History of Mayan Culture
The mysterious culture of ancient Maya once covered a vast geographic area in Central and South America. Their civilization extended to parts of what are now Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, and most of Guatemala and Belize.
The Mayans first settled in 1500BC. The Mayans environment consisted of tropical rainforests, which was also one of their main sources of resources, they turned the jungles into great cities. The rainforest would provide them with food, clothing, weapons, tools, and many more useful items. It rained almost everyday, but the temperature was not cold at least in the daytime. The environment played a major role in what the Mayans culture became, they needed rain and heat to survive both the humans and the animals. The Mayans learned the methods of doing things like planting crops, making clothing, jewelry etc. The Mayans grew mainly maize (corn), beans, and squash together with yucca, manioc, and sweet potatoes.
Beauty was very important to the Mayan people. Though beauty through the Mayan eye was very unusual from today’s definition of the word. To make their heads longer, Mayan babies heads were squeezed between two pieces of wood. Another thing they did was to break their nose and reshape it, to make it look more hooked. Body Piercing and body painting was one of the major parts of how Mayans looked. Most Mayans were tanned and had black hair and eyes. Both men and women had long hair, which was braided into two or four braids. They wore very little clothing but it was very decorative, with the fanciest piece of clothing being headdresses worn by nobles. Their bodies were painted differently according to tradition and occasions. Priests wore blue, warriors wore red and black, and teenagers wore white. Jewelry was a very important part of appearance.
LANGUAGE, EDUCATION, ASTRONOMY
The Mayans had over 800 symbols for their writing system. It is said to be the most complex form of writing. The most important eastern Maya languages are Quiche, and Cakchiquel. The largest western Maya language is Tzeltal, spoken in Chiapas Mex. The Mayans had another 15 languages.
The Mayans way of education was taught to only the higher authority such as priests, leader/chiefs, war leaders etc. As far as the rest of the Mayan population went, education and learning existed in their homes, where their parents taught them information that they knew for growing up and information that passed down to them generation to generation.
Their numerical system was based on symbols, which were given a value according to position and the concept of zero existed. Three symbols were used in writing numbers, a dot for one, a bar for five and a stylized shell for zero. All other numbers were written by combining these. The Mayas also devised glyphs for the numbers zero to nineteen, which were often used instead of the other system.
Astronomy was a very important factor of Mayan culture. The astronomers would devote their time to finding harmony in the universe and its recurring cycles of time, had to make complicated calculations to predict natural events and connect them with the fate of the population. The Mayan philosophy is very special because no other culture of the period was obsessed with time. They had two calendars the ritual one called “ Tzolkin “ that was used for calculating religious ceremonies and festivals and predicting the destiny of people. The second calendar was the solar calendar called “ Haab “ containing 18 months of 20 days each plus five unlucky days called “ Uayeb “. The two calendars were used in conjunction and the Maya calculations were so accurate that they were able to make exact reckonings predict eclipses and plot the orbit of the planet “ Venus “
As today the Mayans also had some “ political system “ they followed. Each large city had one supreme chief who ruled for life, upon his death a son or brother took over. In some cases wife took over. If no family successor was available a new ruler was selected from the upper class. Crime was also an issue for the Mayans. Criminals were punished in different ways according to what they had done. A thief would become the servant of his victim. Murderers were put to death, sometimes as part of ritual sacrifices. For minor crimes, hair was cut as a sign of disrespect.
There were also class separations like the ruling class and the common people. Warriors were a separate class themselves too. In battle the Mayans fought with wooden clubs, flint knives, spears, and slingshots. Weapons and tools were made from bone, parts of animals, soil, stone, metal/copper, and wood.
The Mayans were very religious people; their religion regulated almost everything in their life. Priests were the most important people in the tribes. The Mayans believed their gods had destroyed and recreated their earth several times that is why they always tried to please their gods with sacrifices. Each God represented something for them. Their Supreme Being and creator of the universe was called “ Hunan Ku “. The next important gods were the sun and moon gods. “ Kinich Ahau “ was the sun god. They believed that the sun and moon gods were the parents of humanity. The corn god was responsible for the harvest; statues show him wearing a headdress made from ears of corn. There were four rain gods called “ Chacs “, which represented rainfall, thunder, lightning, and storms. “ Ixtab “ was the goddess of sacrificial suicide. Mayans believed suicide lead to heaven. “ Yum Cicil “ was the god of death. He was also called “ Ah Puch “, the god of the underworld. “ Kakulcan “ was the god of wind. Every job or activity in Mayan life had a god or goddess.
Mayans were very artistic and colorful. Mayans used pictures mostly in their books. The paper they used was from the inner bark of a fig tree. The common colors used were, red and black, they also used green, yellow, and brown. Mayan paintings appeared on pottery, stone and sometimes on jade. Walls and columns were rich with paintings so detailed and well drawn that you can easily see what it was. They would mainly paint their wars, depressions, and ceremonies. In the 16th century the Spanish found hundreds of books with codes, they burned them immediately. Now only four codes are found but are very helpful to archeologists. The books are with calendars and astrological information. Also on rocks, Mayans wrote important information about their leaders.
Mayans also were famous for their massive temples, pyramids, and castles, which would be religious centers. Their construction relied heavily on bilateral symmetry. Each half of the building was identical. Limestone was used in most buildings. The temples had a relatively small interior compared to the mass of the structure as a whole. Their temples would house altars or stone platforms where priests would perform their sacrifices. On the wall behind the platform there would be a painting representation of the god of that city. The Mayan version of a pyramid is truncated so that a temple can be built on top. There were two types of pyramids, those that were meant to be climbed and those that were not. The steps on these structures were too steep to climb and many times they had doorways leading to nowhere. The staircases lead from ground level to the temple. The number of staircases had varied. Aside from having religious functions, Mayan pyramids also had other purposes. They were built so high that their tops could be seen out of the jungle, Mayans could use them as landmarks. Some pyramids even house burial chambers for high-ranking officials. Treasure such as jade was also found in the chambers.
Each Mayan city had its own temples and significance. Copan, which was from the first cities to develop, had very good artists, and sculptures. Copan is home to the stairway that contains more than 1500 hieroglyphic carvings. These hieroglyphics chronicles the achievements of 15 of Copan’s 17 rulers. Also in the city of Palenque is a temple in the midst of a tropical jungle. Hidden in the temple was the funeral chamber of Lord Pacal. His sarcophagus contained some of the most beautiful jade objects found in Mesoamerica. This temple is called the Temple of Inscription and is often described as the most beautiful and romantic of the ancient Mayans. “ Chac Mool “ is a reclining figure of a human, it is found near the entrances of temples. Another great city is Chichin Itza, which is home to The Great Ball-Court, which measures over 148 by 70 yards. The height of the walls is over 25 feet and the carved stone rings that adorn them are over three feet across.
The Mayans were and still are a mystical civilization. The Spaniards that move in Mesoamerica wiped them out. Nowadays the culture still exists and also ruins and ancient cities are preserved for people to visit and explore.
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