People speaking Mayan languages first appeared in the first millennium BCE, but it was between 250 and 900 of the Common Era that the Mayan civilization came to dominate Central America, including what today is Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. There had been other powerful societies in this part of the world before: the Olmecs, for example, who today are most famous for the colossal stone heads they carved of their rulers. [Read more: “Big heads of the Olmecs”] Mayan civilization inherited features from their predecessors. The Olmecs had a written language, which the Maya adopted and perfected; the Olmec kings practiced various gruesome rituals, a tradition which the Maya made even more horrendous.The Maya built large cities, yet since they were constructed in dense rainforest, they had none of the urban feel we associate with cities elsewhere in the world. More than anything the Maya cities resembled sprawling gardens in which large public buildings were located, including the large flat-top pyramids, administrative buildings, and plazas. People lived here too of course, and they kept animals and cultivated the earth. The overall layout and enormous size of these garden cities have only recently been properly understood thanks to aerial laser photography.[Read more: “Angkor Wat”]
Mayan society was made up of distinct social classes. The state was ruled by a king and by a royal house that acted as mediators between ordinary human beings and the supernatural realm. It was the job of the king to keep society orderly and to convince the gods to grant plentiful harvests and success in wars. The king ruled the political, administrative and judicial systems, 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 Mayan rulers rested heavily on the public displays of power in which they engaged. One highly theatrical occasion was the enthronement of a new king, but the kings would also dance before and together with their subjects. The most spectacular of all was the bloodletting ceremonies to which members of the royal family subjected themselves. Kings and queens were pierced and cut and the pain that they suffered was supposed to put them in contact with transcendental realms. The ability to achieve such transcendence was a sign of their power. [Read more: “Royal bloodletting rituals”] Somewhat less gruesome were the ball games in which the Maya engaged. These are the first team sports known in human history. Here too, however, human sacrifices would occasionally take place. [Read more: “Pitz, the first team sport”]
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. For that reason, there was no need to clear the jungle in order to provide grassland. In addition, there were no cereals — 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. 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. Corn was even regarded as the very stuff of which both human beings and the gods were made. In addition, the Maya grew beans, squash and chili peppers which helped to give flavor to the rather bland corn diet. [Read more: “Chocolate and chilies”] To wash it all down they drank chocolate, the cocoa bean being native to Central America.[Read more: “The Columbian exchange”] All in all, theirs was an abundant environment; their world was rich, and the gods were good at providing for their people, at least in a normal year. There is evidence that ordinary people ate meat on a regular basis — an unthinkable diet in farming societies in much of the rest of the world.
In addition, the Maya were businessmen who engaged in long-distance trade across Central America and beyond. Kings and the aristocracy imported objects made from gold from today’s Colombia and Panama, and turquoise and obsidian — a volcanic rock which resembles glass — from New Mexico. In addition, there was a flourishing trade in everyday items across Mayan territory, such as salt from Yucatán. The cities that became prominent, and were most successful in wars, were the ones who controlled access to the trading routes by means of which these goods were exchanged.
The Maya had a written script that combined pictographs and alphabetic letters. It was long believed that these pictures merely had an artistic significance, but in the 1950s scholars realized that they constituted texts which could be read. [Read more: “Cracking the Mayan code“] A few Mayan texts, known as codices, have been preserved. They tell stories of kings, their reigns, honorific names, and their greatest achievements.[Read more: “Books from ancient Mexico”] 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.[Read more: “Indian mathematics”]
The Maya never created a centralized state, but what we have come to call their “empire” consisted instead of a rather loose federation of related cities, including Palenque, Calakmul, Caracol, Mayapan, and Tikal. Relations between these assorted centers were always unstable and alliances shifted; a city-state that traditionally had been the subject of another city-state could suddenly find itself on top. The kings formed alliances, exchanged daughters in marriage, gave each other tributary gifts, and engaged in plenty of ritual feasting. In addition, they made war both on each other as well as on outsiders. Yet the point of a battle was typically not to kill enemies, but instead to capture them and to take them back to one’s capital where they could be ritually slaughtered on top of a pyramid. Reliefs show pictures of kings who were defeated, captured, tortured and sacrificed.
Incidents of warfare increased in the tenth century. This was also when several of the large Mayan cities began to decline. Some scholars, and documentaries on YouTube, discuss the “mystery of the disappearance of the Mayan civilization.” Yet the Maya did not disappear. There are to this day some 10 million people who speak the Mayan language, and they are fiercely proud of their heritage. Indeed, today’s Maya has been crucial in providing information which has allowed scholars to decipher their inscriptions. Several of these scholars are themselves of Mayan 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 rely on an ideology that 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 Maya have not gone away.