The Americas

The Maya


People speaking Mayan languages first appeared in the first millennium BCE, but it was between 250 and 900 CE that the Mayan civilization came to dominate Central America, including what today is the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. There had been other powerful societies in this part of the world before: the Olmecs, who today are most famous for the colossal stone heads they carved of their rulers, and the Zapotec, along the Pacific coast.[Read more: The Olmecs] In addition, and like all other societies in Central America, early Mayan society was heavily influenced by Teotihuacán in central Mexico, a city with which they traded and from which the Mayan elite was happy to receive brides, indicating that the Mayas from an early age were sufficient important to engage in alliances. Mayan civilization inherited features from all these predecessors. The Olmecs and the Zapotecs had written languages, which the Maya adopted and perfected, and their kings practiced bloodletting rituals, a gruesome tradition which the Maya made even more gruesome. The Maya built large cities, yet since they were constructed in dense rain-forest, they had none of the urban feel we associate with cities elsewhere in the world.  The cities were not laid out on a grid-pattern, had no walls surrounding them, and included plenty of farmers.  Instead the Maya cities resembled sprawling gardens in which large public buildings were located, including large flat-top pyramids, administrative buildings and plazas. People lived here too, kept animals and cultivated the earth. The overall layout and enormous size of these garden cities have only recently been understood thanks to aerial photography.

Mayan society was as hierarchical as its flat-top pyramids. The state was ruled by a king and a royal house which acted as the mediators between ordinary human beings and the supernatural realm. It was the job of the king to keep society orderly and peaceful and to convince the gods to grant plentiful harvests and success in wars. The king ruled the political, administrative and judicial system but was also expected to lead the army in battles. In addition the king mobilized both the aristocracy and ordinary subjects in carrying out huge infrastructural projects, such as the building of the pyramids. The aristocracy comprised perhaps 15 percent of the population and it included both artisans and craftsmen.

The position of the Maya rulers rested heavily on the public displays of power in which they engaged. As elsewhere in the world, statecraft and stagecraft were closely associated. One such occasion was the enthronement of a new king which was a highly theatrical affair, but kings were also known to engage in performances such as dances before and together with their subjects. Most spectacular of all, however, were the blood-letting ceremonies. The intense pain which they suffered as the members of the royal family were pierced and cut put them in ecstatic contact with a transcendental realm. A prince was supposed to go through such a ceremony at the age of 5, and the queen would have her tongue pierced and a thorny rope pulled through the hole. The ability to withstand such treatment was a sign of the spiritual superiority over the people they ruled. Far less gruesome were the ball games — known as juego de pelota — in which they engaged. These are the earliest team sports known in human history and purpose-built stadiums were constructed where large audiences would gather to watch the games played with large balls of rubber.[Read more: Juego de pelota]

Everyone else in Mayan society was a farmer, yet farming in Central America did not look like farming elsewhere in the world. For one thing, there were no large grazing animals — no cows, goats or sheep — and for that reason there was no need to clear the jungle in order to provide for grassland. In addition there was no cereal — no wheat, barley or rice — which required extensive fields for their cultivation. Instead the Maya kept smaller animals, like guinea-pigs, and they cultivated corn, or maize. Indeed corn was not only the main staple of their diet, but also their god — the Corn God was a central figure in their religious pantheon — and corn was even regarded as the very stuff of which human beings themselves were made. In addition, the Maya grew beans, squashes and chili peppers which helped to give flavor to the rather bland corn diet.[Read more: Chilies and chocolate] To wash it all down they drank chocolate, the cocoa bean being native to Central America. All in all theirs was an abundant environment; the world was rich and the gods provided for their people, at least in a normal year. There is evidence that ordinary people too ate meat on a regular basis.

In addition, the Mayas were businessmen who engaged in long distance trade across much of Central America and beyond. The kings and aristocracy imported gold objects from today’s Colombia and Panama, turquoise from New Mexico, and obsidian, a volcanic rock which resembles glass. In addition there was a flourishing trade in everyday goods, such as salt from Yucatán, across Mayan territory. The cities that became prominent, and were most successful in wars, were the ones who controlled access to the main trade routes.

The Maya had a written script which combined pictographs and alphabetic letters. It was long believed that these pictures merely had an artistic significance but in the 1970s scholars realized that they constituted texts which could be read. A few Maya texts, known as codices, have been preserved, and they tell stories of kings, their reigns, honorific names and their greatest achievements.  In addition, the Maya were skilled mathematicians and astronomers. Their number line included a zero which allowed for sophisticated calculations to be performed. They also constructed an elaborate calendar by which they organized time.

The Maya never created an empire properly speaking but consisted instead of a rather loose federation of related cities and states, including Palenque, Calakmul, Caracol, Mayapan, and Tikal. Relations between these centers were always unstable, alliances shifted and a state which traditionally had been subject to another could suddenly find itself on top. The kings formed alliances, exchanged daughters in marriage, gave tributary gifts and engaged in ritual feasting.  In addition they made war both on each other and on outsiders. Yet the point of a battle was typically not to kill enemies but instead to capture them and take them back to one’s own capital where they were ritually killed in a public spectacle. Inscriptions show kings who were defeated, captured, tortured and sacrificed. Apart from these executions, there does not seem to be any human sacrifices in Mayan society.

Incidents of warfare increased in the tenth century CE, and this was also when several large cities began to decline. Some scholars, and many documentaries on YouTube, discuss the “mystery of the disappearance of Mayan civilization.” Yet the Maya did not disappear. Indeed, they are still here. There are still some 10 million people who speak Mayan language and they are fiercely proud of their heritage. Indeed, today’s Maya have been crucial in providing information which has allowed scholars to decipher their language, and several of these scholars are themselves of Maya descent. In 1994, an armed rebellion against the Mexican government was started by the so called Zapatista movement in the southern Mexican province of Chiapas. The Zapatistas want autonomy and better living conditions, and relies on an ideology which combines libertarian socialism with traditional Mayan beliefs. Today the military uprising is over but the Maya continue their struggle by means of public campaigns and civil disobedience. The Mayas have not gone away.