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).
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).
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.
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 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
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
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
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
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”
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)
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
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
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).
• 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.
Re: The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas
#500483 01/29/1512:50 PM01/29/1512:50 PM
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.
Ancient Maya Credited with Major Scientific Advances It was a hot, sticky day in Belize. We had been warned to wear our hats and sunscreen and to drink lots of water. My wife, Gail, and I were visiting Altun Ha, an ancient Maya site near Belize City, the largest city in this Central American country.
Our group gathered in the shade of a large tree as a tour guide explained that the Ancient Maya understood, 4,000 years ago, scientific and mathematical concepts that we take for granted today. I wondered how they developed these advanced concepts of astronomy, mathematics and time measurement so, after returning from our trip, I talked with Annebel Lewis, a socio-cultural anthropologist.
Lewis, a retired professor at California State University, now lives in the Richmond area and teaches anthropology at the Chesterfield Lifelong Learning Institute. I asked her why ancient cultures became so interested in observing the skies and plotting the paths of the stars and planets.
Re: The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas
#521168 01/25/1712:42 AM01/25/1712:42 AM
National Geographic Documentary - The Maya: The Lost Civilization [Documentary 2015]
The Beer Diaries World Tour: Belize - The Maya
The Beer Diaries is proud to present The Beer Diaries World Tour: Belize, a series dedicated to using beer as an introduction to history, culture and the geo-political state of countries around the world.
In this episode, host Mike Mann and his team visit the Maya ruins, Xunantunich and Cahel Pech, in the heart of San Ignacio. Andy Bahadurs, Maya expert, explains the prominence and decline of these sites, along with the significance of the various ceremonies of the people who lived there.
Did the Maya Take Drugs?
Ingesting hallucinogenic drugs was an important part of many ancient American indigenous religious ceremonies. There is ample evidence that Maya monuments often portray a ruler in a trance, which could be induced in many ways.
Maya Civilization and it's Legend - Full Documentary
Where did the Mayan people come from?
The Maya are an indigenous people of Mexico and Central America who have continuously inhabited the lands comprising modern-day Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas in Mexico and southward through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.
When did the Mayan civilization begin and end?
Most famously, the Maya of the southern lowland region reached their peak during the Classic Period of Maya civilization (A.D. 250 to 900), and built the great stone cities and monuments that have fascinated explorers and scholars of the region.
How old are the Mayan ruins in Mexico?
The construction workers used bulldozers and diggers to claw at the sloping sides of the 100ft tall pyramid, which is part of the Nohmul complex - the most important Mayan site in northern Belize and one which dates back at least 2,300 years.
Re: The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas
#530117 04/27/1805:31 AM04/27/1805:31 AM
THE YUCATEC MAYA OF BELIZE SHOULD LEARN THIS HISTORY BY HEART
Our Maya ancestors defended this land which we now called Belize
- (1508) First Spanish excursions occurred, Maya resisted Spanish attempts to control
-(1528) the Maya of Chactemal with their leader Nachan Can continue resisting the Spanish attempts to control the area.
- (1544) Spanish took over northern Belize
- (1546) Massive Maya uprising threw Spanish out of Belize
- (1547) Spanish cousins, the Pechecos, and friends received Spanish Grant to Belize; tortured, killed Maya villagers, burned homes
-(1567) Spanish went through Maya villages in northern Belize slaughtering, torturing destroying Maya imagery ,books etc
- (1568) Juan de Garzon's forces destroyed Mayan communities in Belize as far south as Lake Isobel.
- (1636) Major war between Maya and Spanish occurred
- (1638) Mayan political leaders started new independence movement; piracy along coast became common
- (1639) Three leaders of independence movement: Gaspar Puc, Alcalde of Lamanai, Don Luis Kinil and Andres Uxul were captured, tortured to death by Spanish. This Maya are ancestors of the Yucatec Maya in Belize.
- (1642) War for Belize ended, Maya gained independence
-(1660) British pirate, Bartholomew Sharpe, began harvest of logwood; British buccaneers settled near coast
- (1677) Spanish failed attempt at conquest in south
- (1707) Spanish forced Tipu Maya to aid in fight against Itza-Maya; then sold them into slavery
- (1788/1801) Yucatec Maya of Belize attacked British logging camps with Bow and Arrows in Northwestern Belize.
- (1847) the Maya Social War(Caste War) starts Yucatec Maya rise against the Spanish.
- (1848) The last report on a attack by the Maya with bow and arrows in North western Belize.
-(1849) The state of the Cross was proclaim by the Yucatec Maya. The followers of Maya Cross became known as the Cruzoob Maya
-(1860) the Chan Santa Cruz state(Maya State) encompassed all of the southern and central parts of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. With associated, buffer and splinter groups, this state was the core of a broader indigenist liberation movement that controlled virtually all of the old Iz'a territories. These territories include the eastern, central and southern portions of the Yucatán peninsula, extending from Cape Catoche south to include what is now northwestern Belize and northeastern Guatemala
-(1866)The Maya(Iciache Maya and San Pedro Maya) with leaders Asuncion Ek,Marcos Canul,Rafeal Chan and Luciano Tzuc defeated the British troops in the battle of San pedro yalbac in December 21.
-(1867) British troops marched into areas in which the Maya had settled and destroyed villages in an attempt to drive them out
- (1870)The Maya returned and in April 1870 Marucs Canul and The Iciache Maya occupied Corozal
- (1872) The last mejor serious attack by the Icaiche maya on the British.
-(1875) The Yucatec Maya in the yablac area continue resisting.
-(1882) Yucatec Maya leader Santigo Pech of the Icaiche Maya meet with Governor Harley.
-(1897) The Spanish and British agree in the borders of Belize and Mexico with out asking the Native Maya.
-(1901) The Caste war was declared over but the maya continue there resistance
-(1935) General Fransisco May of the Cruzoob sign peace with the Mexicans. During this period more Yucatec Maya rebels belonging to the Cruzoob Maya came to Belize.
- (1937) Through intimitation the Belize estate and produce company Removed the last Maya village in the Yalbac area,the village of San Jose Yalbac
-(1962-1963) Maya leader from Xaibe Jesus Ken strick along with 80 men armed with machetes, shotguns, and assorted weapons marched onto company lands, stopped the tractors from working”. Ken sent a telegram to Price demanding lands be given to the peasants.
-(1981) Belize gains independence from British
- Today the Maya of Southern Belize( Mopan and Kekchi) continue their struggle. Maya Win Unprecedented Land Rights In Belize At International Courts
- Most Maya Yucatec in northern Belize have become integrated to the Belizean society working as Cane Farmers,police man,teachers and other jobs.
NOTE: THe Iciache maya and the Cruzoob Maya were the name of 2 Yucatec Maya(Masewal) groups. The Mayas of Chactemal area were Yucatec Maya Speakers also. Also there were Yucatec mayas in the Dzuluinicob area. The Yucatec Maya in Belize may also identify themselves as Maya,Maya Masewal, Masewal ,Maya Mestizo or Mayero all are the same.
Full documentary about the Maya of Northern Belize
The Yucatec Maya (Most came from the Yucatan peninsula what is now the Campeche,Yucatan and Quintana Roo States , escaping from the Guerra Social Maya better known as Caste War in 1840's). There have been evidence that their were still Yucatec Maya living in the extreme northwestern part of Belize in the Rio Bravo area before the massive migration of Maya from Mexico. The British reported several attacks in 1788 and 1801 from the Maya. A Yucatec Maya group name the Icaiche Maya which territory included northwestern Belize and Southern Mexico resisted to the British expansion of logwood cutting. The Icaiche Maya with the help of Maya who migrated to the San Pedro Yalbac area defeated the British Troops in December 21,1866 Which is known as the Battle of San Pedro Yalbac. Others are descendant of the Yucatec Maya group known as the Cruzoob Maya rebels who migrated to Belize from Chan Santa Cruz Areas. Today Many Yucatec Maya work as Cane farmers,milpero,Teachers,Soldiers,Police and other jobs.
Re: The Maya: 4,000 year civilization in the Americas
#534294 01/12/1906:03 AM01/12/1906:03 AM
“Come immerse yourself in the world of the Mayans, one of the magnificent cultures of ancient Mexico, and take a look at its beginnings, its apogee and its downfall”
The Mayans created a civilization that through the centuries, experienced a series of changes, formed groups differentiated by their economic position, by their work or main activity and by their membership of certain families within the religious and political structure. They built wonderful architectural works; they made excellent pieces of jewelry, sculpture and pottery. On the other hand, they made astronomical observations to this day many undisputed and invented and designed a highly precise calendrical system.
Although they did not have animals of load nor rolling vehicles and metallic instruments for the intensive practice of the commerce, they combined multiple possibilities of transport through rivers, coasts, trails and even built wide and long roads of stone.
The Mayans consolidated their progress in two fundamental aspects: a deep knowledge of the environment and a remarkable quality of human activities. They created systems of intensive agriculture such as raised fields, agricultural terraces and fruit orchards. They also invented ingenious rainwater collection and storage systems such as canals, aguadas and “chultunes” or underground deposits.
The Preclassic Period (2000 B.C.-100 B.C.) The oldest evidences of its culture have been dated in Cuello, Belize and in Loltún, Yucatán. One of the best examples of that initial moment is the series of buildings, sculpted monuments and hieroglyphic texts of Izapa, Chiapas, although the Mayan origins have also been detected in other places such as Takalik Abaj(Guatemala) and Chalchuapa (El Salvador)
The archaeological site Tak’alik Ab’aj is located in the southwest of Guatemala at a height of 600 meters above sea level
The Protoclassic Period Between the years 100 and 250 of our era, seems to have been a transition, from which the Mayan civilization developed fully. The villages grew in its demography and complexity, thus giving rise to the first large cities such as Dzibilchaltú (Yucatan) Calakmul (Campeche), and El Mirador (Guatemala). As in other places, enormous plinths were built on which temples, palaces, buildings, and ball courts were erected for various purposes. The constructions commonly called “pyramids”, were actually temples or sanctuaries dedicated to one or more deities. Such is the case of the building of the Five Floors in Edzna; the Nohoch Mul in Cobá, the Temple of the Magician in Uxmal, the Temple of the inscriptions in Palenque or the elevated temples of Tikal.
Pyramid of Magician – Uxmal. (Photo: noticieros-televisa.com)
The rulers of the cities lived in the central part, in what we now call “palaces”, by analogy with European societies. Constructions of several rooms, roofed with false arch or Mayan vault, sometimes provided with stools to rest or spend the night, and with niches and projections to store or hang various objects. Remember the Quadrangle of the Nuns and the one of Las Palomas, in Uxmal, Structure III of Calakmul; the Central Acropolis of Tikal, or the palaces of Comalcalco, Sayil, Labná and Palenque.
The ball games, the largest reported to date, is at Chichen Itzá (which, incidentally, has 13), was a sacred event, with a marked religious, mythological and symbolic meaning, in which opposing forces apparently confronted each other. complementary as day and night, good and evil, deities of east and west, etc.
Maya Pok ta pok or Great Ball Court
The basic cell of Mayan society was the family. Everyday life also had innumerable links with the sacred. The directions, colors, plants, animals, numbers and even the day of birth itself had a specific meaning and a specific association with the deities. This worldview was promoted and reinforced by the rulers who legitimized their political and economic power by saying they were descendants of the gods.
In contrast, the population had no access to knowledge, and was mainly engaged in producing food, consumer goods or lending their workforce to various public works under the control of officials who formed a broad bureaucratic network.
The Classical period The era of Mayan splendor is subdivided into Early from the years 250 – 600 A.D and Late from the years 600 – 1000 A.D. although it varied from one region to the other, which shows the difference in development depending on religion, politics, economy, sciences and the arts of the ancient Mayan regions.
Their main deities were Hunab Kú the creator and Itzamna, son of, Hunab Kú, represented by a celestial monster in which attributes of the sun, reptiles, land, death and vegetation merge. It is a kind of summary and crucible of all the principles: life and death, light and darkness, abundance and scarcity.
The Mayans practiced war in order to expand their political and economic strength, and thus impose rulers; receive tribute in labor and in kind, insure their commercial transactions and guarantee the survival of their society.
During the last centuries of this civilization, several objects became popular as units of trade such as red shells (of the genus Spondylus), cocoa seeds and cotton blankets. In the economic line, agriculture played an important role, not only to feed large populations, but as a means of obtaining surpluses for the exchange of products.
Among the most outstanding scientific knowledge of the ancient Mayan people we have the elaboration of an extremely accurate calendar. The accounting was done through a vigesimal system represented with points and bars, and whose value varied according to the place where they were positioned.
For the calendar, they created two cycles or day-counts that they called bu´ul and tzolkín. The first, measured the movements of our planet in respect to the sunlight with 365 days and the second with a strong religious sense, acting as a sacred almanac of 260 days.
The combination of both cycles allowed them to have a longer time unit: 52 years. Some people called this, the Short Count. However, they needed a calendar that recorded their past, their present and their future. This is how they created the Long Count composed of 13 large periods or katuns. Each of those periods of approximately of 394 years.
Long count calendar
The astronomers also elaborated studies of the movement of the moon; as well as successful calculations for a large number of solar and lunar eclipses. They observed the movement of other celestial bodies such as Venus or Mars; and they gave names to the constellations, the Pleiades were seen as the tale of a rattlesnake or Gemini like a turtle. The writing allowed them to record the relevant events in the lives of the rulers as well as esoteric matters.
Between the years 900 and 1000 of our era, the structure of Mayan power suffered a sharp crack. Mayan culture experts believe it is possible that factors such as drought, diseases and pests contributed to it. What we do know with certainty is that raids and acts of expansion took place in other Mayan towns that had not previously manifested themselves with force.
The Early and Late Postclassic Periods In the periods called Early Postclassic (1000 – 1200) and Late Postclassic (1200 -1450) the Mayan culture underwent transformations that resulted in the abandonment of the typical forms of ceramics and architecture. They were also less rigid in their government forms so new political units were created, although none had the hegemonic force or the vast area of influence of previous centuries.
Some of the old cities suffered political and economic changes that originated important demographic variations. Some examples would be Coba, Ek-Balam, Izamal and Edzna and in other regions new settlements appeared: Itlamkanac (or El Tigre, in Campeche), Mayapan, and Tulum, among others.
Temple of the God of the Wind at Tulum.
This new scenario was what the Europeans found when they arrived and their presence introduced drastic changes that fundamentally altered the way of life in the Mesoamerican world. However, the transition process was long and with frequent violent on both sides, but in the end, there was a new way of organizing and doing things: The Spanish way.
King Tzintzicha Torture and Execution History of Michoacan mural by Juan O’Gorman
Jose E. Urioste