The Maya Civilization
The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica . Initially established during the Pre-Classic period (c. 2000 BC to AD 250), according to the Mesoamerican chronology. Many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period (c. AD 250 to 900), and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish.
THE MAYAN CITY
The Maya homeland, called Mesoamerica, spans five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. There are now indications that the people we call the Maya had migrated from North America to the highlands of Guatemala perhaps as long ago as 2600 B.C., living an agricultural, village-based life.
The height of the Maya Civilization in the Classic Period produced the incredible cultural advances for which they are well known. The Maya believed deeply in the cyclical nature of life – nothing was ever `born’ and nothing ever `died’ – and this belief inspired their view of the gods and the cosmos. Their cosmological views, in turn, encouraged their imaginative efforts in architecture, mathematics, and astronomy.
The great pyramids which characterize so many Mayan sites are replicas of the great mountain of the gods known as the Witzob. The cyclical nature of human existence is mirrored in the famous Maya calendar. The depictions of the many gods and goddesses all go toward their function in helping one through the cycles of life or hindering. Religion influenced most aspects of Maya life. The Maya believed in many gods. There were gods of corn, of death, of rain, and of war. Gods could be good or evil, and sometimes both. Gods also were associated with the four directions and with different colors: white for north, black for west, yellow for south, red for east, and green in the center. The Maya believed that each day was a living god whose behavior could be predicted with the help of a system of calendars.
The Maya developed a 260-day religious calendar, which consisted of thirteen 20-day months. A second 365-day solar calendar consisted of eighteen 20-day months, with a separate period of 5 days at the end. The two calendars were linked together like meshed gears so that any given day could be identified in both cycles. The calendar helped identify the best times to plant crops, attack enemies, and crown new rulers. The Maya based their calendar on careful observation of the planets, sun, and moon. Highly skilled Maya astronomers and mathematicians calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days. This is only .0002 of a day short of the figure generally accepted today! The Maya astronomers were able to attain such great precision by using a math system that included the concept of zero. The Maya used a shell symbol for zero, dots for the numbers one to four, and a bar for five. The Maya number system was a base-20 system. They used the numerical system primarily for calendar and astronomical work.
The Maya also developed the most advanced writing system in the ancient Americas. Maya writing consisted of about 800 hieroglyphic symbols, or glyphs. Some of these glyphs stood for whole words, while others represented syllables. The Maya used their writing system to record important historical events, carving their glyphs in stone or recording them in a bark-paper book known as a codex. Only three of these ancient books have survived. Other original books telling of Maya history and customs do exist, however. Maya peoples wrote these down after the arrival of the Spanish. The most famous of these books, the Popol Vuh, recounts the Highland Maya’s version of the story of creation. “Before the world was created, Calm and Silence were the great kings that ruled,” reads the first sentence in the book. “Nothing existed, there was nothing.”
The causes for the Maya's decline are numerous, but one of the central causes is that the demands they placed upon their environment grew beyond the capacity of the land. At it's peak, there were about 15 million people occupying the Mayan world. Over-population of Mayan metropolises are suspected to have gone beyond levels that the Mayan political and social networks were able to support, resulting in social unrest and revolution.
The remarkable history of the Maya ended in mystery. In the late 800's, the Maya suddenly abandoned many of their cities. Invaders from the north, the Toltec, moved into the lands occupied by the Maya. These warlike peoples from central Mexico changed the culture. The high civilization of Maya cities like Tikal and Copán disappeared. No one knows exactly why this happened, though experts offer several overlapping theories. By the 700's, warfare had broken out among the various Maya city states. Increased warfare disrupted trade and produced economic hardship. In addition, population growth and over-farming may have damaged the environment, and this led to food shortages, famine, and disease. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500's, the Maya were divided into small, weak city-states that gave little hint of their former glory. As the Maya civilization faded, other peoples of Mesoamerica were growing in strength and sophistication. Like the Maya, these peoples would trace some of their ancestry to the Olmec. Eventually, these people would dominate the Valley of Mexico and lands beyond it.