Deep in the Yucatan Peninsula lie ancient
stone cities reclaimed by the jungle, where a calendar dominated lives, majestically feathered
kings ruled like gods and tall stone pyramids soared above the treetops. There in those
jungles, stand ancient stones etched with dates and writings that tell the story of
one of history’s most fascinating and dynamic civilisations. These belong to the ancient
Maya. The Maya have a 4000-year long history, something
that is near impossible to realistically cover. In this video we will look at who the Maya
were, and the intellectual achievements that made them one of the most remarkable civilisations
of their day. Unlike the other cradles of civilisation,
which mostly arose around fertile river valleys. The Maya realm in the Yucatan Peninsula, made
up of parts of modern day Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, was rather,
a hot limestone shelf the protrudes into the Caribbean, with few navigable rivers and thin
soils, with only bees, ducks, and dogs as potentially domesticable animals.
Despite receiving up hundreds of centimeters of rain per year this region is extremely
prone to drought, as all the rain falls between June and October and immediately seeps dozens
of meters into the porous limestone landscape. The region is dotted with water filled sinkholes
and swamps but they are too salty to drink from and cannot be used to water crops. It
was remarked by a U.S.-Mexican research team that the Maya environment was “geochemically
hostile” and “more resembled settlement on the moon or Antarctica than most other
terrestrial habitats.” By filtering their salty water through limestone,
making use of some fresh water caves, and buildings thousands of cisterns to collect
rainwater the Maya managed to maintain a safe supply of water. The Maya made their environment
habitable and its constant upkeep and management was essential to their existence.
However, there were some geographic benefits to this environment, such as the abundance
of limestone, and excellent building material and obsidian a volcanic glass as sharp as
surgical steel. Now that we have established the setting in
which the Maya developed, let’s take a look at their history, which historians divide
up into 3 parts: the Preclassic, the Classic, and the Post-Classic.
During the Pre-Classic period is the Maya emerged as a distinct and unique group in
Mesoamerica. Between 2000BC and 300AD we see city-states begin to emerge under the rule
of divine kings and queens, transforming the area into something very similar to the ancient
Greece, along with a similar amount of Shakespearean drama and conflict.
It is during the Pre-Classic that we see the rise city states such as El Mirador, an enormous
city state with a population that could have totaled around 250,000 people. El Mirador
was home to El Tigre and La Danta, pyramids comparable in size to those at Giza.
Unlike the Aztecs or Inca, the Maya never formed a united polity. There was never a
Maya empire, but rather dozens of unique and competing city-states, united by a common
culture, language family, and reliance on maize.
By 300AD the Maya entered what we consider to be their Classic Period. An explosion of
activity commenced as powerful city-states began to arise along with massive irrigation
projects, beautiful stone monuments, and gorgeous plazas. The Maya writing system became widespread
and it allows us to read about the Maya in their own words. Tikal (Teak-Al), one of the
most powerful Classic Maya city-states has dozens of examples of this writing.
By reading the stelae located across Tikal we can learn of such rulers like Yik’in Chan
K’awiil (Yek-In Khan Caw-wheel), or Sun Sky Rain. He ascended to the throne on the 8th
of December 734AD, a date we are certain of because we can rely on the advanced Maya calendar
dates inscribed at the site. Tikal like most Maya cities was constructed
around plazas – the centre of the city where the main ceremonial places, temples, pyramids
and ball courts were. Under the rule of Yik’in Chan K’awiil (Yek-In
Khan Caw-wheel) one of the most famous structures of Tikal – the Temple of the Great Jaguar
was built. This massive 47-meter-tall pyramid was dedicated to his father who was buried
within it. It soared above the tree tops and could be seen from across the city.
So, how did the Maya construct these incredible stone structures? Maya architects had invented
a concrete-like fill. They piled up rubble and limestone rich mud to form an incredibly
durable foundation. The foundation, which initially appeared rough and ugly was then
covered with another invention – Maya stucco. This white plaster made of limestone covered
rubble with a smooth finish that could be easily molded into works of art. Once this
process was complete the pyramid or structure was usually painted a bright red colour.
Using this method, the Maya could continuously build taller and taller structures by simply
covering the old pyramid in rubble and then plastering over it again. Thus, over thousands
of years Maya cities constantly grew by paving over themselves.
From the top of these pyramids rituals and ceremonies were carried out in full view of
the city they towered above. Priests painted a bright blue colour and Kings or ajaws (A-How-S)
as the Maya called them, would carry out these vital ceremonies, many of which needed to
involve the most sacred substance in the Maya universe, blood.
In the Maya worldview the gods created everything and therefore demanded something in return.
This debt to the gods could be paid in many ways. The dancing, burning of incense, and
even elegant words could be offered. But blood acted as the ultimate payment.
Unlike the later Aztecs the Maya didn’t not rely heavily on mass human sacrifice.
Instead the most common offering was to pierce oneself, bleed onto some paper and then burn
that as an offering. However sometimes the Gods required more.
It was vital that the gods were provided with enough energy by way of sacrifice or else
the Maya world would ceased to exist. As human life was considered the most sacred and precious
thing in the world it therefore meant that a human life was the most powerful offering.
Commoners were rarely if ever sacrificed as they were not seen as worthy enough for the
gods. When a human sacrifice was offered it was
almost always a captured noble or king as they were highly prized by the gods and beheading
was the common way of carrying out this sacrifice. Located near these pyramids there was almost
always a ball court. The ball game played by the Maya and other Mesoamericans was an
intense sport. The people watched these spectacles with a fanaticism that could have rivalled
or even surpassed how the people of Constantinople would have watched chariot races. The game
took place in a massive stone court and was played with a 3-4kg rubber ball. The exact
specifics of the game are unknown, but we can piece together that the goal seems to
have been for players to use only their hips, upper arms, and knees to move the ball in
the air with the goal of making the other team drop the ball or pushing past a certain
defensive line. The Ball Game was so important to the Maya that it a central role in the
Maya religion, the gods themselves would play it against each other.
Maize as the staple crop of the region also had divine status and was even central to
the Maya mythological origin story. As recorded in the great epic, The Popol Vuh, of the K’iche
Maya, the universe began as nothing. Into this great void the two gods Tepew and Q’ukumate
spoke the world into existence. Creating all the animals and plants. But as these could
not speak, the gods need to be worshiped could not be fulfilled. Thus, they created a race
of men from mud who promptly collapsed back into mud, then a race of wooden men, but these
proved to be unintelligent and so were destroyed by a great flood. Finally, the gods formed
humans out of maize dough and these proved capable of worship and sacrifice.
During the Classical period, which lasted from 300AD to 900AD more cities than ever
had booming populations some ranging in the tens of thousands. During this period there
is estimated to have been between 5 and 13 million Maya inhabiting the Yucatan. Cities
like Tikal may have had populations of up to 90,000 in their urban cores.
It is during this period the Maya nobility became much more organised. We see elegantly
feathered ajaws, ruling over huge and complex royal courts. Priests, servants, courtiers,
dancers, princes, scribes and generals all vied for the Ajaws attention.
The nobility would have looked bizarre to us, as it was common for the Maya elites to
intricately tattoo themselves, create intentional scar patterns, file their teeth into different
shapes along with carving holes into their incisors in order to place jade in them, and
they practiced a form of skull deformation which elongated their foreheads. All of these
things were done to make the nobility stand out and signify their social class. The Maya
also considered that to be genuinely beautiful. The Maya scribes wrote thousands of bark books
in their hieroglyphic script. All but 4 have been lost to time and the flames of the Inquisition.
So it is the hundreds of remaining stele spread out across the Yucatan that we must rely on
to piece together Maya history and it is similar to trying to understand French history only
by reading their monuments and plaques. However, the Maya calendar dates usually inscribed
on these stelae have allowed us to accurately date many events and reigns in Maya history.
We know for example that one of the greatest Maya king Pakal the Great, was born on the
21st of March 603 and reigned from July, 615 – to the 26th of August, 683.
The Maya could only leave these exact dates for us because of their advanced Maya mathematics,
and calendar systems. They used a base 20 counting system with only 3 symbols. A dot
for one. A bar for 5 and a stylized shell symbol for 0. And this system worked vertically
unlike our own numbers system. Arguably their greatest intellectual feat
was the invention of the zero. The mathematician Tobias Dantzig said that the discovery of
zero was “one of the greatest single accomplishments of the human race”. True Zero wouldn’t
appear in Europe until the 12th century, but it was invented in the Americas on Maya carvings
between 32 BC and 357 AD. The Maya, along with their Mesoamerican contemporaries
like the Olmec and Zapotec believed that movements of celestial bodies such as the sun, moon,
and especially Venus could influence their daily lives. In order to track these the Maya
had to continuously watch the skies and develop a calendar capable of keeping track. Oddly
enough the Mesoamericans developed 3 calendars. A solar calendar of 365 days, a sacred calendar
of 260 days and the famous Long Count Calendar that tracked every day uniquely from 11th
of August 3114 BC. Using these calendars, the Maya could calculate
dates millions of years into the past or future and thus track the movement of planets and
celestial bodies over long periods of time. The farthest date calculated by the Maya was
a period of 23,040,000,000 days, which is about 63 million years. While the Maya were intellectual giants of
their time, politics, greed and ambition still dominated the lives of the upper classes.
These would will come to a bloody peak in the next episode when two Maya superpowers
will smash against each other in the Great Maya Cold War. When we create these videos we often use the
series of lectures called the Peoples and Cultures of the World from professor Edward
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