Back To CourseAP US History: Help and Review
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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.
The Mayans had an advanced system of math and astronomy, which led them to believe that history was cyclical, or repeating, and to create an extremely accurate calendar. The calendar featured several cycles, called counts, of various lengths. The basic calendar included a 260-day count, a 365-day solar year, and a 52-year cycle. They also had a calendar that marked time since the beginning of time in their mythology. This calendar began on August 11, 3114 BCE and generated a roughly 5,000-year cycle, called a b'ak'tun, that famously ended in December of 2012. This date was never meant to signify the end of the world, just the beginning of a new long calendar, which goes from 2012 to 4772.
Mayan art was sophisticated and required highly trained intellectuals and artistic experts to create. The Mayans created large and beautiful murals on the walls of their buildings that used complex colors and symbols. Their paintings relied on a system of symbols and icons from religious myths and historic stories. Besides painting, Mayans were also great sculptors and carved stone sculptures of gods, animals, and people - the latter of which display a precise understanding of the proportions of the human form.
Mayan architecture also indicates the sophistication of the intellectuals and engineering experts of Mayan civilization. Mayans created huge urban centers that featured major temples, ball courts for sports, government buildings, astronomical observatories, and palaces built from limestone. For their temples, Mayan architects created stepped pyramids, using several levels of flat platforms with each level being slightly smaller than the one below it. On the top of the pyramid was a square ceremonial building where rituals were performed. These buildings almost always carried a symbolic significance that coincided with the astronomic calendar.
Many major buildings have windows or features that line up with the sun on the solstices and equinoxes. The great pyramid of Chichen Itza is actually an architectural model of the Mayan calendar: the number of levels, stairs, and statues represents the parts of the calendar. On the equinox, shadows cast by large sculptures give the impression of a serpent slithering up the stairs towards the temple. Cities were often laid out so that the buildings aligned with important stars or constellations. Some archeologists even think that the association with the astronomic calendar was so important that the temples were dismantled and rebuilt every 52 years, an important number in the Mayan calendar.
The Mayans of Mesoamerica created one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the ancient world, centered in Belize, Guatemala, and on the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. Although we call them the Mayans, they were really a series of independent city-states with unique identities that shared a common language and culture. This made them different from the other great civilizations of the Americas. The Mayans developed complex architecture, philosophy, calendars, astronomy, and agriculture, as well as the only true written language in the Americas. Their civilization appeared around 1800 BCE, peaked with the Classic period from about 250 to 900 CE, adapted to other influences from about 900 to 1500 CE, and was brutally oppressed by the Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s.
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Back To CourseAP US History: Help and Review
30 chapters | 478 lessons | 1 flashcard set