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The Mayan civilization. Short description

Geographical location and natural conditions

The Maya peoples inhabited the territories:

  • in the west – from the Mexican state of Tabasco,
  • in the east-to the western outskirts of Honduras and El Salvador.

This area is divided into three distinct climatic and cultural-historical areas.

  1. North-the Yucatan Peninsula formed by a limestone platform-is characterized by an arid climate, poor soil and lack of rivers. The only sources of fresh water are karst wells (cenotes).
  2. The central region covers the Mexican states of Tabasco, parts of Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo, as well as Belize and the Guatemalan Department of Peten. This area consists of lowlands abounding in natural reservoirs and crossed by large rivers Usumacinta, Motagua, etc. The territory is covered with tropical rainforests with a diverse fauna, a rich selection of edible fruits and plants. Here, as in the north, there are practically no minerals.
  3. The Southern region includes mountain ranges up to 4000 m high. Chiapas and the Guatemalan Highlands. The territory is covered with coniferous forests and has a temperate climate. Here you can find various minerals-jadeite, jade, obsidian, pyrite, cinnabar, valued by the Maya and served as trade items.

The climate of all regions is characterized by a change in the dry and rainy seasons, which requires accurate determination of the sowing time, which is impossible without the development of astronomical knowledge and a calendar. The fauna is represented by ungulates (peccaries, tapirs, and deer), feline predators, raccoons, hares, and reptiles.

History of the Mayan civilization

Periodization of Mayan history

  • …-1500 BC-Archaic period
  • 1500-800 BC — Early formative period
  • 800-300 BC-Middle Formative period
  • 300 BC-150 AD-Late Formative period
  • 150-300-Proto-classical period
  • 300-600 years. — Early Classical
  • 600-900 years. – Late Classical
  • 900-1200 years. — Early postclassic
  • 1200-1530. — Late postclassic

The problem of settling the Maya region is still far from a final solution. Some evidence suggests that the Proto-Maya came from the north, moving along the Gulf Coast, displacing or mixing with the local population. Between 2000-1500 BC, they began to settle throughout the zone, breaking up into different language groups.

Palace No. 1. Tikal city. Guatemala.

Palace No. 1. Tikal city. Guatemala.

In the VI-IV centuries BC, the first urban centers appeared in the Central Region (Nakbe, El Mirador, Tikal, Vashaktun), which were distinguished by their monumental buildings. During this period, the urban layout takes on a characteristic Mayan appearance-an articulation of independent, astronomically oriented acropolises adapted to the terrain, representing a rectangular area surrounded by temple and palace buildings on platforms. The early Mayan cities formally continued to preserve the rodofratrial structure.

The classical period — I (III) – X centuries AD— was the time of the final formation and flourishing of the Mayan culture. Throughout the Maya territory, urban centers with subordinate territories of the city-state are emerging. As a rule, cities in these territories were no further than 30 km away from the center, which is probably due to communication problems due to the lack of draft animals in the region. The population of the largest city-states (Tikal, Kalakmul, Karakol) reached 50-70 thousand people. The rulers of the larger kingdoms were called Ahab, and their subordinate centers were governed by local rulers-the Sahals. The latter were not appointed officials, but came from local ruling families. There was also a complex palace hierarchy: scribes, officials, masters of ceremonies, etc.

Despite the changing structure of social relations, power in the city-states was transferred according to the tribal scheme, which found its expression in the magnificent cult of deified royal ancestors, in addition, power could also belong to women. Since acropolises and Mayan cities were “genetic” in nature and were associated only with specific representatives of one kind or another, this was the reason for the periodic desolation of individual acropolises and the final “abandonment” of Mayan cities in the tenth century, when the invading invaders destroyed the elite representatives related by blood to the ancestors buried within the acropolises (pyramids). Without this connection, the acropolis lost its significance as a symbol of power.

Social structure

Evidence of the trend towards centralization of power in the third and tenth centuries is the usurpation of ritual ball games by the rulers of metropolitan centers, which dates back to the times of intra-tribal rotation of power and collective decision-making. The aristocracy concentrates in their hands the trade in valuable items, cocoa beans and minerals used for making jewelry and handicrafts, such as obsidian, jadeite, etc. Trade routes ran both on land, along rivers and seas, going far into foreign territories.

Hieroglyphic texts mention priests who were divided into

  • priests-ideologues,
  • priest-astronomers,
  • “seers” and
  • diviners.

Psychedelic practices were used for divination.

Detail of a sacred fresco from San Bartolo (Guatemala). Ca. 150 BC Painting, depicts the birth of the cosmos and proves the divine right of the ruler.

Detail of a sacred fresco from San Bartolo (Guatemala). Ca. 150 BC Painting, depicts the birth of the cosmos and proves the divine right of the ruler.

The basis of the society was made up of free community members who settled in family households, sometimes near cities, and sometimes at a considerable distance from them, which is associated with the nature of land use and the need to change (due to reduced yields) every 4 years the sown plots cultivated by the family.

In their free time from sowing and harvesting, community members participated in public works and military campaigns. Only in the postclassic period did a special stratum of semi-professional Holkan warriors begin to stand out, demanding “services and offerings”from the community.

Maya texts often mention military leaders. Wars were of the nature of short-term raids to ruin the enemy and sometimes capture prisoners. Wars in the region were constantly waged and contributed to the restructuring of political power, strengthening some cities while weakening and subjugating others. There is no evidence of slavery in the classical Maya. If slaves were used at all, they were used as domestic servants.

There is no information about the Mayan legal system.

The crisis of the X century — political and cultural perestroika

By the tenth century, active migrations began in the Central Region, with a sharp, 3-6-fold decrease in the population. Urban centers are falling into disrepair, and political life freezes. Construction is almost nonexistent. Guidelines in ideology and art are changing — the cult of royal ancestors loses its primary importance, while the justification of the ruler’s power becomes the origin of the legendary “Toltec conquerors”.

In Yucatan, the crisis of the late classical period did not lead to a decline in population and the fall of cities. In some cases, hegemony passes from the old, classical centers to the new ones. The processes of social and political change following the destruction of the traditional Maya system of city government by the Toltecs are observed in the Postclassic period in such cities as

  • Chichen Itza of the Toltecs in the X-XIII centuries.;
  • Mayapan during the reign of the Kokoms in the XIII-XV centuries.;
  • postclassic Mani, which in the XVI century was subordinated to 17 towns and villages.

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the south-east of Yucatan, the state of Acalan (Maya-chontal) was formed, where the capital city of Itzamkanak with its subordinate 76 cities and villages was already distinguished. It has an administration, temples, 100 houses made of stone, 4 blocks with their patrons and their temples, a council of quarter heads.

Confederations of cities with their own capital became a new type of political-territorial entity that controlled the political, administrative, religious, and scientific spheres of life. In the spiritual sphere, the concept of reincarnation goes into the realm of religious abstraction, which allows cities (emerging capitals) to retain their functions even after the change of power. Internecine wars are becoming the norm, and the city is acquiring defensive characteristics. At the same time, the territory is growing, and the control and protection system is becoming more complex.

The Yucatan Maya had a slave trade, and the slave trade was developed. Slaves were used for carrying heavy loads and housework, but more often purchased for sacrifice.

In mountainous Guatemala, with the onset of the postclassic period, the “Maya-Toltec style” is spreading. Obviously, the permeated bio-cultural groups were, as in Yucatan, assimilated by the local population. As a result, a confederation of 4 Mayan tribes was formed — the Cacchiquel, Quiche, Tsutihil and Rabinal, which in the XIII-XIV centuries subordinated various Maya and Nahuatl – speaking tribes of mountainous Guatemala. As a result of civil strife, the confederacy soon collapsed, almost simultaneously with the invasion of the Aztecs and the arrival of the Spanish in the early sixteenth century.

Economic activity

The Maya practiced extensive slash-and-burn agriculture with a regular change of plots. The main crop was maize and beans, which formed the basis of the diet. Of particular value were cocoa beans, which were also used as an exchange unit. They grew cotton. The Maya had no domestic animals, except for a special breed of dog, sometimes used for food, from poultry — turkeys. The function of a cat was performed by nosukha, a type of raccoon.

In the classical period, the Maya actively used irrigation and other methods of intensive agriculture, in particular, “raised fields” similar to the famous Aztec chinampas: artificial mounds were created in the river valleys, which rose above the water during floods and retained silt, which significantly increased fertility. To increase the yield, the plot was simultaneously sown with maize and legumes, which created the effect of fertilizing the soil. Fruit trees were planted near the dwelling, chili pepper, which is an important component of the food diet of the Indians.

Land ownership continued to be communal. The institution of dependent population was poorly developed. The main area of its application could be plantations of perennial crops-cocoa, fruit trees that were privately owned.

Culture of the Mayan civilization

Scientific knowledge and writing

The Maya developed a complex picture of the world, which was based on the idea of reincarnation and the endless alternation of cycles of the universe. For their constructions, they used precise mathematical and astronomical knowledge, combining the cycles of the Moon, Sun, planets and the time of the precessional rotation of the Earth.

The complexity of the scientific picture of the world required the development of a written system based on the Olmec one. Mayan writing was phonetic, morphemic-syllabic, involving the simultaneous use of about 400 characters. One of the earliest inscriptions — 292 AD-is found on the Tikal stele (No. 29). Most of the texts were printed on monumental monuments or small plastic objects. A special source is the texts on ceramic vessels.

Mayan Books

Only 4 Mayan manuscripts have survived — “codices”, which represent long strips of paper made of ficus bark (“Indian paper”) folded in an accordion (pages), dating back to the postclassic period, obviously copied from older samples. Regular copying of books was probably practiced in the region since ancient times and was associated with the difficulties of storing manuscripts in a humid, hot climate.

The Dresden manuscript is a strip of” Indian paper ” 3.5 m long, 20.5 cm high, folded into 39 pages. It was created earlier than the 13th century in Yucatan, from where it was taken to Spain as a gift to Emperor Charles V, from whom it came to Vienna, where in 1739 it was purchased by the librarian Johann Christian Goetze from an unknown private person for the Dresden Royal Library.

The Paris manuscript is a strip of paper with a total length of 1.45 m and a height of 12 cm, folded into 11 pages, of which the initial ones are completely erased. The manuscript belongs to the period of the Cocom dynasty in Yucatan (XIII-XV centuries). In 1832, it was acquired by the Paris National Library (stored here today).

The Madrid manuscript was written no earlier than the 15th century. It consists of two fragments without beginning and end of “Indian paper” with a height of 13 cm, a total length of 7.15 m, folded into 56 pages. The first part was purchased in Extremadura by Jose Ignacio Miro in 1875. Since it was suggested that it once belonged to the conqueror of Mexico Cortes, hence its name – “Codex Cortes”, or Cortesian. The second fragment was purchased in 1869 by Brasseur de Bourbourg from Don Juan Tro y Ortolano and was named Ortolan. The pieces joined together became known as the Madrid Manuscript, and it has been preserved in the Museo de la Americas in Madrid ever since.

Grolier’s manuscript was in a private collection in New York. These are rather fragments of 11 pages without beginning or end, dating back to the XIII century. Apparently, this Mayan manuscript, whose origin is unknown, was composed under strong Mixtec influence. This is evidenced by the specific recording of numbers and features of images.

Texts on Mayan ceramic vessels are called “clay books”. The texts reflect almost all aspects of the life of ancient society-from everyday life to complex religious ideas.

The decoding of the Mayan letter was carried out in the 50s of the XX century by Yu. V. Knorozov on the basis of the method of positional statistics developed by him.


Maya architecture reaches its peak during the classical period: ceremonial complexes, conventionally called acropolises, with pyramids, palace structures and ball stadiums are being actively erected. The buildings were grouped around a central rectangular square. Buildings were built on massive platforms. During construction, a “false vault” was used — the space between the masonry roof gradually narrowed up until the walls of the vault closed. The roof was often crowned with massive ridges decorated with stucco. The construction technique could be different — from masonry to concrete-like mass and even bricks. Buildings were often painted red.

There are two main types of buildings — palaces and temples on pyramids. Palaces were long, usually one-story buildings that stood on platforms, sometimes multi-tiered. At the same time, the passage through the enfilades of rooms resembled a maze. There were no windows, and the only light came through doorways and special air vents. It is possible that the palace buildings were identified with long passages of caves. Almost the only example of buildings with several floors is the Palenque palace complex, which also has a tower.

Temples were placed on pyramids, the height of which sometimes reached 50-60 m. There were multi-stage staircases leading up to the temple. The pyramid represented the mountain in which the legendary cave of the great-ancestors was located. Therefore, an elite burial site could also be located here-sometimes under the pyramid, sometimes in its thickness, and more often just under the floor of the temple. In some cases, the pyramid was built directly above a natural cave. The structure on top of the pyramid, conventionally called a temple, did not have the aesthetics of an internal very limited space. The doorway and the bench placed against the wall opposite this opening were of functional importance. The temple served only as a sign of the exit from the cave of the great-ancestors, as evidenced by its external decoration and sometimes the connection with intra-pyramidal burial chambers.

In the postclassic period, a new type of square and structures appears. The ensemble is formed around a pyramid. Covered galleries with columns are being built on the sides of the square. In the center is a small ceremonial platform. There are platforms for risers with poles covered with skulls. The structures themselves are significantly reduced in size, sometimes not corresponding to human growth.


The friezes of buildings and massive roof ridges were covered with stucco from lime mortar-a piece. The lintels of the temples and the stelae and altars erected at the foot of the pyramids were covered with carvings and inscriptions. In most areas, they were limited to the technique of relief, only in Copan did round sculpture become widespread. They depicted palace and battle scenes, rituals, disguises of deities, etc. Like buildings, inscriptions and monuments were usually painted.

The Mayan stelae also belong to the monumental sculpture-flat, about 2 m high monoliths covered with carvings or paintings. The highest stelae reach 10 m. Stelae are usually associated with altars — round or rectangular stones placed in front of the stelae. Stelae with altars were an improvement of Olmec monuments and served to convey the three-level space of the universe: the altar symbolized the lower level-the transition between worlds, the middle level was occupied by the image of events occurring with a specific character, and the upper level symbolized the rebirth of a new life. In the absence of an altar, the plot depicted on it was compensated by the appearance on the stele of a lower, “cave” level, or a relief niche, inside which the main image was placed. In some cities, roughly rounded flat altars laid on the ground in front of a stele, or stone figurative images of reptiles, such as in Kopan, became very common.

The texts on the stelae could be dedicated to historical events, but most often they were of a calendar nature, marking the periods of the reign of a particular ruler.


Works of monumental painting were created on the inner walls of buildings, burial chambers. The paint was applied either on wet plaster (fresco), or on dry ground. The main theme of the murals is mass scenes of battles, celebrations, etc. The most famous paintings are Bonampac-buildings consisting of three rooms, the walls and ceilings of which are completely covered with paintings dedicated to the victory in military operations. The Mayan fine art includes polychrome painting on ceramics, which is characterized by a great variety of subjects, as well as drawings in “codices”.

Dramatic art

Maya dramatic art emerged directly from religious ceremonies. The only extant work is the drama Rabinal Achi, recorded in the 19th century. The plot is based on the capture of a Kiche warrior by soldiers of the Rabinal community. The action develops in the form of a kind of dialogue between the prisoner and other main characters. The main poetic technique is rhythmic repetition, traditional for oral Native American folklore: the participant in the dialogue repeats the phrase spoken by his opponent, and then pronounces his own. Historical events-Rabinal’s wars with the Kiche-are superimposed on a mythological basis-the legend of the abduction of the goddess of water-the wife of the old rain god. The drama ended with the realsacrifice of the main character. Information about the existence of other dramatic works, as well as comedies, has reached us.

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