Mayans (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 nothing.” 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.