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Life in the Maya Civilization

Life in the Maya Civilization
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  • 0:08 Life in the Maya Civilization
  • 0:29 The Maya City
  • 1:40 Life in the City
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will experience a day in the life of a person in the Maya civilization of Central America, and then test your understanding about this complex culture.

Life in the Maya Civilization

Today, you are an ancient Maya. Congratulations! Do you know what that means? You now live in the Yucatán Peninsula of Central America, you speak the Mayan language, and you have a Maya name. Let's call you B'alam. Hey there, B'alam. Biix a beel? How do you do?

The Maya City

As a Maya person, you are currently living in a small stone or wood house in the jungle. You have a small farm on your land, which you constantly have to keep cleared from all those jungle plants. Nearby is a freshwater sinkhole in the limestone called a cenote. You can go there for fresh water if you need, but be careful B'alam. The cenotes are places where the gods dwell, and if you anger them, you may have to make sacrifices by throwing maize or stone statues into the cenote.

Today, you are heading into the city to take care of a little business. As you pass through the jungle, being careful to watch for jaguars, you see a few deer. Most days you may try and hunt them, since this is your main food, but today, you need to get into the city. The glorious city. Oh B'alam, the city means so much to you. You see, you don't consider yourself a Maya because there is no single Maya kingdom or empire. Instead, each city is its own independent government, called a city-state. So, the people of Tikal see themselves as Tikalans; the people of Copán see themselves as Copanians. Sometimes you go to war with the other cities; other times you trade with them as partners, but your identity is tied to this city.

Life in the City

As you enter the city, you pass through an entrance in the wall called a corbel arch. In all of the Americas, only the Maya use this architectural feature. It involves using increasingly longer stones in a doorway until they meet at the top, forming something like an arch. This makes for stronger walls.

Inside the city, you see people doing business, shopping, gossiping, and worshipping the gods. As you keep walking, you pass a theatrical group performing the traditional Maya play, the Rabinal Achí, which tells a story from local mythology. As Maya, you enjoy theater and art, and the city is covered in performances, statues, and wall murals.

Eventually, B'alam, you pass the central plaza, the center of a Maya city. This square area has the most important buildings in the city, including government offices, palaces, and the central temple. This temple is on top of a stepped pyramid, built by stacking continually smaller platforms on top of each other. There are no human sacrifices today because you're not at war. Traditionally, the Maya didn't practice human sacrifice, but after that other civilization up north, the Aztecs, became very powerful, a lot of their customs started influencing Maya culture.

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