What is Maya Civilization?
- The Maya Civilization refers to the people who lived and prospered in the tropical lowlands of Central America or present-day Guatemala.
- Around 6000 BC, the hunter-gatherers in Mesoamerica discovered techniques to domesticate plants; this was their first step to a sedentary lifestyle.
- Effective agricultural methods resulted in the formation of several cities and villages across modern-day North Mexico throughout Central America. This region is known as the Mesoamerican cultural area.
- Mesoamerica was the birthing ground of several cultures that are now broadly known as the Maya Civilization. The people of Mesoamerica held various identities and spoke various languages. They were not united by any one political entity.
- They excelled in agriculture, architecture, math, calendar, and astronomical systems. Their most noteworthy achievement is the Maya glyphs, a writing system that included logograms and syllabic symbols.
- Maya Civilization is one of the most important civilizations in human history. It is one of the earliest civilizations to have used the number zero.
- In the 15th century due to the Spanish invasion in Mexico and Central America, the Maya Civilization was taken over and many of the artifacts and literature were destroyed.
- There are over 6 million Maya people who still live in Central America. Most of them speak Spanish and one of the 28 surviving Maya languages.
Geography and Lifestyle
- The geographical expanse of the Maya Civilization stretched from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras all the way to El Salvador.
- It included the northern lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula, along with the highlands of Sierra Madre. It included the Mexican state of Chiapas, all of southern Guatemala and El Salvador, and also the southern lowlands in the littoral plain of the Pacific.
- The region has some hills and mountains but the characteristic feature of this land is its vast plain and low coastline. The Maya Civilization is said to have had over 10 million people living in these regions at its peak.
- In the Peten region, there is dense forest and a low-lying limestone plain. The central drainage basin of Peten is linked by 14 lakes. From here all the way till the south of Yucatan state are dense forests covering Belize, Quintana Roo, and southern Campeche.
- The Maya Civilization was a largely agrarian society and the farmers used simple tools made of stone to sow and reap crops like maize, beans, squash, etc. They also ate meats such as turkey, fish, deer, and duck.
- Cacao was treated with reverence and used as money. Chocolate was extracted by the Maya farmers from the cacao tree. The Mayans also cultivated foods such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, black beans, and papaya.
- They lived in small thatched huts made of mud or stone. They were generally built on a platform to protect from the floods. The men and women kept long hair and wore loincloths and skirts with a blanket called ‘Manta’. It was usual to get tattoos after marriage in the Mayan culture.
- Slowly as the settlements grew into large cities, a ruling class emerged and governed all activities of the Maya. They wore large headdresses made of feathers and colorful clothes made from animal skins. They also wore a lot of jewelry.
- Unlike the other civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Maya never had any one state or empire. The Mayan Civilization consists of several Chiefdoms and states ruled by an authority with an elite ideology which they reinforced on the populations by the display of ritual and religion.
History, Politics, and Key Event Facts
- The history of the Maya Civilization is said to have begun around 8000 BC when the first Maya people made small villages due to their discovery of agriculture. After that, their history is divided into three periods, namely, the Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic periods.
- The first signs of the Maya Civilization are seen around 1200 BC in modern-day Belize. A Maya archeological site called Cuello revealed settlements that were designed for farming and other occupations like pottery. It also had a steam bath, the oldest found in Maya lowlands.
- The staple foods of the Maya people, maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers, were grown in the region from the Preclassic era and their burial sites were accompanied with offerings in a ceramic vessel.
- At the Aguanda Fenix site in Tabasco, Mexico, great structures were revealed that are suggested to be ceremonial sites. They were used to observe the summer and winter solstices. The calendars of the Maya reveal the link between astronomy and festivals.
- Around 750 BC, the Maya villages had begun growing into cities. Large structures found in Nakbe, a city located in the Mirador Basin of Guatemala, is the first large city found in the Maya lowlands.
- During this time, writing was already common and stelae were erected at burial sites. Nakbe was about 13 kilometers from the largest Maya city, called El Mirador. In El Mirador, archeologists found 10 square miles of large structures. There are thousands of buildings, some around 10 to 72 meters high.
- The forest soil in this region is not conducive to agriculture, however, the Maya of El Mirador devised an ingenious idea to successfully cultivate the region by building terraces covered by the mud from the swamps. This elevated the pH of the soil and prepared it for crops such as corn, squash, cotton, cacao, etc.
- The city was linked internally with the various architectural grounds and externally with other cities within the Mirador Basin as proven by the quantity and size of the causeways uncovered at the site.
- Other cities like Tikal, Kaminaljuyu, Takalik Abaj, Chocola, Komchen also emerged as major centers during the Preclassic era.
- The Classic Period of the Maya saw massive urbanism and a greater scale of construction. The monuments of this time had been erected using the Long Count calendar making it distinctly different from the Preclassic era buildings.
- The southern lowlands especially were significantly evolved in intellectual and artistic expressions. The population of the cities was anywhere between 50,000 to 120,000 each. Other cities that grew and flourished from 250 AD to 900 AD are Teotihuacan, Dos Pilas, Copan, Itza, Uxmal, and Coba.
- This period was also characterized by politics and warfare and is likened to the period of Classical Greece and the Renaissance of Italy. The large metropolis of Teotihuacan influenced the Mayan cities during the Classic period. Various alliances and enmities existed in the political landscape of the Maya.
- A prominent Maya politician by the name of Siyaj K’ak which means Born of Fire, installed a new king in Tikal and it became the most important city in the southern lowlands for the Maya.
- The political structure of this time involved the ritual authority of the rulers over the commoners. There was no ruling body as such that could control the trade and the supply of food in the cities.
- This proved highly problematic because the king was trained only in activities such as construction, ritual, and warfare. It increased the systemic problems in the government of the Maya and during the 10th century AD, this form of rulership came to an end.
- Toward the end of the Classic Period, the rulership included a council of members from prominent lineages. Many cities had depopulated rapidly and many others were totally abandoned.
- This period also saw a decline in the building of monuments with the Long Count Calendar. The last one was inscribed in Tonina in 909 AD.
- The Postclassic era saw a decrease in population in the southern lowlands and an increase in the northern lowlands and the Maya highlands. The concentration of the population was now located near permanent water sources.
- The great city of Kaminaljuyu saw complete abandonment after 2000 years of occupation while the city of Q’umarkaj in the Guatemalan highlands became one of the most important cities in the Postclassic Period.
- In the 12th century, the Maya region had a new dominant power in the city of Mayapan while various new cities were built along the Caribbean and Gulf coasts. However, in 1448, Mayapan too was deserted due to long periods of war, disease, and natural calamities in the Yucatan Peninsula.
- Shortly thereafter, the Spanish arrived in 1511. Though the political landscape of the Maya people had steadily declined, the coastal cities were very wealthy and several large marketplaces prospered in the Maya region.
- The Maya Civilization built many great cities all over Mesoamerica. They typically consisted of pyramid temples, palaces, patios, plazas, and ballcourts called sacbeob. Many of these structures were decorated with sculptures and paints.
- The palaces were luxurious with courtyards and sweat baths. The elites used their residences for several important events and rituals and buried the rulers on the site. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls described the rulers, their life, and victories.
- Pyramids and temples often were dedicated to ancestral rulers along with patron gods of the Maya. The rulers had a semi-divine status in the Maya Civilization and acted as the mediators between the heavenly realms, the underworld, and the earth.
- There are about 35 large structures called the triadic structures in El Mirador. The most famous is El Tigre, La Danta temple, and Los Monos. The tallest among them is the La Danta temple which is about 72 meters high from the forest floor. It is also one of the largest pyramids in the world because it occupies about 2,800,000 cubic meters.
- The observatory buildings of the Maya Civilization were constructed to observe and record the movement of celestial bodies. In Chichen Itza, there was a multi-level edifice in a circular shape with windows marking the movements of the planet Venus while the two stelae at Copan showed the position of the setting sun at the equinoxes.
- The ballcourt of the Mayan Civilization is a characteristic architectural feature across Mesoamerica. These ball games were a source of entertainment as well as a critical component of the ritual and religion of the Maya. The losing side was sometimes sacrificed to the gods.
- Some other notable sites include Central Peten, Puuc, Chenes, Rio Bec, and Usumacinta. Towards the end of the Maya Civilization, the architecture used the several advantages that the hillsides provided. This changed the architectural style to include thinner walls and multiple access doors to the palaces and temples.
- The language that was used most prominently was Ch’olan, it is consistently found in almost all Classic Maya texts. The writing system of the Maya is the most significant development of the Maya Civilization. It includes logograms and a syllabary of phonetic signs and they were very inventive in their use of glyph elements.
Other Important Facts
- The society of the Mayans was strictly divided into the ‘Elite’ and the ‘Commoners’. Due to the rapid increase of urbanism in the Maya region, the elites became specialized and highly complex in areas of military, political organization, and religion.
- The middle class included low ranking priests, officers, artisans, traders, and soldiers. The commoners were laborers, farmers, and servants. Neither had any right over the land as it was claimed by the elites as ancestral property. To reinforce the communal holding of land, the elites built burial sites and compounds within the residential compounds.
- In the Mayan culture, big noses and crossed eyes were considered beautiful. There is evidence that in some areas the Mayans used makeup to make their noses look larger. Similarly, the importance of one’s position in the rulership was determined by the height of their headdresses, the taller the headdress the higher the position in the rulership.
- Though the commoners could not become elites, they could rise to several middle-class positions such as traders or soldiers. If a commoner proved his ability in warfare, he would be promoted as a warrior and acquire an influential position in society.
- The religion of the Maya played a very important role in all aspects of their lives. They believed in supernatural forces and several powerful deities. They worshipped their ancestors because they believed that they played a great role in protecting the mortal world from the 13 realms in heaven and 9 in the underworld.
- This world view led to the King or the Chief assuming the role of the divine interpreter and holding ultimate political and religious power. Several festivals of the Maya included feasting, bloodletting, incense burning, dancing, music, and human sacrifice.
Cite this article as: "Ancient Mayan: Facts & Information for Kids," in History for Kids, January 17, 2021, https://historyforkids.org/ancient-mayan-facts-information-for-kids/.