The ancient Maya civilization existed for over two thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. The ancient Maya settled in Central America, southern Mexico, and the Yucatan peninsula, and are believed to have been connected to the northern areas of Mesoamerica through their trading activities. For many years, very little was known about the ancient Maya. However, this has recently changed as a result of ongoing progress made by researchers in deciphering various Mayan hieroglyphic texts.
The history of the Maya civilization does not follow a straightforward path. Maya cities and regions advanced, collapsed, and had varying levels of influence at different time periods. The Classic Period from 250 – 900 A.D. is considered to have been the height of the ancient Maya civilization. During this time period, the Maya were led by dynastic rulers, the population grew dramatically, art and culture flourished, the elite classes became more entrenched, and wars and demands for tribute occurred more frequently. However, by the end of the Classic Period, the Maya kingdoms had begun to splinter and break off into smaller states. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the peak of the Maya civilization was long over and the remaining Maya states tended to be less centralized and more commercially oriented.
The Yucatec Maya first encountered the Spanish in 1502, but the official conquest of this region did not begin until 1527. The Maya fought with the Spaniards for several years until the conquest was completed in 1542. Despite the abuses that occurred during the Spanish colonization of the Maya homeland and the unfortunate human rights violations that continue to impact this region today, the Maya culture has survived and the modern day indigenous Maya of this region continue to carry on many of the traditions of their ancestors.
Maya Political Structure
The Ancient Maya shared a similar ideology and worldview, but they were never united as a single empire. Instead, the Maya lived in individual political states that were linked together through trade, political alliances, and tribute obligations. Some of these states were independent, while others were part of larger political hierarchies. The Maya states were initially governed by simple chiefdoms. By the Classic Period, Maya governance had taken on the form of powerful centralized leaders who legitimized their authority through their political connections and their divine lineages. Individuals who disobeyed their rulers faced severe punishment because the Maya people believed that obedience to their leader was critical to maintaining the harmony of the Maya universe. Human sacrifice had begun prior to the Classic Period, and was used as a tool of social and religious control to demonstrate the power of the ruler and the gods.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Yucatan was divided into 18 separate Maya states, with many smaller towns and villages under the jurisdiction of a capital city. Nine of these states were ruled by a single ruler called a halach uinic (or ahaw), while the others were led by councils of nobles of elite lineage or were allied with larger states. The halach uinic’s power was limited by his council (holpop) and special military and foreign advisors, but he was still considered to be the highest authority in his state and was required to be from an elite lineage. Rulers were succeeded by their sons, brothers, or a suitable candidate who was selected by the priests and council if no relatives existed.
Each of the Maya states had a supreme military commander called a nacom. The nacom served a three year term and was responsible for formulating military strategy and calling troops to battle. The individual states also had a high priest who led a hierarchy of priests, determined the dates for festivals and ceremonies, and foretold auspicious events for the ruler. The halach uinic appointed the batabs, who were the overseers and administrators of dependent cities and villages within the state. Batabs usually held administrative, judicial, and military authority over their towns, ensured that tribute was paid to the halach uinic, and supplied troops in times of war. Batabs were not paid tribute, but were supported by the people who lived in their town. Each batab presided over a local council composed of town officials known as the ah cuch cabob. These councilors were the heads of the different subdivisions (nalil) within the towns. The Batabs also had assistants (al kuleloob) who assisted them with carrying out their government duties. Each town had constables (tupiles) who were supervised by the batab and were charged with keeping the peace
Maya Social Structure
Maya society was rigidly divided between nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves. The noble class was complex and specialized. Noble status and the occupation in which a noble served were passed on through elite family lineages. Nobles served as rulers, government officials, tribute collectors, military leaders, high priests, local administrators, cacao plantation managers, and trade expedition leaders. Nobles were literate and wealthy, and typically lived in the central areas of Maya cities.
Commoners worked as farmers, laborers, and servants. It is believed that some commoners became quite wealthy through their work as artisans and merchants, and that upward mobility was allowed between classes through service in the military. Regardless, commoners were forbidden from wearing the clothes and symbols of nobility, and could not purchase or use luxury and exotic items. Commoners generally lived outside the central areas of towns and cities and worked individual and communal plots of land.
The Maya had a system of serfdom and slavery. Serfs typically worked lands that belonged to the ruler or local town leader. There was an active slave trade in the Maya region, and commoners and elites were both permitted to own slaves. Individuals were enslaved as a form of punishment for certain crimes and for failing to pay back their debts. Prisoners of war who were not sacrificed would become slaves, and impoverished individuals sometimes sold themselves or family members into slavery. Slavery status was not passed on to the children of slaves. However, unwanted orphan children became slaves and were sometimes sacrificed during religious rituals. Slaves were usually sacrificed when their owners died so that they could continue in their service after death. If a man married a slave woman, he became a slave of the woman's owner. This was was also the case for women who married male slave
The laws that governed the various Maya states were issued by the halach uinic and his council, or by the council alone if the state did not have an halach uinic. The batabs were responsible for carrying out these laws and serving as administrators to smaller towns and cities. Batabs also served as judges for their towns and adjudicated civil and criminal cases. Court cases were generally handled swiftly in public meeting houses known as popilna. Judicial proceedings were conducted orally and written records were not maintained. Witnesses were required to testify under oath and there is evidence to suggest that the parties were represented by individuals who functioned as attorneys. Batabs would review the evidence, evaluate the circumstances of the case, consider whether the criminal act in question was deliberate or accidental, and would order an appropriate punishment. Decisions made by the batabs were final and could not be appealed, though the victims could pardon the accused, thus reducing their punishment. If the accused parties were found guilty, their sentences were carried out immediately by the tupiles. The Maya did not have prisons, but may have had wooden cages that were used as holding cells for individuals who were awaiting capital punishment. If a crime occurred that affected an individual in another town, the batabs in the two towns would work together to ensure that issue was resolved. The batab generally acted independently, but would consult with the halach uinic on serious cases before passing judgement.
Because the ancient Maya civilization had peaked before the Spanish Conquest, the amount of primary material on the Maya legal system is limited. The majority of Maya manuscripts and codices were destroyed by Spanish priests, and the surviving codices tend to focus on Maya astronomy, mathematics, history, calendars, and religious rituals. These include the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid Codices. Following the conquest, Maya scribes wrote various books, including the Popul Vuh, and the Books of Chilam Balam (Books of the Jaguar Shaman). Both of these resources contain information about Maya history, myths, and religious traditions. The conquistadores and Spanish missionaries additionally documented their observations of the Maya. Bishop Diego de Landa wrote a detailed chronicle of the Maya, entitled Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan. This manuscript contained information about Maya history, culture, and hieroglyphics. Finally, researchers have relied on Maya monuments, pottery and paintings, hieroglyphic texts, and anthropological studies of modern day Maya to learn more about this civilization.