Back To CourseWorld History: Credit Recovery
35 chapters | 389 lessons
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Do you remember 2012? All year long - particularly when it was a slow news day - news anchors usually got around to discussing the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world was going to end sometime near the end of December. Today, the Mayans also pop up often in popular culture as possible civilizations that communicated with or were visited by extraterrestrial civilizations.
Misunderstandings of the intricacies of the Mayan calendar and conspiracy theories aside, how much do you actually know about the real Mayan civilization? In this lesson, we'll explore the facts about that civilization, their lives and times, and their culture.
Most of what we know about the Maya today comes from the work of paleontologists, anthropologists, and historians. From their best estimates, the Maya began to occupy their traditional land in Southern Mexico and Central America somewhere between 2600 and 1800 B.C. Mayan civilization grew incrementally more complex, expanded its borders, and built larger and larger urban and commercial centers over the next two millennia.
The true heyday for Mayan civilization occurred around 250-900 A.D. At this time, Mayan civilization flourished, and its rule was relatively unopposed throughout the region. Soon after this period, however, Mayan civilization collapsed. Throughout the 10th century A.D., most Mayan cities and settlements were abandoned. The Mayan collapse remains one of the greatest mysteries in history and anthropology. Theories about the cause of the collapse - from drought, to foreign invasion, to the collapse of Mayan social hierarchy - abound.
Mayan political life revolved around city-states. At some point, Mayan society became highly hierarchical, and the city-states of Mayan civilization were ruled by an aristocratic ruling class with a king at its head. Each city had its own king and ruling class, and the king was often considered either a god or the chief representative of the gods on Earth. Throughout the Mayan period, these city-states warred with one another, making allies with other city-states in opposition to one another.
Normally, one city-state in a region was more powerful than the others, and the rest would be forced to pay tribute to the first city-state's king in order to ensure peace between the two states. As one city-state's power waned, another usually took its place. As Mayan city-states grew more and more prosperous, trade relationships developed between city-states, which encouraged a thriving economy in the region. City-states traded with one another in precious metals and goods, especially cacao, which the Mayan aristocracy brewed into a bitter drink.
The Maya also developed sophisticated agricultural techniques to adapt to their rainforest climate, and the Maya built intricate irrigation works. Mayan cities were not only the political center of Mayan society, but the economic center as well. Most trade took place in these urban centers, and as the urban centers grew, they, too, developed their own specialized economies.
Mayan cities grew especially large at the apex of Mayan culture and estimates of its largest city place the population at about 60,000 - far larger than any city in Europe at the same time. Mayans built large temple step-pyramids and palaces in their cities, which were surrounded by smaller stone or thatched edifices where the average Maya lived. The most sophisticated Mayan cities included rudimentary sewer systems and running water in the houses of the wealthiest Maya.
Mayan cultural and religious custom is what tends to draw the most attention from people of the modern era. The Mayans were incredibly adept mathematicians and stargazers. The Mayans, for example, were likely the first civilization in human history to understand the concept of zero. The Mayans also studied the stars closely. Rather than simply gazing upward, the Mayans took fastidious notation and made calculations based on what they saw. As a result, the Mayans developed a calendar, which - believe it or not - is even more accurate than the standard calendar we use today!
The Mayans were a highly religious, polytheistic culture, and each day of the Mayan calendar had set activities to either complete or avoid in order to appease the gods. The Mayans believed that history moved in cycles, and the Mayan Long Count calendar dictated periods of creation and destruction that doubled back on each other. The turnover of the Mayan Long Count - and not the 'end' of the calendar, as some alarmists claimed - occurred in late 2012.
The Mayans interest in astronomy also dictated parts of Mayan culture. Mayan priests were highly revered in Mayan society, and this class alone was charged with making the notation and calculations necessary to divine the future or the will of the gods from the stars. Kings often consulted priests on the right time to order fields to be planted, go to war, and myriad other activities. Additionally, the architecture of many Mayan temples and other buildings were built with this keen understanding of astronomy at heart. Doors and windows of buildings, for example, were built so the sunlight would hit a particular spot at a particular time of year.
The Mayan gods were as numerous as they were demanding. No one knows for sure just how many gods the Mayans prayed to, but there were likely hundreds. Gods existed that moved the sun, the moon, and the stars. Gods existed that ruled various parts of the afterlife. Gods even existed that were both male and female. One thing most Mayan gods had in common was the requirement of sacrifice. Blood sacrifices - both animal and human - were often required to appease one god or another. The Mayan afterlife consisted of both a heaven and an underworld, and most Mayans progressed to the dreary and bleak underworld after their death. Heaven, and often deification, was only reserved for priests and kings.
The Mayans were one of the more astounding civilizations of the ancient world. First settling in what is today Southern Mexico and Central America sometime between 2600 and 1800 B.C., the height of Mayan culture took place around 250-900 A.D. Politically, Mayan civilization was organized into city-states, which fought and traded with one another. These city-states were ruled by kings surrounded by an aristocratic ruling class.
Culturally, the Mayans were adept mathematicians and astronomers, and much of the actions of everyday life were dictated by omens and messages from the gods. Their skills were so good that they even developed an incredibly accurate calendar. As complex as the calendar was, the Mayans worshiped an even more complex pantheon of gods and goddesses and believed in an afterlife for their dead. The rich and diverse culture of the Mayan civilization is part of what makes their sudden disappearance all the more interesting.
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Back To CourseWorld History: Credit Recovery
35 chapters | 389 lessons