The Maya, the most enduring and most advanced pre-Columbian civilization in the ancient New World, lived in parts of present day southern Mexico (Tabasco, Chiapas and the Yucatan peninsula), Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Over two million direct descendants of the Maya still live in the same area and speak dialects of Mayan.
Maya civilization encompassed a series of city-states each with its own king and district governors who managed the surrounding towns and region. The Maya built very sophisticated cities populated by advanced buildings and temples. Many of Maya buildings, temples and pyramids survive to this day. The most famous and most visited building complex is that of Chichen Itza, located in the Mexican Yucatan area. Other elaborate building and temple complexes include those of Tulum, Palenque, Uxmal, Coba, Yaxuna, Calakmul, El Mirador and Nakbe.
The Maya were a powerful military force and constantly engaged in war. Weaponry included flint tipped spears, clubs, axes, shields tufted with feathers, knives and dart-throwers. Prisoners captured by the Maya during battle were frequently sacrificed to the sun and other gods in very bloody rituals.
In addition to architecting and building spectacular buildings, temples and cities, the highly civilized Maya were skilled artisans, sculptors, farmers, traders and merchants. Moreover, Maya scientists were very advanced. Mayan astronomers observed and charted the stars and planets and predicted celestial movement with great precision. They also developed and used sophisticated, elaborate calendars. Famed for their system of mathematics which included the use of zero, Maya wrote in hieroglyphic script.
Maya Writing System
The Maya developed the most elaborate writing system in ancient America. In this very complex system, the images, or glyphs, combine large elements that stand for the idea of a word with smaller elements that stand for the sounds of syllables and that also indicate the grammar. Although this writing system is far from being totally deciphered, more inscriptions still standing today are being successfully read. Many of the writings describe the Maya’s great interest in royal and military affairs along with religious, political, trade and everyday life stories.
Maya Leisure Time
Maya enjoyed their leisure time by playing or watching a very popular ceremonial ball game. This game was played on a long, narrow court with spectators sitting above. A rubber ball had to hit a marker or be propelled through a high stone ring without the use of hands. This game had religious significance and sometimes losing teams were killed in sacrifice to their gods.
Tobacco was smoked extensively by Mayans both ritually and for pleasure. They also enjoyed drinking a native beverage made from cacao beans. Europeans later sweetened this beverage with sugar to make hot chocolate.
Decline of the Maya Civilization
The decline of the Classic Maya kingdoms, which began around 750, was complete by 900, likely as a result of crop failures, overworked land, deforestation, bloody revolts and internecine warfare.