The MayaMayan civilization was without doubt the most brilliant and complex of the ancient societies on the continent of America. The Mayan lands covered an area of about 125,000 square miles, including the entire Yucatan peninsula and a large part of the modern states of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico, the whole of Belize and Guatemala and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. The geography of this huge territory is divided into distinctive zones from the humid slopes of the Pacific, the Guatemalan highlands, the exuberant tropical forest known as the southern lowlands, the central Yucatan peninsula and the dry lowlands of the north covered with low forest and dense undergrowth. There are no rivers in the latter region and the only surface water to be found is in the underground limestone caves known as cenotes. It was possible to build great cities with the benefit of water management, with complex hydraulic systems such making use of the bukte’ water supply system, chultuns or cisterns and haltunoob, or cracks in the earth, which formed in certain terrain.
The first inhabitants of the Mayan region were hunter gatherers who covered the region from at least as early as 10000 BC. Between 6000 and 1800 BC these groups started to concentrate in more favorable locations such as the mangroves, lagoons, coasts and shores which had year round food supplies. Nomadic gatherers became farmers over a gradual process, starting with farming and the domestication of certain forest plants. The first villages were established at the start of the Preclassic period around 2500 BC, with crops including maize, beans, pumpkins and chili. The people made fabric and pottery, which are indications of a settled way of living. The population grew rapidly and the people began to build limestone pyramids. They also began to use lime mortar and to quarry stone. The cultural elements that would define Mayan culture were consolidated between 400 BC and 200 AD.
Mayan culture flourished tremendously during the Classic period (200-900 AD), with the building of enormous monuments with inscriptions to commemorate great achievements, as well as massive cities with buildings painted and decorated with complex designs, bearing witness to a dominant narrative seeking to establish the rulers as intermediaries between the people and the gods. During the Postclassic period (900-1200 AD) the Mayan region was the site of a series of migratory movements which were reflected in profound linguistic and architectural change. For example new iconographic elements appeared among the local imagery of the day. The cities are clear examples of this process of transformation with a mix of features from the Highlands, such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan in Yucatan and Tulum and San Gervasio in Quintana Roo.
Generally it can be considered that the features or attributes defining Mayan culture within Mesoamerica are limestone based architecture worked with a mortar from lime and plant based additives used to cover the walls of rooms and palaces with vaulted roofs. The complete mastery of building processes is evident from the creation of architectural and artistic styles with thematic messages, with the addition of an iconography that has multiple variations during the Classic period. Artistic output such as sculpture, bas reliefs, mural painting, polychrome ceramics, stucco decoration modeled on the buildings, the jewelry and adornments made from materials such as jade, shell, conch, bone and even from the antlers of deer and wood, give us a broad idea of the magnificence of artistic expression which they attained.
Astronomical observations and the orientation of the buildings, as well as the full knowledge of the apparent motion of the sun made it possible to develop a calendar system and writing, which not only gave rise to artistic expression, but also to knowledge of the agricultural cycles. The great urban centers typically combined all of these features and this was a factor in the distribution pattern of settlements, alongside the physical environment. In terms of social complexity, the governing elite formed a pyramidal structure while a subservient class provided for the needs of the rulers. Social and political organization, together with trading exchanges, led to enormous complexity and densely inhabited cities, above all in the Classic period, when there was agricultural specialization using intensive farming techniques, with irrigation and drainage channeling water to lower areas.
Between 1600 BC and 1200 AD the ball game was another activity of the highest social and ritual importance. It has even kept going in some parts of Mesoamerica up to the present day. Aspects of the cultural practices of the pre-Hispanic Maya are still evident in the Maya of today, such as the language, beliefs, rituals and the manners of conceiving of the reality of their existence in the world.
José Huchim Herrera
Director of the Uxmal Archeological Site