Do you remember the Mayan calendar freakout of 2012?
December 20th, 2012 was the date that the Mayans presumably predicted the world would end.
In stores around the globe, survival supplies were snapped up. Building contractors specialising in underground shelters were triple-booked; they couldn’t work fast enough to meet demand.
Everywhere, people alternated between hosting extravagant parties and hunkering down in fear.
And then, at the stroke of midnight on that day... the Mayan calendar regenerated and lots of people felt just a little foolish at having stockpiled emergency candles and tinned food.
This incident is a testament to the power, impact and genius of the Mayan civilisation, even centuries after its waning.
They were a people both religious and superstitious, human characteristics seemingly at odds with their scientific nature.
Equally at odds were their artistic abilities and their brutality – not just ritual sacrifices but in everyday matters, such as torturing and beheading their losing ball team.
Yes, the Mayans loved to play ball, just like we do!
Let us now take a trip to Mesoamerica, where the Mayan civilisation flourished for so long. We’ll find out what life was like in those times, what marvels they achieved and what happened to them.
The Mayan Timeline
Although the region occupied by the Mayans shows evidence of having been inhabited some 8,000 years ago, the time frame of Mayan civilisation is contested to this day.
Nevertheless, the eras of a few major events are generally agreed upon.
Most archaeologists put the start of Mayan civilization around 1,800BC, when actual settlements arose and the people started cultivating maize, beans, squash and chilli peppers – ingredients that remain staples of their diet still today.
One of the most impactful events in the Mayan timeline happened in the 9th Century AD: a political collapse led to a migration away from the southern lowlands, leaving their cities and fields behind.
Nobody is sure what brought on that migration or the sudden change in political winds.
A combination of factors such as drought and overpopulation – which led to environmental degradation, coupled with civil war is universally accepted as likely factors.
By the start of the 16th Century, there were hardly any Mayan warriors left to fight against the Spanish; in 1697, Spanish conquistadors attacked and took the last independent Mayan city.
The longevity of the Mayan civilisation – in spite of her collapse in the 2nd Century she kept on going, has caused scholars to categorise date progression into 5 discrete eras:
- Archaic: from 8,000 to 2,000 BC
- Preclassic: from 2,000 BC to 250 AD
- Classic: 250 to 950 AD
- Postclassic: 950 to 1539 AD
- Contact Period, the times of Spanish activity: 1511 to 1697
Within those divisions, there are further distinctions: early, late and terminal. We also note that the date ranges may fluctuate by up to a century as there is no definite way of assigning dates to specific events.
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Geography of the Maya Territory
The Mayan civilization developed within the Mesoamerican culture area which extended from the northern end of today’s Mexico into Central America.
In their heyday, the Mayans occupied the entire Yucatan Peninsula as well as southeastern Mexico and northern South America – the region we know today as Belize and Guatemala, as well as western Honduras and El Salvador.
The Mayans enjoyed a generous coastline. Inland, their terrain was generally flat with few hills, except for what was known as the Mayan Highlands, the mountain range that extends into Guatemala.
In all, they had plenty of arable land and water was not necessarily difficult to come by... at least, if the population had not boomed.
Although the region was vast and well-populated and all Mayans shared a common worldview and ideology, they were never consolidated into a single empire.
Mayans lived in nation-states, each governed by their own political hierarchies. These states were connected by trade relations, diplomatic alliances and tribute obligations.
Tribute obligations: more powerful states would exact payment from weaker neighbours, generally as a gesture of submission. Such a tribute could be in the form of currency or goods.
Initially, Mayans were governed by tribal chiefs but, by the Classic period, leadership had become more centralised and much more powerful.
Leaders justified their position through lineage or by divine right; political connections with other leaders also helped enforce a leader’s tenure.
The Mayan culture enforced loyalty and obedience to rulers; they felt it was absolutely necessary to maintain social harmony.
Those who chafed under leadership were harshly punished. By the Classic Period, human sacrifice had become a well-established tool for social control. Political and religious leaders had no issue with performing ritual sacrifice as a way of demonstrating their power.
The Mayan Social Structure
Nearly from the start of Mayan civilisation, a sharp distinction was made between elite and commoner – the two broad social classes. Within them, there existed further divisions.
Of course, the elite class included royalty. Positioned directly below them came the nobles, so decreed either by royalty or because they owned land independent of the king.
Religious leaders were also considered elite, as were military leaders. Other noble ranks included:
- government officials
- tribute collectors
- plantation managers (cacao plantations were massive!)
- trade expedition leaders
- high priests
- local administrators
What about royal offspring?
Sons were expected to demonstrate that they would be capable of defending the kingdom before inheriting it so, at least for a while, they were expected to take a military leadership position.
As Mayans always maintained class lines when marrying, royal daughters would be given in marriage to a son of a royal in another land, thus maintaining their elite status and consolidating political ties.
The ‘common’ class included serfs and slaves, farmers, general labourers and servants.
While a ‘common’ merchant may become quite wealthy, he would not be permitted the trappings of wealth: no fine clothing or adornments, nor would he have been permitted to improve his family’s living conditions.
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Mayan Religious and Spiritual Beliefs
The Mayans practised ancestor worship; in fact, so deep was their devotion that their dead were buried underneath their homes!
Are you familiar with the burial customs in ancient Greece?
Besides ancestor worship, Mayans had more than 200 gods. The most important ones were of creation, fertility, rain and thunder, and death.
As in society, so in the pantheon of gods: there was a hierarchy, with some gods being more powerful and revered than others.
Some gods existed to be disliked, mocked and tricked.
Throughout the vast Mayan territory, most everyone revered the same gods but some polities had gods specific to their region or concerns.
It is difficult to assess exactly how many gods populated their belief system because the same god may have a different name in another region or may have several names within the same region.
One remarkable facet of Mayan gods is their potential for ruthlessness and cruelty.
For instance, Zipacna, a god instrumental in creating the earth, killed 400 boys in a single, cleverly-engineered move.
Ancient Maya Academics
For a people obsessed with bloodshed and warfare, ancient Mayans were surprisingly academic, making significant advances in a variety of fields.
Should you be in doubt about Mayan technological know-how, you only need to look at their leftover structures and city ruins. Their symmetrical layout and precise lines indicate that they knew a bit about land surveying and measurement.
What is even more remarkable is that they cut stone and transported it without any metal tools or any wheels.
Another amazing advance was their use of glittery paint to adorn their buildings and to create art. Mixing standards colours with mica, a mineral abundantly available in the area, they decorated everything from their walls to themselves.
Do you think of ancient Mayans when you wear your wellies?
Researchers have discovered that the Mayans perfected the process of combining raw rubber with other materials to make it more durable – a process called vulcanisation, some 3,000 years ago.
Among the products they fashioned out of vulcanised rubber were water-resistant bags and clothing, binding for their books and balls to play pok-a-tok with.
Remember, earlier in this article we said that the losing ball team would be beheaded?
The Maya civilization was agrarian, meaning it depended on natural elements – rainfall and auspicious planting times for the bulk of their food production.
Furthermore, they believed in cosmological influence; the pull and power of the heavens on everyday affairs. To derive the most benefit possible, they set out to understand the power of the stars and planets.
Through their study, they gleaned an advanced understanding of astrological cycles and how they could help plan harvesting and planting schedules.
Unlike the sun and moon, stars had no special divine meaning; however, they were significant for agricultural planning because their changes indicated a change of seasons.
Venus was another important celestial body. Ancient Mayans associated Venus with war so battles were planned and fought according to Venus’ movements.
If that planet was not in the right position to guarantee favour from the gods, sacrificing war prisoners would be delayed until such a time that the gods would be likely to smile.
Mayan knowledge of astronomy even influenced their architecture; perhaps the most famous example of such is the positioning of the pyramid at Chichen Itza.
Upon the spring and autumn equinoxes, the waning sun’s light casts a shadow onto a climbing wall which forms the staircase to the top of the pyramid.
Projecting the undulating shape of the edge of the structure, the shadow appears to meld with the carved snake head that adorns the base of the stairs, making it appear as though a giant snake were slithering down the side of the pyramid itself.
Such a degree of precision is astounding, especially considering that the ancient Mayan had virtually no tools or instruments with which to measure.
Even more jaw-dropping: this entire structure is a calendar!
Whereas we have two calendars by which to track our days, Julian and Gregorian – and we don’t much use Julian dates anymore, the Mayan had several and used them all.
Their shortest cycle calendar was called Tzolkin; a 260-day count. It was used to determine when agricultural activity should take place and to plan religious ceremonies. It also represents roughly the duration of a human pregnancy.
The Haab calendar is 365 days long, like ours, but is broken down into 18 months of 20 days each.
If you’ve done the math, you know that 18x20 is only 360. The last 5 days were considered so unlucky, they were given their own name: Wayeb. During that time, Maya people stayed home and avoided most activities, lest disaster befall them.
The long-count calendar was used to count all of the days since the beginning of time. This calendar is both cyclical and linear, meaning that one can consult it to look forward and back in time, and that it regenerates.
At its base is the 360-day Haab year minus the 5-day Wayeb period and, to explain it properly, we have to understand Mayan mathematics.
Unlike the Mesopotamian civilisation numbering system which was based on a value of 60, Mayan numeracy was base 20 or vigesimal.
They devised a counting system using only 3 symbols and, most critically, they implemented the use of zero as a place holder.
In Mayan numeracy, a dot represented a single unit, dashes had a value of 5 and, usually, a clamshell depicted zero.
In the same way we teach our young students how to add by arranging the values vertically and to first add the ones, then the tens and so on, the Mayans used the same structure – except for their groupings were by 20, not 10.
Using sticks, pebbles and perhaps a bone fragment to signify zero, everyone could use maths in everyday transactions.
Now that we understand that their counting system was based on 20, we see that their long-count calendar was simply the Haab calendar times 204.
360 x 204 = 57,600,000 – which is exactly the number of days that elapsed by December 21st, 2012, after which the calendar restarted!
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The Mayan writing system includes more than 800 symbols. Some are logosyllabic, meaning that a single drawing represents an entire word – a lot like Japanese or Chinese writing.
Other Mayan script involves writing words out syllable by syllable. About 300 Mayan glyphs are considered syllabic.
This writing system was the most developed in pre-Columbian America but, for as developed as it was, only the nobles were permitted to learn it.
That means that the workers who chiselled hieroglyphics onto walls, sculptures and pottery had no idea what they were writing!
On the other hand, scribes, religious and military leaders used their writing skills to draft many of their accounts on tree bark, which they then bound in animal hides.
These books described life in the Maya culture, military action, politics and social events such as ball games and festivals.
When the Spaniards invaded, they interpreted these books as pagan and evil. They burned the heap of them... but, fortunately, four have survived.
The Mayan Civilisation
Incomprehensibly brutal yet devoutly religious, firmly grounded in science but awash with superstition: the complexity of the Maya culture enthrals still today.
Unlike other ancient civilisations, the Maya have left such a long history; a past littered with so much yet to be discovered and understood.
Why did Mayan noblewomen file their teeth down to points? Why was being cross-eyed a mark of distinction?
Why, when there was so much knowledge to be shared, was a substantial portion of the population denied education?
There were no schools, as such, to teach people how to read, write and do maths. Withholding education was a way to maintain the class structure; to ensure the Mayan way would continue forever.
Although there are still Mayans inhabiting the Yucatan peninsula and scattered throughout the region, their way of life is, for the most part, gone for good.
Done are the bloody wars and the brutal sacrifices; finished are the egocentric kings and the malicious nobles.
Echoes of their gods are still there, though.
If you happen to find yourself in the northern part of the Yucatan peninsula, sometime around the 20th of September, you may just catch the shadow of a Mayan feathered snake slithering down from the heavens.
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