History of the Mayan Empire
MAYA, A History of The Mayans
The Maya of Mesoamerica, along with the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, made up the high civilizations of the American Indians at the time of the Spanish conquest. Both the Aztecs and the Incas were late empires (about AD 1300-1533), capstones of a sequence of civilizations in Central Mexico and the Andes in South America, respectively. But the Maya of Yucatan and Guatemala exhibited a cultural continuity spanning more than 2, 000 years (1000 BC-AD 1542), and many aspects of their culture continue to the present.
Mesoamerica had three major time periods: preclassic (2000 BC-AD 300), classic (300-900), and postclassic (900-1500). During the six centuries of the classic period the Mayan civilization flourished first in the forests of the Peten in Guatemala and adjacent areas-creating such cities as Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, and Palenque-and then in the semiarid scrublands of northern Yucatan-constructing such pilgrimage centers as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, Old Chichen, and Coba.
The post classic period in Yucatan was marked by the invasion of the Toltecs from Central Mexico and the establishment of their control at Chichen Itza (987-1200). Later the coastal trading town of Tulum grew in significance following the decline of military leagues led by Mayapan. Pyramids and temples were built in more than 40 cities, each with a population of about 20, 000 people. The Spanish conquest by Francisco de Montejo, whose house still stands on the central plaza in the capital of Merida, completed the downfall of the Mayan civilization in 1542.
Today more than 2 million Mayan Indians live in northern Yucatan and highland Guatemala in a style similar to that of the common people among their ancestors. Excavations at Dzibilchaltun near Merida revealed house sites from 1000BC that resemble today's huts in rural regions. The same style of construction-wattle-and-daub walls in an oval shape with a thatched roof of palmetto fronds and little furniture-serves the native Maya, who continue to resist racial mixing and the dilution of their culture.
The design of the native house from antiquity is reproduced in stone as a decorative art motif in the Puuc style at such sites as Uxmal and Labna (800- 1000). The Puuc style, named for a region of low limestone hills in northern Yucatan, is characterized by an unadorned lower level that contrasts sharply with an elaborately sculptured upper level. Examples are the Nunnery Quadrangle and the governor's palace. It is possible that the stone columns, or cylinders, also featured in this art style represent posts and wickerwork of the daub-and-wattle native huts.
The Mayan civilization in all stages-formative, flourishing, declining, and continuing-has been based on agriculture. Indian corn, or maize, was domesticated from a wild grass in central Mexico about 7, 000 years ago and sustained most sedentary Indian civilizations from that time.
In the humid Peten a surplus of water and rapid growth of trees and vines encouraged the slash-and-burn farming method. The farmer cleared the cornfield by cutting bushes and girdling the trees, usually near the end of the rainy season, allowing the piled brush to dry under the hot sun of the dry season. Then the wood was burned and the ashes scattered among the stumps. A mattock of stone or wood to scoop the earth into a hummock and a fire-hardened pointed stick to poke a hole for the seed were used.
The productivity of the corn farmer sustained the Mayan civilization. It is estimated that as many as 150 days a year were free from daily drudgery in the fields. This surplus time was utilized by the nobility and the priests in a stratified society to build the cities, pyramids, and temples. There was sufficient leisure to support skilled craftsmen in arts and crafts. The Mayan workers who constructed the great stone structures and decorated the walls with artistic embellishment, however, were unaided by draft animals and wheeled carts. The lords of the land oversaw civic matters, while the priests conducted religious rituals, pursued intellectual studies, and corrected the calendar.
Cities that flourished in the classic period in lowland Guatemala are exemplified by Tikal, which has pyramid-temples more than 200 feet (60 meters) high and numerous carved stelae as time markers and reign recorders. Then the Old Empire collapsed. The stable city-states, comparable to ancient Greece in cultural accomplishment and administrative acumen, faded from memory.
No one knows why the culture declined and the cities were covered by encroaching...