The Maya

by James MacPherson

From left to right: The central temple of Palenque in southern Mexico/the city of Tikal in Guatemala


The Maya people built one of the most interesting and beautiful cultures in the history of man. The history (clike here for a timeline) of the Mayan civilization began over 3,000 years ago, but the Mayans have lived for over 5,000 years. Before they built the beautiful cities that we have studied and learned about, they were a nomadic people of hunter-gatherers. They roamed around spending their whole time hunting, and it wasn't until they discovered how to grow crops, like maize, that they settled down and started to build their cities and temples.

Once the Mayans settled down, they had time to teach themselves advanced forms of mathematics (they used the zero far before the Europeans did) and writing. They used a "slash and burn" method to clear the forests to build their structures.

Albeit the Mayans were very intelligent, they were also a very warlike people. Their early wars were fought for mostly religious purposes. Later on, toward the end of their reign, wars between cities and states became more intense and bloody. When the Spanish tried to conquer them, they fought back quite savagely. We have learned, and will continue to learn many great things about the Maya people.

Geographical Area

The Maya develpoed their civilization in a region of Central and South America called Mesoamerica. They spread throughout many countries that we know today, such as Mexico, Guatemala, Beliz, Honduras, and El Salvador. Their largest and most magnificent city is the city of Tikal. The city of Tikal was approximately six square miles, had 10,000 different structures, and over 60,000 people. The entire Maya region can be seen on this map.

The Mayan culture developed in three regions in Mesoamerica. By far the most important and most complete developments occurred in the lowlands in the "central region" of southern Guatemala. This region is a drainage basin about sixty miles long and twenty miles wide and is covered by tropical rain forest; the Mayas, in fact, are only one of two peoples to develop an urban culture in a tropical rainforest. The principal city in this region was Tikal, but they spread to south to Honduras; the southernmost Mayan city was Copan in northern Honduras. In the Guatemalan highlands to the north, Mayan culture developed less fully. The highlands are more temperate and seem to have been the main suppliers of raw materials to the central urban centers. The largest and most complete urban center was Palenque. The other major region of Mayan development was the Yucatan peninsula making up the southern and eastern portions of modern-day Mexico. This is a dry region and, although urban centers were built in this region, including Chichen Itza and Uxmal (pronounced "Oosh-mal"), most scholars believe that this was a culturally marginal area. After the abandonment of the Classic Mayan cities, the Yucatan peninsula became the principal region of a new, synthetic culture called Toltec-Mayan which was formed when Toltecs migrating from the north integrated with indigenous Maya peoples.


When the Mayan history was just beginning, they were hunter-gatherers (which was about 11,000 years ago). Once they learned how to farm, they settled down and built their civilization as we know it now. Their favorite crops that they grew were maize, black beans, and squash. Furthermore, they made and ate corn meal, roasted meat, rabbit stew, and turkey.

But perhaps the most beloved food of theirs (and of our culture today) was chocolate.The Maya loved chocolate. But the chocolate they had was not as sweet as the chocolate we know today. The Maya did not put sugar in their chocolate, the chocolate they made was bitter to our standards. It took the Europeans to add sugar to chocolate to make it what it is today. The Maya made their chocolate in different forms such as a drink or a mush. They called it "the Drink of the Gods".


The early Mayans were nomadic, but when they learned to grow crops like corn, they settled down and started their beautiful civilizatiion. They built many many fantastic temples to worship in and make their gods happy. They temples were built in a pyramid like shape, usually placed on a higher ground thatn the rest of the city. The temples were built of stone and stucco, and could be ten to fifteen stories high. There were always massive stairways that led up to the entrance. The roof of a typical temple was made of thatch and earth, and if it wore out, more thatch or even a new story was added. On the sides of the temples were beautiful, ornate sctriptures and hieroglyphs that told stories of their history, or the god the temple was built for.Also, the buildings were always grouped together in open squares, or plazas. If a plaza was full, and the priests requested more temples, they made a new plaza miles away.

The Mayans also had to build places to live. These were just small, one room huts. They had thatched roofs like the temples, but other than the temples, the huts were made of interwoven wooden poles covered in dried mud. The Mayans rarely made walls around their cities. They used the forests as a form of protection from invaders. They did, however, start to make walls when the Spanish arrived and tried to take over.


The Maya were a very warlike group of people, but they also liked to have fun like any other culture. They had over 5,000 different dances. They loved music/dancing. The dances were for religious beliefs as well as fun. They played wooden flutes, trumpets made from seashells, wood or clay, and played drums made from turtle shells.

Besides the dancing, they also played sports. It was a fun but very serious game called Pok-A-Tok. It was a game like volleyball, except they couldnt use their hands, feet, or head to hit a hard rubber ball back and forth. The game was played on an unusually shaped field. It is said that the losing team was usually sacrificed, so its certain that they played the game with all of their ability and heart.





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