According to the archaeologists, the Classic Maya civilization flourished between 200 B.C. and A.D. 900 — incorporating more than 100,000 square miles of the Yucatan lowlands. It was a civilization of great lords, small elite who ruled over as many as fifty independent states and tens of thousands of village farmers. The influence of the Maya extended far from their tropical homeland. They were great traders, maintaining links with states in the Valley of Oaxaca in the highlands and diplomatic relations with the vast city of Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico. They perpetuated religious beliefs that took hold over an enormous area of ancient Mesoamerica. Maya leaders were divine kings – quarrelsome rulers obsessed with power and prestige. They were expert diplomats who were masters of political intrigue. They built great cities and trading centers around palaces, plazas, and pyramids. Grandiose public buildings were adorned with stone and stucco sculptures of deities and mythical creatures, of lords conducting important ceremonies.
Studies of Maya language have led to the conclusion that around 2500 BC there was proto-Maya group living in the area of what is now “Huehuetenango”, Guatemala. Members of this group spoke what researchers have called “Proto-Maya”, which in the course of time subdivided into different Mayance languages. Speakers of these languages later migrated and settled on different sites that would afterwards define Maya area and give rise to their advanced culture.
These migrations caused both the separation of different groups and their contact with other cultures. This had led to various theories about where Maya culture originated. According to some researchers, it was in the North of Tabasco and Southern Veracruz, where these groups intermingled with Olmecs. Second theory inclines toward the opinion that it first arose in the mountains of Guatemala: The groups created agricultural society, growing corn, and then spread North and West, where they were influenced by other cultures, particularly Olmecs.
Olmec civilization is regarded as the mother culture, because it provided the basic elements for the development of other important cultures in Mesoamerica. Some of the most important cultural elements that Olmecs left to Mayas were architectural features and an elementary number and calendar system that later evolved into the accurate Maya calendar.
Maya philosophy is very special, since no other culture of the period was so obsessed with time. Like other peoples of Mesoamerica they had two calendars; the ritual one, called Tzolkin that was used for calculating religious ceremonies and festivals and predicting the destinies of people, and the solar calendar or Haab, containing 18 months of 20 days each plus five unlucky days called uayeb. The two calendars were used in conjunction, and the Maya calculations were so accurate that they were able to make exact reckonings, predict eclipses and plot the orbit of the planet Venus.
The pre-Hispanic Mayas were one of the most amazing civilizations of their times, with clearly defined social strata. The elite devoted themselves to trade, war and religion. Architects, who belonged to the same rank, planned buildings while stonemasons were in a socially inferior class along with governors’ servants and the different craftsmen. Finally, the lowest class was composed of farmers, who grew mainly maize, beans and squash together with yucca, manioc and sweet potato. Astronomers, who devoted their time to finding harmony in the universe and its recurring cycles of time, had to make complicated calculations to predict natural events and connect them with the fate of the population; scribes recorded history, religion and mythology using a complicated system of hieroglyphs, while painters and sculptors depicted both mythical and religious subjects as well as the deeds of governors.
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