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Maya Civilization

Updated on January 12, 2010

The Mayan Civilization

The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for their art and architecture, mathematics and calendar, and hieroglyphic writing system. The Mayas dwelt in the eastern side of Mesoamerica on the Yucatan peninsula as shown in the map below. Latter, Maya area extended throughout the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco and the northern Central American region, including the present-day nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. Mayan civilization can be grouped into three periods as follows: Pre-classical period (2000 B.C.-250 A.D.), Classic Period (250 A.D.-900 A.D) and Post-Classic Period (900 A.D.-1500 A.D.) .

The Mayan Map

The wonders of Maya civilization first came to light in the 1800s. Indeed, for a long time, people have wanted to know about the Maya. This has been a question in minds of many since John Lloyd Stephens Frederick and Catherwood started exploring Maya thereby bringing to light the full splendor of the Maya civilization in 1841.

In his book Henderson (1997) says that, “Maya civilization has a special fascination. It is a "lost" civilization, whose secrets lie deep in the mysterious tropical forest. The style of Maya architecture and sculpture seems alien and bizarre. A writing system, partly deciphered but still the repository of so many tantalizing secrets of the past…”.

Even with the arrival of the Spanish, together with their colonial influences, the Maya people remained resilient and held on to their heritage. Consequently, there are many elements of the Maya people that exist even today. For instance, their language is still spoken even in the twenty first century; the Rabinal Achi was a play written in Achi language of the Mayas that UNESCO declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


The three periods can be explained chronologically as follows:

Pre-classical period (2000 B.C.-250 A.D.):

The original inhabitants of Maya were small immigration groups that found themselves in Maya due to the availability of food. They must have landed there around 10000 B.C. By around 1500 B.C., there was settled farming in Maya lowlands. Thereafter, there is evidence of availability of jewelry, hierarchical leadership. It is at this stage that we recognize great Olmec heritage.

The Mayan Farm

The highlanders greatly interacted with the Olmec community economically while the lowlanders primarily were subsistence farmers. In 500 B.C. and beyond, we get some evidence of changing economic situations for people like the Mirador who started to wear jewelry and expansion of their economic ties with other communities. Economic status of different people in the community also changed. There was emergence of chiefs and kings. Various sculptures have been shown of leaders in their full regalia of leadership. They are shown in public buildings and altars symbolic for the Lord’s genealogical and supernatural connections. Below is an example of such sculptures that were excavated in the archeological sites.

Copan Staircase

 Power, both political and economic continued to be wielded by the elites in the society. It is still at this classical period that institutions were pronounced. Highland societies ceased from making Stelae with long count dates and hieroglyphic texts previously used to celebrate loyalties. However, florescence Stelae began to have some presence in the northern and southern lowlands. In addition, writing was still limited in the lowlands. There was population explosion in various areas. Political power was transferred further to selected few and centralized leadership established. With population growth, cities grew larger and more powerful. The nobles and the peasants occupied different places in the wealth curve. Specialization of labor became more pronounced. There were architects, artists, craftsmen, writers and even intellectuals. High population growth led to advent of both small and large cities. The larger cities wielded more power hence had smaller cities fall under them. Hieroglyphic texts become more common. Indeed, the Mayas are said to have been among the first people to discover the zero.

The Mayn Numerals

Classic period (250- 900 AD):

This is the period when the Mayan kingdom experienced rapid construction development and urbanism. This is shown by the records of monuments inscriptions and artistic advancement which were particularly found in the southern region. There was a development in agriculture and urban centered kingdoms which were made up of many autonomous city-states. The mostly outstanding feature of the architectural designs of this period includes the stepped pyramid which they had built as a religious center and palace for their kings. There is also the Cacuen palace which as some unique construction designs.

Palenque Ruins

The Maya civilization on this period shows there was increase in trade with the other Mesoamerican cultures, which includes groups like Teotihuacan and Zapotec. They also traded with other groups which were found in the central Mexico and other non-Mesoamericans groups such as Tinos who were found in the Caribbean. The major goods which they traded in include, salt, seashells and cacao.

Post-Classic Period (900 A.D.-1500 A.D.):

During this period the development in the northern centers continued, these development were diversified due to increased external influences .For many centuries the cites in the northern lowland thrived some of the notable cities of this period includes coba and Chichen itza. Mayapan ruled the whole of Yucatan after the fall of the powerful kingdoms of Chichen and Uximal. This kingdom ruled until the 1450 when a revolt broke out and the area split into several competing states, which lasted until Spain conquered Yucatan.

Chichen Itza Castillo

Colonial period:

 The arrival of the Spanish colonialists completely destroyed the social order of the Mayas as they previously knew it. The Spanish came with a new religion, new diseases, and even language. Diseases like smallpox, and measles that were previously unknown to the Mayas were in their environment. It should however be appreciated that the Mayas did not let this happen without a fight. They put a spirited fight against the conquerors. In 1546, Adelantado Cortes succeeded in suffocating the Mayan resistance. Itza was now the only remaining independent nation in Maya. It remained so until 1697 when it was also conquered by the Spanish. However, intermittent uprisings continued to occur. In 1821, the Spanish gave Mexico its independence. This did not however improve the conditions of the Mayas. As late as 1935, armed Cruzobs, formed after the “miraculous cross” which spoke to them, engaged in war against their white counterparts. The war still rages on. For many years, the Mayas lost interest in their cities. In 1696, Fr. Avendano discovered ruins of Tikal, the biggest of all ancient Maya cities. Then came John Lloyd Stephens in 1839 then renewed interest of the Mayan civilization was born; it lives on until today (Culbert, 22-23).The history of the Mayas can be very instrumental in dealing with the wars that are always witnessed in the Americas waged by the Mayas.

In conclusion, we have seen that the Mayan civilization can be divided into three major periods; pre-classical, classical and post-classical. In these periods, various events have been identified to have stimulated change in the Mayan lifestyle. Progressively, the Mayas were able to come up with ways and means of making their lives better and more efficient. With these developments however came other social evils. Some of them were human sacrifice, and the widening of the gap between the aristocrats and the poor.

Henderson, S. John. The World of the Ancient Maya. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.


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