Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Brief History of the Mayas

Since I will soon be traveling to the Yucatán peninsula, the land of the Mayas, I thought that I would give you a little background information on that civilization.  The history of the Mayas is very complex, and although we know more about them than many other civilizations of Mexico (thanks in part to the recent decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs), there are still many unanswered questions and conflicting theories.  I have tried here to write a very simplified overview of this fascinating culture.

The Mayan civilization flourished in what are now the countries of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, and in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico and in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco.  The earliest Mayan settlements date back to 1800 B.C.

The civilization reached its peak during what archaeologists call the Classic Period (A.D. 250 - 900).  During that period there were scores of Mayan cities.  There never was a Mayan Empire.  Similar to ancient Greece, the Mayan world was divided into numerous city states.  There were cities throughout the Mayan territory, but during the Classic Period the most magnificent and powerful cities were located in the tropical rainforests that stretch from southeastern Mexico, across northern Guatemala, and into Belize and Honduras.  A few of the most famous Classic Period cities were Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, and Copán in Honduras.

(image from the web)

(image from the web) 
Tikal, Guatemala
(I have never been there, but I would love to see it.)
(image from web)
Calakmul, Mexico
(Another place that I would like to visit)
Palenque, Mexico
I have visited Palenque, and it is one of the most beautiful of the Mayan sites.
What is so amazing about the Mayas and the other pre-Hispanic civilizations is that they accomplished so much with Stone Age technology.  They had no metal tools, no draft animals, and no wheeled vehicles, yet they built magnificent cities and created highly sophisticated works of art.
The Mayas were skilled mathematicians and astronomers.  Their calendar was more accurate than the Julian calendar used in Europe at that time.  They were the first to use a symbol for "zero" in their number system.  They were also the only civilization in the Americas to develop a full fledged writing system.
 Archaeologists used to idealize the Maya as a peaceful people whose priest-kings devoted themselves to intellectual pursuits.  And unlike the Aztecs, they did not perform human sacrifices.  That changed in 1946 however when outsiders first found the ruins of the city of Bonampak.  Within the so-called Temple of the Murals were paintings which depicted battle scenes and human sacrifice. 
Reproduction at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City of a battle scene from the Temple of Bonampak.
In the late 20th century archaeologists made dramatic breakthroughs in the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs.  Today they are able to read about ninety percent of Mayan inscriptions.  This greatly increased our knowledge of their history, and put an end to the idealized image of the Mayas.  Their monuments tell of battles with other cities.  The frequent wars were fought not just for political and economic reasons.  In the Mayan religion only royal blood was worthy as a sacrifice to the gods.  Thus, one of the objectives of their wars was to capture enemy nobles.  They would be held captive until a human sacrifice was needed as an offering to the gods.  The Mayan royalty would also perform bloodletting ceremonies upon themselves.  They would pierce their tongue or foreskin, collect the dripping blood upon pieces of paper, and then burn the paper in the belief that the smoke would deliver their blood offering to the heavens. 
In the last centuries of the Classic Period, it seems that, one by one, the great cities of the rainforest were abandoned.  Archaeologists can read the dates inscribed on the buildings and monuments, and see that suddenly new construction ceased.  Many theories have been proposed to explain the collapse of the Mayan civilization.  Warfare between the cities appears to have worsened in the final centuries of the Classic Period, and people may have simply abandoned the war torn population centers.  A theory that has gained strong support in recent years is that the Mayas were the victims of climate change.  As the population grew, more and more of the rainforest was cleared for farmland.  Eventually the deforestation led to local changes in the climate.  Studies show that the region suffered more and more years with severe drought, which obviously would lead to crop failure and famine.  The kings were no longer successful in currying the favor the of the gods, and the hungry masses were no longer inclined to support their leaders or labor on the construction of grand pyramids and palaces.  The whole political structure collapsed and the cities were abandoned.
Whatever the reasons for the end of the classic Mayan civilization, it would be a mistake to think that the Mayan people simply vanished.  The descendants of the Mayas still live throughout the region and still speak the several dialects of the Mayan language.  Anyone who has visited the present day Mayan towns in Mexico or Guatemala can see that the age-old traditions and beliefs survive beneath the veneer of European culture brought by the Spanish. 
Very late during the Classic Period, at a time when many of the cities of the rainforest were already abandoned, to the north in the Yucatán Peninsula, there was a last flowering of the classic culture.  Several cities flourished in what is called the Puuc region of the Yucatán.  ("Puuc" is the Mayan word for hills, and this area is the only hilly region of the otherwise pancake flat peninsula.)  The most important of these Puuc cities was Uxmal.  Although the city dates back centuries before, between A.D. 850 and 925 Uxmal was at its height, and magnificent buildings were constructed.  However the heyday of Uxmal and its neighboring cities was short lived, and by A.D. 1000 it too had fallen into decline.  
(image from web)
The Palace of the Governor at Uxmal has been deemed by some art historians as the finest work of architecture by any of the pre-Hispanic civilizations.
Archaeologists refer to the next period of the Mayan culture as the Post Classic Period (A.D. 900 until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century)  The Mayan cities of the Post Classic Period were located in the Yucatán Peninsula.  The most important of these was the famous city of Chichén Itzá.  During the 10th century Chichén Itzá achieved a level of splendor that rivaled the great cities of the Classic Period.   The architecture, art, and religion of the Post Classic Period show strong influence from the civilizations of central Mexico, especially the Toltecs.  Some of the buildings at Chichén Itzá bear a striking resemblance to the ruins of the Toltec capital of Tula, 1000 miles away.  Archaeologists used to believe that at the beginning of the Post Classic Period, the Yucatán had actually been invaded by the Toltecs.  Toltec legends tell of their king, Quetzalcoatl, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico.  (Could he have landed on the coast of the Yucatán?)  King Quetzalcoatl was named after one of the principal gods of the Toltecs, the Feathered Serpent god.  At Chichén Itzá, we see the Feathered Serpent (known in the Mayan language as Kukulcán) included along with the traditional Mayan gods.  
Today, however, the most accepted theory among archaeologists is that the Toltecs did not invade the Yucatán.  Instead, they theorize that a Mayan tribe from the present-day state of Tabasco moved northward into the peninsula.  This tribe had strong commercial ties with the central Mexican civilizations, and it might have been they who introduced the Toltec influences.
(image from the web)
The Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá, probably the most widely widely recognized Mayan structure. 
By the 1200's Chichén Itzá too was in decline.  Mayapán emerged as the most powerful city of the peninsula.  Its builders sought to create a new Chichén Itzá.  Although the rarely visited ruins today make an interesting excursion, they are a pale imitation of Chichén.
Compare the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Mayapán (below) with the pyramid at Chichén Itzá (above). 
Mayapán fell sometime in the 1440's probably due to intertribal warfare.  But right up to the Spanish conquest in the 1500's, the Yucatán was dotted with thriving cities.  They were imposing enough to impress the invading Spaniards, but they were a shadow of the great cities that had flourished during the Mayan heyday. 


  1. Fascinating. Some day I hope to learn more about the ancient civilizations of Mexico. It fascinates me that such societies existed contemporary with the middle ages and renaissance in Europe, and it's a great tragedy that the Spanish destroyed so much of them.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where there were no ancient civilizations in that sense, but hunter-gatherers.

  2. I'm a bit of an archaeology buff. When I was teaching Spanish I would always do a unit on the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico. My poor students had to endure my slides of all the ruins... (although I think a lot of them did enjoy the slide shows).