Mayan History and Culture Term Paper

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Mayan History And Culture

The ancient Mayan civilization had advanced systems of astronomy and mathematics, an accurate calendar system, extensive trade routes, and a religion dominated by blood sacrifices (Jaguar pp). Although they did not have the benefit of metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel, the people of this ancient civilization were still masters of architecture who built elaborate pyramids and sprawling cities (Jaguar pp). Although the collapse of these great cities led to the near extinction of the Mayan, the survivors of this culture are heralding into the new millennium (Jaguar pp). The Mayans built incredibly sophisticated urban centers, an astronomical science and mathematics among the most sophisticated in the pre-modern world, and the most developed and complex system of writing in the Americas (Hooker pp).

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From the standpoint that the term civilization means the urbanization and its attendant social changes, there were only two areas in the American where civilization as a culture form predominated, Mesoamerica and South America along the western slopes and hills of the Andes mountain range (Hooker pp). Not all of the American civilizations represent true urbanization, for example, the Olmecs developed most of the cultural forms of Mesoamerican civilization, however, they really did not urbanize, and while the Mayan built incredible cities under difficult conditions throughout Guatemala and Honduras, only the priest lived in the cities and Mayan life centered on agricultural villages, a lifestyle that did not essentially change when they left their cities around 900 a.D. (Hooker pp).

Term Paper on Mayan History and Culture Assignment

The Classic period from 300 to 900 a.D. was the only period in which urban centers were important to the Mayas and its culture changed little from the classic period to the modern period, for Mayan culture was largely tribal and rural throughout the Classic period (Hooker pp). However, what distinguishes Classic from post-Classic Maya culture was the importance or urban centers and their structures in the religious life of the Mayas and the extent of literate culture (Hooker pp).

Because the Mayas were never really a true urban culture since the cities were used as religious centers for the surrounding rural population, the decline of the cities after 900 a.D. did not involve a colossal social change so much as religious change (Hooker pp). Many scholars believe that the abandonment of the urban centers was primarily due to religious proselytizing from the north (Hooker pp). During the Classic period, there was an explosion of cultural creativity throughout the Mayan region (Hooker pp). The Mayas derived many cultural forms from the north, however, they are also responsible for many cultural innovations that had deep influence on all subsequent cultures throughout Mesoamerica (Hooker pp). In fact, much of Maya culture, especially 'the religious reckoning of time, is still a vital aspect of Native American life in Guatemala and Honduras (Hooker pp).

Of the three regions in Mesoamerica in which the Classic Maya culture developed, the most important and most complete urban developments occurred in the lowlands in the central regions of southern Guatemala where the Maya were only one of two peoples to develop an urban culture in a tropical rainforest (Hooker pp). The principal city of this region was Tikal, however, urbanization spread to Honduras where in the north the southernmost Mayan city was Copan (Hooker pp). Mayan culture was less developed in the Guatemalan highlands, which seem to have been the main suppliers of raw materials used by the central urban centers (Hooker pp). The largest and most complete city was Palenque, and the other major region of Mayan development was the Yucatan peninsula and included Chichen Itza and Uxmal (Hooker pp). After the cities were abandoned, the Yucatan peninsula became the principal region of a new, synthetic culture called Toltec-Mayan that was formed when Toltecs migrating from the north integrated with the indigenous Maya peoples (Hooker pp).

The history of the Mayans begins with the diffusion of certain architectural styles throughout the Mayan cultural area, the earliest of which includes "stelae (stone, flat columns) and corbelled vaults," during the Early Classic Period, 292-593, while the Late Classic Period, 593-889, is characterized by the efflorescence of Maya culture in over ninety cities and the widespread use of writing (Hooker pp).

A priestly class lived in the cities, while the rest of the population lived in small farming villages (Hooker pp). The priestly class carried out daily religious duties, especially sacrifices, and the peasants gathered in the cities periodically for ceremonies and festivals (Hooker pp). For reasons not fully understood, the Mayas abandoned the cities around 900 a.D. And although there is evidence of invasion from the outside, it is possible that economic strife caused them to leave (Hooker pp). However, the greatest change seems to be the disappearance of the priestly class, and with this disappearance the Mayas stopped working on their cities, yet there is evidence that the peasants continued to use the cities for a time, but eventually stopped (Hooker pp).

Not much is known of Mayan society beyond the social division between the priests and peasants, however Mayan society had several strata: rulers, priests, commoners, and slaves, yet the extent to which the rulers were differentiated from the priests is unknown (Hooker pp). The halach uinic or "True Man," whose position was hereditary, was at the top of the Mayan hierarchy and ruled both domestic and foreign affairs with the help of council, while lesser chiefs ruled smaller social units (Hooker pp).

The Ah Kin Mai or "The Highest One of the Sun" was head of the religious hierarchy and ruled over all the other priests, called Ah Kin or "The One of the Sun" (Hooker pp). The two priestly functions involved in human sacrifice were the chacs, who were the elder men who held down the victim, and the nacon, who cut the living heart from the victim (Hooker pp). Mayan religion grew primarily out of the milpas (slash and burn) agriculture that required accurate predictions of time and accommodation to the cycles of life in the rain-forest (Hooker pp). The one main aspect to Mayan religion is based on "accommodating humanity to the cycles of the universe" (Hooker pp). Since the universe functions in a logical, cyclical and predictable way, then human beings can exploit that cyclical nature by "accommodating themselves to these cycles" (Hooker pp).

Thus, Mayan religion was obsessed with time, and in order to correctly orient to the cycles of time, it was important to be able to calculate these cycles with great accuracy (Hooker pp). Thus, the Mayas developed a number of calendrical systems which at the center was the tzolkin, or sacred calendar, that consisted of 260 days (Hooker pp). This calendar worked on two cycles, a cycle of 13 numbered days and a cycle of 20 named days, and these cycles would repeat themselves every 260 days (Hooker pp). They also had the tun, or ceremonial calendar, which was 360 days long plus five concluding unlucky days, and the katun calendar which was a cycle of 20 tuns (Hooker pp). The Mayas also used a Venus calendar, 584 days, a half-year lunar calendar, and cycles of the sky gods calendar (Hooker pp). In combination, these calendars made the Mayans the most accurate "reckoners" of time before the modern period reaching an accuracy of being one day off every 6,000 years, which is far more accurate than today's calendar (Hooker pp). Every day on these calendars in their incredible complexity served as astronomical almanacs that rigidly controlled behavior and religious ceremony (Hooker pp).

Religious ceremonies involved dancing, competition, dramatic performances, prayer and sacrifice (Hooker pp). The gods needed nourishment from human beings in order to work, and while sacrifice often involved foodstuffs, the bulk of the sacrifice was in the form of human sacrifice (Hooker pp). And most of the sacrifice was bloodletting, in which a victim, usually a priest, voluntarily pierces a part or parts of their body, such as tongue, ears, lips, or penis, and gives the blood to the gods, and the higher one's position in the hierarchy, the more blood was expected (Hooker pp). Some of the ceremonies required the living heart of a victim, then the "victim would be held down by the four chacs at the top of a pyramid or raised platform while the nacon made an incision below the rib cage and ripped out the heart with his hands," then the heart was burned in order to nourish the gods (Hooker pp).

The Mayas believed the world has been created five times and destroyed four times, and from 900 a.D. this became the fundamental basis of Mesoamerican religion and was adopted by the Toltecs (Hooker pp). Most of their gods were reptilian and they all had dual aspects, meaning that each god was benevolent as well as malevolent (Hooker pp). Moreover, they believed in an elaborate afterlife, however, heaven was reserved for those who had been hanged, sacrificed, or died in childbirth, while everyone else went to xibal, or hell, which… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Mayan History and Culture.  (2005, May 21).  Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

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"Mayan History and Culture."  21 May 2005.  Web.  23 January 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Mayan History and Culture."  May 21, 2005.  Accessed January 23, 2021.