History of the Mayas
The Entrance in the North Wall
The Mayas created one of the great cultures of
Mesoamerica during the pre-Hispanic era, building ceremonial centers where they developed mathematics, astronomy and the calendar, hieroglyphic writing, architecture and various aspects of art
and culture. The Mayas occupied a wide area with such geographically diverse features as the mountains
of Central America, the Peten region of Guatemala and the limestone plains of the Yucatan Peninsula. Their
territory stretched over what are now the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Tabasco and eastern
Chiapas in Mexico, most of Guatemala, Belize and the west of Honduras and El Salvador. As a result, their cultural traits were similar, but show local variations.
(OCR'd directly from my guide book!)
In ancient times the Mayas were divided into groups having similar
physical characteristics, speaking languages that belonged to the same linguistic
stock and sharing a common historical tradition. Research by experts has shown
that around 2500 B.C. a group speaking Proto-Maya lived in what is now
Huehuetenango, Guatemala. In time, this ancestral language split up into the
different Mayance languages, and migration of the groups eventually led to the
definition of the area where the Maya culture developed.
These migrations not only caused separation into different groups but also brought
them into contact with the members of other cultures. This explains why experts
have different opinions about the origins of the Maya culture. Some assert that
it arose in the mountains of Guatemala, where they began to grow maize, and later
moved to the north and west, without denying the possibility of influence from
other cultures including Olmec as one of the most important. Others believe that
it originated in northern Tabasco and southern Veracruz where the groups that
would later form the Maya culture came into contact with the Olmecs in about the
The Maya culture
The Olmec culture is often called the "Mother Culture" since various
ideas were taken from it that were used in the later development of
other great cultures, and its influence stretched from its home on the
Gulf Coast to different regions of Mesoamerica. The Mayas adopted and adapted
several features of Olmec culture, including architectural elements and the
basic number and calendar system that would later become the accurate Maya calendar.
Maya chronology is similar to that of the rest of Mesoamerica but is more
precise because explorations of the area have produced complete sequences of
pottery, and the deciphering of time hieroglyphs has made it possible to
correlate it with our own calendar.
At the beginning (500 B.C. to 325 A.D.), although the typically Maya was
beginning to appear, particularly in the clay figurines of humans that show their
characteristic physical features, Olmec influence is still present, as can be seen
in the decoration on some of their first buildings.
From 325 A.D. Maya culture began to develop and spread; external
influences disappeared, the typical corbel arch was used in buildings
and important dates referring to history and myths were recorded in
hieroglyphs. Culture and art reached their peak between 625 and 800 in such
areas as the calendar, astronomy, architecture, sculpture and pottery;
numerous cities and ceremonial centers were founded.
All this splendor came to an end between 800 and 925 A.D. for reasons as
yet undetermined, although possible ones are the exhaustion of agricultural
land, changes in climate and a rebellion of the lower classes against their
rulers. Maya culture slipped into decline; both cities and ceremonial centers were
practically abandoned and in time covered by vegetation.
For the next 50 years only isolated groups remained in the area. Their
cultural level was low since all those who understood the calendar
and the keepers of various types of knowledge were gone. With them,
Maya culture proper had disappeared: a period followed that shows other
From 976 to 1200 A.D. the Maya tradition became mixed with the Toltec,
originating from central Mexico, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl began -- the Toltec
god called Kukulcan on the Peninsula. Toltec influence is also evident in
buildings and decoration as art began to imitate what there had been at Tula, but
modified by Maya artists. At this same time, ties were created between the
governing families of different cities, for example the one between the Xiu of
Uxmal, the Itza of Chichen and the Cocom of Mayapan around 1000 A.D.
Little by little Mayapan was gaining supremacy and between 1200 and 1540
there were conflicts between towns governed by families of Nahua origin and
those ruled by Mayas. As a result, in about 1441 the Xiu of Uxmal attacked
Mayapan and massacred the Cocom, which finally divided the population and
impoverished their culture. Although the Mayas tried to reinstate their former
tradition they only succeeded in bringing back the use of their language, and
when the Spanish arrived on the Peninsula they found a people that had lost
The pre-Hispanic Mayas were one of the most amazing civilizations of
their times, with clearly defined social strata. The elite devoted themselves
to trade, war and religion. Architects, who belonged to the same
rank, planned buildings while stonemasons were in a socially inferior class along
with governors' servants and the different craftsmen.
Finally, the lowest class was composed of farmers, who grew mainly maize,
beans and squash together with yucca, manioc and sweet potato.
Priests were very important as they directed ceremonies and rites to honor
the gods and seek their favors. Among the most important deities where the
creator, Hunab Ku; the god of Rain, Chaac; the lord of the Heavens, Itzamna;
the god of Wind, Ik; the patron of Cacao and War, Ek Chuak; the goddess
of the Moon and Childbirth, Ixchel; and the god of Death, Ah Puch.
Astronomers, who devoted their time to finding harmony in the universe and
its recurring cycles of time, had to make complicated calculations to predict
natural events and connect them with the fate of the population; scribes
recorded history, religion and mythology using a complicated system of hieroglyphs,
while painters and sculptors depicted both mythical and religious subjects as
well as the deeds of governors. In architecture, characteristic elements were
combined to produce the different styles of Peten, Palenque, Rio Bec, Chenes,
Puuc and finally Maya-Toltec.
Their numerical system was vigesimal; symbols were given a value
according to position and the concept of zero existed. Three symbols
were used in writing numbers: a dot for one, a bar for five and a stylized
shell for zero. All other numbers were written by combining these. The
Mayas also devised glyphs for the numbers 0 through 19, which were often
used instead of the other system.
Maya philosophy is very special, since no other culture of the period was so
obsessed with time. Like other peoples of Mesoamerica they had two calendars;
the ritual one, called Tzolkin that was used for calculating religious
ceremonies and festivals and predicting the destinies of people, and the solar
calendar or Haab, containing 18 months of 20 days each plus five unlucky days
called uayeb (18 x 20 + 5 = 365 days). The two calendars were used in
conjunction, and the Maya calculations were so accurate that they were able
to make exact reckonings, predict eclipses and plot the orbit of the planet Venus.
All photos © 1997 Scott Sakurai
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