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The Rise of the Maya Civilization

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  • 0:08 The Rise of the Maya
  • 0:41 The Origins
  • 2:18 Mayan City-States
  • 3:59 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 explore the origins of the great Maya civilization that developed in Central America. Then, you will be able to test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Rise of the Mayan Civilization

In every corner of the globe, there are great civilizations. And in every corner of the globe, there was one civilization who came first. In the Americas, it was the Mayan. The Mayan were the first major, complex civilization to develop in the Americas. They lived in the Yucatán Peninsula and surrounding areas, including Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The Mayans developed a highly sophisticated culture in the coastal lowlands and rain forests of these regions that lasted for centuries.

The Origins of Maya Civilization

When we say that the Mayans were the first major civilization in the Americas, we don't mean that they were the first people to live there, or the first ones with complex culture. They were simply the first to develop a highly sophisticated society with art, science, architecture, and writing. Humans lived in Central America for thousands and thousands of years before the Mayans. They were mostly nomadic, meaning they moved continuously rather than lived in one place, or had small herds of animals and moved around occasionally. Although the Mayan calendar starts in 3114 BC, the earliest archeological evidence of Mayan culture is from 1800 BC, around the Pacific Coast of Guatemala.

These early Mayans switched from nomadic to sedentary lifestyle, meaning they lived in one place, built cities, and developed agriculture. They invented pottery and lived in small cities.

By 800 BC, the Mayans appeared in the lowland jungles and rain forests. They grew in size and complexity, mined and traded the mineral jade to other cultures, and farmed cacao.

Some of the first major cities included Nakbe, Cival, and Kaminaljuyu. Mayan cities started trading more and more with other Central American cultures and slowly grew in size and power. Around 250 BC, the Mayans developed the first (and only) system of writing in the Americas. Like the Egyptians, they used symbols that represented a word, syllable or sound, called hieroglyphs. With this, Mayan civilization really began.

Rise of Maya City-States

Mayan civilization grew and grew, until finally around 250 AD, they developed into a whole new level of society. The Mayan cities had become so rich from trade, so powerful, and so large that they formed into city-states. A city-state is an urban center that is not part of any other kingdom or empire, but is its own government. Some of the most famous Mayan cities developed in this era, including Caracol, Tikal, Palenque, and Copán. They had lots of agriculture, complex trade networks, innovative architecture, and sophisticated religion. In this time, the population of Maya people entered the millions.

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