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The rise and fall of the Mayan Civilization

Updated on September 29, 2016

What is the Mayan Civilization?

The Maya are arguably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Mayan history can be traced back to Yucatan approximately 2600 B.C. Mayan history rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in Central America in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize.

Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya made significant advances to astronomy and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. Mayan history shows that they were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.

The Maya were also accomplished scientists. They tracked a solar year of 365 days and one of the few surviving ancient Maya books contains tables of eclipses.Without external influence, the Maya developed their own mathematics using a base number of 20 and had a concept of zero.Their civilization was so stable and established, they even had a word for a 400-year time period.

Where was the Mayan Civilization??

Where was the Mayan Civilization??

The Maya were a group of people who lived in in a region in Central America.

The geographic extent of the Mayan civilization, known as the Maya area, extended throughout the southern Mexican states of Tobasco, Chiapas, and the Yucatán Peninsula states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatán.

The Maya area also extended throughout the northern Central American region, including the present-day nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras.

See map for illustration of geographical extent of the Mayan civilization.

Click on map to enlarge
Click on map to enlarge

Some quick facts about the Maya

Children: The Maya desired some unnatural physical characteristics for their children. For instance, at a very young age boards were pressed on babies’ foreheads to create a flattened surface. This process was widespread among the upper class. Another interesting fact about Mayan children is that most were named according to the day they were born. Every day of the year had a specific name for both boys and girls and parents were expected to follow that practice.

Mayan language: The various groups throughout the region spoke nearly 30 closely related languages and dialects, including the Mayan and Huastec.

Mayan Doctors: Health and medicine among the ancient Maya was a complex blend of mind, body, religion, ritual, and science. Important to all, medicine was practiced only by a select few who were given an excellent education. These men, called shamans, act as a medium between the physical world and spirit world.

Writing: The Maya had 800 distinct hieroglyphs, with the first evidence of language written on stela and walls of buildings beginning ca 300 BC. Bark cloth paper codexes were being used no later than the 1500s, however all but a handful were destroyed by the Spanish.

Ball game: The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations played for over 3000 years by the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places during the millennia, and a modern version of the game, ulama, is still played in a few places by the local indigenous population. Ballcourts were public spaces used for a variety of elite cultural events and ritual activities like musical performances and festivals, and of course, the ballgame. The game was played with a ball roughly the size of a volleyball but made from rubber and heavier.

Astronomy: The Maya tracked the sun, moon, and Venus. Calendars include eclipse warnings and safe periods, and almanacs for tracking Venus.

Currency: Cacao beans, copper bells, marine shells and jade beads.

Warfare: The Maya had fortified sites and military themes and battles are illustrated in Maya art by the Early Classic period. Warrior classes, including some professional warriors, were part of the Maya society. Wars were fought over territory and slaves to avenge insults and to establish succession.

Weaponry: Axes, clubs, maces, throwing spears, shields and helmets, bladed spears.

Saunas: An important purification element to the ancient Maya was the sweat bath, or zumpul-ché. Similar to a modern day sauna, sweat baths were constructed of stone walls and ceilings, with a small opening in the top of the ceiling. Water poured onto the hot rocks in the room created steam, offering a setting in which to sweat out impurities. Sweat baths were used for a range of conditions and situations.

Ritual sacrifice: Offerings thrown into cenotes, and placed in tombs; the Maya pierced their tongues, earlobes, genitals or other body parts for blood sacrifice. Animals (mostly jaguars) were sacrificed, and there were human victims, including high ranking enemy warriors who were captured, tortured and sacrificed.

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The fall of the Mayan Civilization

The fall of the Mayan Civilization

There are many theories that try to explain the mystery of how the Mayan civilization fell. Not only have there been a number of expeditions to the area, but also various studies done to prove the reasons for the fall. For reasons that are still discussed, the Maya centers of the southern lowlands went into decline during the 8th and 9th centuries and were abandoned shortly thereafter. Non-ecological theories of Maya decline are seperated into several subcategories, such as overpopulation, foreign invasion, peasant revolt, and the collapse of key trade routes. Ecological arguments include epidemic disease, environmental disaster, and climate change. There is evidence that the Maya population exceeded carrying capacity of the environment including exhaustion of agricultural potential and over-hunting of megafauna. Some scholars have recently theorized that an intense 200 year drought led to the collapse of the Mayan civilization.

It should be noted that, although the "Fall" of the Mayan civilization is commonly assumed to be between 800 A.D. and 900 A.D., this period merely describes a time where Maya's peak had was over and its most populated cities were abandoned. The Mayan civilization is believed to have survived at least until the time of Christopher Columbus.

Want to know more about this fascinating culture? Buy one of the highly recommended following books and read on...

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya
A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya

Hailed as "a Rosetta stone of Maya civilization" (Brian M. Fagan, author of People of the Earth), A Forest of Kings is "a must for interested readers," says Evon Vogt, professor of anthropology at Harvard University.


Art of the Maya...

The art of the Maya, is a reflection of their lifestyle and culture.

Many consider art of the Mayan Classical Era (c. 250 to 900 AD) to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New World. The carvings and the reliefs made of stucco at Palenque and the statuary of Copán are especially fine, showing a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists of Classical civilizations of the Old World, hence the name bestowed on this era.

Maya Calendar Art for your home

The Maya Calendar depicted here was called "the Haab", the Maya solar calendar of 365 days. Click on the link below to purchase this calendar and never miss another important Mayan event...
The Maya Calendar depicted here was called "the Haab", the Maya solar calendar of 365 days. Click on the link below to purchase this calendar and never miss another important Mayan event... | Source

Mayan Warrior Chac Mool Statue

Original from Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza, Mexico. 1000 A.D. Chac Mools (reclining man statues) have been found across Mesoamerica. Click on link below to purchase this warrior for your home...
Original from Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza, Mexico. 1000 A.D. Chac Mools (reclining man statues) have been found across Mesoamerica. Click on link below to purchase this warrior for your home... | Source

Tell me what you think. Have you visited Chichen Itza? Any travel stories? How does this culture measure up to the achivements of the ancient European cultures?

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