Maya Civilization Accomplishments

Table of Content

I. Introduction

            The Maya Indians are people living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, whose highly developed civilization reached its peak in the seventh and eighth centuries. At that time, the total Maya population may have been 12 to 16 million people. The Mayas reverted to a primitive state of existence after their civilization was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century.

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            The Mayas form a large part of the peasant population of the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Tobasco, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo; Guatemala; and Belize. Mayas are short, sturdy build and have broad faces and prominent noses. There are about 30 Mayan languages. The Mayan language of the Yucatan peninsula is Yucatec, or Maya proper. Other Mayan languages, found mainly in the highlands (at the base of the peninsula), include Quiche, Cakchikel, Mam, Kekchi, and Pokomam. An isolated Mayan-speaking group, the Huastec, lives in northeastern Mexico around Tampico (Coe, 1999).

             Moreover, the Maya is an American Indian people of Middle America. In the strict meaning of the word, the term Maya refers to the indigenous inhabitants of the Yacatan Peninsula and to their native language. The term takes on different and wider connotations when used to refer to the ancient Maya civilization, to the Maya cultural area, or to the Maya (or Maya-Quiche) linguistic stock.

            Furthermore, Maya life was controlled by religion, which was concerned with the passage of time and was based on astronomy. Each day was ruled by several gods, who determined whether events would be favorable or unfavorable. Priests made the necessary astronomical calculations for showing what gods were ruling at any given time. The priests also directed the building of temples and monuments (Gallenkamp, 2006). Ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice were common religious practices.

            This paper intent to: (1) know the history and civilization of Maya; (2) be familiar with its daily life and; (3) know the work of the Maya and their accomplishments.

II. Discussion

A. History

·         Ancient Period

            Area—the area of interest in dealing with the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization comprises the following regions: the whole territory of presently Guatemala and British Honduras, western Honduras, El Salvador, and in Mexico, the eastern parts of Chiapas and Tabasco, the states of Campache and Yucatan and the Territory of Quintana Roo. This geographical area coincides generally with the area of Maya speech at the time of discovery by Europeans.

            Two exceptions are nevertheless of importance. Although the Huaxtec (Huastec) speak the language which belongs to the Maya linguistic, they remain outside the pre-Hispanic Maya era. Archaeologists have proved that the Huaxtec separated from the linguistic relatives at early date (perhaps 1000 B.C., or even before), and that Huaxtec culture differs markedly from the other Maya cultures. In contrast, we must include in the Maya area the Pipil, who at the time of the conquest occupied the Pacific coast of Guatemala and El Salvador southeast to the Lempa River. The Pipil spoke Nahuat, a variety of the Nahuati language of central Mexico. Nevertheless, archeologists have proved that the history of the area inhabited by the Pipil is intimately related to the history of the Guatemalan highlands and western Honduras (Morris, 1999).

            Both from a geographic and a historical point of view, the Maya area may be divided into three parts: (1) a northern Maya area, which comprises the Yucatan Peninsula roughly north of parallel 18o 30’ N.; (2) a central Maya area, including the lowlands and foothills south of this line and north of the Chiapas-Guatemala highlands; (3) a southern Maya area, comprising the Chiapas-Guatemala highlands, the pacific coast of Guatemala, and El Salvador west of the Lempa River.

            Culturally, the Maya area formed the southern part of the larger cultural area which ethnologists call Meso-America, comprising central and southern Honduras, and El Salvador. Despite regional differences, the civilizations which flourished in this area in pre-Hispanic times shared a basically common culture, with roots in a formative stage of sedentary cultivation, the origins of which date back to before 1000 B.C. (Schele, 2000).

·         Classic Period

            From about 300 A.D. to about 900, a civilization flourished in the central area which was at one and the same time the most brilliant civilization of the Maya and one of the most outstanding of pre-Hispanic America. Sylvanus Griswold Morley called it the “Old Maya Empire.” This flowering is characterized by the following traits: great architectural development, and stone buildings roofed with corbelled vaults; temples on top of high pyramids (the highest is Temple IV at Tikal, height 229 feet); artistic climax in sculpture, painting and decorated pottery; hieroglyphic writing; advanced arithmetic, including the concept of completion or zero, and a positional notation of numbers; highly developed astronomy; complex calendrical calculations (Long Count); the stele cult; and deities not directly related to the powers of nature (Stierlin, 2001).

            These traits form what J. Eric S. Thompson has called “the Hierarchic culture.” They are traits of an urban culture, superimposed on the elements of a peasant culture, that is, on the complex of farming and supplementary food-producing activities, home industries, and a simpler religion directly concerned with the element forces of nature (Thompson’s “lay culture”). The complex calendrical calculations, the Long Count system of reckoning time, and the associated stele cult were some of the most original traits of the classic Maya civilization.

a)      Calendar

            The Long Count was the indispensable basis for complicated astronomical counts.  It served as a fixed system of reference for the other two calendars, the civil year of 365 days and the magic cycle (tzolkin) of 260 days. It is a count of days (or multiples of days) with an initial date going back to 3114 B.C., according to the most accepted correlation between this count and our own calendar. This initial date is without a doubt much earlier than the invention of the system. We are dealing here with a retroactive count. Scholars set the real beginning of the Long Count correspond to 320 A.D. The complexity of the astronomical calculations of the Maya is evident, if one considers that some of these calculations covered millions of years (Stuart, 2001).

b)     Steles

            The steles are memorials erected to mark the time intervals. Thompson maintains that they were not erected to commemorate individual deeds, but that they constitute impersonal markers of calendrical or astronomical events related to religious ideas. There are archaeological indications that these monuments were the objects of a real cult, and traits of this cult survive among the present-day Maya (Stierlin, 2001).

c)      Cultural Centers

            The main cultural centers of the classic Maya civilization seem to have been: Tikal (Department of Peten, Guatemala); Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico); and Copan (Honduras). Other sites are: Bonampak, Yaxchilian, and Piedras Negras, in the Usumacinta River drainage (Mexico-Guatemala); Uaxactun and Holmul (Peten Department, Guatemala); Calakmul (southern Campache, Mexico); San Jose (British Honduras); and Quirigua in the lower Motagua Valley (Guatemala).

            Some archeologists deny that these centers constituted real cities. They believe that their function was primarily religious, and that they were enormous sanctuaries with a small resident population formed by priests and their servants. For this reason, they prefer to call them ceremonial centers. If this were the main political and commercial centers of this civilization were located. Moreover, these so-called sanctuaries were very large; the ceremonial nucleus of the Tikal ruins covers an area of at least 220 acres. Along with other archeologists, the author believers that insufficient attention has been paid to the possible role of these centers as political and commercial capitals, to their urban extension, and to the size of their resident populations (Coe, 1999).

d)     Southern Area

            During the Classic period, close relations existed between the southern Maya area and central México. Between 300 A.D and 600, Kaminaljuyu served as a center of diffusion of central Mexican influences in the Guatemalan highlands down to Copan. The finds made by Alfred Vincent Kidder and his collaborators in the late 1930’s in the big tombs at Kaminaljuya clarified the nature of these relations between the Maya zone and Teotihuacan, the great metropolitan of the Valley of Mexico. Thompson found archaeological evidence along the pacific Coast which seems to indicate along the Pipil may have arrived in the area between 700 and 850 A.D. (Schele, 2000).

e)      Yucatan

            In the Yucatan Peninsula, the Oxkintok (Yucatan State) and Coba (Qiuntana Roo) belong to the classic period. A lintel found at Oxkintok showed a Long Count date corresponding to 475 A.D. Coba, the center of a system of causeways radiating to outlying sites flowered especially from about 600 A.D to about 750. One of its causeways is 62 miles long. Many of the famous archaeological sites of Yucatan, Campache, and Quintana Roo, such as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Edzna, Snata Rosa, Xlabpak, Rio Bee, Xpuhil, and theoldest buildings at Chichen Itza are dated from 600 A.D. to 1000 (Schele, 2000).

f)       Collapse

            This civilization collapsed suddenly, apparently at the peak of its flowering, without going through a well-defined period of decadence. Between 800 A.D and 900 or 950, one after another cities, or ceremonial centers, were abandoned. The cultural superstructure (Thompson’s “hierarchical culture”) disappeared, and only the peasant culture remained. It is probable that the population decreased markedly at this time, even in the rural areas (Morris, 1999).

            The causes of this crisis are unknown. Many different hypotheses have been advanced to explain it. Some of these are wholly fantastic. Those which seem most valid attribute the phenomenon to impoverishments of the soil, or to a rebellion of the peasants against the exploitation of the ruling group. Moreover, there is archeological evidence of warfare along the western and northern periphery of the central Maya area from 630 A.D. on. All these factors may have contributed, though it is important to note that whatever their nature, they were felt over a much wider territory than the central Maya area. Meso-America went through a general crisis during the 9th and 10th centuries (Morris, 1999).

·         Maya After 900 A.D.

            The centers of civilization which had flourished in Yacatan during the preceding period were similarly abandoned in the 10th century. This was nevertheless flowed by a period of cultural resurgence under Toltec influence. Morley called this period in the history of Yucatan until the Spanish conquest the “New Empire.” It begins with the invasion by the Itza, who were probably Chontal from Tabasco and southern Campache, strongly influenced by Toltec culture and perhaps led by Toltec chiefs. They established local dynasties in Yucatan, which associated in a kind of confederacy. Chichem Itza, settled by the Itza about 987, dominated the confederacy until 1204. A rebellion of the lords of Mayapan and Izamal then put an end to the supremacy of Chichen Itza. This was followed by a period in which the city of Mayapn was dominant, until a new rebellion brought this hegemony to an end about 1460. After the fall of Mayapan, Yucatan remained politically divided into some 18 independent warring lordships. Culturally, there is evidence of decadence from the fall of Chichen Itza on (Gallenkamp, 2006).

            In 1511, a dozen shipwrecked Spaniards reached shores of Yacutan. Most of them were sacrificed by the Maya. In 1517, the expedition of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba first explored the Yucatecan coast. After Francisco de Montejo had made two unsuccessful attempts to conquer Yucatan in 1527-1528 and 1531-1535, his son Francisco de Montejo the Younger finally made Yacatan a part of the Spanish realm in 1540-1546 (Gallenkamp, 2006).

·         Southern Area

            After the collapse of the Classic civilizations, Toltec invaders also reached the highlands of Guatemala in the southern Maya area. The invaders conquered the local population, and established dynasties which lasted until the Spanish conquest. The last centuries preceding the arrival of the Spaniards was characterized by continuous warfare. The Quiche and Cakehiquel were able to conquer a part of the rich coca-producing lands and held by the Man, the Tzutuhil, and the Pipil on the Pacific slopes of the highlands. Around 1500, the great Aztec conqueror Ahuitzotl waged a campaign in Chiapas, which resulted in the conquest of the Pacific coast and in the establishment of some garrisons in the establishment of some garrisons in the highlands. However, the Aztecs did not push beyond the present-day boundary between Mexico and Guatemala. In 1524, the Spanish captain Pedro de Alvarado conquered the southern Maya area (Henderson, 2003).

B. Life of the Maya

            As mentioned earlier that Maya Indians were short, stocky people. The people admired sloping foreheads, and flattened their babies’ heads with boards. Mothers dangled beads in front of their babies’ eyes so they would develop a squint. They may have done this to honor the sun god, who was represented as cross-eyed. The Maya spoke several dialects of the same language (Coe, 1999).

·         Daily Life

            Maya cities were centers for religious festivals, markets, and courts justice, but they had no permanent inhabitants. Priest lived in the cities only for short periods before great religious ceremonies. The people lived in single huts or small settlements of a few houses scattered throughout the countryside.

a)      Shelter

            The Maya built rectangular or oval huts with walls of poles, sometimes covered with mud. They thatched the roofs with palm leaves or grass. Most huts had a single room with wooden beds at one end and a hearth at the other. There were no windows, and smoke escaped through the roof. Until marriage, the boys and young men lived in separate men’s houses; somewhat like collage dormitories (Coe, 1999).

b)     Food

            Corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers formed the main Maya dishes. The people enjoyed stews and flay corncakes similar to Mexican tortillas of today. They rarely ate meat, because their only domestic animals were turkeys and dogs.

c)      Clothing

            Men wore loincloths with long ends hanging down in front and back. In cold weather, they wrapped themselves in blankets. Women wore tight skirts or long smocklike garments. Most clothes were made of cotton, often embroidered or painted with many-colored designs, and decorated with feather fringes. Some people wore clothes made of pounded tree bark, like the tapa cloth of the Polynesians. Priests and many Maya wore necklaces of seeds or beetle wings. They pierced their earlobes for large ornaments of jade, shell, obsidian, or wood (Coe, 1999).

d)     Recreation

            The Maya liked to dance, and did so on almost every religious or social occasion. Usually, only men danced and women were not allowed to watch. Almost every city had at least one ball through a high vertical stone ring with their knees or hips. Getting the ball through the ring was so difficult that the game ended as soon as one team scored.

D. Work of the Maya

·         Farming

            Almost all the Maya were farmers. They worked hard to clear land for their fields, cutting down trees with stone axes. They burned the felled trees and crush, and used digging sticks to plant seeds in the ashes. The Maya had no beasts of burden, but the thin soil would have made plows useless anyway. Their main crops included corn, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, cassava, cotton, tobacco, and cacao. The people let forests cover the cleared land after one or two seasons, because of the weeds and the poor soil. Manu families kept hives of stingless bees for their honey (Henderson, 2003).

·         Transportation and Trade

            In some areas—stone-surfaced roads—usually about 30 feet (9meters) wide, connected cities or parts of cities. The Maya had no wheeled vehicles, and probably used the roads for religious and civic possessions. Chiefs traveled and litters carried by slaves. Traders also used the roads; wherever possible they preferred water travel by camel. People of the lowlands traded jaguar pelts, feathers, copal incense, lime, flint knives, and edible heam and palm trees.

·         Government

            Little is known about the Maya system of government, especially in the early days. Each large city probably controlled the region around it, formerly a kind of city-state, somewhat like those of ancient Greece. One supreme chief ruled early city-state. The city-states may have united in federations (Henderson, 2003).

III. Conclusion

            In conclusion, archeological evidence indicates that the early development of Mayan culture was influenced by the nearby Olmec Indians. The Mays went on to create a brilliant civilization unsurpassed in North America before the Spanish conquest. They developed an advanced system of hieroglyphics (picture writing), a system of numbers that included zero, and an accurate calendar. Mayan astronomers calculated the movements of the moon and the sun. The Mayas were master architects of gigantic stone temples and produced fine carvings and painted murals. They wove textiles of cotton and made paper of tree bark.


Coe, Michael D. The Maya, 6th ed. Thames & Hudson, 1999. A brief illustrated survey of the Mayan civilization.
Gallenkamp, Charles. Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization. rev., 2006. Penguin. Summarizes discoveries and theories of Mayan decline.
Henderson, John S. The World of the Ancient Maya. Cornell, 2003. Chronicles achievements in science, art, architecture, social organization, and religion.
Morris, Walter F. Living Maya. Abrams, 1999. Beautifully illustrated portrait of the contemporary Maya, with special emphasis on weaving,
Schele, Linda, and Freidel, David. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. Morrow, 2000. Historical account based on Mayan primary sources.
Stierlin, Henri. The Art of the Maya: From the Olmecs to the Toltec-Maya. Macmillan, 2001. Explores pre-Columbian Maya art “in terms of the culture, religion and technology that gave birth to it” (introduction).
Stuart, George E., and Stuart, Gene S. The Mysterious Maya. National Geographic, 2001. Informal, illustrated survey combines personal narrative, descriptions, and knowledge of Mayan civilization

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