The Maya Civilization

The Maya were a Mesoamerican (Central American) people who lived in what is today Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Their history starts at about 2000 BC and goes to 1697. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya never formed an empire, and instead stayed split up into various states and tribes. However, the different Maya states shared a culture, language group, and religious beliefs, which makes them a unified civilization in the eyes of historians.

The Maya were a very advanced civilization in many ways. They developed a hieroglyphic writing system. They were excellent artists and craftsmen, and created sculptures out of jade and clay, and weapons out of obsidian. They were fantastic mathematicians and astronomers. They created the most accurate calendar in the world at the time. And they did all of this independently from Europe and Asia.

Their political structure was focused around kings and priests, and for them, the rule of law came from the gods, who had to be kept happy. They believed the best way to keep the gods happy was with human sacrifice, which they practiced often. Another way to appease the gods was to build enormous stone temples, which made the Maya into very good architects and stonemasons.

Around 500 BC they started building enormous stone complexes known as triadic structures. These triadic structures were made up of several tall pyramids surrounded by lower buildings, all built on large stone platforms. These were covered with stucco-or an outer layer of clay-which showed intricate scenes of the Maya gods. These structures were usually used as temples.

One of the largest cities in this time-period was El Mirador. This city had about 35 triadic structures. Archeologists have discovered that the people who built the city were very good urban planners. In fact, the whole city was planned from the ground up, instead of arising naturally over the years like many European cities. Many of the temples were set up in specific ways to align with the sun and stars. The city also had impressive stone causeways-or bridges-some of which were several miles long, and an advanced water-collection system. At its height in 300 BC, as many as 250,000 people lived in this city, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.

Around 150 AD, many Maya cities, including El Mirador, were abandoned completely, though archeologists don't know why. Over the next hundred years, power shifted between the different cities of the Maya, mostly through warfare and trade. The most powerful cities made smaller cities their vassals-in other words, they made the smaller cities pay them tribute and help them in wars. Wars were plentiful. The Maya cities fought against each other, and they also fought against the other civilizations in the area, such as the one based around the city of Teotihuacan, a long distance away.

Large parts of the Maya civilization collapsed again around 900 AD. Cities which had existed for over 2,000 years were abandoned and people moved towards the coast. The reason why is a great mystery to archeologists. The best theories are warfare, drought, disease, and political instability.

Despite not having enormous cities as before, the Maya were still a rich people with advanced trade, when the Spanish first met them in 1511. The Spanish first wiped out the Maya's neighbors, the Aztec Empire, in 1521, then moved on the Maya cities. They had conquered the northern half of the Maya lands within six years. The remaining Maya, who lived inland, coexisted with the Spanish uneasily for a hundred years before the Spanish captured the last independent Maya city in 1697. However, many isolated villages were left untouched by the colonists for many more years and preserved the culture.

A: A shared language
B: A shared culture
C: A shared religion
D: All the above

A: They invented a writing system
B: They developed mathematics and astronomy
C: They became great architects
D: All the above

A: By practicing human sacrifice
B: By going on pilgrimages
C: By converting people in distant lands
D: All the above

A: Stone complexes, which included pyramids, built by the Maya
B: Stone causeways built by the Maya
C: Advanced irrigation systems built by the Aztecs
D: Spanish colonial dwellings

A: Warfare
B: Drought
C: Disease
D: Possibly a combination of the above... archeologists are not sure

A: The Maya traded peacefully with the Spanish
B: The Maya were conquered by the Spanish
C: The Maya conquered the Spanish
D: The Maya fought a war against the Aztecs

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