Research Paper on Mayan Civilization The Maya Introduction All remnants of the distant past are romantic, but ancient Maya civilization has a special fascination. It is a “lost” civilization, whose secrets lie deep in the mysterious tropical forest. The style of Maya architecture and sculpture seems alien and bizarre. The breathtaking splendor of ornate cites, the beautifully constructed grand temples, and the ingeniously developed and advanced caledretics, mathematics, and astronomy easily mark one of the most interesting and prosperous periods in Latin American history.
Over period spanning approximately six centuries, the Maya of Central America reached artistic and intellectual heights that no other group in the New World had seen or imagined possible. This period in Mayan culture is believed to be a time of relative peace and tranquility, the ultimate decline of their society is still a great mystery and the cause remains speculative in the minds of many archeologists and anthropologists. I order to categorize Mayan cultural development, most scientists divide Mayan civilization into three distinct periods: Pre-classic, Classic, and Post-classic.
The Pre-Classic period is the birth of the Mayan civilization. It is shrouded in mystery, as researchers have a myriad of opinions on where the Mayan people originally migrated from. The first theories were that the Maya were either one of the Lost tribes of Israel or descendants of the lost city of Atlantis. Unfortunately, the most historians can agree on is that the Maya migrated across the Bering Strait from some part of Europe or Asia. In establishing their means of existence, the Maya utilized a system of agriculture and were primarily farmers rather than hunters.
Their primary crops consisted of maize (which they considered to be the staff of life), beans, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco; the later they grew for export to Europe. As the Maya became established in the processes of day-to-day living, the Classic period, which encompassed the period of A. D. 300–900, was born. This period is marked by rapid growth in which the Mayans erected their highest and most handsome temples, built their largest and most ornate cities and achieved success in their intellectual endeavors.
Research on this period provides the principle source of insight into the Mayan people: the hierarchy of their society, their success and intellectual pursuits, and the origin of their religion. Even though some anthropologists disagree on the number of classes into which Mayan society was divided, most will agree that nobility and priests comprised what was considered to be the Mayan aristocracy who monopolized all positions of authority and is believed to have been the center of the Mayan government. The Maya created their civilization in the area that is now present day Guatemala, South Mexico, Honduras, Belize and Yucatan.
Although, the civilization lasted for a very long time, it quickly fell with the coming of the Europeans. Political and Social Organization Maya civilization was not a united one, in the sense that it did not all exist in one geographical location nor did the different locations all respect one homogeneous ruling authority. In fact, the Mayan society consisted of a number of different city states. These city states consisted of many citizens with a social organization that relied on group associations. This meant that social groups were created within the society and each different group was allocated rights and responsibilities.
Therefore, by belonging to a particular group the individual in Mayan society was allowed to enjoy different rights within society. Additionally, the city states themselves, existed with a large degree of political independence of each other. The result of this political independence was a powerful central authority, not created within the Mayan empire. This meant that there was no one capital for the entire empire. As a direct consequence of this, therefore, it was not uncommon for adjacent Mayan city states to be engaged in warfare among themselves as each strove for dominance over its neighbor.
Mayan city states like Tikal were not only population centers but also served the function of autonomous political and religious centers for the citizens who lived there. The Mayan political structure was based on the establishment of many different political centers consisting of city states. These city states collectively represented Mayan society, but each spoke their own peculiar Mayan dialect. The city states consisted of numerous citizens but these citizens were not all equal. Indeed, one characteristic of Maya society was the hierarchical nature of its social organization.
This meant that, at different levels in the society, people would be treated according to their status. This difference in social treatment automatically meant that some citizens enjoyed a better standard of living with more of the amenities of life than others. It also meant that at the bottom of this graded social pyramid were the agricultural farmers and foot soldiers of the empire flourished. By virtue of being at the bottom of the social pyramid their training and skills consisted largely of the social functions that they performed.
Hence, they were not literate and concerned themselves largely with issues of agriculture and the basics of following orders in warfare. Above the primary agriculturalists and soldiers were the skilled artisans, who functioned within Mayan society not only to produce functional artifacts and buildings but also labored at producing elegantly crafted artworks and cultural symbols that enriched Mayan culture and everyday life. These skilled craftsmen were a class above the ordinary agricultural workers and soldiers and their jobs represented the changing of the various classes as one progressed up the Mayan social standing.
The rise of merchants during the Classic and Post Classic Periods facilitated growth in the middle class as well as the elite of many Maya communities. A social stratum in Maya cities is by no means a post conquest attribute, according to Chase. The rise of a middle class is not so much connected to the merchants themselves, but rather, to the intermediary occupations, such as skilled artisans and craftsmen, who were indirectly involved in commerce. Indeed, the truism emerged that as one progressed upwards in the Mayan social hierarchy the opportunity for learning higher level skills became available.
The highly prized skill of literacy, for example, was seen as a marker between the ordinary citizen and noble class and, as such, the attainment of literacy represented an important social division among the classes in Mayan society. A general truism thus emerged, this being that as one progressed upwards in the social pyramid, one’s literary capacity improved. Along with the skilled artisans were the scribes who were also seen as skilled intellectual workers. Their job was to record the greatness of Mayan civilization in writing. By having access to the records, they can be considered as early historians within the society.
Their wealth of knowledge past activities and events provided Mayan rulers with important information which, no doubt, aided them in their decision making. Perhaps, we may know just how important the role of these scribes served an important function in the society and their positioning in the Mayan social hierarchy above the ordinary peasants and soldiers was reflective of this function. At the top of the Mayan social hierarchy, as expected, were the hereditary lords. Their status and the stratification in the society were highlighted by the use of jewelry which was worn largely by nobility. Their positions were assured due to their lineage.
As such, there was an element of rigidity associated with the noble class in Mayan society and so, in general, a peasant or one not born into nobility had very little chance of becoming a part of it. The benefits for those who belonged to the nobility were huge. Indeed, the noble class owned much of the lands that were attached to the various city states. These lands, therefore, became the property of individual family groups of nobles within the Mayan society. These family groups decided amongst themselves who would be king and, as was generally the rule in many of these societies, a patriarchal slant was given importance.
As such, male heads of families generally assumed positions of rule rather than the females. Apart from the top position of being king, other important administrative and ceremonial positions were also available in the empire and these were farmed out, usually to the sons of the nobility. These lesser positions of the importance were ‘lesser’ only in terms of their being under the rule of the king. However, within the society, they were all powerful roles as they allowed the holders a share in the political will of the empire.
For example, the sons of nobles would be placed in charge of smaller satellite towns and cities that adjoined the major Mayan city states. These positions of responsibility and ruler-ship and required much respect by the lower ordered social ranks in the empire. Additionally, the sons of nobles could also become highly respected officers of military. As military leaders, they would not perform functions of ordinary soldiers but rather functions as the leaders and military advisers who planned battle strategy and who commanded the armies in the field.
Indeed, a reputation could be built by being successful in battle which would also increase one’s standing within the Mayan nobility. Finally, the nobles who remained in the city state also performed important administrative tasks. Their tasks included the overseeing of the massive amount of commerce that flooded through the empire on a daily basis. These were positions of much responsibility as they ensured the proper payment of taxes and the smooth exchange and profitability of trade goods within the empire. Agriculture The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production.
It was formerly believed that shifting cultivation (swidden) agriculture provided most of their food but it is now thought that permanent raised fields, terracing, forest gardens, managed fallows, and wild harvesting were also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas. The Maya were an agricultural people who depended; to a large extent, on the productivity of their fields in order to expand their culture. As Mayan society increased in size so too did the need to bring more and more land under productive agriculture.
To achieve this, they practiced slash and burn agriculture in which they constantly cleared more of the forested areas for their own domestic use. By clearing the forest and burning the cut trees, they were able to further ensure the fertility of the newly cleared lands. Lands that were cleared in this manner were fertile only limited periods of time and so the need developed to constantly clear more and more agricultural land. To service this ever growing need for additional agricultural lands, the Maya utilized swampy areas, arid areas and hilly areas.
To conquer these areas and convert them to their agricultural uses, they drained these areas that were underwater ensuring that the fertile soils were effectively heaped up to provide a bedding surface for their crops. They also created ingenious irrigation canals that were fed by artificially created dams to ensure that the arid areas were made fertile. Finally, they were able to reshape the unusable mountainous terrain by creating agricultural terraces which allowed them to cultivate areas on slopes.
Not only did the terraces increase the agricultural land space but it also ensures that the nutrients in the soil would not be washed away down the slope. Chocolate was the favorite drink of the upper classes. Cacao beans, as well as pieces of copper, were a common medium of exchange. Very little meat was eaten, except at ceremonial feasts, although the Maya were expert hunters and fishers. A small “bark-less” dog was also eaten. * While much emphasis is usually placed on the agricultural ability of the Maya, one also has to remember that they did, though to a lesser degree, rely also on animals to supplement their diet.
To this end, for example, one notes that the forest deer provided a ready source of protein to their diet. The Maya farmer cultivated corn, beans, cacao, chili, maguey, bananas, and cotton, besides giving attention to bees, from which he obtained both honey and wax. Various fermented drinks were prepared from corn, maguey, and honey. They were much given to drunkenness, which was so common as hardly to be considered disgraceful. Overcoming the problems of nature The location of the Mayan city states has caused many contemporary historians to view the achievements of the Maya with added respect.
This increased respect comes from the fact that the Maya were not only able to establish wonderful cities but were able to do so in spite of having to build in the most hostile terrain. Indeed, in order to create their cities, the Maya were faced with problems of rough terrain and infertile soils. These problems meant that the natural terrain restricted their ability to set up their cities in accessible locations and meant also a severe limitation on the populations of such cities.
The limitations on population would have been a direct result of the inability of the terrain to provide adequate agricultural areas for food production. But the Maya were an ingenious people who were able to overcome the problems of topography. In general, this meant overcoming the problems of infertile and inaccessible soils in order to set up their cities. To do this, they engaged in large scale projects of drainage in areas that were formerly swampy or marshlands.
This proved quite effective as such land, once drained of excess water, often proved quite fertile and perfect for the cultivation of food crops. Another related problem facing the establishment of Mayan city states was that of the dense jungle. In order to support the population of their large cities, it was necessary for the Maya to remove large forested areas and turn them into useful agricultural lands. This, they were able to achieve with the added bonus of being able to generate fertilizers from the process which provided further necessary nutrients for the soils.
These fertilizers were generated from the sediments taken from the reclaimed land and the detritus and ash created from the land cleaning process. Overall, therefore, we can understand how the Maya were able not only to overcome the initial problems of topography to set up their city states, but how, over time, were able to engage in successful agricultural practices that allowed them to generate food surpluses. These food surpluses were then used for supporting large population centers. A large city state, like Tikal, for example, was thus able to support a population of upwards of 50,000 citizens. Society
The Maya were great builders and the elaborate and grand scale of their cultural and religious buildings and plazas that have survived, in spite of the ravages of time, demonstrated the effectiveness of their methods and the importance of religion to their communities. Huge stone pyramids were built by them. These pyramids facilitated their religious rites and also served as burial places for their nobility. Their craftsmen also created artworks that recorded their history. These artworks took the form of large brightly colored murals that recorded aspects of their history which today provided extensive information to researchers.
The building of their huge stone pyramids was central to Mayan society. These buildings were very labor intensive and so this underscored the need to have a well controlled and disciplined labor force. To control this labor force and the society in general, the Maya created a social system that gave more importance to the men than it did to the women. Their society was therefore patrilineal. This meant that leading each family group would be a male member or patriarch who was ultimately responsible for the group. In turn, the male leaders would pass on this responsibility to other males in their family at the time of their deaths.
This system of organization functioned effectively as it allowed for a natural organization of the society based on extended kingship groups recognizing a hierarchy in which one family was higher than another and the associated patriarch more significant than others. As mentioned earlier, the various Mayan city states all spoke different variations of the Mayan dialect. Taken collectively, however, the Maya language was a true one, in the sense that it fulfilled the basic criteria of being conventionalized; being able to represent both tangible and intangible objects and concepts and, finally it was also able to be voiced from text.
This is an important point to note as many contemporary historians view the attainment of writing as a marker of a developed society. As stated earlier, the importance of writing was also a mark of social distinction within the Mayan society itself. The scribes, who most likely formed a priestly class in Mayan society, were responsible for recording their achievements and history in their writing form or hieroglyphics. They recorded these writings on permanent media such as inscriptions in stone or on a few rare pieces of deerskin and early paper.
Religion Religion was important to the Mayans and they worshipped everything in nature and tried to explain how things happened because of the Gods. The Mayans believed that the world was made up of heavens and underworlds, and were linked together by a giant tree, which had its branches in the heavens and its roots in the underworld. Literacy was an important skill in Mayan society. The use of literacy in religion meant that the priests in Mayan society were not only literate but were also part of the upper classes of Mayan society.
Religion was very important to these city states and, because only the nobles were fully illiterate, the leaders of religious rituals were, not surprisingly, drawn from the ranks of the nobility. Thus, both political and religious leaders were drawn from the noble class. This close connection between the religious and political influences merging in the nobility was clearly evident in the position of the King. The position of King in Mayan society, was believed to be a divine appointment. Hence, the king, acting in his political capacity, was also acting as a religious leader, as through him the will of the Godhead was being expressed.
This religious aspect of the king’s position cannot be overstated enough, for his powers rested on his ability not only to communicate directly with the gods but, through intercessorship, to be able to communicate with all past Mayan ancestors. Religion proved to be an important commodity within Mayan social life. Another important commodity in Mayan social life that was directly tied to the practice of religion was that of blood. In particular, the Mayan religious life had a high respect for human blood.
As such, the highest forms of religious offerings involved the utilization of human blood in worship; it would mean the destruction of human life. Therefore, the worshiping masses would quickly disappear if the blood that was extensively used was their own. The Mayan societies, therefore, routinely engaged in warfare through which they would obtain war captives whose blood came to form the crucial ingredient of worship that Mayan society relied so heavily upon. This reliance was very real as the Maya earnestly believed that it was only through the frequent and profuse offering of human blood that their gods would be appeased.
A direct link emerged between the procurement of war captives and worship. The Maya armies routinely purified themselves in religious ceremonies which, in turn, were designed to ensure that they were successful in battle. This would ensure that they were able to bring home many captives in order to further appease the gods. Not only was the blood of war captives offered to the gods, indeed, since blood rituals were so important to society, it was also believed that the blood of a highly placed member of society was especially precious.
Thus the ritual drawing of small quantities of blood from amongst those of noble class was also offered to the gods. Thus, we note that for extremely important ceremonies some blood was drawn from the king himself and used in veneration of the gods. Of course, not enough blood to incapacitate or kill the king was usually taken (and so they drew small quantities of blood from their genitals, lips, tongues or ears), and this differed in this regard from the blood taking that was done from the war captives. Their calendar system was also tied to their religion and must also be mentioned.
Its use and implementation was very complex and researchers today still marvel at its accuracy. Indeed, the telling of time was very important for the important for the Maya and they had developed two distinct dating systems. These systems served to keep track of their religious life and to track the movement of the sun and its relationship to the earth. These two calendars coincide every fifty two years and the Maya saw this time of clash as especially important. They also had the concept of a Genesis of beginning of civilization. Decline of Classic Mayan Civilization
Classic Mayan society existed in the context of autonomous city states each aspiring for supremacy, and, in the process, each being centers of enormous production and activity. For reasons that are largely unknown (and remain to this day largely speculation), historians have pointed out that this classic period of Mayan civilization was destroyed around 850AD. The reasons for this destruction are varied but, generally, many historians believe that the reason for the failure of Classic Mayan society came about as a result of internal conflict.
In this scenario, historians believed that a crisis in faith led to the people’s questioning of the divinely ordained nature of the social structure and this questioning resulted in the disintegration of the social divisions and responsibilities that had characterized Classic Mayan society. It is believed that the destruction of the important religious center of Teotihuacan around 750AD was at the center of the decline. Its fall demonstrated to the people that the King no longer represented the will of the Gods.
This was an important development because, as we discussed in the previous sections, Classic Mayan society depend on the strict observance of the social hierarchy and the belief in the divine nature of the king. According to Henderson, the fall of the religious center could be interpreted as the inability of the king to please the gods. Following on from this apparent collapse of religious authority, historians have postulated that the collapse of commercial trade routes was inevitable as people no longer felt obligated to respect the nobility and produce goods as they did before.
While all this seems easy enough to understand from a religious context, historians have also pointed out that perhaps the failure of the commercial links were also as a result of the expansionist aspect of Mayan civilization. According to T. Patrick Culbert, it is believed that the demands of a growing population meant that more and more food and trade goods were required. This requirement meant that the society would only survive so long as the flow of goods increased at a faster rate than the growth in the population.
It is believed that at the time of the decline of Classic Maya civilization this formula no longer worked and that Mayan cities now had more people than they could reasonably expect to feed and house properly. We noted that the noble classes were responsible for the proper housing and feeding of the people, the failure of this infrastructure, therefore, would have undermined the very basis of their legitimacy. This would lead to a situation in which the ordinary people would now have every reason to question the basis of the noble class and the functions that they served in the society.
This would have led also to a breakdown of social order and open conflict between the classes. This conflict would have manifested itself at two levels. Firstly, the ruling class would have been at conflict among themselves to secure a greater part of the tributes and diminished peasantry while, on the other hand, the peasantry would have begun to reject demands made on them to produce at a time when resources were diminishing. Whatever the reason, class conflict would have resulted in a context of lessening resources and, ultimately, the destruction of Classical Mayan society.
By 900AD, therefore, the Classic Period of the Mayas was over and they now entered the post-classic period. Post Classic Period During this latter period of the Post-Classic era a new Mayan center was established at Chichen Itza. It was to be among the last of the truly powerful and influential Mayan City states. Unlike previous city states, it was not ruled by one king but, rather, a more democratic system comprising of a governing ruling council. Under their ruling the highly skilled artwork and artifacts, which have been the hallmark of all Mayan cultures, once more emerged in all its glory.
Indeed, not only did the Mayan culture emerge but it was added to, as outside influences became a part of its expression. Historians can today trace the inclusion of cultural influences in Chichen Itza’s artifacts like those of Toltec and other Mayan groups such as Putan Maya (who had traditionally been peripheral to the Classic Yucatan Maya). But the glory of Chichen Itza was limited and it went into demographic decline from around 1100AD with marked population decreases and importance.
Indeed, this demographic decline was only a forerunner to political decline which followed and resulted in the total overthrowing of the governing council in 1221AD. Following this large scale demographic and political decline, Chichen Itza was relegated to the status of a small peripheral state and never again rose to prominence in the post classic Maya life. Other centers and Mayan groups now emerged during the post-classic period. Of importance among these emergent groups was the large city center of Mayapan which was founded by the Itza Maya.
However, Classic Maya civilization was now over and cities like Mayapan depended on a new class relationship, in which forced tribute from peripheral centers became the norm for production rather than production by free peasants. Indeed, by basing their economies on forced labor, an irregular and inferior system of tribute was created that was doomed to failure. Such a weak economic foundation soon crumbled and by about 1450AD, with no surprise, we note that Mayapan had fallen. The fall of this last stronghold of Maya power signaled the end of the Mayan experiment in powerful, centralized cultural and olitical leadership in the region. From this point onwards and until the arrival and conquest by the Spanish in 1697, Maya civilization consisted in large part of small, widely scattered peripheral centers. While the Spaniards unceremoniously destroyed much of the Mayan cultural and intellectual artifacts, enough have remained to show, without a doubt, that these people during their heyday had developed a sophisticated world view represented by their calendar systems, mathematics and writing.