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Who are the Mayans?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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As one of the best examples of indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans are often credited with being one of the most advanced of all cultures found in the Americas. Although many historians believe that they were the first culture in the New World to use a fully developed written language, as well as being innovators in art, architecture, and the sciences of mathematics and astronomy, the Mayan people were not necessarily known as inventors. Instead, this culture seemed to promote the application of the creations of the other cultures in the area and find ways to improve upon those basic developments. From this perspective, the influence of the Maya can be found in many places around Mexico and other parts of Central America, with artifacts that originated with them being found as far away as central Mexico.

Geographically, the Mayan city states tended to be formed with a government structure that allowed a great deal of individual governance of the municipalities, rather than some sort of strong central structure. The main connections between the population centers appear to have been cultural rather than political. Strongholds have been found in a number of the southern Mexican states, as well as in present day Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Sometimes referred to as the Maya area, this large expanse covers a wide range of climate conditions, from mountain ranges to semi-arid plains.

Mayan history is normally divided into three great periods. The Preclassic period involves the first signs of them as a distinct people. Permanent settlements that date back to roughly 1800 BCE have been found along the Pacific coast. During this time, there is evidence of the development of some degree of manufacturing and an interest in art. A number of examples of Mayan pottery and clay figures that were fired in primitive kilns have survived to this day. There are also some indications that the process of using buildings as a means of recording history also began to develop during this time. Public ceremonial rites, especially in relation to the creation of burial rites for the dead, also appear to have their origins in the Preclassic period.

The Classic Period is usually dated from 250 to 900 in the Common Era. During this time, the culture began to develop urban centers that were more focused on the pursuit of artistic and intellectual development. Written documents from the time frame demonstrate a highly developed method of communication among this people. Engineering feats also are normally associated with the Classic Period, such as the construction of pyramids in the city-states. There also appears to be the development of a desire to preserve personal and cultural histories as well, and carved slabs of stone that are known as stelae have survived that use hieroglyphics to tell the stories and lineage of important rulers of the time, as well as preserve the stories of their conquests in battle.

Toward the end of the Classic Period, the structure of Mayan society began to undergo a change. Settlements in the southern lowlands began to shrink and were eventually abandoned. Architecture began to appear that featured plain facades, rather than carrying the ornate inscriptions of centuries past. In fact, building in general took on more of a utilitarian emphasis, with few if any grand structures appearing in the 8th or 9th centuries.

During the Postclassic period, the Mayan people continued to flourish in the northern sections of the area. The establishment of new settlements usually meant that straight walls, flat ceilings, and simple lines characterized the construction of the buildings. While the earlier interest in art continued to be present, as well as in language and writing, most of the bursts of creativity from earlier periods had ceased. Assimilation with other cultures weakened some of the Mayan culture as well, although several city states retained a distinct flavor well into the 16th century. Only after almost two centuries of efforts by Spanish conquistadors would the final remnants of this culture be brought under control of an outside power in 1697.

Today, the legacy of the Mayans lives on in several ways. Many members of the rural populations in Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatan Peninsula are descendents of this culture, and use one of its dialects as their primary verbal language. A great deal of the culture remains evident today in these areas, found in a form that has been integrated with post-Conquest ideologies, such as Roman Catholicism. Today, the history and contributions of the Mayans is perhaps more appreciated than in previous years, with many sociologists and historians finally giving this people the attention they have long deserved.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including PublicPeople, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By ysmina — On Feb 15, 2011

@burcidi-- Mayan religion was polytheistic, they had multiple gods that represented different things. It wouldn't be right to say it was similar to one religion today, but it did have some similar characteristics to other polytheistic religions such as Hinduism. Rulers were given prophet like importance, mayan sculptures were used to represent the different qualities of the gods. They believed in heaven and hell but much differently than Christianity, Judaism or Islam. They also believed in auspiciousness of particular days and times and carried out their activities accordingly.

By burcidi — On Feb 13, 2011

What do we know about Mayan's religion? Was it similar to any of the world religions today?

By fify — On Feb 12, 2011

Mayan calendars marking 2012 as the final year of humanity has gotten so much attention that even though most of us don't know anything about the Mayans, we believe it. I've heard experts talking about Mayan monuments and scriptures that mention the year 2012 and a significant event which will take place. Some astrologers are claiming that the date 12 December 2012 is going to be the end of time.

But I've also heard that there were multiple Mayan calendars and their perception of time was that it was circular. In addition, there is nothing specifically written in Mayan scriptures about what will happen on this date. There is just so much contrasting commentary out there that I'm not sure what to believe. I guess we can say that we don't know whether something will happen in 2012 or not.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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