CLICK ON A COUNTRY TO VISIT ITS MAYA SITES|
The ancient Maya have fascinated scholars
and the general public for centuries. Images of Mayan ruins, temples and
jungle covered lost cities have teased our imaginations. A mysterious
collapse of this great civilization left its mighty temples and pyramids
The Maya trail weaves through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El
Salvador. Our Mundo Maya (Maya World) website offers a unique view of this
little known yet much studied civilization because it exposes for the
holiday traveler or scholar a wide variety of archaeological sites spanning the lifetime of the Maya.
The Maya spread out over the highland
areas of Central America and soon reached a population size where they
began to form small settlements and domesticate plants. Archaeologists
are able to date finds and sites of the Mayan civilization using
artifacts of ceramic, stone, shells and bone.
Mayans used a complex calendar system.
Monumental stone inscriptions were carved using a hieroglyphic script
and a method of reckoning the passage of time called the Long Count. The
most striking feature of this system is that the Mayans dated events to
the exact day.
deciphered three major periods of Mayan Civilization - the Preclassic,
Classic and Postclassic periods. The fruition of the
Mayan civilization corresponds to the later years of the Roman Empire.
Mayan civilization started in the Preclassic period, rose to dominance in the
Classic period, and declined and disappeared in the Postclassic period.
A brief chronology:
- Early Preclassic - 2000 BC to 1000 BC
- Initial farming settlements
- Middle Preclassic - 1000 BC to 300 BC
- Expanding populations across Mesoamerican lowlands
- Late preclassic - 300 BC to 250 BC
- Settlements in Northern Belize reach prominence
As time progressed, the sites became more numerous and larger. The
sites exhibited more organization with public buildings, elaborate
burials, and jade jewelry. Jade became a spectacular marker of the
elite, both in quantity owned and in the quality of the workmanship.
Near the end of the Preclassic Period, trading flourished as networks
formed between the growing settlements. Most of the major ceremonial
centers, including many in Belize, were started about this time. But by
far the most important site of this period in Belize, as far as
archaeologists are concerned, was Cuello.
The Classic Period is the Mayan
Golden Age. Mesoamerica became adorned with
massive, ornate and brightly colored architecture. Exquisite works of
art and advances in astronomy and mathematics are hallmarks of this
Period. This was the age of the development of one of the most
sophisticated systems of writing ever devised in the Western Hemisphere.
The Classic period began with the carving of the
first hieroglyphic dates on Mayan stelae in 250 A.D. and ended six and a
half centuries later with the last dates carved into half finished
monuments, as if the artisans walked away in mid hammer stroke. Most of
the greatest ceremonial centers in Mesoamerica - Tikal, Caracol,
Palenque - came to their greatest glory during the Classic period. And
for some yet unknown reason, all were abandoned or far into decline
within a span of a few years near the end of the ninth century.
Much of what Archaeologists know of the Mayan Civilization
comes from archeological work done on Classic Period sites. Scientists
originally constructed a model of Mayan society as a ceremonial center
supported by widely spaced subsistence communities. But intense study on
the agricultural practices revealed that the Maya used highly
sophisticated techniques to feed a dense and growing population
surrounding the ceremonial centers.
These practices included terracing
of hillsides and river banks. Terracing allowed intense agriculture of land otherwise
unsuitable for crops. Using drainage ditches and irrigation, Mayan
farmers maintained corn fields and harvested such diverse crops as
manioc, sweet potatoes, and beans. Of great importance was the ramon
nut. Large underground chambers were constructed to store the ramon nuts
for long periods of time. Some archaeologists theorize that these
storage chambers were used in time of famine.
The Classic Maya augmented their starch diet of
vegetables and nuts with animal protein. The main source of meat came
from hunting the abundant white tailed deer, along with the small
brocket deer and two species of wild pig. The Classic Maya also
collected turtles and large numbers of freshwater snails.
Emphasis traditionally has been on the large ceremonial
centers of the time. However, recently, archaeologists have taken a
close look at the entire social structure, and have concentrated on the
small Mayan settlements and the rural farmers which supported the Mayan
Civilization through the production of food. These subsistence farmers
lived in dwellings very similar to the Maya of today. Most homes were
constructed of perishable material harvested from the forests.
The structure of Mayan society centered around a
major ceremonial site. A regional trading system would integrate the
products of outlying areas with minor ceremonial sites and eventually
with the major ceremonial center. Well developed causeways, called
sacbeobs ("white roads" from the plastered surfaces) radiated out from
the major sites in all directions toward the minor sites.
The Classic Period chronology has been developed
based on the rise, flourishing, and steady decline of the Mayan
Civilization. Some archaeologists also base these divisions of the
period on the influences of major ceremonial centers on all of
Mesoamerica and the Mayan Civilization as a whole. Following is a
breakdown of the Mayan Classic Period chronology:
- Early Classic - A.D. 250-400
- Middle Classic - A.D. 400-700
- Late Classic - A.D. 700-900
Archaeologists and other researchers debate what triggered the rise of the
Mayan Civilization and why this once
great civilization collapsed. The period that followed the abandonment
of the rainforest centers is known as the Postclassic Period. This
Period closes upon the Spanish Conquest in the mid-sixteenth century.
The Post Classic period is characterized by a lack of emphasis on
tall pyramids and elaborate structures. Instead, the Maya concentrated
on ground level buildings and created their art on stucco which quickly
erodes. In fact much less is known of the Maya in the Post Classic
Period than in the Classic Period because of the lack of art, artifacts
and structures from the Post Classic Period.
The collapse of Mayan civilization may have been triggered by a number of factors. Population was probably one of
these. Parts of the Mayan region were
sustaining nearly 400 people per square mile - a heavy density for an
agriculturally based society.
Malnutrition and disease may have been contributing factors. Studies of
human bones have found strong
evidence of communicable diseases such as syphilis.
The social gulf between the ruling elite and the common people is
another factor that archaeologists feel contributed to the decline of
Some researchers feel that the breakdown of trade
contributed greatly to the collapse. Archeologists believe that "realms"
may have been established where outlying districts provided items of
trade. These items were brought to a central location for
redistribution. These economic links become vulnerable during times of
stress and change.
Causes for the Mayan collapse are complex and varied, and not well understood
but the consequences of the collapse are
clear. Construction of ceremonial centers stopped; the intensive farming
methods ceased; the population dropped from an estimated three million
to 450,000 in less then a century.
The Maya had a complex social
system. Basically, the hierarchy consisted of a local elite which
organized farming settlements and extracted crops and labor to provide
for their own needs. These local elite in turn supported a central
bureaucracy of overlords enthroned at major ceremonial centers. These
major centers supported armies and were distribution centers for food
It is important to remember that the Mayan Civilization consisted
of much more then these major ceremonial centers. The majority of the
population were small subsistence farmers - much as they are today.
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