Mayan IndiansThe Mayan indians

Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan civilization was not one unified empire, but rather a multitude of separate entities with a common cultural background. Similar to the Greeks, they were religiously and artistically a nation, but politically sovereign states. As many as twenty such states existed on the Yucatan Peninsula.

As you can imagine, extensive research has gone in to figuring out just who the Mayans were and are. Here are the topics we found most relevant.

A Day in the Life of a Mayan

The cities the Mayas built were ceremonial centers. A priestly class lived in the cities, but for the most part the Maya population lived in small farming villages. The peasants would periodically gather for religious ceremonies and festivals. Life for the Mayas did not really change drastically after the decline of their cities, for the cities were central only in their ceremonial life.

Geography and Landscape
The physical "boundaries" of the ancient Mayan empire spanned the countries of modern day Guatemala, Belize (once called British Honduras), El Salvador, Honduras and the 5 Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Room, Tabasco, Campeche, and Chiapas. This area is also known by the name 'Mesoamerica". The total area once occupied by the Maya was around 400,000-500,000 square kilometers in all, and is referred to collectively as El Mundo Maya or in Spanish "The Maya World".

The topography of the Mayan landscape varies considerably. There are the volcanic mountains that are on the Pacific (western) coast of Mexico, all the way down to the tropical rainforest lowlands that make up the northern portion of the Yucatan. Western Guatemala and Chiapas made up the southern highlands.

The swampy southern lowlands receive up to 120 inches of rain per year, while the northern lowlands are comparatively dry and have no surface rivers. In the north, the people got their water from natural limestone sinkholes called dzonots (cenotes) that reveal small portions of underground water supplies, while the northern people captured the rainwater in the rainy season in cisterns (some of them man-made underground) for later use when the rains were scarce.

The Mayan Calendar The Maya Calendar was the center of Maya life and their greatest achievement. The Maya Calendar's ancestral knowledge guided the Maya's existence from the moment of their birth and there was little that escaped its influence.

The Maya used several calendars simultaneously. One of them called the "long count” is a continuous record of days from a zero date that correlates to Aug. 13, 3114 BC, and is more precise than the Julian calendar revised in Europe in 1582. The Maya were great astronomers and kept track of the solar and lunar years, eclipses and the cycles of visible planets. Mayan IndiansMayan Indians

To carry out their calendared and astronomical calculations they developed a sophisticated mathematical system where units are written with dots and bars are used to represent five units. They discovered and used the zero as well as a positioning system, similar to the decimal positioning system we use today.

Mayan History The ancient Maya have fascinated scholars and the general public for centuries. Images of jungle covered ruins and lost cities have fired our imaginations in film and print.

It is still possible to explore deep within the forests and caves of the world and come upon ruins, artifacts, and even burial sites.


Mayan art reflected their environment, religion, and everyday life. Their region was inhabited by foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds, hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and they domesticated turkeys and dogs. These animals often were an inspiration for their art and decoration.

Pottery was simple for everyday use, while it was elaborately decorated for the wealthy and for rituals. Ceramic pots were used to store liquids and foods and formed an essential part of every Mayan household. While most often plain and simply utilitarian, some had patterns carved into them or were painted.

A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver's back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

Textile fragments analysis from the excavation of a 5th century Mayan tomb in Honduras has recently revealed high quality fabrics, which strongly suggests that the Mayans were highly skilled spinners and weavers. In this tomb, they found the remains of a woman of high status who was buried during the 5th century.

According to scientist studies, the Mayas painted some of their ornate temples with mica, which is a glittery mineral to make them sparkle in the sun. They have taken flakes of paint from the Rosalila temple in Copán, Honduras, and discovered traces of the shiny mineral in the analysis. This particular temple was built in the sixth century A.D., today it sits "entombed" in a giant pyramid that has been built around it.

Los Mayas de Honduras

Mayan Life

From the contents of graves and burial caches, the architecture of ordinary houses, and scenes painted on pottery, people are learning what an average Maya day was like.

The typical Maya family (averaging five to seven members, archaeologists guess) probably arose before dawn to a breakfast of hot chocolate--or, if they were not rich enough, a thick, hot corn drink called atole--and tortillas or tamales. The house was usually a one-room hut built of interwoven poles covered with dried mud. Meals of corn, squash, and beans, supplemented with the occasional turkey or rabbit, were probably eaten on the run.

During the growing season, men would spend most of the day in the fields, while women usually stayed closer to home, weaving or sewing and preparing food. At the end of the day, the family would reconvene at home, where the head of the household might perform a quick bloodletting, the central act of piety, accompanied by prayers and chanting to the ancestors. Days that were not devoted to agriculture might be spent building pyramids and temples.

In exchange for their toil, the people expected to attend royal marriages and ceremonies marking important astrological and cylindrical events. At these occasions, the king might perform a bloodletting, sacrifice a captive, or preside over a ball game--the losers to be beheaded, or sometimes tied in a ball and bounced down the stone steps of a pyramid. Like modern-day hot-dog vendors, artisans and farmers might show up for these games to set up stands and barter for pots, cacao, and beads.

The Maya also had a highly developed--and to modern eyes, highly bizarre--aesthetic sense. "Slightly crossed eyes were held in great esteem," writes Yale anthropologist Michael Coe in his book The Maya. "Parents attempted to induce the condition by hanging small beads over the noses of their children.”

The Maya also seemed to go in for shaping their children's skulls: they liked to flatten them (although this may have simply been the inadvertent result of strapping babies to cradle boards) or squeeze them into a cone. Some Mayanists speculate that the cone head effect was the result of trying to approximate the shape of an ear of corn.

The Maya filed their teeth (it's unclear whether they used an anesthetic), sometimes into a T shape and sometimes to a point. They also inlaid their teeth with small, round plaques of jade or pyrite. According to Coe, young men painted themselves black until marriage and later engaged in ritual tattooing and scarring.

Los Indios Mayas de Honduras

Information about the Maya has come not just from physical objects but also from the elaborate hieroglyphics, they left behind. Indeed, the study of Maya writing has become a coequal--and sometimes competitive--path of inquiry. For some reason it has attracted more than its share of amateurs.

In the early 1970s, "discoveries came at the pace of a raging prairie fire," writes Coe in his latest book, breaking the Maya Code. Former University of South Alabama art teacher Linda Scheele burst into the epigraphically world.

On a 1970 visit to Mexico, she was mesmerized by the ruins at Palenque. Three years later, she was accomplished enough to collaborate with two others in a mind-boggling feat of decipherment: during a conference at modern Palenque, the trio took a mere 2 1/2 hours to decode the history of Palenque and its rulers from the beginning of the 7th century to its fall around the late 8th century--and got it right.

How was this possible? Because, say the professionals, deciphering glyphs depends as much on intuition and instinct as it does on knowledge of a given writing system. Insight can strike like lightning. Says Scheele, now an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin; "These moments of clarity are just extraordinary. The greatest thrills of my career came in those moments when the inscription becomes clear and we suddenly understand the humans who created this legacy for the first time."


All About Survival As with all ancient civilizations, Mayan life focused on the production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, squash, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes and other plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes, and digging sticks. They also hunted peccary, which is like a pig, and deer with bows, arrows, and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian and rabbits and dogs with nets. They fished for shellfish, larger fish, and sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell, and bone.

Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on the metal, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt. Tortillas were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a Comal, a clay disk.
Los Mayas

Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as they were in pre-Columbian times. Chilies and tomatoes, used for making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was club-shaped.

They usually buried their dead in the ground or under the floors of their houses, though sometimes corpses were cremated, buried in caves or interred in urns. The rich were buried in elaborate tombs with many household articles, giving later archeologists much insight into their culture.

The Maya were quite well educated, with advanced writing and astronomical systems. They used a hieroglyphic writing system to keep written records. Four of their codices, collections of hieroglyphic symbols written on paper, cloth, or animal skin—similar in function to a modern book, survive. They also developed a counting system based on the number twenty and a calendar. Great observatories, such as El Caracol at Chechen Itza, were used to study the stars.

Attire denoted rank in Mayan society, as only the wealthy were able to afford elaborate costumes. Only nobles were allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky. A jaguar helmet was a warrior's insignia and his protection.

Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells, and shells. Flutes, ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were employed widely.


Mayan Geography and LandscapeThe Mayan Indians

The ancient Maya civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The topography of the area greatly varied from volcanic mountains, which comprised the highlands in the South, to a porous limestone shelf, known as the Lowlands, in the central and northern regions.

The southern portion of the Lowlands was covered by a rain forest with an average height of about 150 feet. Scattered savannas and swamps, or bajos, appeared sporadically, interrupting the dense forests.

The northern Lowlands were also comprised of forests but they were drier than their southern counterparts were, mainly growing
small thorny trees were. February to May was the dry season characterized by air that was intensely hot and uncomfortable.

At this time of year, the fields had recently been cut and had to be burned in accordance with their slash and burn form of agriculture. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air even more unbearable until the rains came in late May to clear the murky atmosphere.

Many dangerous animals occupied this region of the peninsula including the jaguar, the caiman (a fierce crocodile), the bull shark, and many species of poisonous snakes. These animals had to be avoided as the Maya scavenged the forest for foods including deer turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such aIndios Mayas de Centro Americas the peca and the agouti.

Many varieties of monkeys and quetzal also occupied the upper canopy. The climate of the Highlands greatly contrasted with that of the Lowlands, as it was much cooler and drier.

Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to the presence of trade within the Mayan civilization. The lowlands primarily produced crops, which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle cultigens being maize. They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope.

The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade. Although the lowlands were not the source of any of these commodities, they still played an important role as the origin of the transportation routes.

The rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers, of which the Usumacinta and the Grijalva were of primary importance, were vital to the civilization as the form of transportation for both people and materials.

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