Build on What You Know You have learned that the Olmec influenced other cultures. Now you’ll read about one of them, the Maya, who built a powerful civilization in Meso-America.
The Rise of the Maya
ESSENTIAL QUESTION Where did Mayan civilization rise?
As the Olmec declined, the Maya began to develop a civilization from present-day southern Mexico into northern Central America. This area included the lowlands in the north, the dry forests of the Yucatán Peninsula, and the dense jungles of present-day Mexico and Guatemala. The area also included the highlands in the south. This is a range of cool mountains stretching from southern Mexico to El Salvador.
Early Settlements By about 1500 B.C., people speaking Mayan languages first began settling lowland villages, where they farmed and traded. The first ceremonial centers, where the Maya practiced their religion, appeared in wealthier villages by 500 B.C. Eventually, these villages developed into cities.
Classic Period Recent findings may cause the dates to change, but the period from A.D. 250 to 900 is traditionally known as the Classic Period of Mayan civilization. During this period, the Maya built magnificent city-states with temples, pyramids, and plazas.
Some of the largest city-states included Tikal (tee•KAHL), Copán (koh•PAHN), and Palenque. (You read about Palenque and some of its kings in Starting with a Story on page 286.) Each city-state was independent and was ruled by a king. However, the cities were linked through trade. Cities traded local products, such as salt, textiles, and jade.
How did the Maya develop into a great civilization?
ESSENTIAL QUESTION How was Mayan society structured?
Thousands of people lived in the city-states. Over time, a clear social structure developed. The Mayan king was at the top of this structure, followed by the noble class, made up of priests and leading warriors. Merchants and artisans came next, followed by farmers and then slaves. Slaves were mostly prisoners captured during wars.
Daily LifeMost of the Mayan people lived and worked as farmers. They grew beans, squash, and maize (mayz), a type of corn. This corn crop was important to the Maya. In fact, according to Mayan legends, people had been created out of maize.
Mayan farmers used a variety of agricultural techniques, including irrigation. To irrigate dry areas, they dug canals that carried water to their fields. They also added rich soil from the canal beds to their fields to lift them above river level. To keep their families dry when the rivers flooded, the farmers built their houses on poles that raised the houses above the ground.
In contrast with the farmers, members of the noble class lived in decorated stone palaces. The Mayan nobles and their children wore beautiful clothes and jade beads.
Religious Beliefs Mayan life was shaped by religion. The Maya prayed to many gods. Their supreme god was the lord of fire. Other gods included the god of the sun, goddess of the moon, and the gods of death, war, corn, and rain.
To gain favor with their gods, the Maya made offerings of animals, plants, and jade. Sometimes they even made human sacrifices. In most large cities, the Maya also played a ritual ball game on a huge court. One of the reasons the Maya played this game is because they believed it would bring life-giving rains. You will learn more about the Mayan ball game in the Daily Life feature on pages 312–313.
How was Mayan life shaped by religion?
ESSENTIAL QUESTION What were Mayan achievements in art and learning?
Mayan art and learning were also linked to religion. Art was produced for religious ceremonies. Religious beliefs led to the development of the calendar and to advances in mathematics and astronomy.
Art Meso-America’s tropical climate long ago rotted Mayan art made of wood, bark, feather, and gourds. Only pottery, sculpture, jade work, and steles (STEE•leez)—carved stone slabs—have survived. Steles were used to mark special religious dates and celebrate a ruler’s reign.
Achievements in Math and ScienceIn Chapter 7, you learned that ancient Indian mathematicians used a symbol for the zero and positions to show place. The Maya also developed these two important mathematical ideas.
Mayan astronomers and mathematicians applied these ideas to develop a calendar system. The 365-day calendar they created is nearly as accurate as a modern calendar. The calendar helped identify the best times to plant crops and attack enemies. It was also used to keep track of religious holidays.
Writing Only a few writing systems developed in the ancient world. The Maya developed the most advanced writing system in the ancient Americas. Mayan writing on steles and books contains symbolic pictures called glyphs (glihfs). Some of these glyphs stood for whole words, syllables, or sounds. The Maya used the glyphs to record important historical events in a bark-paper book called a codex (KOH•DEKS). Only four of these books have survived.
Abandoned Cities By 900, the Maya had abandoned their great cities. To this day, no one knows why. Warfare, which broke out in the 700s, may have caused a decline. Overcrowding and overfarming may have led to food shortages. When Spanish conquerors arrived in the 1500s, only small, weak city-states remained. However, Mayan peoples still live in Meso-America. Many of them still speak the Mayan languages, as well as Spanish.
How were art and learning linked to religion?
• The Maya built magnificent cities.
• A clear class structure developed in the Mayan civilization.
• The Maya created lasting artworks, invented a writing system, and made great advances in astronomy and mathematics.
Why It Matters Now . . .
The influence of Mayan culture is found in the United States as a result of immigration from Meso-America.