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Maya Civilization: An Overview

Before We Begin

Though the bulk of this post will be an overview of ancient Mayan culture, and when referencing ancient practices will be written in past tense, we want to take some time before we begin to address some present day Maya issues and struggles. We acknowledge the continued fight of all indigenous peoples for cultural/identity preservation as a cause above reproach.

The Maya (a term that refers to a grouping of various tribes collectively know as the Maya) today number about six million people, making them the largest single block of indigenous peoples north of Peru.

Many Maya communities have succeeded in preserving their identity and their cultural practices, all in spite of the encroachment of western societal practices. This appears to be the case, partly because, throughout their history, the Maya have been confined to a single unbroken area including parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the western edges of Honduras and El Salvador.

From what we can glean, it appears that the global issues associated with climate change and deforestation all play a unique role in the Maya struggle for cultural perseverance. As the Maya, in many situations, find themselves fighting for forest preservation.

The Maya Civilization

The Maya Civilization, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork.

Most of the stone cities of the Maya were abandoned by A.D. 900, however, and since the 19th century scholars have debated what might have caused this decline.

The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant Indigenous societies of Mesoamerica (a term used to describe Mexico and Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest). Unlike other scattered Indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, the Maya were centered in one geographical block covering all of the Yucatan Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala; Belize and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. This concentration showed that the Maya remained relatively secure from invasion by other Mesoamerican peoples.

Maya Calendar

The Maya calendar is a system of calendars used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in many modern communities in the Guatemalan highlands, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.

The essentials of the Maya calendar are based upon a system which had been in common use throughout the region, dating back to at least the 5th century BC.

Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics, which includes an understanding of the concept of “Zero.” For those that do not know, many historians believe that the idea of zero first originated in Babylonia, but it’s also clear that the Mayans independently developed it during the fourth century.

The Mayans also had a nuanced understanding of astronomy, and the development of complex calendar systems like the Calendar Round, based on 365 days, and later, the Long Count Calendar, designed to last over 5,000 years.

Writing and Astrology

By recording the movements of their deities (sun, moon, planets, and stars), they developed accurate calendars that could be used for predicting planetary cycles, the phases of the moon and, even eclipses. This knowledge was used to determine when these deities would be in favorable positions for a variety of activities such as holding ceremonies, inaugurating kings, beginning trading expeditions, or conducting wars.

The movements of the planet Venus appear to have played a particularly important role in Maya cultural practices. To put it into context, without modern technology, the Maya measured the 584-day Venus cycle with an error of just two hours. Both the Dresden and Grolier Godices contain detailed records of the movements of the planet. The ancient Maya “were probably doing large-scale ritual activity connected to the different phases of Venus,” said Gerardo Aldana, a science historian in the department of Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Maya Ball Game

Maya Ballgame, which is a branch of the Mesoamerican Ballgame, is a sporting event that was played throughout the Mesoamerican era by the Maya civilization. The Maya civilization was spread out throughout much of Central America. The Maya ballgame was played with big stone courts. The ball court itself was a focal point of Maya cities and symbolized the city’s wealth and power.

The game originated around 3000 years ago. The playing arena was in the shape of an I, heavily serifed.png. High platforms on either side of the court allowed for large numbers of spectators. Arenas were decorated with portable stone court markers known as hacha, usually depicting animals or skulls.

The Maya ballgame was more than just an athletic event: it was also a religious event of regeneration that was integral to their continued existence. The Maya showed devotion to their gods by playing the game and by sacrifices. Scholars debate about who was subject to ritual killing at ball games and how frequently.

Sociopolitical Structure

In much of our research into the complexities of various mesoamerican indigenous cultures we have found that a lack of nuanced research, beyond that of a typical European perspective creates a tendency to over simplify or project European views on indigenous history/customs. This seems to not be the case for research into Maya history/customs.

Maya “kingdoms'' were separated into different localities but had names that were not categorized as such. The generally accepted paradigm is that Classic Maya societies put an emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the position of “the king.” What followed was a hierarchal societal structure similar to that found in most ancient societies with an established system of slavery.

This logic focuses on the importance of Maya monumental spaces as a kind of embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household (with an emphasis on physical spaces such as: throne rooms, temples, etc.) and in establishing/negotiating power and social hierarchy. Also in projecting aesthetic and moral values that define the order of a wider social realm (think of how we as humans tend to do the same with wealth to project sociological status). They focused on the possessions and embodiment of which objects held in their society.


“The Mayas of the Classic Period. Mexico City, Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes” by Bertina Olmedo Vera

“Politics of the Maya Court: Hierarchy and Change in the Late Classic Period.” by Sarah E. Jackson

“Death and the Classic Maya Kings” by James Fitzsimmons

“The Art of Becoming: The Graffiti of Tikal, Guatemala”. Latin American Antiquity by Scott R. Hutson

“Unidad de espacio y tiempo: la arquitectura Maya” by Hohmann-Vogrin

“The Modern Maya and Recent History” by Richard M. Leventhal, Carlos Chan Espinosa, and Cristina Coc

“Complex Societies in the Southern Maya Lowlands: Their Development and Florescence in the Archaeological Record” by Diane Z. Chase, Arlen F. Chase

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