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Unit 1 Lesson 7 Mayans Reading

(250-900 CE)
Around the time that Olmec society was vanishing the Mayan peoples in southern Mexico and
Guatemala were grouping together into kingdoms. Slash and burn agricultural techniques were used.
While this method of farming allowed for high crop production it also required a great deal of land.
After nutrients in soil were used up the field would need to be left fallow for at least two and sometimes
up to twenty years. The crop surplus that was created was enough to allow a nobility to become
established. Most Mayans had to work the land in order to provide for themselves and the few nobles
who were not farmers. This led to a very rigid class structure in Mayan society. There were farming
commoners, and there were nobles and royalty. One benefit of this class structure was that it led to a
relatively peaceful life. The common Mayan had no right to take up arms and go to war. This was a
strictly noble affair. The ability to profit or advance socially through valor on the battlefield simply did
not exist.
Perhaps the most important contributions of the Mayan culture were their intellectual
achievements. Many of these were tied directly to their religious practices. The Mayans believed that
time was the responsibility of the gods. Each day had a god that was responsible for it. The Mayans
formed a highly accurate solar calendar. There is only 1/4 of a day’s difference between the Mayan and
modern calendars. They also had a religious calendar which had 220 days and focused primarily on the
gods and their days. The two Mayan calendars worked together like gears. The combination of the two
calendars on any given day would determine the goodness or badness of that day for certain task like
planting, harvest, or governmental functions. Beyond the calendar, Mayan religion believed that the
universe had three planes: Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. Human sacrifice was a part of Mayan
religious practices as well.
The Mayans developed an 800 glyph alphabet. There were never more than 500 glyphs at use
at any one time though. Some symbols stood for words. Other glyphs stood simply for syllables. Glyphs
were recorded in codex books, but only three of these are known to have survived. Other works have
survived in greater numbers. The Popol Vuh is the Mayan story of creation. It survived via oral tradition
and was written down after the arrival of the Spanish. The beginning of the story reads, “Before the
world was created, Calm and Silence were the great kings that ruled. Nothing existed, there was
The Mayans made some important mathematical advances. It is believed that pre-classical
Mayans developed the mathematical concept of zero in 36 BCE. Their numerical system was based on
20 (our “decimal system” is based on 10), and numbers were counted using a series of dots and bars.
Large numbers have been found taking up the entire side of very large stones.
The Mayan Empire was made up of independent city states. Each city would have had its own
ruler. In the smaller cities this was not as grand, but in the large Mayan cities there were royal
complexes built in the middle of the city. The palace, the largest temples, the plaza, and the ball court
would have all been within this complex. Outside of this center area, Mayan cities seem to have had no
set urban plan. These larger cities have left behind impressive monuments. The most recognizable
Mayan artifact is the stepped pyramid. These huge structures were periodically rebuilt.
As with their Olmec predecessors, the Mayan civilization declined without a clearly identifiable
reason. Some historians suggest that warlike peoples from the north, the Toltec, moved into Mayan
territory. Even if they were not able to conquer the Mayas their presence might have caused the nature
of the culture to change. Others theorize that war among different groups of Mayas is to blame. Others
still suggest that over farming led to environmental damages and famine. Regardless of the reasons, by
the time the Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century the Mayan civilization was far from its impressive
peak. The Mayan Empire vanished, but the people did not. Mayas who live as a part of a distinct
culture can still exist today.