AN04a2_Ch.16: Peoples and Empires in the Americas: Maya Kings and Cities
Timeline: 3rd – 16th C.
FQ: To what degree are the Maya comparable to the great civilizations of the ‘Old’ world?
Main Idea: In the Americas, social complexity and sophistication were integral traits of many Native American peoples, but none displayed this better than the Maya. The Maya developed a highly complex civilization based on city-states and elaborate religious practices. Similarity of religion, language, and beliefs/ values support a general claim that Native American cultures don’t truly disappear, they, instead, develop into the succeeding society.
A. Pictographs: Written language whose content meaning is substantially derived from ‘pictures’ (Icons) that are visually similar to the content focus. Pictographs were useful for recording history, conducting business, and maintaining genealogy and landholding records. Pictographs were also used in the Mexica counting system. This system was based on the number 20. A picture of a flag indicated 20 items; a fir tree represented 20 times 20 items, or 400; and a pouch indicated 400 times 20 items, or 8000.
Mayan written language was more complex and advanced, though it’s clear that it had a pictographic root as well.
B. ‘Slash & Burn’ Agriculture: A common agricultural tradition in forested areas of Mesoamerica and Amazonia. Forested areas are cleared for cultivation by cutting (‘slashing’) brush and setting ‘controlled’ fires. The accumulation of ash acts as a soil enriching component that initially contributes to high agricultural yields. Over time, however, soils become depleted, and in the case of cleared rainforests, the soil quickly becomes agriculturally useless.
II. Maya (1)
The Maya are probably the most recognizable of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica.
1. Time: 2600 B.C. – Present
It’s important for us to avoid confusing the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ World use of the term Classical. This term refers to different time periods depending on the hemisphere civilization. In the context of pre-Columbian Native America, the following applies:
* Pre-Classic = Before 300 CE
* Classic = 300 – 900 CE (The height of Mayan Civilization)
* Post Classic = 900 – 1519 CE
2. Place: Originating in the Yucatán, they rose to prominence in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.
3. Circumstance: Building on the inherited innovations and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed a complex society that accepted all elements of civilized life as basically religious in nature.
B. Politics & Society
1. ~80 Independent city-states. Cities were centers of ritual & rule. Ruled by a mortal king with priestly duties. This is similar to the Sumerian civilization, but different from the ancient Egyptian.
2. Hierarchy: Mayan King, Priests, Aristocracy, Artisans, Commoners & Peasants
3. Pyramids: Serve a ritualistic purpose.(2) These temples are the focal point of communal worship. Like the Sumerian Ziggurat, the Mayan pyramid (3) was centrally located within the city.(4) Mayan pyramids were intended to be used often as evidenced by the stairs built into the design.(5)
C. Religion: A supernatural ‘world view’ permeated Mayan life.
2. Ballgame- A cosmic battle between competing, but complementary, forces in nature. Good and evil, night and day, feast and famine, etc.
3. Nature is imbued with spiritual force/ power.
4. Sacrifices (blood and non-blood) are a human method of impacting the divine and influencing the divine will.
D. Achievements & Contributions
1. Calendrical Systems (The Calendar Round)
The ancient Maya and other Mesoamericans used a 52-year pattern (a calendar round), composed of two cycles which fit together like cogwheels, each with unequal numbers of teeth. “It was used to name individuals, predict the future, decide on auspicious dates for battles, marriages, and so on. Each single day had its omens and associations, …[passage of the] days was like a perpetual fortune-telling machine, guiding the destinies of the Maya.”
a. 260-day Count: We are unsure why the Maya settled on the number 260. It might relate to the period of human gestation or the interval between the planet Venus’ emergence as evening star and morning star. Regardless of where it comes from, the 260-day cycle is the first in the Calendar Round. It is made by inter-meshing the number symbols (dots for units and bars for fives) from 1 – 13 with the glyphs for twenty days named after deities who carry time across the sky.
Since it still keeps track of time, priests today continue to use this “Tzolkin” calendar (also known as Sacred Calendar, the Earth Calendar, the Sacred Almanac, and the Count of Days) for divination.
b. Vague Year or Haab: A 365 day secular (agricultural) calendar. It is a solar calendar (named “vague” because it only approximates the 365+ day calendar) is composed of 18 months with 20 days in each. The 20th day makes use of the Maya’s concept of zero since, instead of its being numbered 20, it is described as the day of the seating of the following month (‘0’). At the end of the 18 months, an unlucky five day period (Uayeb) is intercalated.
c. Days are named according to both of these calendars (Tzolkin and Haab), so a day could be 1 Imix 1 Pop (1 Pop being the Maya New Year), but it would take 52 Vague years (18,980 days) before 1 Imix would line up again with 1 Pop. One problem with this system (called the Calendar Round) is that it only keeps track of events during its 52-year cycle, and makes no provision for keeping track of events in earlier or future cycles.
2. Astronomy: Very accurate charting of celestial objects (movement across the sky).
3. Glyph Writing: A complex writing system with pictographic roots. It can be used for recording numerical data, chronological data, and thought.
4. Architecture: Massive pyramidal structures (temple-pyramids). In addition, the Maya were noted for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial complexes which, in addition to pyramids, would include palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools.
5. Complex social system organized hierarchically.
6. Built sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.
7. Developed the concept of zero. Co-evolved with Gupta civilization.
8. Developed a wood-pulp paper. Co-evolved with Han dynasty.
III. Summary: Why it matters now.
Descendants of the Maya still occupy the same territory.
(1) Access the slide show via the course website.
(2) Pyramids were “Artificial Mountains” => Mountains were home for gods.
(3) As with other Mesoamerican peoples.
(4) Unlike the Egyptian pyramid, which often laid beyond a city’s borders.
(5) In addition, earlier pyramids have been found underneath the top layer of ‘newer’ pyramids.
- Credit to the following (former) students for gathering data incorporated into this lesson: Jimmy Wang, Kevin Teoh, & Nandita Garud from May 2001
- World History: Patterns of Interaction