Who were the Maya? Decoding the conventional civilization’s secrets and ways.

Who were the Maya? Decoding the conventional civilization’s secrets and ways.


Printed September 7, 2022

9 min read

The proof of a protracted-forgotten civilization used to be in each enlighten: Beneath a Spanish convent. Beneath a avenue. Most of it used to be lined in vines and vegetation, reclaimed by the jungle. But as a pair of British-American explorers combed during the Yucatan Peninsula in the 1830s and 1840s, they soon grew to radically change ecstatic the mysterious sites were fundamental archaeological treasures.

Discarded and abandoned, the design of these sites and artifacts—temples, pyramids, remnants of artwork and even writing—used to be mostly unknown. Nonetheless, wrote John Lloyd Stephens in 1841, they all regarded to be the work of the same neighborhood of folks.

“Who these races were, whence they came, or who were their progenitors, I did no longer undertake to relate, nor did I know,” he conceded.

The ruins in ask were the remnants of the Maya, a towering Mesoamerican civilization that had as soon as lined noteworthy of Central The USA, from northern Belize through Guatemala and southern Mexico. Indispensable extra is now known about the neighborhood accountable for about a of the ideally suited feats of its form: Maya folks cultivated the enlighten’s first plants and domesticated its natural world, built its first cities, and either created or sophisticated almost every facet of most modern civilization. (Subscriber genuine: Making an are trying for the lost empire of the Maya.)

Though their descendants maintain preserved about a of their custom’s traditions and lore, noteworthy about the Maya remains as mysterious in the present day as it did centuries ago when their secrets and ways were mute hiding in unsightly survey.

Origins of the Maya

While the origins of Maya custom stay unlit, it’s idea to maintain first emerged between 7000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., when hunter-gatherers abandoned their nomadic habits and created extra permanent settlements. Most up-to-date analyses counsel that those first settlers came from South The USA and doubtless developed their staple food, maize, by 4000 B.C. Maize cultivation dramatically changed the Maya’s trajectory, actually fueling the explosion of their society and custom.

These newbies didn’t honest accurate plant corn: They also discovered to space up it for human consumption with nixtamalization, a assignment in which dried maize is soaked, then cooked in an alkaline resolution that softens corn and renders it extra digestible. The Maya would spin on to domesticate other necessary vegetables like squash, cassava, and beans.

The Maya seem to maintain developed alongside, and traded suggestions with, the neighboring Olmec civilization, which some take into consideration one of many most influential societies of traditional cases. Researchers deem here’s when the Maya adopted the ritual complexes for which they would radically change neatly-known. Treasure the Olmec, the Maya soon targeted on building cities spherical their ritual areas. These dispositions in agriculture and metropolis style are genuinely is named the Maya’s Preclassic length between 1500 and 200 B.C. (This huge Mayan ceremonial advanced used to be stumbled on in “unsightly survey.)

As the Maya built out their society even further, they laid the foundations for advanced alternate networks, developed irrigation, water purification and farming ways, war, sports activities, writing, and a fancy calendar. The intricate calendar integrated three relationship programs—one for the gods, one for civil existence, and a 3rd astronomical calendar is named the Lengthy Depend. The launch line of this third calendar used to be space on the legendary date of humans’ advent, reminiscent of August 11, 3114 B.C. The Lengthy Depend calendar began a brand new cycle on December 21, 2012, main to a delusion that the field would stay on that date. (No topic metropolis legends and longstanding misinterpretations of Maya lore, on the opposite hand, the shift in calendar cycle didn’t bring doomsday with it.)

Mayan society at its top

For the length of the Traditional length (200-900 A.D.), the Maya civilization reached its top. So did its structure: the Maya sophisticated its pyramid-like temples and astronomical buildings that seem like palaces, although it’s unclear in the occasion that they were genuinely primitive as elite residences or in the occasion that they served but one more design.

Among the largest Maya cities were Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Tikal, Copán, and Calakmul. But although the Maya shared a society, it used to be no longer an empire. As a replacement, metropolis-states and native rulers vacillated between nonetheless coexistence and wrestling for regulate. Some places, reminiscent of the village of Joya de Cerén, seem to had been bustle by collective rule as a replace of an elite overlord. (Be taught extra about Palenque, a Mayan metropolis that used to be a enticing heart of energy.)

Maya structure and artwork mirrored deep-seated non secular beliefs. The Maya embraced the assumption of Ample’uh and okay’uhul—that divinity can also per chance be chanced on in all issues, even inanimate objects. But again, corn used to be mandatory to those beliefs: Among the largest Maya gods used to be Hun Hunahpu, the maize god, and Maya custom held that the deities created humans first out of mud, then wood, then corn.

The Maya worshiped their gods with a unfold of rituals. Among them were every human sacrifice and bloodletting—customs that get contemporary imaginations. The Maya sport of pitz, a forerunner of soccer, had its maintain ritual implications: Researchers mediate losers of the game were every so often sacrificed in recognition of the Maya solar and moon gods, who were mentioned to maintain conducted the same game in the Maya advent delusion, the Popol Vuh.

How the Maya civilization collapsed

Even supposing some northern cities endured to flourish, the wide majority of Maya centers began to interrupt down for the length of the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. Inter-metropolis family soured, war increased, alternate declined, and the dying rate rose.

Theories as to the civilization’s death differ. One hypothesis, backed by climate simulations, is that a protracted drought—mixed with reduce-and-burn farming ways that destroyed the forests upon which the Maya relied— are what introduced agonize to their doorstep. All accurate now, as soon as affluent metropolis centers grew to radically change abandoned wastelands as some Maya died and others scattered to a unfold of extra fertile, mountainous lands to the south. As as soon as huge cities like Chichén Itza fell, cities like Mayapán rose in prominence. Pretty about a Maya folks abandoned cities altogether, settling into tiny villages as a replace.

Though the Maya folks endured, the downfall of Maya civilization left folks who remained susceptible to the pressures of European colonization starting in the 1500s. By the level Spain fully conquered the Maya spherical 1524, the wide majority of the Maya’s main cities had already been abandoned.

In the meantime, the newly arrived Spanish explorers paid diminutive attention to the ruins that lay scattered at some level of their colonies even as they seized Maya lands and compelled its Indigenous folks to remodel to Christianity.

Rediscovering the Maya

It wasn’t except the 1840s that the Maya were “rediscovered” by explorers and researchers who were intrigued by the hints of the civilization they’d left on the encourage of. American attorney and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and English artist and architect Frederick Catherwood led a series of archaeological expeditions to Central The USA, where they mapped and documented Maya sites.

Though the existence of ruins in the house used to be known, many Europeans assumed that Indigenous Central American citizens were frail and unintelligent and had no longer created the ancient artifacts below their feet. Stephens and Catherwood wished to model them imperfect and establish every the worth of the sites and the identities of their creators.

No topic being ecstatic of the extinct glory of the Maya, the 2 researchers also tried to money in on what they chanced on, even attempting to carry entire Maya cities and transport them to a Unique York museum. Nonetheless, their work compelled the field to steal survey of Maya civilization and lay a basis for future archaeological discoveries.

On the present time, the sphere of Maya archaeology is flourishing, and contemporary excavations maintain published every thing from ruins to non secular relics in the jungle that after reclaimed them. Students are mute attempting to explore extra about the Maya, their brave rise, and mysterious fall. (How researchers primitive lasers to explore a Mayan pyramid in Tikal.)

While archaeological relics could perhaps be all that’s left of their previous, the Maya mute exist in the present. Better than six million Maya descendants reside in contemporary Central The USA, where bigger than 30 languages stemming from traditional Mayan are mute spoken. These descendants also withhold many Mayan agricultural, non secular, and land management traditions alive—a signal of their custom’s resilience in the face of centuries of downside and alternate.