Introduction to the Ancient Maya


"It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction. All was mystery, dark, impenetrable mystery..."

This were the words that John Lloyd Stephens used when he visited the first Maya ruins on his trip through Central-America. Hundred and fifty years later you can visit the ruins with the same enthusiasm and with enough knowledge to understand them. This website will show you that all the mysteries John Lloyd Stephens came across with, are unravelled by modern archeologists and anthropologists.

When Paris and London were no more then little villages, the Maya's built their inmense cities in the jungles of Mesoamerica. The world of the Maya's streched out from Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas en Tabasco in Mexico, entire present Guatemala and Belize and the most western part of Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya area can be divided in to three parts: The Northern Maya-lowlands, the Southern Maya-lowlands and the Maya Highlands.     

The Maya's were not part of one great empire, like the Aztecs. There were many independent city-states with their own king or government. Despite of this, we can consider the Maya as a unity mainly because of similarities in faith, customs and language.  

Mayanists have divided the history of Maya-culture in to zeven periods, based on ancient calendar dates and the C14 method. These are:                             

The first villages arose during the second millennium BC, which is called the Preclassic Period and lasted from BC 2.000 till AD 250. In the beginning there were mainly little primitive villages, but this was the place where the Maya's began to develop there culture. The first hunter-gatherer tribes established themselves in a basecamp. 

The early Maya searched for food near the basecamp and at a ceartain point  they started to cultivate products like maize, beans and pumpkins. The foundation for a agrarian society was established. 

The period between AD 250 and AD 900 would become the heydays of Maya-culture, because of this the period is called the Classical Period. Often this period is divided in to Early Classic (AD 250 to 600) and Late Classic (AD 600 to 900). The period around 900 is also known as the Terminal Classic. During the Classical Period, Maya culture developed to the most intellectual and technological advanced civilization on the American continents. Art and science were at a peak. 

Religion played a major part in the life of every Maya. The King had great power by convincing his subjects that he descended from the gods. Some of the most valuable texts about Maya religion that exists today are the Popol Vuh and Chilam Balam of Chumayel. Although these texts were written during the colonial period, they contain valuable information about the religion during the Classic and Postclassic Period. A lot of maya pottery that was found from these periods, deal with scenes that we recognize fom the Popol Vuh. Both texts can be downloaded on this website.

Maya art is considered to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the New World civilizations. The carvings and stucco reliefs of cities like Palenque and Copán is exeptional and shows a that the Maya made accurate observations of the human form. There are only few painings on architectural structures from the Classic Period that survived through the ages. But the those who did survive, like the paintings in some buildings of Bonampak, reveals a part of their former beauty. Most paintings can now be found on funerary pottery and other ceramics.  

The Maya independently developed the concept of zero and used a base 20 numbering system. The main reason for developing such a system was to observe the movements of the stars and planets, in which they recognised their god and goddesses. The observations of the Maya were superior for naked eye observations.  With this observations the Maya developed many calendar systems of which the most important were the ritual Tzolkin (260 day calendar), the Haab (365 day calendar) and the Long Count, a calendar system that work with a starting point (13 aug 3114 BC) and counted the days till the end date of 23 dec AD 2012. Some scholars even believe that the Maya calculated the solar year as accurate to 365.2422 days, but this is based on poor evidence.

The following Postclassic Period (AD 900 to 1521) is often discribed as a period of decadence, a period in which Maya culture was nothing more then a poor reflection of their previous greatness. The reason why this is believed to be true is because Postclassic Maya did not longer build great temples and palaces. For many scholars, their relatively simple architecture was a sign of the fall of Maya civilization. The results of my research, however, suggests that Maya civilization made a big step in to a new direction. Their architecture was a product of their new values. In my report: Postclassic Societies and their Architecture: El Rey, Quintana Roo I will explain why the Postclassic Maya's were by far a poor reflection of their previous greatness. 


See also:

The Kukulkan Pyramid of Chichén Itzá