The Maya

Mayan civilization flourished in Mesoamerica, reaching its zenith from c. 250 to 900 CE. Along with other pre-Columbian groups, the Mayans developed a spectacular culture filled with art, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy.

The Maya traded extensively with other civilizations like the Aztec, Olmec, and Zapotec. Trade goods and information were shared widely. The Mayans are notable for developing written language into an art form, a feat not equaled by any other civilization in the area.

The first communities which can be clearly distinguished as Mayan were established in 1800 B.C. These early people relied on agriculture rather than the nomadic existence of hunter gatherers. They began to create pottery and clay figurines, firing them for strength and durability.

By the Classic Era (circa 200 to 900 A.D.), Mayan art had reached a complexity equal to that of the Greeks and Romans. Carvings, stucco reliefs, and statues are all that are left. Often, traces of paint are found on these artworks, hinting at their former richness and vitality.

The Mayans were capable of incredible architectural feats. Pyramids and temples were erected, used as places of worship. Religious ceremonies were often held on ceremonial platforms decorated with carvings, altars, and other decorations. The elite of each city lived in large elaborate palaces near the city center.

Perhaps the most important structures to the Maya were the observatories. Here, the Maya would watch the heavens. They were superb astronomers who watched the phases of the moon and the movement of planets like Venus, seeking clues to life. They often used to calendars simultaneously – a 365 day calendar, representing one full year, and a 260 day lunar calendar used for ceremonial purposes. After centuries of observation, the Mayans were even able to predict eclipses and other phenomena.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Mayan architecture lies in the limited resources available to the people. Unlike other civilizations, the Mayans had no draft animals, no carts, and no wheels. They had no metal tools to work the stone, and no pulleys to push it into place. Instead, the Mayan civilization relied on brute strength, quarrying local limestone and finishing it with mortar.

While several writing systems have been developed in Mesoamerica, the Mayans elevated writing to an art. It is called a logo-syllabic writing system, and each syllabic symbol is important to understanding. After the Spanish conquest, many who could read the ancient texts were killed through war or disease. Scientists continue to decipher these ancient texts, seeking a deeper understanding of Mayan life.

During the eight and ninth centuries, Mayan centers in the South seem to have been abandoned. The reasons for this are unclear. Overpopulation may have been a contributing factor. There is evidence of possible environmental disaster at this time as well, possibly caused by a 200 year long drought. Whatever the reason, the southern centers were abandoned although the northern centers persisted.

During the 15th and 16th century, the Spaniards arrived. The subsequent conquest of Mesoamerican peoples was devastating to the Mayan peoples, who put up fierce resistance. The Maya were finally subdued in 1697.

Although many Maya were killed by war and disease, some still survive to this day. They can still be found in the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala.

Mayan temple at Palenque, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Stucco relief from Palenque, courtesy of Wikipedia.