Calendars The Mayas used three main types of calendars. One type of calendar, the Long Count, was used for historical purposes and began its date with 3114 BC. Another calendar, the Haab – which was also called the Vague Year – was used for planting crops. This solar calendar of 365 days was divided into 18 months. Because each month had 20 days, there were five remaining days that the Mayas considered unlucky. Another calendar, the Tzolkin, chronicled the sacred year and was primarily used for religious purposes and naming children. This 260-day calendar was divided into 13 cycles of 20 days. Each of the 20 days had its own name and was represented by a unique symbol. The Mayas usually determined the date by combining the Tzolkin and the Haab calendars.
Mathematics The math of the Mayas was built on a base 20 system. This base 20 system was also used on calendars. Mayan numerals consisted of dots (valued at 1), bars (valued at 5), and a symbol looking like a shell (valued at 0). The Mayas were the first known civilization to use a symbol for zero. Smaller numbers were written horizontally, while larger numbers were written vertically. For each position going up, the column represented a multiplication by 20.
The Fall of the Mayas The Mayan civilization spanned about two thousand years and saw its pinnacle from 250 to 900 in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Toward the end of this pinnacle, the Mayas suddenly began to abandon their southern cities, and records on stelae were abruptly discontinued. Archaeologists and scholars don’t know exactly what caused the Mayan collapse and look to the fall of other ancient civilizations for explanations. The Mayas used a method of farming called slash and burn. In order to create more fields, the jungle was cut down and burned. Then crops were planted year after year without giving the soil time to rest. This method of farming reduced the quality of crops until finally crops could not grow in the soil. Erosion set in and even buried Mayan houses. Bone evidence from Mayan tombs show spongy areas on skulls, indicating malnutrition. Some archaeologists believe that the lack of food made it easier for outside warring tribes to take over the Mayan people in the south. Many Mayas moved north to other cities like Chichen Itza. The cities in the northern peninsula continued to flourish for several hundred more years. But even these cities fell to warring tribes and the Spanish invasion in the 1500s. Mayan civilization and society dwindled, and many Mayas integrated into other societies. Today, thousands of people of Mayan descent live in Mexico and Central America.
The Popul Vuh Daily life for Mayas centered on their religious beliefs. The Popul Vuh, also known as the Book of Council, tells the ancient record of Mayan religion, traditions, and history. It was passed down orally from generation to generation and reveals the connection between the Mayas’ activities and their beliefs. The stories of the Popul Vuh were first written down during the sixteenth century and translated into Spanish during the eighteenth century. The Popul Vuh includes three creation myths – one of which centers on the important Mayan crop of corn.
Ball Games The Popul Vuh also contains references to ancient Mayan ball courts. The games had a religious importance and were usually held along with grand ceremonies conducted by the king and priests. These rituals sometimes included human sacrifice, although no one knows if the captives that were sacrificed participated in the games.
Mayan ball games were played by two teams in long rectangular courts with slanted walls and high stone hoops. Ballplayers probably wore thick padding on their legs and knees to protect themselves, although they were badly bleeding and bruised by the end of the game.
The goal of the game was to pass the ball around, without having it touch your hands, and then get the ball to pass through one of the stone rings. Since the rings were so high and players were not allowed to use their hands, it was extremely difficult to get the ball through a ring. In fact, when a player did manage to get a ball through a ring the game ended. The Mayas called this game pok-a-tok, while the Aztecs played a similar game called tlachtli.
Chocolate One offering that the Mayas gave to their deities during religious ceremonies was a special drink made from the cacao tree, which grew in the rain forests of Central and South America. The Mayas produced chocolate from its seeds. A type of small fly called the midge pollinated the tree. The pollination produced pods, which were cracked open by various animals that ate the pulp and left the bitter seeds on the ground. The Mayas crushed the seeds into powder and added chilies to make a spicy drink. They called this drink chocol haa, which meant hot water. The Mayas also planted the seeds in their own gardens and grew cacao trees in their front yards for convenience. In addition to offering the drink to the gods, Mayan nobles and peasants enjoyed the cacao drink.
Government and Religion The ancestors of the Mayas date back to about 1000 BC. These ancestors occupied both the lowlands, consisting of hot, humid jungles, and the highlands, composed of rugged mountains, volcanoes, and canyons. By 800 BC. Mayan villages were well established in the lowlands. The growth of cities brought many changes in Mayan government. Kings with absolute authority overtook leaders in small farming communities. These kings were looked upon as semi-divine, and it was believed that they were granted the ability to communicate directly with gods who ensured the well-being of the people. This belief led to a close relationship between government and religion.