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The Ancient Maya: Rulers of the Rainforest

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A Mayan archeological site on the shores of the Caribbean Sea in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

A Mayan archeological site on the shores of the Caribbean Sea in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

In 1697, Spanish invaders destroyed the last great kingdom of the Maya, bringing a definitive end to the ancient rulers of the Yucatan peninsula.

But the Maya civilization was already a shadow of its former self by that time. Many of its long-abandoned cities had fallen to the encroaching jungle long before what remained of it fell to the Spanish conquistadors.

Maya History

The history of the Maya civilisation can be divided into three eras: The Preclassic Period (1800 B.C. to A.D. 250); the Classic Period (A.D. 250 to A.D. 900); and the period following the "Maya collapse" (from 900 A.D. to the arrival of the Spanish).

Preclassic Maya had already achieved a significant agricultural base, cultivating crops such as maize, beans and squash. During this period, the development of Maya culture may have been heavily influenced by the Olmecs, which was the first major Mesoamerican civilisation.

The Classic Period was the golden age of the Maya, during which they built many of the impressive structures and pyramids that stand today as monuments to their achievements. At this point, they had many great cities (with populations as high as 50,000 in some cases), connected by trade routes that contributed to a thriving economy.

Then came the mysterious decline, during which many of these cities were abandoned.

The Temple of the Cross, built between 684 AD and 702 AD by the ruler of the Maya city-state of Palenque.

The Temple of the Cross, built between 684 AD and 702 AD by the ruler of the Maya city-state of Palenque.

What Happened to the Maya?

It's not known for certain what sparked the mass migration of the Maya, which is believed to have occurred between the 8th and 9th centuries. Earthquakes, epidemics, and drought have all been suggested as potential factors.

Maya codices might have provided more insight, but many of them were destroyed by the Spanish during their subjugation of the Yucatan peninsula. Thus, the “Maya collapse” remains one of history's great mysteries. What's known is that during this period, power shifted from the southern lowlands to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Maya Religion

The Maya had vivid imaginations, begetting rich mythology where heaven had 13 layers ruled by an owl, while the Lords of Night ruled the dreaded Underworld.

Caves held special significance in Maya lore, being entrances to the Underworld where dwelt the dead.

A dangerous sea monster named Sipek ruled the waves. This particular legend may have been inspired by the fossilized remains of extinct giant sharks (fossilized shark teeth were sometimes offered to the gods at Maya holy sites).

Speaking of gods, the Maya had over 100 of them. Some of them changed gender at will, while others could appear as young or old. Some died at night and changed their face for the visit to the Underworld.

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But there was a single supreme deity named Itzamná, who gave the Maya the gift of writing, and was usually depicted as a double-headed serpent that lived in the sky.

The Popol Vuh is the Maya equivalent of the bible. It survived the Spanish purge, and was sent back to Europe, where it was translated by a Dominican priest.

And yes, the Maya did make use of hallucinogenic substances, such as mushrooms and dried toad skins.

Statue of a Maya maize god

Statue of a Maya maize god

Maya Astronomy

The Maya were obsessed with astronomy, and some of their most recognizable structures were built for the very purpose of observing the stars and measuring the passage of time.

The most famous example would be Chichén Itzá, where the position of the setting sun at two specific points of the year causes a serpent-shaped shadow to slither down the steps of the Pyramid of Kukulkán.

The Pyramid of Kukulkán

The Pyramid of Kukulkán

Human Sacrifice

The Maya performed human sacrifice (though not as frequently as the Aztec). The ritual of human sacrifice required that three priests restrain the victim's arms and legs, while a fourth - known as the nacom - cut his heart from his chest using a flint knife.

Maya civilization was agriculturally based, and the sacrifices were presumably a means of keeping the gods appeased so as to prevent drought and ensure bountiful harvest (as well as being a demonstration of priestly power).

Since earthquakes were frequent in the region, the Maya had good reason to fear the perceived wrath of the gods. The priests were extremely influential, such that even Maya nobility feared to cross them. They were well studied in astronomy, mathematics and the arts of healing, and thus were sure to be consulted on all matters of import.

Remains of a teenage girl sacrificed by the Maya

Remains of a teenage girl sacrificed by the Maya

Maya Politics

It's believed that the Maya spoke a single language at one point, but by the Preclassic Period, there was a wide diversity of languages. The modern descendants of the Maya have an estimated 70 languages.

Maya society shared a common culture, but the various city-states never united to form a single empire. Each state was a separate political entity, with a class of nobles (Maya almehenob) and the priesthood (Maya ahkinob) holding leadership and administrative positions; while a class of commoners (Maya ah chembal uinieol) served as artisans, merchants and farmers. At the very bottom of this social ladder was the slave class (Maya ppencatob).


A reproduction of the Bonampak murals, located in southern Chiapas, Mexico. They depict the story of the last ruling family of Bonampak.

A reproduction of the Bonampak murals, located in southern Chiapas, Mexico. They depict the story of the last ruling family of Bonampak.

Slavery was reserved primarily for prisoners of war and criminals, though orphans could also be enslaved if nobody wanted them.

The class structure was rigidly enforced, but it was possible to rise through the ranks. Slaves could earn their freedom, and commoners could achieve distinction through military service.

The halach uinic was the Maya equivalent of a king; his countenance deemed so holy that a cloth had to be held in front of his face so that he couldn't be addressed directly.

He was assisted by a council of advisers; the most influential among them being the high priest and the supreme military commander (nacom) - the latter serving a three year term. The halach uinic in turn appointed governors (batabs) to administer the various districts of the state in his name.

The Great Ball Court and the Temple of the Jaguars at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. The Maya ball game, named "Pitz" in the Classic Maya language, was not just a game, but a sacred ritual.

The Great Ball Court and the Temple of the Jaguars at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. The Maya ball game, named "Pitz" in the Classic Maya language, was not just a game, but a sacred ritual.

Maya Law

Maya law was extremely harsh. Crimes such as adultery, arson, and even breaking an entering were punishable by death.

However, it was possible to obtain a pardon from the injured parties. For example, adulterers could be pardoned by the wronged husband, and the family of a murder victim could demand restitution instead of the death penalty.

Nobles found guilty of crimes that were not punishable by death instead received a permanent tattoo on their face marking them as disgraced.

Maya citizens each held two legal names, one passed down by their mother and the other by their father. The former pertained to marriage laws, while the latter was used for matters of property and inheritance.

Jade plaque depicting a Maya King

Jade plaque depicting a Maya King

Legacy of the Maya

The Maya civilization reached its height between the third and ninth centuries A.D, and continued to flourish in certain regions after the “Maya collapse”.

But even had they retained their former power; it's unlikely they would have been able to resist the Spanish conquistadors and their cannons.

Descendants of the Maya inhabit Central America and parts of Mexico.

Descendants of the Maya inhabit Central America and parts of Mexico.

Descendants of the Maya still inhabit the region, comprising an estimated 40% of Guatemalans.

Unfortunately, indigenous peoples in general have suffered as a result of civil wars and brutal regimes. During the reign of Efrain Rios Montt (1982-83), entire villages were wiped out by the military.

Furthermore ethnic Maya in Guatemala are marginalised by society, and their native languages aren't officially recognised. The poverty rate of Guatemala's indigenous community is around 80%.

But despite significant challenges, Maya communities have managed to preserve many aspects of their rich cultural heritage.

Descendants of the Maya comprise an estimated 40% of the population of Guatemala.

Descendants of the Maya comprise an estimated 40% of the population of Guatemala.

References

Owen Jarus , Jessica Leggett. 2021, 22 October. The Maya: History, civilization & god (Live Science). Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/41781-the-maya.html

Cindy Cheng. 2017, 23 February. Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture. Retrieved from https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/gravematters/2017/02/23/human-sacrifice-in-mayan-culture/

2009, 29 October. Maya (History.com). Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/maya

Maya Society (University of Maine Hudson Museum). Retrieved from https://umaine.edu/hudsonmuseum/collections/william-p-palmer-iii/maya/maya-society/

Henry Morales, Agence France Presse. 2012, 19 December. Meanwhile, Maya Descendants Face Discrimination And Poverty (Business Insider). Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/maya-descendants-face-discrimination-2012-12?IR=T

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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