Geography: An Evolving Culture

The influence of the Olmec People

One of the earliest cultures in the region that the Maya called home were the Olmecs. Many Maya traditions and achievements were built on this early Mesoamerican tribe, including astrology and science, religion, a writing and calendar system, artistic works, and trade networks.  While the Olmecs lived in small villages and had occasional central religious temples for several villages, the Maya would take it a step further with city-states that boasted massive plazas and temples, massive farms, and localized population and government. The Olmec villages had no set leader and each family focused on self-preservation. The Maya ruled with a kingship, and that king had absolute, god-like power.

Highlands and lowlands

Maya city-states popped up in Central America in areas now part of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize starting around 2000 BCE and lasting until around 1500 CE. The southern part of this area was mountainous, while the northern and western areas were lowlands thick with jungles and rainforests. These two types of topography would greatly influence the economy, population growth, and decline of the Maya people. Farmable land would also become a major reason for wars between kings and greatly affect the way the Maya lived their day-to-day life.


Achievements: Art and Architecture

Achievements — The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Mayaa civilization grew due to the more than 40 massive city-states that were built by hand. Their single biggest achievement was the building of their huge temples, observatories, plazas, and palaces using only ropes, logs, and obsidian blades to cut and shape limestone bricks. They had no wheels or lifts to help them accomplish this. The pyramid-like structures were made to mimic mountains, thus bringing them closer to their gods.

The Maya had other significant accomplishments as well. The priests discovered and utilized mathematics, and developed a hieroglyphic writing system. Within this writing system, a picture represented a sound and/or an object, and recorded information on bark-pages and giant stone tablets. Maya priests also studied the stars and used their findings to created two calendars that influenced their northern neighbors the Aztecs. One held 365 days and suggested when to plant and harvest crops. Their other calendar marked significant astrological and religious dates for ceremonies and rituals. Maya were also known for their stone carvings, especially those of their kings and ones that portrayed important events in their cities. Their gold and jade jewelry was highly prized throughout Mesoamerica.

Government: At the King’s Mercy

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Religion — A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Kings and Priests Hear the gods

The Maya created city-states similar to those in Italy. Each city-state was ruled by a single king of a royal family. On occasion, the king would also take advice from the priests and their signs from the heavens or the nobles for their wisdom. The king was considered a spokesperson for the Gods and therefore, was more than just a man in the eyes of his people. This semi-divine status meant that no one challenged his right to rule. He lounged in jaguar capes and elaborate feather or leaf headdresses, draped in jewelry and protected by personal guards where ever he went.

While priests in the Maya culture were highly respected for the favor of the Gods, they also spent much of their time studying the stars and mathematics, as well as holding the role of doctor. They were also responsible for the spiritual well-being of their people, and many enjoyed the splendor of wealth. They used religious calendars to determine important dates for ceremonies, going to war, and blessing newborns.

Nobles assist their King

A third group of Maya assisted the king and priests in running their people. Nobles, usually members of the king’s family, also helped to run things by collecting taxes, gathering materials for city building projects and ceremonies, and recruiting labor. They could read and write, and were the commanders of peasant armies in times of war.


Economy: Trade and Self Sufficiency

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

The influence of Farming on The Maya Lifestyle

Within each city-state of the Maya culture each had to farm to sustain their population. The peasants of each worked on the government’s agricultural spaces. The type of harvesting done depended upon the location of the city within Central America. In the highlands, step-like terraces were carved out of hillsides to have plenty of flat, sun-bathed land to grow food. In the thick jungles of the lowlands, a slash-and-burn type farming took place. By cutting down wild vegetation and clearing the land with fire, more land was available for fields and buildings. This method left the soil without nutrients after only one or two harvests, so fields had to be alternated to allow it to replenish. Some scholars theorize that it was the difficult soil that would lead the lowland Maya to abandon their great cities when the culture declined.

In addition to the large fields of each city-state’s lands, the women of the lower classes tended small individual gardens next to the home to feed their own families. They also weaved cloth and sewed blankets to trade. Additionally, the men who tended the king’s fields helped build temples and other important city buildings, and also served as warriors in times of war. In exchange for these services, the common people were invited to royal weddings and other festivities to enjoy the fruits of their labor, while honoring the king.

Other trade items

In addition to farming and war, Maya city-states interacted with each other in order to trade. The highlanders mined jade and obsidian for jewelry and tools, and traded them to their lowland neighbors for cotton and cacao beans, thought sacred and special for royalty.

Social Classes: Five Types of People in Two Classes

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

City Centers around upper class

The city-states of Maya society fanned out from the city center, where government and religion sat atop temples and palaces. The king, the nobles of his family, and the priests all lived and worked in this centralized location, with their subjects living scattered in huts and houses around them.

Masses of lower classes

Maya culture was really a three-way class system. Below the king, his family, and priests, the lower class was made up of peasants who farmed and created their cities with many artistic feats. Males also went to war when called and constructed the buildings when given the initiative by their ruler.

Just below and often treated within the same class, slaves added to the makeup of Maya culture. Slaves were conquered people in times of war, peasants who couldn’t pay debts or that had shamed their family, or children sold to feed their families. Sometimes slaves lived better than peasants, depending on who their master was, but at any time they could be sacrificed to the many Maya Gods.


Religion: Many Gods, Many Sacrifices

Religion — A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Blood To please the gods

The Maya believed in many gods, or polytheism. Each god had to do with something in life: rain, sun, war, plants, and animals. The creator was their main god, and often he was represented as a Jaguar. The Jaguar was central to many Maya religious ceremonies and used in war to scare the enemy. The Maya believed that their gods needed to be kept happy or they could destroy life. Sacrifices of jade, gold, plants, feathers, and shells were common. While these were acceptable, the Maya fully believed that human blood was the best food for the gods and gave them strength. Each Maya person pierced their tongue or skin to offer blood. This was especially true of priests. Slaves and defeated enemy warriors were often killed over an altar, thrown into a deep water well, or had their heart ripped out and placed on a special stone statue of the God that was being appeased.

A Game of life and death

Another way that the Maya honored the gods was in the playing of the game pok-a-tok on a city court. The court had two stone rings high up on walls. Teams of noble players had to get a hard rubber ball through the hoops using every body part except their hands. Scholars believe these games had a religious purpose that’s still a mystery. Some ancient Maya art shows the losers of this game being sacrificed to the gods.


An Ancient Writing System: The Power of Pictographs

Recording Maya life with pictures

The Maya developed a complex writing system consisting of hieroglyphs, pictures with specific meaning or sounds. They wrote these pictographs in books made with bark pages. This was a great way to keep inventory of items they needed for building projects, to record important events or people, and stories about their gods.


Decline: A Great Mesoamerican Mystery

A mighty migration

The decline of the Maya city-states happened slowly, in several stages. There were city-states in the lower regions amid jungle landscapes, and Maya cities nestled into the mountains of the highlands. Around 900 CE, the lower cities were all but abandoned by the Maya. By this time, the culture had stopped developing and improving their achievements. Over the next hundred years, the highlanders also left their hard-earned homes.

Three Theories

Though the cause of the collapse of Maya cities is unknown, three ideas have been suggested. Drought, or long periods of low rainfall, would have made farming difficult. Without proper agriculture, the massive populations of some of the bigger city-states in the lowlands would suffer starvation. Another theory is warring over land in the hopes of bolstering a city states food sources greatly reduced numbers in the city-states, and most of the loyal families died off or were conquered by another tribe from Mexico in the north, such as the Aztecs. Lastly, it’s been suggested that the Maya peasants grew tired of following their particular rulers at that time and simple rebelled against them and left. It’s likely that a combination of these three theories destroyed this central Mexican people.