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Mayan civilization

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The Maya are a people of southern Mexico and northern Central America with some 3,000 years of rich history. The Maya were part of the Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian cultures. Contrary to popular myth, the Maya people never "disappeared"; millions still live in the region, many of them still speak one of the Maya family of languages. This article will mostly concern itself with their civilization before the conquest by Spain.

Archaelogical evidence shows the Maya started to build ceremonial architecture some 3000 years ago. There is some disagreement as to the borders and difference between the early Maya and their neighboring Pre-Classic Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmec culture. The Olmec and early Maya seem to have influenced each other.

The earliest monuments consist of simple burial mounds, the precursors to pyramids erected in later times.

Eventually, the Olmec culture faded after spreading their influence into the Yucatan peninsula, present-day Guatemala, and other regions.

The Maya developed the famed cities of Tikal, Palenque, Copán and Kalakmul[?], as well as Dos Pilas, Uaxactun, Altun Ha, and many other sites in the area. They developed an agriculturally intensive, city-centered empire consisting of numerous independent city-states. The most notable monuments are the pyramids they built in their religious centers and the accompanying palaces of their rulers. Other important archaeological remains include the carved stone slabs usually called stelae (the Maya called them Tetun, or "Tree-stones"), which depict ruler along with heiroglyphic texts describing their genealogy, war victories, and other accomplishments.

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Art and architecture

Many consider Maya art and architecture of their Classic Era (c. 200 to 900 a.d.) to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New World. The carvings and stucco reliefs[?] at Palenque and the statuary[?] of Copan are especially fine, showing a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists of Classical civilization of the Old World, hence the name bestowed on this era. We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya, mostly what has survived on funerary pottery, and a building at Bonampak where the ancient murals survived by fortunate accident. With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.

Writing system

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics from a vague superficial resemblance to the Egyptian writing, to which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World that can completely represent spoken language to the same degree as the written language of the old world. The decipherment of the Maya writings has been a long laborous process. Bits of it were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century (mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the calendar, and astronomy), but major breakthroughs came starting in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerated rapidly thereafter, so that now the majority of Maya texts can be read nearly completely in their original languages. Unfortunately zealous Spanish priests shortly after the conquest ordered the burning of all the Maya books. While many stone inscriptions survive (mostly from cities already abandoned when the Spanish arrived), only 3 books and a few pages of a fourth survive from the ancient libraries. Rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips are a frequent discovery in Maya archaeology; they are the tantalzing remains of what had been books after all the organic material has decayed.

In reference to the few extant Mayan writings, Michael Coe, a prominent archeologist at Yale University stated:

"[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress)." (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.)


The Maya (or their Olmec predesessors) independently developed the concept of zero (indeed, they seem to have been using the concept centuries before the Old World), and used a base 20 numbering system (see Mayan numerals). Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the hundreds of millions. They produced extremely accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the moon and planets are equal or superior to any other civilization working from naked eye observation. The Maya calculation of the length of the solar year was somewhat superior to the Gregorian Calendar.

Decline of the Maya

In the 8th and 9th centuries AD Classic Maya culture went into decline, with most of the cities of the central lowlands abandoned. Warfare, ecological depletion of croplands, and drought or some combination of those factors are usually suggested as reasons for the decline. There is archaeological evidence of warfare, famine, and revolt against the elite at various central lowlands sites.

The Maya cities of the northern lowlands in Yucatan continued to flourish for centuries more; some of the important sites in this era were Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Etzna[?], and Coba. After the decline of the ruling dynasties of Chichen and Uxmal, Mayapan ruled all of Yucatan until a revolt in 1450; the area then devolved to city states until the Spanish Conquest.

Post-Classic Mayan states also continued to thrive in the southern highlands. One of the Maya kingdoms in this area, the Quiche, is responsible for the best-known Mayan work of historiography and mythology, the Popol Vuh.

The Spanish started their conquest of the Maya lands in the 1520s. Some Maya states offered long fierce resistance; the last Maya city state was not subdued by Spanish authorities until 1697.

The Spanish American Colonies were largely cut off from the outside world, and the ruins of the great ancient cities were little known except to locals. In 1839 however, American traveller, John Lloyd Stephens, hearing reports of lost ruins in the jungle, visited Copan, Palenque, and other sites with English architect & draftsman Frederick Catherwood[?]. Their illustrated accounts of the ruins sparked strong interest in the region and the people, and they have once again regained their position as a vital link in Mesoamerican heritage.

Much of the contemporary rural population of Guatemala and Belize is Maya by descent and primary language; a Maya culture still exists in rural Mexico.

List of Maya Sites

Most important sites:

Other important Maya sites:

See also: Mayan mythology, Mayan calendar

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