When we think of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city based societies we often think of the Aztecs of modern day Mexico. However, the Aztecs were not the first city based societies to inhabit Mesoamerica. Today we shall look at one of these civilizations: the Maya. The Maya are primarily known for two things: their flat topped pyramids and their 'prediction' that the world would end in 2012. Thirty-two languages comprising of people living in cities across Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico the Maya civilization was intriguing. Despite their cities becoming abandoned the Maya live on despite what the media says with 6 million individuals living across central America. Today we shall look at the Maya civilization. First though we have to look at the origin of the Maya civilization.
The Rise of Teotihuacan
Mesoamerica has been described as being one of the 'cradles of civilization', (others being Mesopotamia, the Yellow River, the Nile, the Indus River and the central Andes). Around 2000 BCE signs of farming could be found in Mesoamerica including the cultivation of maize, beans, chili peppers, and squash, (for the origins of agriculture please see here). Without draft animals like cattle and horses living in Mesoamerica the early farmers did not have to cut down the forests to grow grass to feed the animals, (as a result the wheel was not invented in Mesoamerica). In the Yucatan peninsula villages started to emerge and, in the 7th century BCE these villages had grew becoming cities. Around this time we also see the rise of Mesoamerican hieroglyphic writing at sites including San Jose Mogote. For a long time, particularly western historians, have asserted that the Mesoamerican writing was not real writing, or that even the Egyptians founded the Mesoamerican cities. Thor Heyerdahl even built two boats out of papyrus to prove that it was capable for ancient north Africans could travel to the Americas, (he also believed there to be a cultural link between the peoples of South America and Polynesia). However, analysis has shown that the Mesoamerican cities evolved independently from other civilizations. Looking at Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example, you can see a clear difference between the two.
In the 1st century BCE cities in the Yucatan started to grow exponentially. From c.400-200 BCE at Nakbe buildings were made 30-40 meters high, and at El Mirados several large monuments were created. We also see evidence for stratified societies with the presence of rich burials at Tikal. One of the main centers of growth of Teotihuacan in Mexico, founded around 200 BCE. Several cultures other than the Maya inhabited Teotihuacan including the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. Despite being on swampy ground it thrived thanks to it being built on raised beds called chinampas, and thanks to this the city was connected via water channels allowing transportation of food and other goods with canoes. It also became an area of religious significance with in 200 BCE the mighty Pyramid of the Sun being built in the center of the city. As the city was built around a religious site this shows the importance of religion in Mayan society. By 100 CE the city had reached a population of 200,000, dwarfing most contemporary cities in Europe. In 250 CE the Mayans ruled Teotihuacan, and several other cities across Mesoamerica. From 250 is the period we shall look at.
|Mayan social heirachy|
Like virtually every other society in history the Mayans had a strict class structure. Despite there being many different Mayan languages and peoples this class system was almost universal among them. At the top was the king/high priest, (called the ajaw), who was both the political and spiritual head of the city. The ajaw was said to be semi-divine, being descended from a maize god, which is not too dissimilar from many other societies: European Christian rulers had the 'Divine Right of Kings' saying that God made them king, Japanese Emperors were said to be descended from a god, the Egyptian pharaohs and Mesopotamian kings were descended from gods, Chinese emperors claimed the Mandate of Heaven to rule etc. As religious leader as well the ajaw had to lead religious ceremonies including a bloodletting ceremony as being descended from a god this meant their blood was sacred. Below the ajaw was the royal family who helped rule. Like many other societies the Mayans were patriarchal so women could only inherit the throne if the dynasty had gone extinct. Below the royal family we have the nobles or almehenob who gave up members of their family to become priests to help the ajaw perform religious customs. Then we have the remaining 90% of society. The commoners, (and slaves), were the largest section of society who regularly worked on farms, as laborers, or as soldiers during times of war. If they were lucky they could become a servant for a noble or the ajaw himself, but this was a very rare privilege. We know little about the lives of commoners with the written and archaeological records strongly favoring the elite of society, so as always they are forgotten about. Traditionally commoner dwellings were at the bottom of the city on the lower platforms. However, particularly after the widespread usage of metallurgy after 600 CE we have another class distinction among the commoners: artisans and merchants. These people started to become extremely wealthy thanks to trading goods like jewelry and gold, as well as being hired to design buildings for the elite.
Below the commoners we have slaves. Slaves were traded all around Mesoamerica by the Mayans, and other peoples, and had no rights. Typically slaves were either used for hard labor, or for ritual sacrifice although the latter was rare. Many slaves were acquired through warfare and were prisoners of war as, according to Elizabeth Graham of University College London, it was seen as dishonorable to kill or die in battle. Women were marginalized in society as well. Like with the commoners there are few records showing or depicting women. Although there were many female goddesses there is little evidence of women taking part in rituals. On a side note, unlike many other societies even commoners ate meat. The elite got the best cuts but a large part of Mayan diet was meat.
The Mayans were polytheistic so when the Spanish arrived they destroyed much of the texts and hieroglyphs seeing them as blasphemous. Luckily enough survived, as well as tales from Mayans today, for us to have a good knowledge of Mayan religion. Mayan gods were depicted as having a good and a bad side to them which they also in turn applied to the human soul which was believed to be split into a human and animal side. The animal side of the soul was believed to be a protector or companion. One of the most revered god was Izamna, the fire and earth and Creator god. Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god, was also deeply revered in the state of Itza where many sites honor this god. El Castillo at Chichen Itza was a temple honoring Kukulkan where during the equinoxes the sun casts shadows from the temple and the pyramid which merge making it appear a large serpent has descended onto the pyramid. Conversely, the Lacandon Maya portray Kukulkan as a monstrous, evil serpent.
Blood was significant in Maya religion. The ajaw and royal family were expected to partake in bloodletting ceremonies. The reason for this is that it was believed that you could communicate with the gods with blood, and as the royal family were said to be descended from gods this was the ultimate honoring of the gods. Human sacrifice was also prevalent. Elizabeth Graham has said that Mayan sacrifices have been over exaggerated but they did happen. Since the Olmecs (1200-400 BCE) human and animal sacrifice had happened in Mesoamerica. The Mayans, however, would not perform mass sacrifices of thousands as many European primary sources have stated. Instead they would sacrifice notables such as leaders of opposing cities and tribes. An example is in 738 CE K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat managed to capture his overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, and sacrificed him by decapitation. Normally sacrifice was done by cutting out the heart so it could be burnt. Sacrifice played a huge role in the idea of the afterlife. Only those who were sacrificed, or died in childbirth, could go to heaven; everyone else, including the ajaws, had to go to a underworld to go on a treacherous journey.
Calendars and Astronomy
|A Mayan Calendar|
The movement of the stars and planets was essential for Mayan religion. Although done by the naked eye the Mayans managed to track the movements of the stars so accurately that they were far more accurate than the contemporary European knowledge of the stars. They even managed to measure the the 584-day cycle of Venus being only two hours out! Venus was associated with war so leaders would plan their battles to coincide with favorable positions of the planet. Solar and lunar eclipses were seen as dangerous events with even the Dresden Codex depicting a serpent devouring the hieroglyph for day, (k'in). As a result priests would perform rituals to ward off disaster. The Mayan calendar was so successful that it is still in use in some areas to this day. 365 days was called a haab' and 52 habb's constituted one calendar round. To accurately track history though they created the Long Count, (although it is likely that the Olmecs first created it), which was accurately placed on monuments they had so much trust in it. The Long Calendar would reset after 5,126 years and a new Long Calendar would start. However, the Long Calendar would end on December 21 2012, and because in Maya religion there had been three previously failed worlds each lasting a Long Calendar this led to many people in the 20th and 21st centuries to believe the apocalypse would come in 2012. This was a grievous error as in Mayan religion the time that the Long Calendar covered was seen as a success, not a failed world, and there are no Mayan accounts saying that the apocalypse would come on December 21 2012. In fact, on that date in areas where the Mayan civilization existed many people celebrated in festivals to welcome in a new brand new era.
In 600 CE the various Mayan cultures dominated Mesoamerica, around 700 CE Teotihuacan was destroyed, and from 800 CE the Mayan cities started to be abandoned. From successful traders and city-based farmers the Mayans dispersed making the Spanish initially refuse to acknowledge that the cities had been built by Mayans. The big question is why? This was not a fast, universal process either. From 600 to 850 the southern Yucatan and Maya started to 'vanish', (as in from the cities), and eventually this spread to the north. With Teotihuacan we know that there were severe droughts during the sixth century but that does not explain the burn marks, and signs of sacking in the city. One theory has stated it was thanks to foreign invasion, but all the burn marks are located around royal areas leading to archaeologists to believe that there was an uprising. Although nearby cities such as Cholula and Cacaxtla have signs of Teotihuacan art leading some to believe that the droughts weakened the larger city, and the smaller ones took advantage by sacking it. For the other cities it is likely that there were a wide range of factors including drought, soil erosion, uprisings, savage warfare, and disease which caused the Mayans to abandon their cities. However, it was not a universal exodus; Chichen Itza actually became a power in 900 and Mayapan remained a power around 1441 having a population of 12,000. Mayan sources have said in these two areas drought, famine, and rebellion caused a collapse. Quite possibly this also happened with the other cities. After this several small polities with small populations dotted the Yucatan, and they remained when Hernan Cortes arrived in 1519, (he would later conquer the Aztecs). The Spanish were impressed by the Mayans with their large towns, pyramids, and literacy of the priests. However, this did not stop them from fighting the Mayans hungry for slaves, gold, and land. In 1697 the last Mayan kingdom fell.
The Mayan civilizations remain one of the most unique civilizations across the world. Thirty-two languages, various cultures, and a range of gods made them a unique city-based society. While Europe and China remained mostly rural the Maya was mostly urban, a sign of things to come for most of the world. What is fascinating though is how people forget that 6 million Mayans live in central America today. Ideas of the population vanishing from the cities and apocalypse predictions have made them appear as a long lost people, like the Tasmanians or Minoans. However, Mayan culture is still strong today. The next World History post will take us back to Europe. Last time we spoke about the Byzantines and their view that they were the successor of Rome; next time we'll look at an actual attempt to reform the western half of the empire. We'll look at Charlemagne and the founding of the Holy Roman Empire.
Thanks for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies edited by Chris Scarre
-World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction by Brian Fagan
-BBC In Our Times podcast, The Maya Civilization
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
For a list of other World History posts please see here
For a list of other World History posts please see here