The Maya: Historical past, Tradition & Faith



The Maya check with each a modern-day individuals who may be discovered all around the world in addition to their ancestors who constructed an historical civilization that stretched all through a lot of Central America, one which reached its peak in the course of the first millennium A.D.

The Maya civilization was by no means unified; fairly, it consisted of quite a few small states, dominated by kings, every apparently centered on a metropolis. Generally, a stronger Maya state would dominate a weaker state and have the ability to actual tribute and labor from it.

Mayan calendar

A system of writing utilizing glyptic symbols was developed and was inscribed on buildings, stele, artifacts and books (additionally known as codices). 

The Maya calendar system was difficult. “By some 1,700 years in the past audio system of proto-Ch’olan, the ancestor for 3 Maya languages nonetheless in use, had developed a calendar of 18 20-day months plus a set of 5 days,” wrote Weldon Lamb, a researcher at New Mexico State College, in his ebook “The Maya Calendar: A Guide of Months” (College of Oklahoma Press, 2017). 

This calendar system additionally included what students name a “long-count” that saved monitor of time through the use of totally different items that vary in size from a single day to tens of millions of years (the unit in tens of millions was hardly ever used). 

Opposite to widespread perception, this method didn’t predict the top of the world in 2012, the unit in tens of millions of years offering proof of this.

Additionally, opposite to widespread perception, the Maya civilization by no means vanished. Whereas many cities have been deserted round 1,100 years in the past, different cities, similar to Chichén Itzá, grew of their place.

When the Spanish arrived in Central America in drive within the sixteenth century, the ailments they introduced devastated the Maya. Moreover, the Spanish pressured the Maya to transform to Christianity, going as far as to burn their books (the explanation why so few of them survive in the present day). Nevertheless, it is very important notice that the Maya individuals stay on in the present day and may be discovered all around the world.

“Hundreds of thousands of Maya individuals stay in Central America and all through the world. The Maya should not a single entity, a single neighborhood, or a single ethnic group. They communicate many languages together with Mayan languages (Yucatec, Quiche, Kekchi and Mopan), Spanish and English. Nevertheless, the Maya are an indigenous group tied each to their distant previous in addition to to occasions of the final a number of hundred years,” wrote Richard Leventhal, Carlos Chan Espinosa and Cristina Coc within the April 2012 version of Expedition journal.

Maya origins

Whereas hunters and gatherers had a presence in Central America stretching again hundreds of years, it was in what archaeologists name the Pre-classic interval (1800 B.C. to A.D. 250) that everlasting village life actually took off, resulting in the creation of early Maya cities. 

“Actually efficient farming, within the sense that densely inhabited villages have been to be discovered all through the Maya space, was an innovation of the Pre-classic interval,” wrote Yale College Professor Michael Coe in his ebook “The Maya” (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Coe stated farming turned more practical throughout this era, possible due to the breeding of extra productive types of maize and, maybe extra importantly, the introduction of the “nixtamal” course of. On this course of, the maize is soaked in lime, or one thing related, and cooked, one thing that “enormously elevated the dietary worth of corn,” writes Coe. Maize complemented squash, bean, chili pepper and manioc (or cassava), which have been already being utilized by the Maya, a 2014 Journal of Archaeological Science research exhibits. 

Throughout this time, the Maya have been influenced by a civilization to the west of them referred to as the Olmecs. These individuals might have initially devised the lengthy depend calendar that the Maya would turn into well-known for, Coe writes. Moreover, the invention of a ceremonial website dated to 1000 B.C. on the website of Ceibal sheds extra gentle on the connection between the Maya and Olmecs, suggesting that it was a fancy one.

Archaeologists have discovered that early Maya cities may very well be rigorously deliberate. Nixtun-Ch’ich, in Peten, Guatemala, had pyramids, temples and different buildings constructed utilizing a grid system, an indication of city planning. It flourished between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C. 

Maya civilization at its peak

Coe writes that the traditional Maya reached a peak between A.D. 250 and 900, a time that archaeologists name the “Basic” interval when quite a few Maya cities flourished all through a lot of Central America.

The civilization “reached mental and inventive heights which no different within the New World, and few in Europe, may match on the time,” Coe writes. “Massive populations, a flourishing financial system, and widespread commerce have been typical of the Basic …” he stated, noting that warfare was additionally fairly frequent.

The Maya civilization was influenced by town of Teotihuacan, positioned farther to the west. Certainly one of their early rulers, named Siyaj Ok’ak, who might have come from Tikal, ascended the throne on Sept. 13, A.D. 379, in keeping with an inscription. He’s depicted sporting feathers and shells and holding an atlatl (spear-thrower), options related to Teotihuacan, wrote researcher John Montgomery in his ebook “Tikal: An Illustrated Historical past of the Mayan Capital” (Hippocrene Books, 2001). A stela just lately found at El Achiotal, a website close to Tikal, additionally helps the concept that Teotihuacan managed or closely influenced Tikal for a time.  

The quite a few cities discovered all through the Maya world every had their very own particular person wonders that made them distinctive. Tikal, as an example, is thought for its pyramid constructing. Beginning no less than as early as A.D. 672, town’s rulers would assemble a twin pyramid advanced on the finish of each Ok’atun (20-year interval). Every of those pyramids can be flat-topped, constructed adjoining to one another and include a staircase on either side. Between the pyramids was a plaza that had buildings laid out to the north and south.

Copan, a Maya metropolis in modern-day Honduras, is thought for its “Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway.” It is a pyramid-like construction that has greater than 2,000 glyphs embellished on a flight of 63 steps, the longest historical Maya inscription identified to exist and seems to inform the historical past of town’s rulers.

The location of Palenque, one other well-known Maya metropolis, is thought for its tender limestone sculpture and the unimaginable burial of “Pakal,” certainly one of its kings, deep inside a pyramid. When Pakal died at about age 80, he was buried together with 5 or 6 human sacrifices in a jade-filled tomb (together with a jade funerary masks he wore). His sarcophagus exhibits the king’s rebirth and depictions of his ancestors within the type of vegetation. The tomb was re-discovered in 1952 and is “the American equal, if there’s one, to King Tut’s tomb,” stated archaeologist David Stuart in a web based Nationwide Geographic lecture.

Not all Maya settlements have been managed by a king or elite member of society. At Ceren, a Maya village in El Salvador that was buried by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years in the past, archaeologists discovered that there was no elite class in management and the village appears to have been managed communally, maybe by native elders. 


Opposite to widespread perception the Maya civilization didn’t vanish. It is true that many cities, together with Tikal, Copan and Palenque, turned deserted round 1,100 years in the past. Drought, deforestation, warfare and local weather change have all been recommended as potential causes of this. Drought might have performed a very vital function as a latest research on minerals from an underwater collapse Belize exhibits {that a} drought ravaged components of Central America between A.D. 800 and 900.

Nevertheless, it is very important notice that different Maya cities, similar to Chichén Itzá, grew, no less than for a time. In actual fact, Chichén Itzá has the biggest ball courtroom within the Americas, being longer than a modern-day American soccer discipline. The courtroom’s rings, via which competing groups tried to attain, rose about 20 toes (6 meters) off the bottom, about twice the peak of a modern-day NBA web. The principles for the Maya ball recreation should not nicely understood.

Council Homes, which have been gathering locations for individuals in a neighborhood, performed an vital function in a few of the Maya cities and cities that flourished after the ninth century. 

As talked about earlier, the arrival of the Spanish led to a profound change within the Maya world. The ailments they introduced decimated the Maya and the Spaniards pressured the Maya to transform to Christianity, even burning their books. At this time, regardless of the devastation they skilled, the Maya individuals stay on, numbering within the tens of millions.

Legendary origins

The Maya had a prolonged and sophisticated legendary origin story that’s recorded by the Ok’iche Maya (based mostly in Guatemala) within the Popol Vuh, the “Guide of Counsel,” wrote Coe in his ebook. Based on the tales, the forefather gods Tepew and Q’ukumatz “introduced forth the earth from a watery void, and endowed it with animals and vegetation.”

Creating sentient beings proved tougher, however finally people have been created, together with the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who embark in a sequence of adventures, which included defeating the lords of the underworld. Their journey climaxed with the resurrection of their father, the maize god. “It appears clear that this complete mythic cycle was carefully associated to maize fertility,” Coe writes.

The Maya universe

The late Robert Sharer, who was a professor on the College of Pennsylvania, famous in his ebook “Every day Life in Maya Civilization” (Greenwood Press, 2009) that the traditional Maya believed that every part “was imbued in several levels with an unseen energy or sacred high quality,” name ok’uh, which meant “divine or sacredness.”

“The universe of the traditional Maya was composed of kab, or Earth (the seen area of the Maya individuals), kan, or the sky above (the invisible realm of celestial deities), and xibalba, or the watery underworld beneath (the invisible realm of the underworld deities),” Sharer wrote.

Caves performed a particular function in Maya faith as they have been seen as entranceways to the underworld. “These have been particularly sacred and harmful locations the place the useless have been buried and particular rituals for the ancestors performed,” wrote Sharer. 

Sharer notes that the Maya adopted a variety of deities, probably the most central of which was Itzamnaaj. “In his numerous features, Itzamnaaj was the lord over probably the most elementary opposing forces within the universe — life and dying, day and night time, sky and earth,” Sharer wrote, noting that “as lord of the celestial realm” Itzamnaaj was the Milky Means and may very well be depicted as a serpent or two-headed reptile.

Different Maya deities included the solar god Ok’inich Ajaw, the rain and storm god Chaak and the lightning deity Ok’awiil, amongst many others. The Maya believed that every individual had a “life drive,” and draining an individual’s blood in a temple may present a few of this life drive to a god. Just lately an arrowhead containing the blood of an individual who might have participated in a blood-letting ceremony was recognized. 

In instances when water was scarce, Maya kings and monks would maintain incense scattering ceremonies that they believed may present wind and rain. A Maya pendant inscribed with 30 hieroglyphs that archaeologists consider would have been utilized in these ceremonies was just lately found in Belize. Hallucinogenic substances is also used to assist the Maya contact spirits and search recommendation on easy methods to cope with issues or conditions. 

Maya faith additionally included tales of harmful creatures similar to the ocean monster “Sipak.” Fossilized tooth from the extinct shark Carcharodon megalodon have been used as sacred choices at a number of Maya websites and up to date analysis means that tales involving “Sipak” have been impressed by the fossilized stays of this large extinct shark. 

El Castillo is a pyramid with 91 steps on every of its 4 sides. (Picture credit score: jgorzynik shutterstock)

Human sacrifices

Sharer wrote that human sacrifices have been made on particular events. “Among the many Maya, human sacrifice was not an on a regular basis occasion however was important to sanctify sure rituals, such because the inauguration of a brand new ruler, the designation of a brand new inheritor to the throne, or the dedication of an vital new temple or ball courtroom.” The victims have been typically prisoners of warfare, he famous.

At Chichén Itzá, victims can be painted blue, a colour that seems to have honored the god Chaak, and solid right into a nicely. Moreover, close to the positioning’s ball courtroom, there’s a panel that exhibits an individual being sacrificed. This may occasionally depict a ball-player from both the successful or dropping staff being killed after a recreation.

Writing & astronomy

Sharer famous that document conserving was an vital a part of the Maya world and was important for agriculture, astronomy and prophecy. “By conserving information of the wet and dry seasons, the Maya may decide one of the best instances to plant and harvest their crops,” Sharer wrote.

Moreover, by “recording the actions of the sky deities (solar, moon, planets, and stars), they developed correct calendars that may very well be used for prophecy,” Sharer wrote.

“With long-term information, the Maya have been in a position to predict planetary cycles — the phases of the moon and Venus, even eclipses,” he stated. “This information was used to find out when these deities can be in favorable positions for a wide range of actions similar to holding ceremonies, inaugurating kings, beginning buying and selling expeditions, or conducting wars.”

The actions of the planet Venus seem to have performed a very vital function in Maya faith. Each the Dresden and Groliercodices include detailed information of the actions of the planet. The traditional Maya “have been most likely doing large-scale ritual exercise linked to the totally different phases of Venus,” stated Gerardo Aldana, a science historian within the division of Chicano research on the College of California, Santa Barbara.

Current analysis reveals that no less than a few of the writers of Maya codices have been a part of “a particular cohort of formality specialists known as taaj,” wrote a staff of researchers in a 2015 American Anthropologist article. The staff studied a room containing murals with inscriptions on them on the website of Xultun, Guatemala, and located that the writing of codices came about within the room and that the “taaj” wrote them.  

Financial system & energy

Sharer wrote that whereas agriculture and meals gathering have been a central a part of each day life, the Maya had a complicated financial system able to supporting specialists and a system of retailers and commerce routes. Whereas the Maya didn’t develop minted forex, they used numerous objects, at totally different instances, as “cash.” These included greenstone beads, cacao beans and copper bells.

“In the end, the ability of kings relied on their skill to manage assets,” Sharer wrote. “Maya rulers managed the manufacturing and distribution of standing items used to boost their status and energy. In addition they managed some important (non-local) commodities that included important on a regular basis assets every household wanted, like salt,” he stated noting that over time Maya rulers managed ever-larger parts of the financial system. The Maya rulers didn’t rule alone however have been served by attendants and advisers who sometimes seem in Maya artwork. 

Sharer additionally notes that Maya laborers have been topic to a labor tax to construct palaces, temples and public works. A ruler profitable in warfare may management extra laborers and actual tribute on defeated enemies, additional rising their financial may.

Further assets



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