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The Maya - Their Expansion and Collapse

Updated on February 4, 2012
A Warrior - Azul Maya in the background
A Warrior - Azul Maya in the background | Source


Uxmal | Source

From Palenque

Palenque Carving
Palenque Carving | Source

The Maya Civilization - A Brief Overview

Long ago, In the lands of south-eastern and eastern Mexico, the Maya culture was alive and growing. This was around the same time that the Olmec and Zapotec cultures were thriving as well, in different parts of Mexico. The Maya were in the jungles to the south and east of these two other cultures, in the area we now call Guatemala and Belize.

We only know a limited amount about the ancient Maya. Surely, some of this is due to the tropical nature of the lands they lived on. Only so many archaeological remains could have survived in that setting and for that long.

What we do know is that there was some connection with the later Maya and their way of life. There were village settlements that we know of, for instance, by the second millennium BC. It was clear these settlements had things in common with the Maya that came later. These were located on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, not that far from the Mexican border.

Farming was a way of life, as we see settlements of village farmers established in both the central lowlands regions as well as the southern highland regions. Later, these areas were to become the Maya homelands in the centuries after 800 BC.

Something of interest, is that the powerful Olmec culture of Mexico didn't have much impact or influence on the Maya. Some would think there would be domination by the Olmec, yet they seem to not have been. It is possible that because they were likely not drawn into cultural exchange or trade, they were not drawn into some things they otherwise would have been.

Over time, the Maya began of course, to build larger ceremonial and urban settlements. This was around 600 - 400 BC. The four centuries following 300 BC, many of the settlements grew significantly, and their culture really thrived.

One place that became known as a ceremonial center was called Tikal. There was a village there, and it was in the tropical rain forest of Guatemala. When we hear about and see pictures of the great pyramids and temples, this is the time frame we are speaking of. The builders erected these amazing structures during the years of 300 BC and AD 100. About twelve miles or so north of Tikal, other ceremonial buildings were erected at Uaxactun, before AD 100. They have found giant masks which hints of strong influence from the Olmec, which I think is rather interesting. Prior, there had not been much influence found from the Olmec over these people.

El Mirador

There was a great city built just north of Nakbe. It was built in El Mirador, and had incredible limestone pyramids which were on basalt stones. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to see such limestone pyramids in their day? I hope that as time goes on, we continue to learn more and more about what happened in the daily lives of people.

Expansion Continues for a time.

The Maya continued to thrive for some time. There is a 650 year time frame that the scholars say the Maya were at their zenith. Some scholars refer to this time as the Classic Period, and it started about AD 250 and went on approximately 650 years or so.

This is the time frame that important settlements like Chichen Itza were being founded or expanding. Others included Copan, Uxmal and Palenque. During the height of this Classic Period, it is said there were more than forty Maya cities. Their populations ranged from five thousand to fifty thousand in each city. The total amount of people may have been around two million or so, at one time. Most of these people lived in the lowlands, or modern day Guatemala.

What Was Life LIke for the Maya?

We only know a limited amount of details about the Maya. One thing we know is that these city states often were in a state of conflict. Some accounts say even constant conflict. In each city state, there was a ruling family. These dynasties made alliances with others, but then broke those alliances with rival rulers. Often, the broken alliances happened because of other conflicts.

Even though these times were often difficult, we see the Maya creating an amazing culture which produced the temples we see and enjoy today, as well as pyramids and palaces. There were advanced irrigation systems, and of course the famed and rather sophisticated calendar used for time keeping. Their handle on mathematics and astronomical science is simply amazing. Their highly developed and very interesting writing system is just incredible to observe as well.

Abandoned Cities in the Lowlands - Collapse

It was around the ninth century AD when the lowland cities seemed to suddenly be abandoned. What happened to the great Maya people and their cities? Many scholars are still debating what could account for this. Part of what is curious, is that the Maya cities that were located further north off the Yucatan Peninsula, like Chichen Itza and Uxmal seemed to continue on just as before.

Replica Stela from Copan

This is from the Classic Era.  A Maya Stela replica, from the ruins of Copan.  Located at Harvard University.
This is from the Classic Era. A Maya Stela replica, from the ruins of Copan. Located at Harvard University. | Source


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    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hirundine, thank you for your thoughtful comment regarding the Maya and Aztec cultures. Cheers back to you, and thank you for your visit to my hub!

    • hirundine profile image


      8 years ago from Nelson, B.C. Canada

      Dear oceansnsunsets,

      Like you allude too. A sacrifice. Albeit supposedly on a cross. Even if it's a substitution. Is still celebrating a sacrifice. The Maya and Aztec culture and their god Quetzalcoatl or Kulkan - the feathered serpent. Also celebrated, Quetzalcoatl and his descent into the underworld and eventual re-birth. Especially since Quetzalcoatl was "white". Gave their culture, the Aztec; a lot of parallels, on first contact.

      Recently a history program, was of the opinion that it was the white wash being applied to the buildings of the Maya, that caused their civilisation to collapse and in a hurry? The amount of limestone being rendered down and the resulting de-forestation that this rendering was causing. Severely impacted their ability to grow food for the cities. That was being claimed and seems reasonable to me? White being the colour, for Quetzalcoatl or Kulkan?........ Cheers!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hi Hirundine, I am glad you are looking forward to my future hubs, thank you so much for that! I can't wait to write more on the Maya and many other things.

      I agree about the bloodletting with the Mayans, there really is no denying it was a part of their culture. I think they mostly wanted to be successful, and didn't fully understand how everything worked. It is interesting the idea of appealing to something higher, whatever is beyond the grasp of human beings that definitely has impact on their lives. They seemed to know something much bigger than themselves was responsible for life at all.

      I think the substitution of grape juice and crackers in the sense of communion is different in that they are remembering what Jesus did for them. That was part of the instruction in doing it at all, just to remember. It is different in that no blood is being shed, and no one would even want to, that I have ever heard of anyway. So very different in many aspects. I know a lot about both beliefs, and never would have connected the two, but you are welcome to it of course.

      I am not aware of cultures that the crucifixion appeals to. Its not a pretty thing. Even those that believe there was a historical Jesus, and then saw the Passion, for instance, do not "like" that whole thing. Its really rather sad. He was a good guy, having done nothing wrong when others had.

      Like you, I am also very curious about the pyramids in different cultures over time. We have a lot of the same interests in history it seems. I hope to write on so much more, and can't wait to, in the future.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and visits to my hubs. I hope to write more about the Maya very soon.

    • hirundine profile image


      8 years ago from Nelson, B.C. Canada

      Fair enough, I look forward to your future hubs. The point in my first comment, was that sacrifice and blood-letting in their belief system was how much of their culture was developed and built around.

      It might also be said, it was the belief system of homo sapiens globally. The christian aspect of substituting watered wine and crackers for blood and flesh, in their belief system is not far apart? Also the crucifixion, appealed to most south american culture. When the Spanish, first invaded. Certainly neolithic society used sacrifice; as a means of influencing the gods, to the human condition.

      I will be interested to read your future posts on the mayans . I am also curious about why pyramids are built as monuments and temples in society; around the world. The mathematics used in the buildings. How the society of ordinary people within the culture understood, how their government was representing them? It is often said that, fear is the best motivator. ... Cheers!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hello Finance Hub, thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. I agree the Maya had a beautiful culture, in so many ways.

    • The Finance Hub profile image

      The Finance Hub 

      8 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Amazing article about such a beautiful culture. Thanks for this hub, I hope you enjoy mine as well!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Pcunix, The two things you compare there are very different, but honestly both awful. I think the Maya were truly believing that if they sacrificed to their gods, that they would fare better in their living, farming, etc. Its still hard to hear about and imagine when it does come up.

      As for Christians that ever burned a witch, I don't think its very Christlike and more like opposite of what Christ would have done. (Note his defending the woman caught in the act of adultery, so she didn't get stoned, and dying himself for all, etc.) Atrocious killings in our history are awful, whether done to supposed witches, Christians (still going on today in the world), or the ancient Maya, but hopefully all learn from such atrocities.

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hello Algarreview, I too am so fascinated with the Mayan Culture. How wonderful that you got to see Chichen Itza, and I hope to one day. I hope they continue to find more and more over time. Thanks for your comment and visit.

      Hello Hirundine, My goal here was to not give an exhaustive history of the Maya, but a short glimpse into it, an overview of their rise and fall. I don't think I said anything about their sacrificing, as again, this was just about some aspects and not all there is to the Maya. I am well aware of that however, and plan on continuing to write on the Maya in the future. I have written some already, I supposed I should link the others here as well. It's a great subject to study, in my opinion. I thank you for your comment and visit here.

      Hello DIY, I agree with what you said, and that was part of my goal here, to just give one portion of the history. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment, I appreciate it.

      Hi GClark, thank you for your comment and vote. I am in agreement with what you say. Its so mysterious sometimes, but worth getting to know all we can about these cultures. They truly are fascinating.

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 

      8 years ago from SE MA

      Yeah, Mayan human sacrifice was so awful. Good thing Christians never burned witches.. :)

    • GClark profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      Well-written hub with a good overview on the history of the Mayan civilization. I have always been fascinated by ancient cultures that achieved so much in their time and then seemed to vanish. Voted Up. GClark

    • DIYmyOmy profile image


      8 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      I think you did a great job with the subject. These articles can never be an in depth look at a topic this large and complex. Instead, we try to introduce the reader to a few salient points, whet their appetite for more and give them enugh background to dig deeper if they wish. Thanks for publishing this!

    • hirundine profile image


      8 years ago from Nelson, B.C. Canada

      I found the information sparse. A few nice graphics. I notice you say little about "human and animal sacrifice". Also, the Mayan culture's habit of "blood-letting". Which was prevalent among Mayan society. I certainly agree with your points regarding the people's achievement with their monuments, sculpture and carving. Like you I imagine the colours the Mayan used to decorate them with, was something to have seen.

    • algarveview profile image

      Joana e Bruno 

      8 years ago from Algarve, Portugal

      Great hub, I just love the Maya culture, it fascinates me, probably because we have no idea what actually happened. I have been to Chichen Itza, before it became one of the seven wonders of the world and it is remarkable. The view of the forest from the top of the pyramid tells a lot of how much there is still to find, in the middle of all the green, ruins scattered here and there, which I expect probably are traces of the Maya civilization. I hope in time someone can shed a light on what happened. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.


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