The world has been a cradle to innumerable civilizations. Through archeological studies and researches, we have been able to know about history. Although every civilization is in itself a subject of research, there have been some whose grandeur and brilliance has made archeologists work deeply on them. The Mayan civilization, which existed between 2000 BC and 1600 BC, stretched from Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico to present-day Honduras and El Salvador.
The Mayan culture was, in essence, tied with the threads of deep-rooted beliefs and customs. A closely knit family group and religious practices were an integral part of their lifestyle.
▸ The Mayan culture was dominated by certain sets of beliefs and rituals that were an integral part of their customs. For instance, after the death of a person, the dead bodies were buried in graves under houses.
▸ Those who belonged to rich communities were buried in tombs and along with their body, some of their possessions like clothing and jewelry were also buried. Ancestors were worshiped like Gods, as they were believed to rejoin the Gods after their demise.
▸ Human sacrifice was widely practiced. It was usually done to appease gods and sometimes when a city conquered another, executions were done under the veil of sacrifices.
▸ Besides this, they also practiced self-torture through various means, to gain strength and please the Gods. Festivities and dances on joyous occasions were an integral part of their customs.
▸ Each city was governed like a country, with a monarch or a king at the helm.
▸ It was believed that the king was a direct descendant of the Sun, Moon, or other planets, giving him unmatched powers. His orders were never questioned.
▸ The Mayans had a very strong family support system. Right from infants to great grandparents, everyone lived in the same house together, as a family.
▸ Elders were treated with great regard and adult men were the breadwinners for the family. Hunting, fishing, and farming were the major sources of gathering food.
▸ Women were restricted to household chores of making clothes, raising children, and preparing food.
▸ The Mayan parents pressed wooden boards on their children's foreheads. They thought that flat foreheads looked attractive. They also made their children concentrate on an object hung close to their faces, so that they would get crossed eyes. This was deemed attractive too.
▸ Mayan men wore a strip of cloth around their hips and through the legs, while women wore long loose dresses up to the ankle.
▸ Due to the hot climate, these dresses were made of handwoven cotton and other fabrics.
▸ The Mayans' royalty loved adorning themselves with jewelry. The jewelry was mainly made up of jade beads. And yes, men wore it too.
▸ The Mayans valued Jade, brightly colored feathers, and decorated seashells more than gold. Talk about misplaced sense of valuation.
▸ The Mayans were a violent race. Their popular pastime, a ballgame was not without violence too. The ball was supposed to be bounced only on the hips. The catch was that it weighed over 8 pounds. Ramming into the other players and roughing it was encouraged by the referees. That's enough to say that the games were bloody and violent.
▸ Winners were awarded jewelry and prizes while losers were tied and rolled down the stairs of large plaza structures.
▸ Mayans created the first complete written language in the Americas. They used to carve glyphs on the walls of their structures. Later, they made use of papyrus and dye to write books too.
▸ The glyphs carved on the side of the pyramids are intricate and tell stories of their time. As the language is complete, the stories are very detailed and hence are valuable heritage structures of South America.
▸ The Mayan hieroglyphics were completely deciphered only in the 1950s.
Mathematics, Astronomy and Scientific Advances
▸ The Mayans made significant advances in Mathematics, which led to the creation of a complex calendar system.
▸ They thought the celestial bodies were gods themselves, and hence mapped the movement of stars and planets obsessively. This propagated the study of astronomy in the Mayan culture.
▸ According to their calendar, the first day of the world was August 11, 3114 BC and the last date is December 21, 2012. This is the fact that fueled doomsday conspiracy theories. Fortunately, the Mayans built their calendars in a circular fashion, that meant that the calendar started over again, a detail that the conspiracy theorists conveniently oversaw. Also, the starting date indicates that they did not believe in evolution or dinosaurs.
▸ Now all this violence must be painful, and this might be a reason why the ancient Mayan chemists were very good at concocting chemical painkillers using herbs, tobacco, and mushrooms. In layman's terms, Mayans loved to get high after intensive fighting and sports.
▸ Mayan pyramids are one of the most admired architectures of the world just like the pyramids of their Egyptian counterparts.
▸ Although Mayan cities lacked proper planning, their buildings were expertly constructed. Palaces were opulent, pyramids were beautiful, and the buildings strong.
▸ Some of the Mayan pyramids are bigger than their Egyptian counterparts.
▸ The largest pyramid built by the Mayans, is situated in Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico.
▸ This place was used for a teaching and discussion session for intellectuals like astronomers, mathematicians, scholars, and priests.
▸ Although they had some advanced agricultural techniques like terracing, their method of acquiring agricultural land was flawed. They indulged in 'slash and burn' agriculture where a large amount of forest land was burned to grow crops. This led to depletion of soil nutrients and cultivation beyond the third generation was not possible.
▸ Their staple crops were corn, squash, chili peppers, and beans.
▸ Mayans got their meat primarily through hunting. Apart from this, they also ate meat of dog, turkey and monkey.
▸ Mayan women also raised deer inside their houses. This was done to keep the deer population thriving.
▸ Spanish conquistadors, hearing legends about golden cities were drawn to Mexico but were disappointed since the Mayans did not possess gold in large numbers at all. This shows us that the Mayans were not very proficient in mining. Needless to say the Spanish did not cross the Atlantic for jade and colored feathers. So they took their land and whatever little gold they had left. And also, they wiped out a majority of their population.
▸ The primitive agricultural technique led to severe deforestation, which may have had an effect on the rainfall in the region at the time. This may have led to prolonged drought-like conditions. The Mayan civilization ended abruptly. Experts suspect deforestation to have been one of the causes.
▸ Their downfall is also attributed to the constant infighting between the city-states. A prolonged war could have depleted most of the population.
▸ These squabbles may also have had an adverse impact on the trade routes where the necessary commodities were exchanged, leading to a shortfall and subsequently starvation.
The Mayan culture, its rituals, and the lifestyle of its people is still studied with great curiosity by sociologists all across the globe. Getting to know them closely helps us get a better understanding of the human culture and its evolution.