day Wayeb. Long Count dates are expressed in five digits. The five digits represent a kin (day), uinal (month), tun (year), katun (20 years) and baktun (20 katuns).
Most Mayan dates note both the day of the Tolzkin and the Haab calendar. For instance, a day may be marked as 2 Chik’chan 5 Pop, with 2 Chik’chan being the date in the Tzolkin calendar and 5 Pop the date in the Haab, being the 5th day of the month Pop. The next day would be 3 Kimi 6 Pop. When the Mayans inscribed a date on a stela, however, they also included the five digits of the Long Count calendar. Thus January 1, 2000 would be written 22.214.171.124.2 11Ik 10 K’ank.
For more in-depth information, see Living Maya Time or Calendars Through the Ages.
Mayan Cultural Achievements
When we think of the Mayans and their culture, what comes to mind? The first thing that would occur to a reader would be the astonishing Mayan cities in the jungles of Central America. Other readers would mention the fascinating Mayan calendar and the predicted end of the world in 2012. Scholars would discuss the complex math and writing systems of the Mayans and their vast knowledge of astronomy. A sports fan might know of the Mayans ’ invention of rubber, which they used in the balls for their famous ball game. The Mayans’ many cultural achievements remain with us today, thanks to dedicated archeologists and anthropologists.
Temples and towers soar above the rainforest. Great city centers include extensive plazas lined with stepped pyramids, graceful palaces, elite homes, and ceremonial platforms. Many buildings in the city center were astronomically aligned to the solstice or equinox. Stone stelae tell of the great deeds and lineages of kings. Elaborate carvings of gods, masks, and myths cover the surfaces of buildings and grand stairways. Carved stone court makers dot the royal ball courts where ceremonial games were played to the death. Stone causeways known as sacbeobs linked Mayan cities, the longest one being 100 kilometers. Most amazing is that the Mayans built their distinctive cities, roads, and aqueducts without draft animals, wheeled vehicles or metal tools.
Political and Social Complexity
At first, Mayan scholars thought the Mayans had a simple social and political structure consisting of an aristocracy and a peasantry. More recent archeological finds have revealed a complex society with a large middle class that was more powerful and successful than previously believed. The Mayan middle class consisted of merchants, warriors, engineers, architects, physicians, artists, craftsmen, government officials and administrators. Nobles often were artists and warriors, and talented, skilled peasants could rise into the middle class, revealing a certain amount of social mobility. Socially stratified societies allow a culture to grow and develop, although it can also lead to structural inequalities.
The Mayan writing system, its mathematics in service of astronomy, and the complex three interlocking calendars in one were major cultural achievements. The Mayans were one of the few cultures to come up with the concept of zero. They could calculate sums in the hundreds of millions, all with a base 20 math system and simple number symbols. The Mayan writing system fully represented their spoken languages, the only Mesoamerican writing system to do so. Hundreds of glyphs and pictograms represent things, ideas, concepts or syllables, and words. While only the noble class was fully literate, many Mayans could no doubt read or recognize the public writings on walls and monuments. We’ll discuss the Mayan calendar in a separate article.
Other Cultural Achievements
The Mayans produced many technological innovations and inventions. They knew how to make rubber from gum trees. They created a full rainbow of paint colors, including the famous Maya Blue. Most Mayan paints were mineral-based, using mica, copper, or other minerals. Maya Blue’s major property is indigo bound to the mineral palygorskite, which makes it a bright blue color. Tough, durable Maya Blue has resisted the humid Mesoamerican climate for centuries. The Mayans developed intensive and extensive agricultural techniques in order to feed their thriving society, including terracing, raised-bed farming, and irrigation. One Mayan cultural achievement is universally recognized: chocolate. Thanks to Mesoamericans, Mayans among them, people around the world enjoy this delicious food.
The Mayan Pantheon: Gods and Goddesses
With between 166 and 250 named gods, the Mayans had a complex and changeable pantheon. They had gods to oversee every human action and aspect of life: gods for birth and death, for the ball game and gambling, for travel and traders, for pregnant women and infants, for youth, age, health, and suicide, for wild nature and for agriculture, a god of maize and of thunder, creator gods and gods of destruction, death gods and gods of heaven. All of these gods were changeable as well. They could be one sex or both, young and old, good but sometimes evil, depending on the time and circumstance.
Because of the complexity, it is unlikely that modern minds could fully grasp the Mayan religion and pantheon. However, scholars have deciphered enough of the Mayan codices and hieroglyphics to cite the major Mayan gods. These gods are listed below, but the list is not comprehensive by any means.
Itzamna is a creator god, one of the gods involved in creating human beings, and the father of the Bacabs, who upheld the corners of the world. Itzamna taught humans the crafts of writing and medicine. Itzamna is sometimes identified with the high god Hunab Ku and the sun god Kinich Ahau.
A nature god, Yum Kaax is the god of wild plants and animals, the god of the woods. He is the god venerated by hunters and by farmers, who hunt wild animals or carve their fields out of his forest.
The Mayans had both a female and a male maize god and both a simple vegetative god and a more powerful, tonsured male maize god. The tonsured maize god personifies maize, cacao beans, and jade. He is a patron god of the scribal arts, dancing, and feasting. Mayan kings often dressed as the maize god during rituals of his life, death, and regeneration.
Hunab Ku is a pre-Columbian god whose name translates as the only God or the one God. Scholars are still debating whether Hunab Ku is an indigenous god or a creation of the Spanish. Most think he is indigenous. The Spanish focused on Hunab Ku in persuading the Mayans of the core belief of Christianity.
Kinich Ahau is the sun god of the Mayans, sometimes associated with or an aspect of Itzamna. During the Classic period, Kinich Ahau was used as a royal title, carrying the idea of the divine king. He is also known in the Mayan codices as God G and is shown in many carvings on Mayan pyramids.
Ix Chel is the goddess of medicine and midwifery, also known as the goddess of making children. She is represented as an aged woman.
Chaac is the goggled-eyed rain god, of prime importance to the Mayans. Chaac has a four-fold aspect, with each aspect representing the cardinal directions and colors. Chaac brought clouds, thunder, lightning and most importantly, rain.
Kukulkan is the feathered serpent god of the Mayans. Kukulkan was worshipped by other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs, where the god was known as Quetzalcoatl. A Mayan cult grew up around Kukulkan, the priests of which helped peaceful trade and communications among the Mayans. Human sacrifices were offered to Kukulkan.
Mayan Religion and Cosmology
Much of the Mayan religion is not clearly understood today because of its complexity and a rich pantheon of deities. Scholars have been able to decipher some of the major elements of Mayan religion, but other elements may never be known.
To the Mayans, the world was flat with four strong gods at each of the corners representing the cardinal directions. Above the earth was heaven with its 13 layers, each represented by a god. Below was Xibalba or the underworld, a cold, unhappy place divided into nine layers, each with its own Death Lord. When a Mayan died of natural causes, his spirit went to the underworld where it had to work its way up through the layers to get to the supreme heaven. Women who died in childbirth, those who died as a sacrifice, and sacrificial victims of the ball court went to the supreme heaven immediately after death.
The Mayans were animists in their beliefs, that is, they believed that everything was imbued with a spiritual essence or force, including inanimate objects such as rocks and water. These spiritual essences were to be honored and recognized. The gods were the supreme spiritual forces, but even the spiritual essence of a tree or a frog deserved respect. Every Mayan had a spiritual guide, a Wayob that could appear as an animal or in a dream in order to help that person through life. Thus, to the Mayans, the entire world they lived in was filled with spiritual forces. At times, the spirits required appeasement; at other times, they could be helpful.
Cyclical Nature of Time
The Mayan idea of time was cyclical, cycles of creation and destruction, of seasons, of rituals and events, of life and death. When Mayans died, it was believed they had moved on, not ended forever. Maize was of such central importance to the Mayans that the life-cycle of the maize plant is at the heart of their religion as is the Maize God himself. All of Mayan life was intimately bound up in cycles, which tied in to the centrality of the Mayan calendars.
Importance of Calendar/Astronomy
Mayan priests closely tracked all the cycles important to Mayan life. Priests kept the calendars, the solar cycle calendar with its 365 days, the sacred calendar of 260 days and the Long Count Calendar. They also interpreted the cycles, looking for clues to the future and prophetic inspiration. Priests determined the days propitious for religious rituals and ceremonies. The priests who kept track of cycles and calendars were expert mathematicians and astronomers. Planet cycles were tracked in order to recognize patterns, which they then relayed to the king of the city. Mayans believed that the gods imparted meaning to celestial patterns from which their priests could foretell the future.
Features of Mayan Cities
Mayan architecture spanned over a thousand years. Many cities contain similar features such as stepped pyramids, temples, palaces, and carved stone monuments, but not all of them contain everyone. Each city is different, as the Mayans built to accommodate the natural surroundings. Rather than a rigid grid pattern, like that at Teotihuacan, the Mayans followed a more spontaneous approach to urban design.
The Mayans tended to build around a central plaza where they located the most important buildings, those involved with public ceremonies. Around the central plaza are the pyramids, some with a wooden temple built on top, the palaces, ball courts, temples, and elite dwellings. Stone walkways linked residential areas with the city center. Farther out, more plazas were built, around which were the homes of common people. All, however, could reach the center for the great religious ceremonies. The heart of every Mayan city was the central plaza.
The main buildings in a Mayan city were huge stone structures, remarkable to us today as they were built without metal tools, wheeled vehicles or draft animals. Most are made of limestone from local quarries where stoneworkers carved out the great blocks. Limestone is soft enough to work with stone tools while in the quarry but hardens when removed from their beds.
Pyramids and Temples
Mayan stepped pyramids are iconic of the great Mayan cities. Pyramids and temples were aligned astronomically to the orbits of the sun and moon. Some pyramids have temples on top. Mayan priests used the temples in ritual ceremonies and sacrifices. Many have elaborate carvings and glyphs on their sides. Some of the Mayan pyramids are huge, soaring up two hundred feet like that at El Mirador.
The royal family of each Mayan polity lived in the palace, often large, elaborate buildings with many stories. Palenque’s palace, for example, is probably the most beautiful with its courtyards, patios, and towers. The size of many palaces included more space than that required for even a royal family’s dwelling. Palaces, in these cases, were also administrative centers where government officials regulated trade and tribute.
Most Mayan cities feature ceremonial platforms of limestone, about 12 feet high, where religious rituals and public ceremonies were held. Highly decorated with carvings and glyphs, these platforms might hold altars or statues.
Ball courts are a common feature of Mayan cities, some with only one, some with many. The basic style is the same, but they varied greatly in size. As noted in the article on the Mayan ball game, it could be played simply for fun and athletics but it also had a deeply religious and ceremonial aspect as well. Scholars now think that the winners of a ceremonial ball game were the ones sacrificed, not the losers as had been assumed.
Mayan stelae monuments appear all over Mayan areas, usually in the great cities. Tall, elaborately carved stone pillars or shafts usually relate the lineage and heroic deeds of kings, often paired with round altars on top of ceremonial platforms. The earliest stela dated by the long count calendar appeared in Tikal. Mayan stelae celebrated a king’s divine mandate to rule.
Mayan Societal Collapses
While most readers are aware of the more famous collapse of the Classic era, an earlier Mayan collapse preceded it during the Late or Terminal Pre-Classic era. The reasons for the earlier collapse remain as murky as those for the latter, but both emptied out great Mayan cities and resulted no doubt in much death and destruction. Neither, however, ended Mayan civilization, as millions of Mayans remain in their historical homelands even today. Both collapses remain one of archeology’s greatest mysteries.
What caused these societal collapses? There are many theories, but archeological proof for one single cause is lacking. We know, from looking at the downfall of past civilizations such as Rome, that a combination of causes is far more likely than one distinct cause. Scholars today look at the many factors that could lead to the collapse of a vigorous society, both external and internal. Scholars cite environmental degradation as a likely component: soil erosion, decreasing fertility of the soil, volcanic eruption, deforestation, and drought were all elements of the ecological disaster for the Mayans. A population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment always leads to ecological destruction.
Other scholars look at societal pressures: decreasing natural resources that led to increased competition and endemic warfare over the same shrinking fertile lands. Political strife, the people losing faith in their leaders, elite competition, malnutrition, and disease combined with massive environmental problems led to a drastic decline of Mayan populations in the Pre-Classic from A.D. 100 to 250 and at the end of the magnificent Classic era from 900 to 1100.
Mayan scholars put forth a variety of theories regarding the Mayan collapses including endemic warfare, foreign invasion, epidemic diseases, disruption of trade routes, climate change, systemic ecological collapse, and long-lasting sustained drought. All of these and more may have contributed to massive declines in population and the abandonment of major Mayan cities. What is more remarkable is that the Mayans have survived it all, still retaining their culture and beliefs on the same land their ancestors held. While most Mayans today are Catholic, many retain elements of their culture and beliefs, even visiting their great cities of old.
The Mayan Post-Classic Era
While millions of Mayans died or at least disappeared during the years of the Classic era collapse, the Mayan civilization didn’t totally vanish. The great cities of the southern lowlands were abandoned and the remaining Mayans took their civilization to the northern Yucatan where they settled. Gradually, they built new cities. Other already settled Mayan cities expanded. Mayan life and society continued with a change of emphasis from the deep religiosity of the Classic period to a more secular society focused on economic growth and prosperity. This culture continued until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
The major cities of the Post-Classic era include Chichen-Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan. Other Mayan cities in northern Belize such as Santa Rita, Colba, and Lamanai also flourished as did some Mayan groups in the Peten region of Guatemala at Tayasal and Zacpeten.
The Mayans of the Yucatan, however, had some difficult challenges to overcome, namely switching from a rainforest environment to the much drier climate of the Yucatan. The Yucatan Mayans managed to switch their reliance on surface reservoirs of water to the use of groundwater resources such as the subterranean basins and sinkholes known as cenotes. Cenote Sagrada remains a sacred well within the grounds of Chichen-Itza. Arid on the surface, the Yucatan holds its water underground, which allowed the Mayans to flourish.
While in general the Mayans of the Post-Classic period moved away from the religious domination of the priesthood and divine rule of kings, they became more attentive to the rain gods, due to the aridity of the Yucatan. Carvings of Chac, the Mayan rain god, cover the buildings of Post-Classic era cities, especially Uxmal.
The Mayans came under the influence of the Toltecs, a people that moved into the area from Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacan. Sculptures and architectural style reflect this influence as does the Mayans sacrificing to the Toltec rain god, Tlaloc along with Chac. Scholars have yet to discover the exact political and social relationship of the Mayans and Toltecs, but both cultures influenced the other.
Chichen-Itza dominated the Yucatan during the earlier years of the Post-Classic era from A.D. 900 to 1250. After the decline of Chichen-Itza, its rival city Mayapan become dominant. The Mayans might have taken their name from this great Post-Classic city. Maritime trade around the Yucatan grew during the later years of the Post-Classic, from 1250 to the coming of the Spanish.
The Spanish began their conquest of the Mayans in 1527, but it took them 170 years to finish the process. Each Mayan city-state had to be conquered separately as there was no central Mayan government. As the Yucatan was poor in precious metals, the region was far less attractive to the Spanish than central Mexico. The Spanish finally won against the last Mayan city in the Peten in 1697. In the meantime, European diseases and enslavement demolished the Mayans and ended the Post-Classic era of Mayan civilization.
Women in Mayan Society
In early Mayan studies, archeologists assumed that women were subordinate to men in Mayan society. Men were kings and rulers of the city-state, and men were rulers in their homes. Recent studies haven’t changed that notion, but new research shows that women were more central to Mayan society than previously believed. During the Classical era, certain women held power as rulers in their cities, either as regents for an underage son or as widows of a ruler who died without an heir. Women also served as oracular priestesses at various sacred sites. Women worked in the Mayan economy, in agriculture, and especially in the textile industry. While most Mayan women-led traditional lives of caring for their households, others held far more power.
Women as Rulers
While women, in general, were not involved in Mayan politics, occasionally circumstances would place a woman in the role of ruler. During the Classical era, women gained political power as politics shifted and became more complex. Five noblewomen during this time became the ruling queens of their city-states. These women were Muwaan Mat and Lady Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque, Lady Eveningstar of Yazchilan, the Lady of Tikal, and Lady Six Sky of Naranjo.
Another powerful woman ruler was Lady K’abel, whose tomb was discovered recently. Lady K’abel was the military ruler of El Peru-Waka between A.D. 672 and 692. One of the hieroglyphics found at the tomb describes her as Lady Snake Lord, revealing that Lady K’able was a member of the powerful Snake dynasty of Calakmul.
Women as Priestesses
Although women were not usually considered part of the religious hierarchy, recent studies reveal that many women were priestesses at pilgrimage sites in the Post-Classical era in the Yucatan. Caves and cenotes—a natural pit containing groundwater—were sacred places to the Mayans where they would offer sacrifices. They were popular pilgrimage sites drawing elite Mayans as well as commoners, especially on the islands off the coast of the Yucatan. These sites were often dedicated to the moon goddess or to Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility, midwifery, and medicine. Priestesses there guided pilgrims along the pilgrimage trail. They also served as diviners or fortune-tellers for visitors.
Women in the Economy
Women worked in agricultural roles as farmers and herders. They also produced all the textiles of the Mayan economy, for both local markets and trade networks. As spinners, weavers, and dyers, women produced basic cloth for their families but also produced elaborate textiles as works of art. While most food products were consumed locally, some were traded widely such as cacao and vanilla beans. In some Mayan areas, women raised deer herds, ensuring a sufficient deer population to feed the population. Women’s work in agriculture and textiles made significant contributions to the Mayan economy.
Distinctive Features of the Maya Culture
Maya culture shared many characteristics with other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmec, Zapotec, or Aztec, but retained some features purely Mayan. The Maya, for example, had the only writing system that represented the spoken language of the Mayans. While other Mesoamericans also had a form of pictographic writing, the Maya had the only fully developed writing system. In fact, many aspects of Maya culture were more refined or perfected forms of art and architecture or the complex calendar shared among all Mesoamerican cultures. Because of extensive trading networks, all Mesoamerican cultures influenced the others.
Mayans lived in southern Mexico and northern Central America including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize. This area includes the northern lowlands, central lowlands, and southern highlands. These areas include rainforests, savannas, semi-arid highland plateaus, semi-alpine peaks, and swampy low areas. Such an array of landscapes is host to a rich diversity of wildlife and plants; Maya culture adapted creatively to this diverse natural world.
The Maya religion centers on the cyclical nature of time, in constant birth, death, and rebirth. Maya rituals follow both terrestrial and celestial cycles, which Maya priests were experts at reading. Maya civilization depended on maize or corn and the Maya maize god was of central importance. Like the Aztecs, Mayans practiced human sacrifice, although not to the extent of the Aztecs. Auto-sacrifice, or bloodletting, by rulers, priests and nobles were common. Great pyramids held temples and tombs amid huge central plazas in every Maya city. Religion was central and a vital component of Mayan life.
A Maya city can be recognized from the stepped pyramids, huge plazas, and expansive palaces built for kings and nobles. One religious ritual common to many Mesoamerican cultures was the sacred ball game, with a ball court built close to temples. Carved stone monuments called stelae are found all over the Mayan areas. Stelae were carved in bas relief to celebrate the life and deeds of Maya rulers and nobles and can still be seen today. With the invention of the corbelled arch, Maya builders created light and airy rooms that lent their temples and palaces a decided gracefulness.
The Maya developed a complex writing system that represented their spoken language, the only fully developed writing system from a Stone Age culture. Maya script relied on over a thousand glyphs or symbols which could represent either a syllable or a word. The Maya wrote books called codices made of bark paper and folded like an accordion.
Mathematics, Astronomy, Calendar
The Maya excelled in their use of mathematics especially as it pertained to astronomy and the working out of their calendar. The astronomical observations of the Maya were quite accurate, denoting the movements of the planets, particularly Venus, and the sun and moon. From these excellent astronomical notations, the Maya constructed and perfected the Mesoamerican calendar, which included both the sacred, ritual 260-day calendar and the 365-day solar calendar with the Long Count Calendar. The Long Count Calendar began on the date August 11, 3114 B.C., and entered its next cycle on December 21, 2012. The brouhaha over the end of the world date of December 21, 2012, began when the end of a long cycle was interpreted as the end of the world.
Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization Over 3,000 Years
Since Mayan culture formed, dissolved, and reformed over many hundreds of years, scholars divide the years into three main time periods: Pre-Classic (2000 B.C. to A.D. 250), Classic (A.D. 250 to 900), and Post-Classic (900 to 1519). These eras are briefly described here but will be more fully covered in later articles. Once the Spanish arrived in 1519 and conquered, the Colonial Era began. The Spanish brought European diseases that killed millions of Mesoamericans, including the Maya. Nevertheless, Mayans survived to the present time and still live on the same lands as their ancestors.
Over the centuries, Mayans built hundreds of stone cities, some of which were prominent in one era but faded into obscurity in later years. At the end of both the Pre-Classic and Classic eras, Mayan culture seemed to “collapse.” However, the Mayans never disappeared entirely. After a period of recovery, new Mayan cities were built and the culture continued to flourish.
The Maya were not a single group of people; rather they were different tribes, clans, and families of people, speaking a variety of Mayan languages who all shared strong cultural ties and traditions. The strength of Maya culture and civilization is evidenced by the great span of time it dominated Mesoamerica, over 3,000 years.
Scholars debate the beginning of Maya civilization, but generally, place the first settlements around 1800 B.C. in northern Guatemala. One of the oldest Pre-Classic sites is San Bartolo in the Maya lowlands. Their archeologists have dated murals to 100 B.C. and glyphs of the earliest Maya writing to 300 B.C. Other important Maya sites of this time include El Mirador, Nakbe, and Cival. Around A.D. 100, the Mayan people left their cities, although the reason for this decline is not known.
Maya scholars date the Classic era from A.D. 250 to 900. During these centuries, the Maya developed a more stratified society with farmers, traders, craftsmen, and hunters. They formed a hierarchy with a king at the top supported by a noble class of warriors, scribes, and priests. Most Maya were commoners, deeply involved in agriculture and construction. Monumental building projects created such important Maya cities as Tikal, Palenque, Copan, Caracol, and Calakmul. Intensive agriculture fed the large populations. The Maya developed long-distance trading networks with Teotihuacan, the Zapotec peoples, and the Caribbean island-based Tainos. Stepped pyramids commanded city centers along with expansive palaces of the rulers. The Maya developed complex hieroglyphic writing during these centuries. During the 9th century, the Maya once again experienced a societal collapse, and many major cities in the lowlands were abandoned. The Classic era collapse will be explored in full in another article.
The classic era is divided into the early (250 to 600), late (600 to 800), and terminal (900 to 1100).
During the early classic period, many Mayan cities developed in the southern lowlands, including Tikal in the Peten, Calakmul in Campeche, and Caracol in Belize. Stone monuments called stela portray dynastic rulers with emblems of power. More city-states developed in the lowlands including Palanque, Yaxchilan, Altar de Sacrificios, Copan, and Quirigua. The northern lowlands saw the growth of Edzna, Ek Balam, and Coba. All these cities traded with one another, although they also fought each other for control of trade. The great Mexican city of Teotihuacan influenced Maya culture during much of the early classics. Trade with that city brought a new weapon, the atlatl or spear thrower. Teotihuacan also extended political power into the Peten and may even have installed a dynastic ruler in Tikal.
City-states of the early classic held populations of 10,000 to 100,000 in a complex, stratified culture. At the top, a hereditary king and a small class of elite nobles ruled. Merchants, artisans, bureaucrats, engineers, architects, warriors, and artists all had their established places in Mayan society. Common laborers and slaves did the backbreaking work of intensive agriculture and massive building. Trading networks stretched throughout Mesoamerica. City-states jockeyed with each other for power and control, especially Tikal and Calakmul.
The late classic period from 600 to 900 was a time of growth and development for some great Mayan city-states and a time of deep decline for others. Tikal, for example, which had flourished and become quite powerful declined drastically a few hundred years later. Around 600, Teotihuacan was sacked and burned. Kaminaljuyu declined as well. Yet overall, many more Mayan city-states grew and prospered. Populations expanded and art, writing, astronomical knowledge, and calendrics reached their height. Palenque, Copan, Dos Pilas, and Uxmal flourished during this time. More Mayan cities were built.
Nevertheless, destructive wars began to take their toll during these years. Caracol allied with Calakmul to bring down Tikal. Cities expanded, made alliances, and undertook huge building projects. However, endemic warfare could and did bring them down. The 700s and 800s saw steep declines in many city-states for reasons scholars are still debating. By the 900s, a dozen major Mayan city-states and many smaller sites were abandoned.
Scholars call the years from 900 to 1100 the terminal classic for a reason. The tens of millions of Mayans alive in the 800s had exceeded the carrying capacity of even intensive agriculture. Drought, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, and deforestation led to malnutrition, starvation, and disease. To the environmental factor, add constant warfare and loss of faith in ruling dynasties. While scholars cite no one principal reason for the collapse of the Mayan classic period, no doubt complex political, social, and environmental factors led to its decline.
The 9th century saw a change in location for major Maya sites as they moved from the lowlands to the Yucatan peninsula. Gradually the Maya once again began building, establishing cities such as Chichen Itza, Tula, Uxmal, Edzna, and later, Mayapan. The Yalain, Ko’woj, and Itza Maya peoples remained in Guatemala’s Peten district. Their main sites include Tayasal, Zacpeten, and Q’umarkaj, the city of the K’iche (or Quiche) Maya who produced the Popol Vuh, a fascinating collection of historiography and Mayan myths. The Post-Classic era continues through the coming of the Spanish until the conquistadors finally subjugated the Yucatan in 1697.
Overview of Mayan Art
The 700 years of the Mayan Classical saw a great flowering of Mayan art. Stone carvings became ubiquitous throughout the Mayan region. The Mayans covered buildings and pyramid stairways with depictions of rulers and hieroglyphic writings. They also created thousands of stone stelae, great slabs of limestone carved into images of kings and nobility, and covered with writings describing their lineages and deeds of valor.
The Mayan Classical age reveals an abundance of energetic artworks in stone, shells, bone, wood, obsidian, jade, silver, clay, stucco, textiles, and precious metals. Gold and silver were never abundant in Mayan regions, so artists mainly forged gold and silver into jewelry. Elite Mayans, the rulers, and nobility commissioned works of art in order to establish their status as elites. Painted vessels, stucco portraits, carved obsidian mirrors, and tiny clay figurines all turn up in the tombs of nobles and kings. While kings commissioned great works of art for public viewings such as statues, stelae, and temple murals, nobles more often bought smaller, exquisite artworks for personal adornment and home decoration.
The artists and artisans creating these works came from every level of society. Many were elites themselves, the sons and daughters of rulers and government officials. Others were commoners whose talents and artistic genius led them to their crafts. For some Mayans, their art or craft was a family business, where every member of the family had a role. Mayan ceramic workers, potters, and figurine makers expressed individual talents in their work, even signing their finished products. An individual artist’s works occasionally drew the attention of the nobility, and elites competed to obtain those particular creations.
While most Mayan textiles have not survived the ages, bas relief, statues and murals show examples of the textile artisans’ work. Mayan women were the main textile workers, weaving and dyeing the fabrics—cotton, maguey cloth, or woolens—then embroidering or otherwise embellishing the cloth. While Mayan clothing was generally simple, clothing decorations were not. Woven tapestries and brocades decorated homes as curtains, drapes, and floor coverings. Mayan communities had their own textile design that women would weave into the cloth produced there.
Mesoamerica’s humid climate ravaged paints as well as textiles, but many examples of Mayan paintings survived in Mayan cities in the homes of the elite. Walls, ceilings, temple arches, and caves are covered in murals depicting the gods, elites, or even scenes from daily life. Red and black are the most common colors of paint, but yellow and especially Maya blue can still be found. The bright turquoise Maya blue color was unique to the Maya, who invented the technique of making the color.
From the great public stone works to the tiny molded figurines depicting humans, animals or mythic creatures, the Mayan Classical era produced a huge variety of artworks. Regional styles in ceramics or textiles were traded throughout the Mayan region. Some Mayan cities reveal the influence of other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Toltec or Teotihuacan. Nevertheless, all the artworks of this exuberant culture are distinctly Mayan.
The Mayan Ball Game
The Mesoamerican ball game was played, experts think, by all the cultures in the region, beginning with the Olmecs who may have invented it. The ball game goes back 3,500 years, making it the first organized game in the history of sports. Mayans loved the game and everyone played at various times, but it also held deep religious, ritual meaning as well. For that reason, it was sometimes played just as a game, with lots of gambling on the teams. At other times, the game became spectacle and ritual, with the city rulers playing captive warriors in rigged, ritual games. The captives would lose the game and then be sacrificed.
Most, but not all, Mayan cities had ball courts, many more than one. Thirteen hundred ball courts are scattered throughout Mesoamerica and all of them have the same I shape, that is, two sloping walls for the ball to bounce on, a long, narrow playing field, and two end zones. Guatemala, home of the earliest Mayan cities, holds over 500 ball courts alone.
While no one knows the exact rules of the ball game, Spaniards who saw the Aztec games in the 1500s reported that two teams of two to five players had to keep the ball in the air without using their hands or feet. They hit the ball with their upper arms, thighs, or hips. The rubber balls they used were of varying weight and size, from the size of a softball to a soccer ball. Solid rubber balls were heavy—up to eight or nine pounds—and could cause serious injury or even death. Games were won mostly by points. Around A.D. 1200, stone circles with a hole in the middle were attached high up on the walls of the ball court, up to six meters high. While getting a ball through the hole was rare, if a player got the ball through the hole, it was an instant win.
Besides games just for fun and athletics, ceremonial games carried a great deal of religious significance, acting out the creation myth, or keeping the sun and moon in their accustomed orbits. While modern readers may put much weight on such a reason, to the Maya it was a matter of life and death and one of the reasons for human sacrifice. The gods needed human blood and hearts to keep the sun and moon in orbit. Some ball games were played to resolve bitter disputes between rival cities or as a proxy for war. The Maya also saw the game as a battle between the gods of death and the gods of life or between good and evil. They also saw it as a reminder of the Hero Twins, who overcame death and became demi-gods themselves. Thus, the game symbolizes regeneration and life.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Mayans. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Mayans.
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