What was the Mayan culture?

We explain what the Mayan culture was, its location, history, economy and other characteristics. In addition, what remained of its architecture.

  1. What was the Mayan culture?

It is known as the Mayan culture or Mayan civilization to all the pre-Columbian peoples that ruled Mesoamerica for 18 centuries , from the Preclassic Era (2000 BC – 250 AD) of the continent, until the Postclassic Era (900-1527 AD. .), when the Conquest of America occurred.

It was one of the most prominent civilizations in the entire native America . They left behind an important set of ruins and a cultural legacy that inspired later cultures , part of which still survives.

The Maya are celebrated for different aspects of their advanced culture. For example, they invented the only complete writing system in pre-Columbian America , and developed their own knowledge in artistic, architectural , mathematical , astronomical and ecological matters . Among other things, they are credited with the invention of zero .

For all these reasons, during their heyday they were the dominant culture of the entire region. They controlled much of the Mesoamerican territory and maintained dynamic relations of exchange with other neighboring cultures, such as the Olmecs or the Mixtecs.

Other cultures:

Teotihuacan culture Aztec culture
Olmec culture Greek culture
  1. Geographical location of the Maya

cultura maya imperio mapa
The Mayan culture spread to a third of the Mesoamerican region.

The Maya were a Mesoamerican people, that is, they flourished in the Mesoamerican cultural area, one of the six cradles of human civilization on our planet. This region extends from the current center of Mexico to Central America.

The Maya came to cover southeastern Mexico, all of Yucatan, Guatemala and Belize, the western region of the current territories of El Salvador and Honduras . They knew the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Coast and the Pacific Ocean. In other words, they controlled approximately one third of the total extent of Mesoamerica.

  1. Mayan culture history

cultura maya uxmal periodo clasico
In the classical period large ceremonial centers such as Uxmal were developed.

The history of the Mayan culture lasts almost 3500 years. Its first villages emerged almost 4,000 years ago , and its disappearance as an independent culture occurs because of its encounter with the European conquerors. All this is usually organized in three large periods, which are:

  • Preclassic period (2000 BC to 250 AD) . There are the first vestiges of the Mayan people and their first settlements along the Pacific strip and then the Atlantic. Slowly these become the first major cities in the region: Nakbé, Tikal, Dzibilchaltún, Xicalango, among others. This period is divided into three subperiods: Early Preclassic (2,000-1,000 BC), Middle Preclassic (1,000-350 BC) and Late Preclassic (350 BC-250 AD); in the latter, the first cultural flourishing of the Maya took place, and towards the 1st century AD. C., his first collapse. Many of its large cities were then abandoned, for reasons unknown until now.
  • Classic Period (250-900 AD) . In this period there is a renaissance of the Mayan culture, only comparable to the one that Europe lived after the Middle Ages , or perhaps the flowering of the Greece of Antiquity . In that sense, large ceremonial centers such as Chichen-Itza and Uxmal emerged. It is also a period of great and bloody wars, which allowed the rise and fall of various monarchical systems. Eventually, this led to a great new political collapse, the abandonment of cities in favor of the northern regions of Mexico, and an impoverishment that is still difficult to explain today. This period, in turn, contains three sub-periods: Early Classic (250-550 AD), Late Classic (550-830 AD) and Terminal Classic (830-950 AD).
  • Postclassic Period (950 to 1539 AD) . Significant vestiges of the formerly vast Mayan culture persisted after the fall in cities located in high territories, or near water sources , with an organization that recognized different Mayan states ruled by a council of kings. That until the arrival of the Spanish invaders, because being so weakened by their struggling intestines, the Mayan people could not cope with the conquest and were colonized by European culture.
  1. General characteristics of the Mayan culture

cultura maya caracteristicas arte jade
In the Mayan culture, work on stones such as jade was developed.

Like many other human civilizations, the Maya was established from the abandonment of nomadism and the development of agriculture , whose products constituted for centuries the foundation of the Mayan diet: corn, beans, squash and chili.

Its first cities emerged around 750 BC. C. , and around 500 a. C. they had already reached monumental architectural proportions, especially in their great temples and ceremonial centers. During its flowering, its city-states covered huge areas of influence and connected with each other through complex trade networks .

His artistic forms were sophisticated and left lasting traces, in which jade, wood, obsidian, ceramics and carved stone were abundantly used.

The Mayans spoke a diverse language, derived from the ancestral protomaya in a set of Mayan languages, each different depending on the kingdom in which it was spoken. Thus, there was a Huastecan, Quicheana, Mameana language, etc. Most of the Mayan texts, however, from the classical period, were written in classical Choltí.

  1. Mayan Religion

The Mayan religion shared traits with much of the rest of Mesoamerica. They believed in a spiritual plane inhabited by powerful deities. Their gods were to be placated through ritual practices , human sacrifices and ceremonial offerings.

Before them, the deceased ancestors themselves and the shamans served as intermediaries. That is why the Maya buried their dead under the floors of their houses , in the middle of the corresponding offerings, according to their social status.

The Mayan worldview was highly elaborate: it contemplated 13 levels in the sky and nine in the underworld, and between the two was the world of the living . In turn, each level consisted of four cardinal points, each associated with a distinctive color, and to which certain aspects of the main deities of its pantheon were associated.

For the rest, religion was in the hands of the priests, a closed group whose members came from the elite of society. During the Classic Period, the high priest and conductor of society began to emerge among them , who also served as ruler.

  1. Mayan economy

cultura maya economia salar
They controlled access to natural resources, such as the Las Coloradas salar.

Although the basis of the Mayan livelihood was agricultural, trade played a fundamental role in their civilization, and in their contact with the other surrounding villages. The largest and most important cities controlled access to key resources , such as obsidian mines, salt sources, and even slave trade in the Mesoamerican region .

In fact, the Maya of Tabasco built an extensive river exchange network, which made them the largest merchants in their region and their period. Elements of typical Mayan invoice could be found in distant cities of Nicaragua and Honduras, so they were transported and marketed in some way.

This activity was so fundamental for the Mayan economy, that even after the conquest it continued to be carried out marginally.

  1. Social and political organization of the Mayan culture

cultura maya guerra
Mayan architecture shows the centrality of war in its culture.

Mayan society was divided, in its beginnings, between a dominant elite and a mass of commoners . This order was sustained by military force and religious tradition. But the sustained growth of the Mayan states led to the emergence of more complex economic and political classes.

Therefore, he later distinguished himself among low-ranking priests, soldiers, artisans, officials, peasantry and servitude , or slaves captured from other neighboring cultures.

Unlike the Aztecs or the Incas, the Maya did not form a central political system , that is, a single state or kingdom. Instead, they preferred the coexistence of different states and cacicazgos, which eventually reached a temporary regional domain.

However, their governments always consisted of variants of the theocratic monarchy , that is, of a king imposed by divine will, chosen from a political elite. Therefore, intrigues and alliances between castes were a frequent and controversial issue.

In addition, the Maya were regular warriors and faced numerous political and military conflicts throughout their history. Partly because the different Mayan kingdoms competed with each other for regional dominance.

On the other hand, the war culture was central to the conception of the Mayan world: humiliation or physical sacrifice of defeated warriors were common practices, as well as rewarding victorious warriors with parts of the body of the fallen. His favorite weapons were always the blowguns, the obsidian swords and especially the atlatl , a kind of long spears.

  1. Vestimenta maya

The Mayan costumes were simple, with a predominance of cotton and long fabrics , such as skirts, for women. For their part, the men wore a kind of underwear called “pati”, which left the torso exposed.

The nobility adorned their outfits with embroidered stones and colorful feathers . In addition, they wore headdresses, belts and other luxurious accessories that served to differentiate them from the lower social classes .

  1. Arquitectura maya

cultura maya juego de pelota honduras arquitectura
Among the Mayan architecture for ritual purposes, the fields for the ball game stand out.

The Maya left behind an important architectural work, one of the largest in the premodern world. They built palaces, pyramidal temples, ceremonial and sports spaces . In addition, they developed structures specifically aligned for astronomical observation.

However, in their cities there was no formal urban design. In fact, populations grew irregularly, from the outside to the Interior. In the center of the cities were the administrative and ceremonial buildings , surrounded by residential buildings.

Its buildings used Neolithic technology, with stone and perishable materials. Through masonry techniques they could take advantage of the elements available around.

  1. Escritura maya

cultura maya escritura
The Maya developed a complex system of hieroglyphic writing.

Mayan writing was a complete system of hieroglyphic writing , the only one in all of pre-Columbian America, whose first indications are estimated between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. C. , in the coastal region of present-day Guatemala.

It is very similar to Mesoamerican isthmic writing (consisting of logograms), so it is possible that they arose in parallel. The Maya used this spelling to label vessels, murals and steles, for both practical, ritual and religious purposes.

  1. Astronomía en la cultura maya

Another important Mayan legacy has to do with his meticulousness when contemplating the sky and recording his astronomical observations around the Sun, the Moon, Venus and the stars.

According to their belief, divination tools could be obtained from the sky. In other words, the priests contemplated past astronomical cycles and linked them with events that could be repeated, thus formulating prophecies.

Although they did not have a clear scientific intention, the Maya managed to measure the Venus cycle of 584 days with a margin of error of just two hours, since they also had a portentous grasp of mathematics.

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