Ancient Mayan family life
From the contents of graves and burial caches, the architecture of ordinary houses, and scenes painted on pottery, people are learning what an average Maya day was like.
The typical Maya family (averaging five to seven members, archaeologists guess) probably arose before dawn to a breakfast of hot chocolate-or, if they weren't rich enough, a thick, hot corn drink called atole-and tortillas or tamales. The house was usually a one-room hut built of interwoven poles covered with dried mud. Meals of corn, squash and beans, supplemented with the occasional turkey or rabbit, were probably eaten on the run.
During the growing season, men would spend most of the day in the fields, while women usually stayed closer to home, weaving or sewing and preparing food. At the end of the day the family would reconvene at home, where the head of the household might perform a quick bloodletting, the central act of piety, accompanied by prayers and chanting to the ancestors. Days that were not devoted to agriculture might be spent building pyramids and temples.
In exchange for their toil, the people expected to attend royal marriages and ceremonies marking important astrological and calendrical events. At these occasions the king might perform a bloodletting, sacrifice a captive or preside over a ball game-the losers to be beheaded, or sometimes tied in a ball and bounced down the stone steps of a pyramid. Like modern-day hot-dog vendors, craftsmen and farmers might show up for these games to set up stands and barter for pots, cacao and beads.
The Maya also had a highly developed-and to modern eyes, highly bizarre-aesthetic sense. "Slightly crossed eyes were held in great esteem, " writes Yale anthropologist Michael Coe in his book The Maya. "Parents attempted to induce the condition by hanging small beads over the noses of their children." The Maya also seemed to go in for shaping their children's skulls: they liked to flatten them (although this may have simply been the inadvertent result of strapping babies to cradle boards) or squeeze them into a cone. Some Mayanists speculate that the conehead effect was the result of trying to approximate the shape of an ear of corn.
The Maya filed their teeth (it's unclear whether they used an anesthetic), sometimes into a T shape and sometimes to a point. They also inlaid their teeth with small, round plaques of jade or pyrite. According to Coe, young men painted themselves black until marriage and later engaged in ritual tattooing and scarring.
Information about the Maya has come not just from physical objects but also from the elaborate hieroglyphics they left behind. Indeed, the study of Maya writing has become a coequal-and sometimes competitive-path of inquiry. For some reason it has attracted more than its share of amateurs. In the early 1970s, "discoveries came at the pace of a raging prairie fire, " writes Coe in his latest book, Breaking the Maya Code. Former University of South Alabama art teacher Linda Schele burst into the epigraphical world. On a 1970 visit to Mexico, she was mesmerized by the ruins at Palenque. Three years later, she was accomplished enough to collaborate with two others in a mind-boggling feat of decipherment: during a conference at modern Palenque, the trio took a mere 2 1/2 hours to decode the history of Palenque and its rulers from the beginning of the 7th century to its fall around the late 8th century-and got it right.
How was this possible? Because, say the professionals, deciphering glyphs depends as much on intuition and instinct as it does on knowledge of a given writing system. Insight can strike like lightning. Says Schele, now an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin: "These moments of clarity are just extraordinary. The greatest thrills of my career came in those moments when the inscription becomes clear and we suddenly understand the humans who created this legacy for the first time."
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All About Survival
As with all ancient civilizations, Mayan life focused on the production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, squash, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes and other plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes and digging sticks. They also hunted peccary, which is like a pig, and deer with bows, arrows and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian and rabbits and dogs with nets. They fished for shellfish, larger fish, and sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell and bone.
Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt. Tortillas were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a comal, a clay disk. Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as they were in pre-Columbian times. Chilies and tomatoes, used for making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was club-shaped.
They usually buried their dead in the ground or under the floors of their houses, though sometimes corpses were cremated, buried in caves or interred in urns. The rich were buried in elaborate tombs with many household articles, giving later archeologists much insight into their culture.
The Maya were quite well educated, with advanced writing and astronomical systems. They used a hieroglyphic writing system to keep written records. Four of their codices, collections of hieroglyphic symbols written on paper, cloth or animal skinsimilar in function to a modern book, survive. They also developed a counting system based on the number twenty and a calendar. Great observatories, such as El Caracol at Chichen Itza, were used to study the stars.
Attire denoted rank in Mayan society, as only the wealthy were able to afford elaborate costumes. Only nobles were allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky. A jaguar helmet was a warrior's insignia and his protection.
Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells. Flutes, ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were employed widely.
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