Mayan History, Achievements & Facts

Mayan History, Achievements & Facts
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  • 0:00 The Mayans
  • 0:24 Early History & the…
  • 2:56 Post-Classic Period &…
  • 4:55 Math & Astronomy
  • 5:49 Art & Architecture
  • 7:44 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'll explore the sophisticated ancient Mesoamerican culture known as the Mayans, and increase your understanding of their history, society, and major achievements in art, astronomy, and architecture.

The Mayans

The Mayans were one of the three most advanced civilizations of the ancient Americas. They lived across Mesoamerica, the area between North and South America, and spoke dialects of the same language, called Mayan. The Mayans lived in powerful cities long before Europeans arrived,and created complex systems of politics, religion, culture, astronomy, and art.

Early History & the Classic Period

The exact beginning of Mayan civilization is unknown, but some archeological sites of Mayan buildings in Belize have been dated to around 2600 BCE. There is still debate about these structures, so the most widely accepted date for the earliest Mayan civilizations dates to around 1800 BCE. Either way, the early period saw a change to a sedentary lifestyle, meaning they lived in one place rather than migrating around and the appearance of fired pottery and clay figurines.

The ability to have a stable, non-mobile culture indicates political organization and access to continual food from agriculture. The early Mayan settlements used jade and obsidian for stone tools, grew cacao, and developed the first examples of the Mayan hieroglyphic language, a form of writing using pictures or symbols. The Mayans created the only true writing system in the Americas.

Mayans in the early period were centered in Guatemala, Belize, and the Mexican Yucatan. There were other cultures in this area, most notably the Olmec civilization, which seems to have interacted and traded with the Mayans. The early period ended around 100 CE, when the Mayan cities were suddenly abandoned. About a century later, Mayan culture reappeared with vigor!

Known as the Classic period, which lasted from roughly 250 to 900 CE, Mayan civilization blossomed with incredible construction projects, advanced civilization, and massive urbanization during this time. People developed huge urban centers supported by complex agriculture. Every city was independent and had its own government. There was no emperor or king, and so none of these 'city-states' were part of a larger kingdom.

Most Mayans would not call themselves 'Mayans' until after the arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s. Even though they shared a culture, religion, and language, their identity was based on being a member of the city-state. Some of the most important Mayan cities founded in this period include Tikal, Palenque, and Copán. These cities traded with each other, fought against each other, and shared knowledge.

The population of Mayans reached the millions during this time and the city-states shared highly sophisticated culture, ceremonies, politics, religion, and architecture. They engaged in a wide-reaching trade network throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. By around 900 CE, this complex civilization collapsed. No one knows why, but major theories include drought, overpopulation, and warfare.

Post-Classic Period and Spanish Conquest

From around 900 CE into the 1500s, Mayan culture continued to exist, but it was much more influenced by other Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztecs. In this period, Mayan cities began the practice of human sacrifice for the first time. They continued building and created the important temples and cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Coba. In this period, Mayan artists also created the famous Mayan book of history and mythology called the Popol Vuh. The Mayan city-states in this period were nearly always at war with each other and competed for land and resources.

In 1492, the Spanish 'discovered' the Americas and began colonizing the Caribbean, and soon reached the continent. One of the first groups they encountered was the Mayans. The Spanish conquistadores, including conquerors like Hernán Cortés, were able to overthrow the Aztecs in Mexico and the Inca in Peru because these empires were controlled by a single government. When those governments were overthrown, the entire civilization fell.

However, the Mayan city-states did not have a single leader, so the Spanish had to conquer them city by city, which was much more difficult. The last Mayan cities were not fully conquered until late in the 1600s. For over 150 years, the Spanish tried to convert them to Christianity and to get them to adopt Spanish culture. The early priests burned every piece of Mayan writing and art they could find because they considered them to be anti-Christian. Many Mayans were also tortured and killed during this time. It was only after Mayan civilization began to fall apart that the various Mayan-speaking peoples began to identify as a single culture.

Although so much of Mayan culture was lost, the Mayans never disappeared. To this day, the Mayans are one of the main indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. They have been working hard to reclaim their language, writing, and customs.

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