| | About Us | | |



Maya Culture

Motul de San José, (Ik 'site) Ball game scene.

The first concrete traces of the Mayan civilization date back to the Preclassic period around 1,800 BC in the Mirador Basin in Petén, northern Guatemala, though some settlements are thought to be over 6,000 years old (Coe, 2005). Signs of chiefdom political organization emerged during the Middle Preclassic era (ca. 1,000–400 BC), leading to the birth of a ruling elite and the development of city-state governing systems in the Late Preclassic (ca. 400 BC–100 AD), leading to rivalry and wars among them. (Sharer and Tucker, 2006).Handcrafts in Chichicastenango

See Dr. Richard Hansen's Lecture in UFM, about Mirador Basin, Guatemala on Feb 5 2007

The Mayans were the only ancient American civilization with a recorded history of their own, the Mayans broadcast on stone billboards (stelas), the loudest messages of all Mesoamerican cultures. They recorded on lithic monuments, pottery, papers, and skins, the grand events of their abstruse culture. Though their hieroglyphs remain to be totally deciphered, we may soon have the benefit of viewing an advanced civilization built upon "primary technology" taken to the fullest understanding of nature's provisions. In other words the Mayans went about as far as they could go within a category of earth and stone technology. Their knowledge of the Primary Technology (Nature) surely surpasses ours.

The Maya flourished thanks to a deep understanding of their geographic setting, and surprising adaptations to the environmentalThe 4 Ik or Winds, conception of the earth Ik Chan 4 winds vaseconditions that surrounded them. They conceived the world as a quadrangular space that was ordered and measured at the time of creation. The gods created the face of the earth, u wach ulew, as a propitious place for human life. In the words of the Popol Vuh:

"All then was measured and staked out into four divisions, doubling over and stretching the measuring cords of the womb of sky and the womb of earth. Thus were established the four corners, the four sides"

The ancient Maya culture was the more advanced in the American continent, moreover, the World of the Maya has many faces: some of them ancient, as found carved on Sculptures, paintings and towering temples, others as modern as those of the people who live in Guatemala today. They are the descendants of the ancient Maya people.

The rabinal Achí Play, (UNESCO World Heritage) Photo:  The Rabinal Achi, A UNESCO Oral Masterpiece  

Guatemala is a showcase of natural history and dramatic Landscapes, with 37 volcanoes, beautiful lakes, Tropical rain forest, dense pine forest, and more, but its greatest asset is the rich and colorful traditions of theSanta María and Santiaguito various ethnic communities, 23 in total. Each group has its own language, its special folklore, yet they share a common ancestral heritage as expressed in religion, music, dance, a Theater play The Rabinal Achi foods and even social organization.  Maya influences can be found in both the performing and design arts. The handcraft of textiles, in particular, is wonderfully colored, and part of the everyday dress, a big difference with its neighboring countries.

The Maize God being dressed by ladies, then paddled in a canoe (Vase in Popol Vuh Museum, Guatemala)

 Most archaeologists agree that ancient Guatemala was the cultural and commerce center of the Americas, and that the Mayan civilization, is the jewel of all  ancient American cultures, and one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. Once centered in what is now Guatemala, extending through-out the nation and into neighboring Chiapas, Yucatán, Campeche, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras a region known as MesoaméricaThe investigations in La Blanca, El Mesak,  Ujuxte, Monte Alto, Balberta and others in the Pacific Lowlands, the very early sites of Naranjo and Kaminal Juyú  in the Highlands and several more in The Mirador Basin, located in

   Classic Maya Ahau

the Petén Lowlands, could produce information about the development of social stratification, the emergence of

Classic Maya Ahaui'il

 an elite, and the process of urbanization in an area which is critical for understanding the emergence of civilization in Mesoamerica. The improvement in the food supply led to an increase in population, a higher standard of living and more time to experiment with agricultural techniques and artistic niceties. Decorative pots and healthier, fatter corn strains were produced. Even at the beginning of the Pre Classic period, people in Guatemala spoke an early form of the Mayan language or Proto-Maya. Some archeologist think that the Olmec also spoke a Proto-Maya language.

 According to Thompson (1960:8), Maya civilization was based primarily on maize, and subsequent investigations have reiterated not only the important role of maize in Maya subsistence, although not the "staple food",  as thought before, but also the sophisticated intensive agricultural techniques practiced in the Maya region as early as 800 B.C. such as the irrigation canals and Damn systems in The Mirador Basin and Rio Azul. (Matheny 1978). Maize also carried enormous cosmological significance for the Maya. Humans were created from maize by the gods, who wished to be honored and sustained by their creations (Tedlock 1985:77-80), acts that were accomplished by ritual bloodletting.

Main Trade Routes, Note that Guatemala was the Major producer and exporter
Mesoamerican Commerce Routes and goods production, from the Pre Classic to the Post Classic

The Mayan Culture developed between 3000 and 2000 BC.  Pollen samples has shown the establishments of agriculture  in Guatemala by 4000 BC, and around 2500 BC initiated the building of small cities with some permanent architecture all over the country (Pre-Classic).  According to Houston the Cho'lan language, the precursor to the Maya, originated in the Guatemalan Highlands, ca 3000 BC. In the tropical lowlands of El Mirador Basin, in the Petén Lowlands, Northern Guatemala,  that lead to huge cities like Mirador, Nakbé, San Bartolo, Tintal and others, although there were some early cities in the Guatemala Highlands (Naranjo, Kaminal Juyú, Nebaj, Guaytán, El Portón), and in the Pacific Low Lands (Tak’alik Abaj, Chocolá), that does not reach the size of those in Petén where they build at least 27 big cities and countless  smaller ones at its peak  around 250 BC, then, suffered a first collapse around 150 AD, and resurging on 250 AD (Early Classic) with large cities such as Tikal, Naranjo, Yaxhá, Cancuén, Machaquilá, Ceibal, Piedras Negras, Quiriguá, Uaxactún,  and many more until their final collapse around 900 A.D. (Terminal-Classic). 

 Merchants were essential fpr the Maya Culture
Maya Merchant in the Royal Court of Waka´

By the time of the Arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, the so called Mayan culture, found in the Yucatán peninsula, was more a mix of Toltec and Aztec influences whom took their Classic Maya Cosmovision Calendar, Mathematics and even  Religion and Medicine practices with reminiscences of the Classic Maya Civilization, than the Original Maya Culture, which had already faded 6 centuries before, with many of its great cities and monuments deserted and engulfed by the Rain Forest.

 Decline and eventual "Collapse" of the Mayan civilization has been attributed to inveracities wars, famine, natural calamity, disruption of trade routes, popular unrests and more, but the real reason is still a mystery.  Surely it was a mix of all those theories, but the constant need for cal (stucco) to cover the big Temples, most certainly produced a complete deforestation in a land not suited for agricultural use, but for Forestry, due to its very little humus contain. To cover just one Temple with stucco, The Mayas had to cut 400 Ha. of forest, because only green wood reaches enough temperature to form it, and there were hundreds of big structures in their cities.

 Palace in South Acrópolis, TikalFrom the magnificent ruins they left behind, archaeologists and scientists have learned much of the warlike and highly complex Maya society. The Maya developed a unique society that boasted a rather complex social, political and scientific structure. Mayan research into the fields of mathematics, astronomy and the measurement of time is truly astonishing. Their hieroglyphic script, that was made  possible for modern scholars to interpret, thanks to a Russian soldier, Yuri I. Knorosov, (that found a manuscript ordered by an Spaniard priest Miguel De Anda in the XVI century, to try to understand the Mayan religion),  in the Vaults of Berlin’s Library,  Maize god, San Bartolo Mural, Preclassic at the end of the  world war II, luckily for us, he was an epigrapher  witch figured out the  until then, obscure hieroglyphs, without ever seeing a Mayan ruin,   helping to understand their believes and culture, the German Archeologist Heinrich Berlin, described the "Emblem Glyph", or name glyph that was used only by important cities, and finally another Russian, Tatiana Proskuriakov decipher the Maya writing in Piedras Negras, Petén in the 1950’s decade.whistle from Waka

 Mayan art was equally impressive, as is evidenced by the careful urban planning of their ceremonial centers; their architecture based on the use of terraced pyramids; their sculpture, preserved in stelas, altars and historical monuments; the vestiges of their paintings; and the beauty of their ceremonial or daily use pottery,  Jade, Obsidian , Flint, and other materials for jewelry, warfare, and other uses.

Maya vase from Uaxactún

Literally thousands (around 5,000), of archeological sites throughout Guatemala alone have shown the Maya to be a people of  great intelligence, determination and ability. While Europe still languished in the Dark Ages, the Maya Astronomers evolved a Solar  calendar more accurate than that of today,  also had a Ceremonial Calendar of 260 days, (They used at least 18 different calendars, based in movements of the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and several more celestial movements) its chronology was divided in Baktúns (20 years) they fully comprehended the theory of mathematics and developed the concept of zero, that allowed them to make difficult calculations, but its system was vigesimal (Based on 20), not decimal as ours. Maya astronomers accurately traced the path of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and other planets, and also predicted solar and lunar eclipses.           

Their hieroglyphic records and iconography have shed much light about the Maya, and its  architects designed huge pyramids, plazas and temples, build aqueducts and roads (Sacbéob) that connected different cities.

The ancient Maya considered flat foreheads and crossed eyes beautiful. To achieve these effects, children would have boards bound tight to their heads and wax beads tied to dangle before their eyes. Both men and women made cuts in their skin to gain much-desired scar markings, and the elites sharpened their teeth to points, and made incrustations with Jade and Pyrite, another mark of wealth and beauty.

 The recreation most favored by the Maya was the ball game, courts for which can still be seen at many archaeological sites. It’s thought that the players of La Corona (Site Q), Panelthe oldest team sport in the world, had to try to keep a hard rubber ball airborne using any part of their body other than their hands, head or feet. A wooden bat may also have been used. The ball game was taken very seriously and was often used to settle disputes between rival communities. On occasion, it is thought, the captain of the losing team was punished by execution.

At the top of the Classic Maya hierarchy was the ruler, generally called the ahaw (“lord”) or k’uhul ahaw (“divine lord”), who resided in a capital city. In some capitals, such as Tikal, the ruler was also called the kaloomte’ or ochk’in kaloomte’,  meaning Supreme lord of War. Arrayed around the capitals and major cities were satellite cities and towns, administered by sublords. In some areas, such as the Usumacinta, these sublordsAhau (Ajaw) in Throne, Petén Classic figurine, note the Maya Blue, that can't be reproduced up to today were called sajalob, but in other areas that term was never used. Within the category of sub lords there was internal ranking as well, with some individuals designated “head sublord” or b’aah sahal.

Maya society was broken into a class structure with four main levels: the nobility (Almehenob'), the priesthood (Ah'kinob'), the common people (Ah'chembal uinieol'), and the slaves (Pencat'ob')

There were also Classic Maya terms for occupations, such as Itz’aat, “artisan”; Uxul, “stonecutter”; b’aah uxul, “head stonecutter”; Ah Bich’ul, “sculptor” or “polisher”; Ah Tz’ib, “scribe”; and for Priest or Shamans as: Ah K’uhun, Ah K’uhul Hu’n, and Ah K’uhuun, terms variously interpreted as “he of the holy books,” “Classic Ceremonial composed Jar, Armadillo as motif, Guatemala Highlands, both can be fill.keeper of the paper/headbands,” or “he who worships.

In the Agricultural field they developed innovative techniques, using the fertile soils of the swamps (Humedales or Bajos), and irrigation systems. In the tropical lowlands of Guatemala, the Maya built an agrarian civilization that supported the highest population densities in the pre-industrial Americas at least 20 times what it is in today’s Guatemala, even though, their biggest cities were away from the water. At its peak, the Maya civilization and economy functioned through many states each run by an aristocratic family which claimed direct links with the Gods, mostly the God of Maize, and passed ruling power from father to son in the manner of royalty.

The Tombs where elaborated and with many objects, the jars are an offering for water. The green and blue s€†€¢ìRPgjade symbolize maize, or corn. The upright jade axes symbolize sprouting maize plants. This is a cosmic offering. A cruciform is the shape of the Maya cosmos, with the Maya world-tree or maize plant at the center of the cross-shaped opening into the natural rock. The maize god/world-tree and the sun god are sometimes conflated in a single figure with whichCarved Boxes in Hul nal Ye cave Classic Maya kings identified themselves, as the ruler shape in the stelas suggest.

Although the Mayans lacked metal tools, they use obsidian a crystal rock as hard as the iron, and shaper than today's steel surgical blades for their tools to carve the lime stone in blocks to build their cities, and for their weapons, such as, mazes, arrow and lance heads, as well as ritual knives, the wheel was used only for toys. Their main goods involved in trading were: Sea Shells from the Caribbean sea and the Pacific Ocean, (their currency during the Pre-Classic), Cacao seeds (used as currency as well as a ceremonial beverage, the world’s favorite: Chocolate, wax, honey, salt, furs, feathers, specially from its Sacred bird, the Quetzal, used only by the kings, jade, obsidian, cotton and ceramics, using rivers and lakes as highways.

Maya Culture Collapse

The question that has fascinated scholars and the public, since 19th-century explorers began discovering "lost cities" in the Petén: How could one of the ancient world's great civilizations simply dissolve?

Yaxhá Temple 2 in East Acrópolis, note the round corners. This is the one used by night in CBS' Survivor GuatemalaEarly speculation centered on sudden catastrophe, perhaps volcanism or an earthquake or a deadly hurricane. Or perhaps it was a mysterious disease, untraceable today—something like the Black Death in medieval Europe or the smallpox that wiped out Native American populations at the dawn of the colonial age. Modern researchers have discarded these one-event theories, however, because the collapse extended over at least 200 years, "There isn't any single factor that everybody agrees on" says Southern Illinois University's, Prudence M. Rice.

Scholars have looked instead at combinations of afflictions in different parts of the Maya world, including overpopulation,
Warfare, environmental damage,  drought, and famine, (a shorter stature has been documented comparing skeleton from the early, middle and terminal Classic). "You come away feeling that anything that can go wrong did," during the Terminal Classic, says Rice.



Locations of visitors to this page


Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:35 -0500
© 2005 Copyright, Authentic Maya