Through the Ages – The Mayan People
The Mayan people were considered extremely advanced for their time. They had one of the most complex written languages for their time, an extremely accurate calendar and built amazing cities and pyramids.
So where did these people live?
The Maya were from Mesoamerica and lived in either the lowlands or the highlands.
A porous limestone area was known as the lowlands, it was also covered with rainforest, and the volcanic mountains made up the highlands.
The highlands, a cooler area, was a source of jade, obsidian and other precious metals. The lowlands was where the majority of crops were produced, this was mainly maize (corn).
The Maya people were divided into classes. There were the rulers/kings, priests and warriors, merchants and artisans, and commoners (loaders, bricklayers, woodcutters, and peasants) and slaves.
The king ruled the city and surrounding regions for life. Upon the king’s death, his son or a brother would usually take over. If there were no family members to take over a new ruler was chosen from the upper classes. A human sacrifice was normally offered to the gods when a new king took over.
Priests were the next important class. They recorded the Mayan history, in fact it was normally only the ruling class and priests that could read and write. The rest of the population learnt from their family – information was passed down from generation to generation.
The warriors were the ones who protected the city and captured enemy prisoners, who then became slaves. Defeated officers though became human sacrifices!
The cities, where the higher classes lived, were only used as ceremonial centers, this is where they carried out daily religious duties and people would only gather there for festivals or religious ceremonies. The majority of the Mayan population lived in small villages.
They lived in small huts made from walls of interwoven poles covered with dried mud, and the roves were made from thatching. The huts were mainly used for sleeping; everything else took place in the village compounds.
Day to Day
Men generally built the huts and looked after the field, the women prepared the food, and made clothing.
The Maya were very far ahead of the rest of the world when it came to farming, including crop rotation, irrigation and fertilizers, which is one of the reasons they were able to develop their cities. They practiced a slash and burn method. As the soil in a rainforest is surprisingly unfertile, and the growth quite fast due to constant rain any nutrients provided by dead plants and animals gets used up very quickly, the Maya would cut down a section of the forest and burn the trees and plants in that section for fertilizer, they would then cultivate the plot. Every few years they would rotate the crops and have to repeat the process. This was a very hard process, as the Maya had to do everything by foot and had no metal tools. The ancient farming methods and traditions are still followed in many of their rural communities today.
The main crop of the Maya was maize – corn (they also believed the gods had created them from corn). They also grew cotton for light cloth and sisal for heavy cloth and rope, beans, squash, avocados, chili peppers, and cacao; which was made into a chocolate drink with water and hot chilies. The poorer classes drank a drink called atole, which was ground corn mixed with warm water. They also ate rabbits, deer, turkeys and sometimes fish.
The Mayan people actually had a very healthy diet. Squash and beans provided them with protein, avocados were an excellent source of fat and oil, chilies were full of vitamins, they soaked their corn in lime water – which added calcium to their diets, and corn and beans eaten together provide lysine.
Their diet would have given them lots of energy and kept them healthy, which would have helped with farming the fields, maintaining the city and allowing them time to create their amazing pyramids, temples and cities.
The Maya people were one of the first in the Americas to have a written language. This consisted of complex picture symbols (hieroglyphs). They are so complex that only 80% of the hieroglyphs have been deciphered today.
Their writing system was used to record transitions of power, how to perform ceremonies and other historical events. The writing was recorded on stone and wood, and also in books made from fig tree bark and placed in tombs. Due to the humidity and the invading Spanish of the time who considered the writing to be the work of the devil, many books haven’t survived.
The Mayan people did not have one standard language, there was said to be about 31 languages (although this number varies between 21 and 50). Each region had a different language (and some were as different as English is to Swedish), the main language is known as Yucatec.
Religion regulated almost everything, which is why priests were held in such high regard.
The Maya believed that their gods had destroyed and recreated their earth several times and that they also controlled daily events, which is why they always tried to please their gods with sacrifices. All of the gods related to nature and were essential in their survival (gods of the sun, moon and rainfall). Their creator of their universe was called Hunan Ku, the next most important gods were the sun and moon gods, the corn god, and four rain gods (chacs). There was a god or goddess for every job or activity.
The Mayan people were a society of artists, athletes, architects and scientists.
Their art was a reflection of their lifestyle; it was used to recreate the history of the men and women in power as well as the activities of the people. They made carvings from wood and stone, clay models and terra cotta figurines from moulds. They were also highly skilled weavers, and created elaborate jewelry to wear.
Their pyramids are their most famous pieces of work, adorned with murals and intricate architectural details, and to think they were all built without metal tools. One of the better-preserved pyramids, the El Castillo, had a temple built at the top of 365 steps – one for each day of their year.
Apart from the pyramids, the Mayan people are famous for their knowledge of the stars and their calendars.
The Mayan people developed a highly sophisticated calendar system that was very accurate. It had 365 days with months consisting of 20 days each, the remaining 5 days were considered unlucky days. They were very superstitious people and did not plan any activities on these days.
There were also different calendars for agriculture and religion. Their astronomers observed the movements of the moon and sun and planets and made astrological calculations to help activities such as farming and warfare.
They were truly amazing people well ahead of their time!.
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