|| Of the many pre-Columbian civilizations of the western hemisphere, the Maya civilization alone developed a writing system that provided a complete expression of their language, thus they are the only indigenous people of the Americas with a written history. While only four of their folding-bark books survived the fanatical purges of the Spanish priests, their writings in stucco, stone and pottery remain. But the voices of the ancient Maya stood silent for centuries, waiting for the advances in decipherment made in the past three decades.
WHAT DEFINES THE MAYA?
The Maya civilization was never united under one governing body like the Aztec. Instead, independent city-states shared many traits and beliefs that categorized them as Maya. In addition to their writing system, they had a calendar system that consisted of a Long Count divided into five cycles, along with a 260 day ritual cycle and a 365 day solar calendar. They had a comprehensive knowledge of naked-eye astronomy and charted the movements of the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the constellations through the night sky, and marked the position of the sun along the horizon.
A UNIQUE VIEW OF THE UNIVERSE
The ancient Maya had a complex pantheon of deities whom they worshipped and offered human sacrifices. Rulers were believed to be descendants of the gods and their blood was the ideal sacrifice, either through personal bloodletting or the sacrifice of captives of royal blood. The Maya vision of the universe is divided into multiple levels, above and below earth, positioned within the four directions of north, south, east and west. After death, the soul was believed to go to the Underworld, Xibalba (shee bal bah), a place of fright where sinister gods tested and tricked their unfortunate visitors.
AGRICULTURE AND DIET
While the Maya diet varies, depending on the local geography, maize remains the primary staple now as it was centuries ago. Made nutritionally complete with the addition of lime, the kernels are boiled, ground with a metate and mano, then formed by hand into flat tortillas that are cooked on a griddle that is traditionally supported on three stones. Chile peppers, beans and squash are still grown in the family farm plot (milpa) right along with the maize, maximizing each crop's requirements for nutrients, sun, shade and growing surface. Agriculture was based on slash and burn farming which required that a field be left fallow for 5 to 15 years after only 2 to 5 years of cultivation. But there is evidence that fixed raised fields and terraced hillsides were also used in appropriate areas.
Limestone structures, faced with lime stucco, were the hallmark of ancient Maya architecture. The Maya developed several unique building innovations, including the corbel arch which was a false arch achieved by stepping each successive block, from opposite sides, closer to the center, and capped at the peak. Tombs were often encased within or beneath Maya structures. Frequently new temples were built over existing structures. A honeycombed roofcomb towered above many structures, providing a base for painted plaster that was the Maya equivalent of the billboard. In addition to temples, most Maya sites had multi-roomed structures that probably served as royal palaces as well as centers for government affairs. Historically significant events, such as accessions, the capture or sacrifice of royal victims and the completion of the twenty year katun cycle, were recorded on stone stelae and tablets.
There was a distinct class system in ancient Maya times. Between the ruling class and the farmer/laborer, there must have been an educated nobility who were scribes, artists and architects. Evidence of their skill and innovation remains in works of stone, stucco, jade, bone, pottery, obsidian and flint. There is no evidence of a priesthood and it is likely that priestly duties were performed by the ruler.