“Come immerse yourself in the world of the Mayans, one of the magnificent cultures of ancient Mexico, and take a look at its beginnings, its apogee and its downfall”
The Mayans created a civilization that through the centuries, experienced a series of changes, formed groups differentiated by their economic position, by their work or main activity and by their membership of certain families within the religious and political structure. They built wonderful architectural works; they made excellent pieces of jewelry, sculpture and pottery. On the other hand, they made astronomical observations to this day many undisputed and invented and designed a highly precise calendrical system.
Although they did not have animals of load nor rolling vehicles and metallic instruments for the intensive practice of the commerce, they combined multiple possibilities of transport through rivers, coasts, trails and even built wide and long roads of stone.
The Mayans consolidated their progress in two fundamental aspects: a deep knowledge of the environment and a remarkable quality of human activities. They created systems of intensive agriculture such as raised fields, agricultural terraces and fruit orchards. They also invented ingenious rainwater collection and storage systems such as canals, aguadas and “chultunes” or underground deposits.
The Preclassic Period (2000 B.C.-100 B.C.)
The oldest evidences of its culture have been dated in Cuello, Belize and in Loltún, Yucatán. One of the best examples of that initial moment is the series of buildings, sculpted monuments and hieroglyphic texts of Izapa, Chiapas, although the Mayan origins have also been detected in other places such as Takalik Abaj (Guatemala) and Chalchuapa (El Salvador)
The Protoclassic Period
Between the years 100 and 250 of our era, seems to have been a transition, from which the Mayan civilization developed fully. The villages grew in its demography and complexity, thus giving rise to the first large cities such as Dzibilchaltú (Yucatan) Calakmul (Campeche), and El Mirador (Guatemala). As in other places, enormous plinths were built on which temples, palaces, buildings, and ball courts were erected for various purposes. The constructions commonly called “pyramids”, were actually temples or sanctuaries dedicated to one or more deities. Such is the case of the building of the Five Floors in Edzna; the Nohoch Mul in Cobá, the Temple of the Magician in Uxmal, the Temple of the inscriptions in Palenque or the elevated temples of Tikal.
The rulers of the cities lived in the central part, in what we now call “palaces”, by analogy with European societies. Constructions of several rooms, roofed with false arch or Mayan vault, sometimes provided with stools to rest or spend the night, and with niches and projections to store or hang various objects. Remember the Quadrangle of the Nuns and the one of Las Palomas, in Uxmal, Structure III of Calakmul; the Central Acropolis of Tikal, or the palaces of Comalcalco, Sayil, Labná and Palenque.
The ball games, the largest reported to date, is at Chichen Itzá (which, incidentally, has 13), was a sacred event, with a marked religious, mythological and symbolic meaning, in which opposing forces apparently confronted each other. complementary as day and night, good and evil, deities of east and west, etc.
The basic cell of Mayan society was the family. Everyday life also had innumerable links with the sacred. The directions, colors, plants, animals, numbers and even the day of birth itself had a specific meaning and a specific association with the deities. This worldview was promoted and reinforced by the rulers who legitimized their political and economic power by saying they were descendants of the gods.
In contrast, the population had no access to knowledge, and was mainly engaged in producing food, consumer goods or lending their workforce to various public works under the control of officials who formed a broad bureaucratic network.
The Classical period
The era of Mayan splendor is subdivided into Early from the years 250 – 600 A.D and Late from the years 600 – 1000 A.D. although it varied from one region to the other, which shows the difference in development depending on religion, politics, economy, sciences and the arts of the ancient Mayan regions.
Their main deities were Hunab Kú the creator and Itzamna, son of, Hunab Kú, represented by a celestial monster in which attributes of the sun, reptiles, land, death and vegetation merge. It is a kind of summary and crucible of all the principles: life and death, light and darkness, abundance and scarcity.
The Mayans practiced war in order to expand their political and economic strength, and thus impose rulers; receive tribute in labor and in kind, insure their commercial transactions and guarantee the survival of their society.
During the last centuries of this civilization, several objects became popular as units of trade such as red shells (of the genus Spondylus), cocoa seeds and cotton blankets. In the economic line, agriculture played an important role, not only to feed large populations, but as a means of obtaining surpluses for the exchange of products.
Among the most outstanding scientific knowledge of the ancient Mayan people we have the elaboration of an extremely accurate calendar. The accounting was done through a vigesimal system represented with points and bars, and whose value varied according to the place where they were positioned.
For the calendar, they created two cycles or day-counts that they called bu´ul and tzolkín. The first, measured the movements of our planet in respect to the sunlight with 365 days and the second with a strong religious sense, acting as a sacred almanac of 260 days.
The combination of both cycles allowed them to have a longer time unit: 52 years. Some people called this, the Short Count. However, they needed a calendar that recorded their past, their present and their future. This is how they created the Long Count composed of 13 large periods or katuns. Each of those periods of approximately of 394 years.
The astronomers also elaborated studies of the movement of the moon; as well as successful calculations for a large number of solar and lunar eclipses. They observed the movement of other celestial bodies such as Venus or Mars; and they gave names to the constellations, the Pleiades were seen as the tale of a rattlesnake or Gemini like a turtle. The writing allowed them to record the relevant events in the lives of the rulers as well as esoteric matters.
Between the years 900 and 1000 of our era, the structure of Mayan power suffered a sharp crack. Mayan culture experts believe it is possible that factors such as drought, diseases and pests contributed to it. What we do know with certainty is that raids and acts of expansion took place in other Mayan towns that had not previously manifested themselves with force.
The Early and Late Postclassic Periods
In the periods called Early Postclassic (1000 – 1200) and Late Postclassic (1200 -1450) the Mayan culture underwent transformations that resulted in the abandonment of the typical forms of ceramics and architecture. They were also less rigid in their government forms so new political units were created, although none had the hegemonic force or the vast area of influence of previous centuries.
Some of the old cities suffered political and economic changes that originated important demographic variations. Some examples would be Coba, Ek-Balam, Izamal and Edzna and in other regions new settlements appeared: Itlamkanac (or El Tigre, in Campeche), Mayapan, and Tulum, among others.
This new scenario was what the Europeans found when they arrived and their presence introduced drastic changes that fundamentally altered the way of life in the Mesoamerican world. However, the transition process was long and with frequent violent on both sides, but in the end, there was a new way of organizing and doing things: The Spanish way.
Jose E. Urioste
The Yucatan Times