The Maya Civilization

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Podcast Transcript

Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, one of the greatest civilizations in the Americas rose and fell. 

They left behind a rich legacy of roads and construction. They had an advanced system of writing as well as a highly developed system of mathematics and astronomy. 

However, this advanced civilization suddenly ended. The people who made up the civilization never left, but their cultural and political institutions fell apart, and many of their cities were abandoned. 

Learn more about the Maya Civilization, its rise, and its fall on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Maya Civilization existed in what is today Southern Mexico in the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

Also, the correct term to describe the civilization is Maya, not Mayan. Mayan is the term used to describe the language. Maya is used to describe any non-linguistic aspects of the civilization. So for the rest of the episode, I’ll be referring to the Maya people and Maya civilization and the Mayan languages. 

The earliest evidence of the Maya appears in the archeological record in about 1800 BC. The dawn of the Maya consisted of small agricultural villages growing crops. The primary crops grown by the Maya included maize, beans, squash, chilies, sweet potatoes, and cacao.

The dominant civilization in Mesoamerica during the early Maya period was the Olmec civilization. They were centered in the region just south of what is today Vera Cruz, Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula. They are best known for their large round heads made of stone. 

As the Olmec Civilization went into decline, the Maya civilization began to rise. The first Maya cities were established between 750 and 250 BC. These first cities showed the hallmarks of later Mayan cities, including large monumental construction with elaborate designs. 

Many of the hallmarks of the Maya Civilization, which I’ll be talking about more in a bit, are believed to have been inherited from the Olmecs, similar to how many aspects of Roman civilization were borrowed from the earlier Etruscans.     

The period which is considered the golden age of the Maya Civilization took place between the years 250 and 900. This is when most of the monuments and cities that still exist today were built. 

One important thing to know about the Maya is that there was no Maya Empire, which is why I constantly refer to it as the Maya Civilization. There was, as far as we know, never any single ruler that unified the Maya people like the Aztecs or Incas. The Maya were more of a collection of city-states with local kings.

To again make a comparison with the ancient Mediterranean, the Maya were more analogous to the Phonecians or Greeks than they were to the Persians, Romans, or Egyptians. 

Early on, it is believed that there was a single Mayan language that originated somewhere around the modern-day border of Mexico and Guatemala. However, over a period of centuries, as the Maya culture spread, it splintered into dozens of languages. 

One of the reasons why the Maya were splintered linguistically and politically had to do with the difficulty in transportation. Unlike many other early civilizations that were built around rivers, such as the Nile, Yangtze, and Indus, there were no navigable rivers connecting the Maya communities. 

They also didn’t have the benefit of domesticated pack animals such as horses, or did they use wheeled devices like carts.

Hence, the movement of any goods and people had to be done on the literal backs of people moving from place to place. Needless to say, this was very slow and difficult and was a major contributing factor to the lack of a unified Maya government and language. 

The Maya language might have been splintered, but their system of writing was not. In fact, the Maya written language was arguably the most sophisticated written system in the pre-Columbian western hemisphere. 

The Mayan writing system came from earlier systems in the region and developed into a formalized writing system with rules around the start of the Maya Golden Age. 

The Mayan written language is a combination of logograms that represent entire words, similar to Chinese characters, as well as phonetic signs that represent sounds, more like an alphabet. 

The vast majority of Maya were illiterate, and most probably, many of the elite in Maya society were as well. A class of scribes handled reading and writing. Unlike civilizations in Eurasia, women were also scribes in Maya society, as is evidenced by the images of women scribes writing.

The Maya didn’t just leave inscriptions in stone, they actually created books. They developed a writing material akin to a paper known as amatl, made from tree bark. 

The amatl was bounded together to form a codex. There are only four surviving Maya codices that exist today, but there were thousands in existence when the Spanish arrived. The vast majority of them were destroyed by priests who had them burned because they thought they were the work of the devil. 

As such, it has taken centuries to decipher Mayan writing, but through the few surviving texts and the thousands of stone inscriptions, it is now possible to read Mayan. 

In addition to a sophisticated system of writing, the Maya had a highly developed system of mathematics as well. 

As with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya mathematical system was in base-20, unlike our system, which is in base-10.

Their system of numbers was simple and straightforward. A dot represented a number. One was one dot, two was two dots, three was three dots, up to four.

However, five was represented by a horizontal line or a dash. Six would then be a dot over a line. Ten was two lines on top of each other. 

Once you got to twenty, the position of the dots and lines represented different things. Twenty was a dot over a zero, as the dot represented twenty. Twenty-one was a dot over a dot, i.e., twenty plus one. 

Twenty-nine was a dot, above four dots, above a line, or twenty, plus four, plus five.

Just as the position of a numeral determines its value in our base-10 system, so too did the position of a dot or dash in the Maya system. This allowed for the Maya numbering system to represent incredibly large values

One of the biggest mathematical innovations the Maya had was a symbol to represent zero. The earliest known zero in Mayan writing dates back to 357. They used it as a placeholder, just as we do today. However, it didn’t necessarily represent the concept of nothing when used by itself. 

Their advanced mathematics may have led to or was the result of an advanced understanding of astronomy. Their astronomers obsessively tracked the movement of the stars, the sun, and the moon. They were able to measure the 584-day cycle of Venus cycle to within two hours.

They were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses. 

At the time of the Maya golden age, they probably had a greater understanding of astronomy than any other civilization on Earth.

This also lead to a very sophisticated calendar system. 

The Maya calculation of a solar year was more accurate than the Julian Calendar.

The Maya calendar is known as the long count calendar. 

At its core, the Long Count calendar is based on five units of time: 

Kin: The smallest unit, equivalent to one day. 

Uinal: 20 kins, equal to 20 days. 

Tun: 18 uinals, making a tun equivalent to 360 days (approximately one solar year). 

Katun: 20 tuns, totaling 7,200 days (approximately 19.7 solar years). 

Baktun: 20 katuns, equaling 144,000 days (approximately 394.3 solar years).

Beyond this, there are even longer units of time. A Piktun is 20 baktuns and a Kalabtun is 20 piktuns.  A kalabtun is approximately 157,000 years.

December 21, 2012, was the completion of the 13th Baktun. Many people who had a deep misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar thought it prophesized the end of the world. It was really nothing more than the start of a new calendar cycle.  It was the equivalent of saying that your car would explode just because your odometer turned over. 

The astronomical observations and the development of the Maya calendar were all in service of the Maya religion. 

The Maya religion was as structured as their system of mathematics. They believed in a supernatural realm where their deceased ancestors could intercede on their behalf. 

They had a heaven with 13 levels and an underworld with nine levels. 

The Maya buried their dead under the floors of their homes so their ancestors could protect them. 

Maya deities required sacrifices, usually of blood. As such, the Maya practiced human sacrifice. They usually sacrificed a high-ranking enemy prisoner, or the greatest sacrifice would be an enemy king. Human sacrifices would also be conducted for the installation of a new king or the dedication of a new temple.

One Maya ritual was a ballgame known today as pok-ta-pok. Pok-ta-Pok or similar games were played throughout Mesoamerica. The rules are not known, but several intact courts still exist. It was a combination of racketball and basketball. There was a hoop on the court that was verticle instead of horizontal. However, the hoop may have been a much later innovation.

The ball was made out of natural rubber and would weigh as much as 4 kilograms or 9 pounds.

By all accounts, the game was very brutal, with serious injuries being reported. It was sometimes played in conjunction with religious observance, with the losing team being beheaded. 

Some anthropologists think that the game might have been played as a proxy for warfare.

The thing which most people know about the Maya is the magnificent temples and cities that they left behind. 

Today if you visit Southern Mexico, Guatemala, or part of Honduras, you can find many Maya ruins, which are still in very good condition.

The Maya were roughly split between highland and lowland Maya. The highland Maya lived in the mountains and the lowland Maya lived in the plains closer to the sea. Most of the monuments left by the Maya were from lowland Mayas.

The greatest single monument is probably the pyramid of El Castillo in the Maya city of Chichen Itza in Mexico. It was dedicated to the deity Kukulcán.

On the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is the city of Tulum. It was one of the last Maya cities that was built and one of the only Maya cities ever built on the coast. 

In Guatemala, you can find what is probably the greatest Maya city of them all, Tikal. 

In Honduras, you can visit the city of Copan. All of these sites I’ve listed are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting all of these and several others. 

In total, there are believed to be over 4,400 Maya sites of various sizes. 

They are still actually finding more of them. Because their civilization was built in the middle of a tropical forest, many ruins were quickly covered by foliage after they were abandoned. Satellite images and radar have discovered structures that had been covered by forest. 

The Maya were one of the greatest and most sophisticated cultures in the western hemisphere. However, sometime around the year 900, everything collapsed….and no one is sure exactly why.

Over a period of about 50 to 100 years, the cities were abandoned, kings were dethroned, new monuments ceased being built, and the calendar stopped being updated. 

Had it occurred catastrophically from an invasion or an earthquake, it probably would have been recorded, at least through oral history. However, it was slower than. 

Theories usually include some sort of famine or plague that might have devastated the society, or perhaps there was an extended drought that changed conditions in the region. 

Many of the Maya cities were still inhabited by people at the time the Spanish arrived, but they were not the vibrant centers they were centuries earlier. They were living in the shadow of their past greatness.

While the Maya Civilization collapsed, the Maya people didn’t go anywhere. They are still there, living in the same place their ancestors did centuries ago. If you visit the region, you can meet and talk to local Maya today. They still speak Maya languages and eat similar foods. 

When we look at the full scope of human history in terms of its literary, mathematical, and astronomical accomplishments, the Maya takes its place among the greatest civilizations in the ancient world.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Maeg1e, from Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

So enjoyable!

I discovered the podcast in April 2022 and today listened to my final back episode. I feel I have really accomplished something and picked up so much interesting knowledge along the way. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Thank you, Maeg1e! You have accomplished something significant. You have shown a curiosity about the world around you and have taken the time to learn more than the vast majority of your contemporaries. That is quite an accomplishment.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.