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#494710 - 08/17/14 10:39 AM The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas
Marty Offline

Obscured by the fame of the Aztec empire or shrouded by a veil of mystery, the cultural history of the Mayas has generally been misunderstood by the public. Maya civilization developed in a territory the size of Germany and Denmark together (nearly 400,000 km2).

This vast territory shows three distinctive ecological and cultural sub-regions: the Northern Lowlands, which covers the Yucatan peninsula; the Southern Lowlands, which includes Belize, the Guatemalan Petén region and parts of Chiapas; and the Southern Highlands, which refers to the Guatemalan mountainous region. Conventionally, scholars tend to talk of three major periods in the history of Maya civilization: the Preclassic (2,000 BC – 300 AD), the Classic (300 – 900 AD), and the Postclassic (900 – 1550 AD).

pic1

Map showing the main regions of Maya culture

 

This periodization only covers the cultural development before the European arrival, thus, implying that the Maya became extinct after this. Yet, the Maya have continued to develop and adapt through the historic periods that I characterise as the European Colonization (1550 – 1821 AD), and the National Modern (1821 AD – to date).

pic2

Rainforest inhabitants: tapir (top L), jaguarundi (centre L), ocellated turkey (bottom L), ceiba (silk-cotton) tree (R) 

Material evidence places a distinctive Maya culture along the Pacific Coast of Guatemala at 1,800 BC. The environmental setting where the Maya emerged consists of a thick evergreen rainforest canopy rising 40 to 70 m. above the ground, populated by mahogany, rosewood, chicle, tropical cedar, rubber, sapodilla, native palms, and the sacred Maya tree, ceiba (Ceiba pedandra).

Fauna in the Maya region comprised the tapir, jaguar, jaguarundi, margay, white-lipped and collared peccaries, paca, and white-tailed and brocket deer in the wild; and the dog, stingless bee, Muscovy duck, and turkey in the backyard. Fishing villages provided marine fishes, mollusks, and other species.

Although slash-and-burn, multi-crop (maize, beans, and squash) agriculture has been prevalent for centuries, the Maya also implemented intensive agricultural systems in different landscapes, such as terraces in hillslopes, canals and drained fields in swamps, and orchards in a managed rainforest.

pic3

The Maize God emerges from the turtle-shaped earth, flanked by the Hero Twins; 8th century Maya ceramic plate 

The Late Preclassic period (300 BC – 300 AD) witnessed the emergence of hierarchical society and sacred kingship. Rulers founded their leadership in specialised knowledge and shamanic practice, which linked them to the creator deities. Notable among these were Itzamná and Ix Chel: the Primordial Parents, Kinich Ahau: the Sun God, Pahuatun: the Quadripartite Skybearer, the Youthful Maize God, the Plumed Serpent, the Old Rain God and his Wife, the Hero Twins, among others.

Maize was the most important crop for the Maya, who believed the Creators used ground corn to form the bodies of the first humans. Preclassic Maya cities showed temples decorated with painted stucco masks. Building projects were associated with elite ceremonies performed atop the temples for Maya commoners who witnessed from open plazas below.

The Sacred Mountain: Caana (Sky Place), Caracol, Belize

The Sacred Mountain: Caana (Sky Place), Caracol, Belize

The Classic period is defined by the erection of steles. These upright carved stone monuments advertised the Maya royalty’s feats and customs. Tall pyramids resembling the Primordial Sacred Mountain were covered by finely cut stone façades. Small temples were built atop using the typically Maya corbelled vault technique.

Maya regional politics was marked by competing city-states in the Southern and Northern Lowlands where commerce, alliances and warfare defined interregional relations.

More than 80 city-states have been identified to date – among them Yax Mutal (Tikal), Oxwitza’ (Caracol), Ox Te’ Tuun (Calakmul), Oxwitik (Copán), and B’aakal (Palenque). An elaborate writing system, the concept of zero, the record-keeping of long time cycles, and a complex grasp of astronomy were the main intellectual achievements of the Classic period. Maya writing was based on hieroglyphs which represented both words, or logograms, and syllabic sounds, or syllabograms.

Some 800 separate glyphs were flexibly and variedly used to write in two variants of the Old Mayan language, Cholan and Yucatecan.

Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico

Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico

Between 750 and 900 AD, the Southern Lowlands’ urban centres began to decline until becoming completely abandoned. This is the period often characterised as the Maya “collapse”. However, the rural population stayed in the region while urban settlements developed in the Northern Lowlands and Eastern coast.

The Postclassic period was defined by the rise of Chichen Itzá (900 – 1,200), and later Mayapán (1,220 – 1440) in the north, while the K’iche’ power expanded in the Southern Highlands (1250 – 1495 AD). These Postclassic Maya polities had forms of government where power was shared between several kings or councils of noblemen.

Although the Long Count calendric system (recording dates as old as 3,114 BC) was abandoned during this period, the Postclassic Maya kept the Calendric Round which covered cycles of 52 years.

Coastal village life near Chichen Itzá

Coastal village life near Chichen Itzá

They also continued their hieroglyphic writing in codices, which were leather and bark folding books. At the time of European arrival (circa 1517), Maya political organization in the Yucatán consisted of nearly 16 small “states” ruled by lineages claiming descent from Chichen Itzá and Mayapán.

Internal disputes weakened Maya resistance to Spanish armed invasion. In the Southern Highlands, the K’aqchikel allied with the Spaniards to defeat the K’iche’, whereas the Xiw supported Spanish settlers in the Yucatán against the Kokom and other lineages.

Fragment of the “Lienzo de Quauhquecholan” which depicts the Conquest of Guatemala

Fragment of the “Lienzo de Quauhquecholan” which depicts the Conquest of Guatemala

Conquest and domination of the Maya was, however, difficult and never complete. The Southern Lowlands remained scarcely populated and became a refuge area for those Maya who refused Spanish rule. The Q’eqchi’ of Verapaz successfully rejected Spanish incursions and, later, their leader Aj Poop B’atz’ negotiated conversion to Christianity as a way to remain autonomous.

The Colonisation period compelled the Maya to find a complex balance between acquiescence and resistance. On the one hand, the Maya – organised in “Indian republics” – mastered the rules of colonial administration and won legal cases against Spanish tribute collectors.

They quickly adopted Christian trappings but continued their own religious practices; even preserving their old cosmologies in European script, ie. the Popol Vuh and the books of Chilam Balam.

The torture of Jacinto Canek, leader of the Maya rebellion of 1761. Painting by Fernando Castro Pacheco

The torture of Jacinto Canek, leader of the Maya rebellion of 1761. Painting by Fernando Castro Pacheco

On the other hand, religious and political leaders constantly revolted against European domination in different parts of the Maya region, ie. the Great Tseltal rebellion of 1712 in Chiapas, and Jacinto Canek’s uprising of 1761 in Yucatán.

The Belizean Maya experienced a different colonial history under the British who pushed them inside the deep forests of the Southern Lowlands, and generally failed to engage them for most of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fragment of mural painted by Maya artist Marcelo Jimenez – “The Maya Zone is Not an Ethnographic Museum”

Fragment of mural painted by Maya artist Marcelo Jimenez – “The Maya Zone is Not an Ethnographic Museum”

The National Modern period began when Mexico and Guatemala’s mestizo (mixed race) elites gained independence from Spain in 1821 (However, for the Maya in Belize, this period only begins strictly speaking in 1981).

The relationship between the new nation states and different Maya communities – defined by the language they speak, ie. Yucatec, K’iche’, K’aqchikel, Q’eqchi’, Tseltal, Tzotzil, Mopan, among more than 30 different Mayan languages – was even more strained than under the Spaniards.

The Maya were dispossessed of special rights granted by the Spanish crown and displaced from the lands they occupied for centuries.

The Guatemalan Performance Group “Sotzil” – From their play “Uk’ux Ulew” (The Heart of Earth)

The Guatemalan Performance Group “Sotzil” – From their play “Uk’ux Ulew” (The Heart of Earth)

Resistance ensued, however, in the K’iche’ rebellion of 1820, the Yucatan’s Caste War of 1847-1901, the Tzotzil movement of 1868, the Ixil rebellion of 1936, the Zapatista uprising of 1994, the Belizean Maya protests of 1998, to name a few.

The Maya of Guatemala endured a long civil war (1960 – 1996), and survived genocidal campaigns led by military squads who killed approximately 200,000 people, particularly during the 1979 – 1985 period.

Screen capture of the Maya Day festival in Belize. Video by Genner Llanes-Ortiz

Screen capture of the Maya Day festival in Belize. Video by Genner Llanes-Ortiz

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a growing interest on the part of educated and politically committed Maya to study the archaeological record, historical documentation, and contemporary languages and traditions of their people.

This has configured a Maya revival movement that finds expression in critical scholarship, artistic renaissance and anti-colonial politics.

The 21st century Maya activism advances the reconstruction of Pan-Maya circuits and networks across political borders, and manifests pride in the long history of this 4,000 year-old civilization of the Americas.

Dr. Genner Llanes-Ortiz

Dr. Genner Llanes-Ortiz

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Genner Llanes-Ortiz, a Yucatec Maya anthropologist and Postdoctoral Research Associate, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Mexico City, for this concise introductory article on Maya civilisation, still thriving after four millennia… (Please note: an abridged version of this article, with full supporting teaching activities and resources, is available in the Autumn 2014 issue of the Historical Association’s ‘Primary History’ magazine).

Source: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/home/the-maya-a-4000-year-old-civilization-in-the-americas

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Map from Wikipedia (Mesoamerica), with additional graphics
• Pic 2: Photos released under a Creative Commons license; tapir by RayMorris1, jaguarundi by Ben Williams, ocellated turkey by Amy McAndrews, ceiba tree by Leonora Enking
• Pic 3: Roll-out photo by Justin Kerr (K1892) from the Maya Vase Database (link below)
• Pic 4: Photo by Dennis Jarvis, released under a Creative Commons license
• Pic 5: Photo by Richard Well, released under a Creative Commons license
• Pic 6: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias based on a mural at the Temple of Inscriptions, Chichen Itzá, scanned from our own copy of Indian Art of Mexico & Central America by Miguel Covarrubias, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
• Pix 7 & 8: Available on Wikimedia and released under a Creative Commons license
• Pic 9: Photo by Adam Jones, released under a Creative Commons license
• Pic 10: Photo by Victorino Tejaxun (permission sought)
• Pic 11: Photo from a video by Genner Llanes-Ortiz.


Belize and the Maya History

Although Belize's Maya occupation began as early as 1500 BC, it was during the Classic period of 250 AD to 900 AD that the population is thought to have exceeded one million people. Archaeological remains of the ancient Maya include pottery, skeletons, stelae, and tall palaces, temples, and ceremonial centers.


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#500483 - 01/29/15 06:50 PM Re: The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

A Living Mayan History

A short documentary about the preservation of Mayan culture. Jose Magana from San Antonio works to help preserve Mayan culture.


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#517237 - 08/31/16 05:19 PM Re: The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

10 Unravelled Secrets Of The Mayan Civilization

The Maya are perhaps one of the world’s most successful and brilliant civilizations. Thanks to the hard work of dedicated researchers and archaeologists, many secrets of this once-powerful civilization are now starting to unravel.

10. Recipe For Maya Blue


Photo via Seeker

Editor's note.... This headline image is often used to exemplify Maya blue paint in online contexts, but the blue background has been added to a picture of a vase that doesn't actually have any blue on it.

The Maya considered a certain shade of blue to be a highly significant color. Known as Maya Blue, this color was used to cover pots, palace walls, and codices. In addition, it was also used to cover the bodies of human sacrifices. Though scientists knew the two main ingredients of Maya Blue were indigo and palygorskite, they were at loss as to what the mysterious third ingredient was.

In 2008, US researchers published a study claiming that copal resin was the third secret ingredient of Maya Blue. However, a 2013 study refuted this claim. According to the researchers, their analyses revealed that the third secret ingredient is dehydroindigo and not copal resin. In addition, they suggested that the Maya knew “how to obtain the desired hue by varying the preparation temperature.”

9. Mayan Life Force Ceremony



One of the central beliefs of the Maya was that each person possessed a life force. Most importantly, they believed that this life force was a source of nourishment for the gods. Just recently, a team of researchers discovered that the Maya conducted a ceremony associated with this life force.

The ceremony was quite gruesome. Using arrowheads made from a type of volcanic glass called obsidian, the Maya would cut a person’s genitals, tongue, or earlobes and then let the blood spill out. They believed that by performing this ritual, they were “feeding the gods with the human essential life force.” Though this ceremony was brutal, the participants were likely volunteers, and they probably survived the painful ordeal.

8. Sustainable Technology


Photo credit: Proyecto Arqueologico Uxul via Science Daily

The ancient Mayan city of Tikal was located in a region where for four months every year, the skies would dry up and no rain would fall. Despite this, Tikal flourished for hundreds of years. In fact, in AD 700, this ancient Mayan city was home to approximately 80,000 people. So how did this metropolis survive the regular droughts?

Archaeologists have just recently discovered that the residents of Tikal used “a surprisingly sustainable system of water delivery.” In order to store rainwater from the eight-month wet season, the Maya constructed “a series of paved reservoirs.” The majority of these reservoirs could hold thousands of gallons of rainwater. In fact, the largest reservoir could store as much as 74 million liters (20 million gallons). The technology might have been simple, but it was sustainable, and it provided the Maya with a steady water supply during the yearly four-month droughts.

7. Ancient Royal Struggle


Photo credit: HJPD

In 2013, a team of archaeologists unearthed a 1,500-year-old stone monument beneath a Mayan temple in Guatemala. This monument, which dated back to AD 564, detailed an ancient royal struggle between two Maya dynasties that lasted for seven years.

After deciphering the inscriptions, the researchers discovered that the monument was created in honor of a certain Maya king named Chak Took Ich’aak or “Red Spark Claw.” His death caused the political turmoil narrated in the stone monument. Ultimately, the struggle ended, and Chak Took Ich’aak’s son, King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin (“He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle”), took over the throne.

Experts considered this finding monumental since it provided the names of the Maya rulers during the sixth century. Before the discovery of the stone monument, no one knew their names.

6. Daily Lives Of The Maya Commoners


Photo credit: University of Colorado via CU Boulder Today

Also known as the “New World Pompeii,” the village of Ceren in El Salvador is considered to be “the best preserved ancient Maya village in all of Latin America.” This archaeological site was discovered by Professor Payson Sheets in 1978.

Aside from being the best preserved Mayan village in all of Latin America, Ceren also gave archaeologists a glimpse into the daily lives of the Maya commoners. Archaeological evidence discovered at the site showed that the residents of Ceren were not influenced or controlled by the ruling Maya elite. They were autonomous; they “had free reign regarding their architecture, crop selections, religious activities, and economics.” Significant decisions involving the community were made by the residents themselves.

This discovery is in stark contrast with some Mayan archaeological records, which state that the elites made the economic and political decisions for a particular region.

5. Primary Cause Of The Mayan Apocalypse



One of the most enduring mysteries involving the Mayan civilization is the cause of their demise. The Maya were a technologically advanced people. They had an excellent understanding of astronomy and mathematics, they built impressive cities, and “they used the only known written script in Mesoamerica.” But this advanced civilization mysteriously collapsed. Many theories have been proposed, such as invasion or civil war, but perhaps the most plausible was severe climate change.

Evidence points out that the Mayan civilization was hit by two severe droughts that lasted for decades. The first happened in the ninth century, and the second occurred in the 11th century. Archaeologists suggests that the ninth-century drought caused the collapse of Mayan cities located in the southern portion of the empire, while the 11th-century drought precipitated the demise of the northern cities.

4. Mayan Hieroglyphs


Photo credit: B. Beltran via NBC News

For years, researchers assumed that Mayan hieroglyphs were derived from the writing system of the Zapotecs, a pre-Columbian civilization that inhabited the Oaxaca valley south of Central Mexico. However, a set of newly discovered hieroglyphs suggested that the “Maya were writing at a complex level 150 years earlier than previously thought.”

Though the Mayans didn’t invent writing in the New World, the newly discovered writing system is a completely developed script, implying that the “Maya style [of writing] was not influenced by the Zapotecs.”

The hieroglyphs were found inside Las Pinturas, a pyramidal building located in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet deciphered the newly found hieroglyphs despite the fact that it’s a “clearly developed written text.”

3. Toilets And Fountains


Photo credit: Ricraider

In 2009, a team of archaeologists released a study detailing how the Maya built fountains and toilets by controlling water pressure. This discovery refuted the widely held belief that the ability to generate water pressure in the New World only started after the arrival of Spanish colonizers.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion after investigating the unique and intricate system of water management located in the Mayan center of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. During its heyday, Palenque was inhabited by 6,000 people and was home to approximately 1,500 structures. It was called Lakamha or “Big Water” by the ancient Mayans due to the nine waterways, 56 springs, and hundreds of meters of cascades located in its vicinity.

After studying the city’s water management system, the researchers concluded that the Maya of Palenque “had water pressure technology by 750 AD at the very latest and most likely much earlier.”

2. The Mayan Sweat House



Even before the ancient Romans had their elaborate baths, the Maya had their humble sweat houses. In the early 2000s, a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Norman Hammond of Boston University discovered a mysterious structure at Cuello, northern Belize. For quite some time, the nature of the mysterious structure eluded them.

It was only by some sort of accident that they discovered that the building was a sweat house. After conducting further analysis, they found that the ancient Maya started using sweat houses as early as 900 BC or even much earlier.

So why did the Maya, who lived in a tropical environment, go to sweat houses regularly? According to the researchers, there were three possible reasons: First, the Maya used the sweat houses to cleanse their bodies. Second, they used them to get rid of certain illnesses. Third, the sweat houses were a way for them to communicate with the supernatural.

1. Monkey-Shaped Skull


Photo via the Daily Mail

The Maya played a fun but somewhat deadly sport that involved two opposing teams passing a ball using only their knees, hips, and elbows. What made this sport deadly was that the losing team could be sacrificed at the end of the game.

To protect themselves from injury and to make certain maneuvers easier, the players wore different types of clothing, including a hand guard worn around the wrists. Now, archaeologists have discovered a monkey-shaped skull, which they concluded was a representation of this particular hand guard.

The Maya believed that they would still play their ball game even after they died. To prepare them for this afterlife sport, they created stone versions of the different types of clothing that they wore during the real-life games. These stone versions, like the monkey-shaped skull, were commonly found inside tombs.

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