Maya Civilization

Geography and Landscape

The ancient Maya civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The topography of the area greatly varied from volcanic mountains, which comprised the highlands in the South, to a porous limestone shelf, known as the Lowlands, in the central and northern regions. The southern portion of the Lowlands were covered by a rain forest with an average height of about 150 feet. Scattered savannas and swamps, or bajos, appeared sporadically, interrupting the dense forests. The northern Lowlands were also comprised of forests but they were drier than their southern counterparts, mainly growing small thorny trees. February to May was the dry season characterized by air that was intensely hot and uncomfortable. At this time of year, the fields had recently been cut and had to be burned in accordance with their slash and burn form of agriculture. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air even more unbearable until the rains came in late May to clear the murky atmosphere.

Many dangerous animals occupied this region of the peninsula including the jaguar, the caiman (a fierce crocodile), the bull shark, and many species of poisonous snakes. These animals had to be avoided as the Maya scavenged the forest for foods including deer turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti. Many varieties of monkeys and quetzal also occupied the upper canopy. The climate of the Highlands greatly contrasted with that of the Lowlands as it was much cooler and drier.



Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to the presence of trade within the Mayan civilization. The lowlands primarily produced crops which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle cultigen being maize. They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope.

The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade. Although the lowlands were not the source of any of these commodities, they still played an important role as the origin of the transportation routes. The rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers, of which the Usumacinta and the Grijalva were of primary importance, were vital to the civilization as the form of transportation for both people and materials.

The Maya Culture

Contrary to popular beleif, the Mayan civilization was not one unified empire, but rather a multitude of separate entities with a common cultural background. Similar to the Greeks, they were religiously and artistically a nation, but politically sovereign states. As many as twenty such states existed on the Yucatan Peninsula, but although a woman has, on rare occasions, ascended to the ruling position, she has never acquired the title of 'mah kina'.

Mayan Writing

An elaborate system of writing was developed to record the transition of power through the generations. Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood and used within architecture. Folding tree books were made from fig tree bark and placed in royal tombs. Unfortunately, many of these books did not survive the humidity of the tropics or the invasion of the Spanish, who regarded the symbolic writing as the work of the devil.

Four books are known today:

The Dresden Codex
The Madud Codex
The Paris Codex
The Grolier Codex.

The priests followed the ruling class in importance and were instrumental in the recordings of history through the heiroglyphs. The two classes were closely linked and held a monopoly on learning, including writing. The heiroglyphs were formed through a combination of different signs which represented either whole words or single syllables. The information could be conveyed through inscriptions alone, but it was usually combined with pictures showing action to facilitate comprehension.

Political Organization

In both the priesthood and the ruling class, nepotism was apparently the prevailing system under which new members were chosen. Primogeniture was the form under which new kings were chosen as the king passed down his position to his son. After the birth of a heir, the kings performed a blood sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering to his ancestors. A human sacrifice was then offered at the time of a new king's installation in office. To be a king, one must have taken a captive in a war and that person is then used as the victim in his accession ceremony. This ritual is the most important of a king's life as it is the point at which he inherits the position as head of the lineage and leader of the city. The religious explanation that upheld the institution of kingship asserted that Maya rulers were necessary for continuance of the Universe.

Mayan Art

The art of the Maya, as with every civilization, is a reflection of their lifestyle and culture. The art was composed of delineation and painting upon paper and plaster, carvings in wood and stone, clay and stucco models, and terra cotta figurines from molds. The technical process of metal working was also highly developed but as the resources were scarce, they only created ornaments in this media. Many of the great programs of Maya art, inscriptions, and architecture were commissioned by Mayan kings to memorialize themselves and ensure their place in history. The prevailing subject of their art is not anonymous priests and unnamed gods but rather men and women of power that serve to recreate the history of the people. The works are a reflection of the society and its interaction with surrounding people.

One of the greatest shows of Mayan artistic ability and culture is the hieroglyphic stairway located at Copan. The stairway is an iconographical complex composed of statues, figures, and ramps in addition to the central stairway which together port ray many elements of Mayan society. An alter is present as well as many pictorial references of sacrifice and their gods. More importantly than all the imagery captured with in this monument, however, is the history of the royal descent depicted in the heiroglyphs and various statues. The figurine of a seated captive is also representative of Mayan society as it depicts someone in the process of a bloodletting ceremony, which included the accession to kingship. This figure is of high rank as depicted by his expensive earrings and intricately woven hip cloth. The rope collar which would usually mark this man as a captive, reveals that he is involved in a bloodletting rite. His genitals are exposed as he is just about to draw blood for the ceremony.

In the Indian communities, as it was with their Mayan ancestors, the basic staple diet is corn. The clothing worn is as it was in the past. It is relatively easy to determine the village in which the clothing was made by the the type of embroidery, color, design and shape. Mayan dialects of Qhuche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, and Mam are still spoken today, although the majority of Indians also speak Spanish.

Disclaimer: The American Indian Heritage Foundation or Indians.org do not personally endorse or support any of the comments made within this article.

Back to the list of - Indigenous Peoples' Literature