Background on The Maya

The central plaza of Tikal, Guatemala. chensiyuan, . "Tikal Main Plaza." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified October 05, 2014.

The emergence and development of Maya culture took place over thousands of years, divided into specific periods. Beginning as hunters and gatherers, the ancestors of Maya peoples began to cultivate food sources, such as maize (corn) and beans. Some of the earliest settlements are dated 2000-1500 BCE. This Archaic Period, as it is commonly called, spanned from 7000-2000 BCE. Following this, the Olmec peoples, the oldest Mesoamerican culture, settled and thrived during what is now called the Pre-Classic Period, 1500-700 BCE. They build large stone cities and laid the foundation for future Mesoamerican societies. From 600 BCE-800 CE, the Zapotec culture disseminated writing, mathematics, astronomy, and the calendar during a period aptly named the Zapotec period. 250 CE marks the beginning of the Classic Period, when Maya peoples numbered in the millions and urban centers rose across Mexico and Central America. Maya civilization was at the height of its power during the Classic Period from 250 CE - 950 CE. During this time, Maya power is consolidated in great cities were they perfected mathematics, astronomy, and the calendar. For still unknown reasons, the Maya left their grand cities in a mass exodus. This denotes the start of the Post-Classic Period, when the Toltecs, a new tribe to the region, repopulated the vacant urban centers. Contrary to popular belief, the Maya peoples had already abandoned their cities before the Spanish invaded. The end of Maya culture is traditionally marked at the Battle of Utatlan in 1524, when Spanish invaders defeated the Quiche Maya.

Outside of the fetishiized popular view of the Maya, as perpetuated by the "doomsday calendar", a rich culture fills Maya civilization. Their diverse theology and philosophy regarding the cyclical nature of life and death, which is reflected in the circular calendar the Maya are widely famous for, seeped into all the aspects of their society. Even the icon pyramid like structures for which the Maya are famous, are replicas of Witzob, their mountain of gods. Just as with modern culture, sports played a strong roll in ancient Maya. Poc-a-Toc was the most popular game amoung the Maya, however they viewed it as much more. It is believed that the game was thought of as symbolic to victory over darkness and the cyclical nature of existence.

When thinking of Mesoamerican civilizations, it is hard for the ancient Maya not to come to mind - if even just for a doomsday calendar. Maya peoples are indigenous to Mexico and Central America, inhabiting areas such as Yucatan, Belize and Honduras. The power of Maya civilization survived from 2000 BCE until their defeat by Spanish conquest in 1524 CE. Their last capital, the ancient Yucatan city of Mayapan, is where the term "Maya" originated. Descendants of Maya peoples, however, still live on many of the same sites as their ancestors. Though the region was Christianized in the 16th century CE by the Spanish conquest and inquisition, many Maya descendants who live their practice a hybrid between European Catholicism and ancient Maya practices.

Mark, Joshua J. "Maya Civilization." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 06, 2012. Editors. “Maya.” A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009.

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