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Maya Culture Overview

The Maya culture had interesting aspects in their civilization or that they accomplished over time. The important aspects of the Mayas are their physical characteristics, how they dress, their social organization, agriculture, art and techniques, religion, god and goddesses, architecture, trade, mathematics, and government. The physical characteristics of the Maya culture are the following; they were short, long-bodied, and chunky, with good muscle development and a tendency to gain weight.

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The heads were broad, lips prominent, noses had a high convex bridge and curved pendulous tip. The chin and forehead were somewhat receding, eyes had a mongoloid cast with heavy lids and cheekbones were prominent. Skin color varied from medium to dark brown, and the hair was black, straight to rarely wavy (Brainerd 9).

A greater physical variability among the highlands Maya, the language diversity, and the historical accounts all suggest that they have been subject to much more outside influence than have the lowland peoples. The Maya language is spoken by most Yucatecans. But many of them do not speak Spanish. There is evidence of impoverishment of Maya vocabulary over the last 200 years, but the language is still in good form (Brainerd 10).

In the warm climate of the Maya area, clothing as protection from the elements had never been a necessity. Maya clothing was used as decoration and the most spectacular clothes were for the priest. The Maya personages wore large earplugs, necklaces, breastplates, ornaments attached to the nose, lips, waist, legs, arms; all were used for resplendent effect (Brainerd 68). Mayan peasants wore very little. The men had a simple loincloth or rather a band of material that went once around their waist and then between their legs. Some at least possessed deerskin moccasins. The women had two garments a length of decorated cloth with holes cut for head and arms, known as a Kub. Man and women used a heavier square of cloth known as a manta, which served as an overwrap on cold days, and as a nighttime blanket.

The manta was used as a curtain across the doorway. Cotton and sisal were cultivated on a considerable scale, and weaving was one of the main occupations of Mayan women. Authorities think that cotton was reserved for nobility and priests. While the dress of the peasants was simple, that of the nobility was much more colorful and elaborate (Whitlock 43). Although their clothing was sparse, the Maya were fond of personal adornment.

The ordinary people wore ornaments of bone, shell, wood, and stone in their ears, noses, and lips. For people in the higher rank, the decorations were of metal or jade. They also filed their teeth into points and sometimes covered them with plates of what were to them precious stones, such as obsidian, iron pyrites, and most valuable of all jade. The paint was used lavishly on their bodies and was applied by means of pottery shards dipped in the paint pot. The colors of the paints had significance. The Maya also practiced tattooing (Whitlock 44).

Mayan villagers were overall well organized. The families had a certain distribution of land. Probably, each of the habitants knew each other. They were patrilineal and matrilineal. Therefore, each of the persons in the villagers had two names one of the father and mother. A man could not marry women who were not closely related to him. The Mayan villagers were in control of a lord, to whom they paid taxes. They were two kinds of taxes in produce and in personal service (Whitlock 67).

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The earliest evidence of the evolution of complex societies in both the Old and New Worlds is based on the finding of elaborate public works. The large structures demonstrate the ability of manpower and the organization of the government and its people (Brainerd 15). The social organization of the Mayas was very important for human interaction in the lowland Maya sites (Hammond and Willey 17)

Agriculture was essential for the Mayan culture. The principal foods were corn, beans, sweet potatoes, and squashes. For trading, it was cotton and cacao. The corn had a lot of significance and the Maya regarded it with reverence. Even today Mexicans consume corn as our basic food (Whitlock 32). The growth of the corn was a big effort of about 20 men. The Mayas selected where the corn was going to grow and they did the work with the stone axis. The Maya territory had different seasons. They had heavy rains with periods of light rain. The main tool for planting was a dibbing stick. They used it to make a hole in the soil for about four or five inches deep and dropped in several seeds.

They worked in protecting the crops against pests while waiting for the crop to grow. They liked to plant their seeds in the ashes of the dead. The grain was stored in the village houses or in specially constructed granaries in the fields. Corn dominated the lives of the Maya women even more than those of the men. Its preparation and cooking occupied most of their time, for it was not an easy food to prepare (Whitlock 34). During the Classic Period, a large-scale terrace and raised field lowlanders pursued cultivation, as was a form of cultivation associated with stone demarcated fields. The implementation of terracing raised fields, and field demarcation was emblematic of increasing pressures to produce agricultural goods during the Classic Period (Hammond and Willey 103).

The art and techniques of the Maya culture had an enormous impact on world history. Maya graphic art is characterized by unity. Maya artistic conventions can be divided into two groups symbolic and decorative (Brainerd 56). The Mayas had three techniques, for example, painting on plaster walls, pottery, and sized paper. They also carved on wood, shell, bone, soft and hard stone, modeling in clay and stucco. Maya sculpture is the most famous of the Maya arts.

The sculpture was done with stone tools (Brainerd 57). In the Maya area limestone was used exclusively, although in some regions sandstone and volcanic rock were the materials. The technique was in the main pecking with a hard stone tool, often supplemented by a final smoothing by grinding with an abrasive stone or powder. The Maya books have mostly paintings. The paper that they used came from the inner bark of a fig tree. It was specially made for painting. This paper was covered with a lime wash so it would become smooth. The Mayas used a thin brush, and they used different colors, for example, black, red, green, yellow, and brown. The Maya paintings were made in pottery, stone, and jade (Whitlock 117).

Religion was an essential part of the Mayan Culture. They believed in duality gods, each having a good and evil aspect linked respectively with the sky and underworld. The dependence on gods for agricultural yield and the offering of a round of sacrifices to propitiate them was practically as widespread in the New World as was agriculture itself. To this round of sacrifices were geared the meso American calendrics and their associated astronomy, and a system of ceremonies and sacrifices of ever-increasing complexity, as well as the development of astrological forecasting (Brainerd 41). The Mayan ball games, commercial markets, fairs, fiestas, and revels had a religious significance. Each of the 18 Mayan months had its own ceremonies and feasts.

The slaves were pressed into service as a sacrifice to any god unless the need for divine favors was desperate enough to call for the offering of a free man (Whitlock 63). A priest had to be in the Mayan special events such as a marriage or the puberty festival. He was likewise in demand in case of illness, which was another matter for proper representation to the appropriate gods. There was very little that a Mayan could do without reference to the gods, usually through a priest.

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The worship of the gods was something of a commercial transaction. The benefits could only be expected if the gods were properly paid, and the payment demanded more important occasions was a human sacrifice (Whitlock 99).

The Gods and Goddesses of the Mayan culture were sacred to them. The Maya conceived the idea of a supreme god, and his name was Hunab Ku, but he was impersonal, incomprehensive, and not a lot of people do things for him. His son Itzamna, was the god of the heavens and of night and day. He was the donor to mankind of food, medicine, the art of writing, and many other gifts (Whitlock 91). In addition to the gods of the otherworld, a lot of gods controlled men’s activities on earth. Among the more important were the rain god, the maize god, the war god, the god of medicine, the wind god, the god of death, the moon goddess, the sun god, the god of the North Star, and sundry gods of the earth, including the jaguar god.

This situation was complicated by the fact that each god had both a good and an evil aspect. The rain god, for example, brought water for the crops and to replenish the springs, which was good; but he also brought floods and consequent disease, which was bad. Similarly, the sun god was both beneficent in providing warmth and light and malevolent in producing drought and thirst. Each god in the Maya pantheon had a dual personality (Whitlock 93).

The architectural remains of the Classic Maya stage were found in groups, each of which was a center of religious worship. The temples were small buildings having from one to four rooms arranged on a single story. This characteristically surmounts a tall solid, masonry-faced substructure in the form of a stepped pyramid with one or more steep staircases ascending it. The palaces were in general characterized by larger and more complex floor plans, and by a low substructure.

The planning and layout of Maya buildings vary somewhat by time period and area. The wall lines were normally straight, vertical walls were plumb and battered walls quite constant in slope (Brainerd 28). The stones used in Maya walls normally show signs of shaping and surfacing by means of pecking with a hard stone hammer. The quality of the finish varied with the character of the stone used.

The sizes of stone elements used in walls were almost always small, of such size that a man could carry the stone. Three types of roofing were known from the Maya sites, thatch, beam and mortar, and corbel vault. Aside from the plazas, the Mayas built a variety of specialized constructions. Among these were ball courts, maze galleries enclosed in masonry structures, sweat baths, portal vaults at entrances to architectural groups, ceremonial platforms, vaulted bridges, and causeways (Brainerd 32).

Trade was an important source for the Mayas. The Maya salt trade networks operated in two almost mutually exclusive spheres. A trading sphere is the trading range of a given commodity from an established place of production. In the case of salt, the northern trade sphere included the entire Maya lowlands from Tabasco to Honduras. The people living in the northern sphere consume salt. The two major trading spheres can be broken down into several sub spheres and they are the following: the internal overland trade of northern Yucatan, the western trade of the Gulf Coast, the eastern trade of the Caribbean, and the trading range of the Salinas of the nine mountains.

Salt may have crossed from one sphere to another very quickly (Andrews 116). The production and trade of salt occur during the Formative period. The trade of salt varies in the Maya world. In some places, the trade was very slow and in other parts, the demand produces a lot of money. There was evidence that the salt was transported by water. Salt was a very important form of trade that provided goods exchange (Andrews 118).

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The economic exchange was a form of human interaction that maintains order and promotes organization. Trade was a form of cultural and political integration of the Maya culture (Farriss 119). The economy depended on trade and exporting mostly primary products such as cacao, honey, wax, copal, rubber, tropical bird feathers, jaguar pelts, salt, and slaves. Cotton cloth was the only processed item, in contrast with the predominance of manufactured goods that came in exchange from the highlands. Jade and the small amounts of gold and copper were also imported as raw materials for local manufacture (Farriss 120).

The Maya system of numbers was brilliantly conceived and far superior in most respects to the system that served the Roman world for centuries. The Mayas associated value with position and had the idea of zero. The Maya used positioning and zero in exactly the same way. They worked in vertical columns instead of horizontal ones and they used not a decimal system like ours but a vigesimal one or one based on the twenties (Whitlock 107). There were three Mayas mathematical calendars called, the Haab year that correspond to our own, the Tzolkin that was regarded as sacred and the last one was the Long Count.

The Maya also knew at least two other calendars, one of which was a lunar calendar. They were able to calculate the length of the lunar month as 29.53020 days and today we make it 29.53059. Another calendar dealt with the planet, Venus. They had worked out that the synodical year of Venus averaged about 584 days. The priests used the calendars to predict eclipses of the sun and moon. Hieroglyphs were the Mayan form of writing.

Each hieroglyph was approximately square, with rounded corners. They were ranged in double vertical columns and were to be read from top to bottom and from left to right. Mayan hieroglyphs writing was similar to Chinese, each of these represented a complete word rather than a letter of the alphabet. In order to interpret the hieroglyphs, the scholars needed to have a broad knowledge of the Mayan culture (Whitlock 113).

The government was also an important role that they develop. At the head of the Mayan state sat the halach uinic, whose office was spiritual as well as temporal. The office was hereditary, generally passing down from father to the eldest son but sometimes to other members of the royal family. If the line failed, the council could elect a new halach uinic. The council of state seems to have been mainly an advisory body, with the halach uinic making the final decisions. Among the members of the council were the chiefs, the batab or administrators mentioned earlier, the more important priests, and other persons of rank.

The Mayan state was under the control of alien and resented rulers, who upheld their authority by fore and relied for their revenue on taxes from an unwilling people. The batab was an extremely important member of the council of state and was based in the capital. However, he was also supposed to undertake periodic rounds of the providence under his control. While the council represented the civil government, military affairs were organized separately. They were under the authority of an officer, the name, who was elected or appointed for a three-year term of office. There was also, a Wacom who officiated at sacrifices. He was the man who, as in Aztec Mexico, slashed the breast of the victim and tore out his heart (Whitlock 79).

The main cultural contributions of the Mayas were the physical characteristics, which were very peculiar. How they dress was also unique for the special adornments that they use. Their social organization of this culture was overall well organized. They were patrilineal and matrilineal. Agriculture was essential for the Mayas because they plant corn, beans, sweet potatoes, and squashes. Maya art and techniques were another contributions to the world.

Religion was also important because of the faith in the gods that they had. God and goddesses were sacred to them. The architectural remains can be found even today in Mexico and other parts. They use to trade for the improvement of their culture. The Maya system of numbers was amazingly done. They invented calendars and the system of zero. They were very smart people. The government was also an important role that they develop. The Mayan culture contributes to world history in many aspects.

Works Cited

Andrews, Anthony P. Maya Salt Production and Trade. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 2003.

Brainerd, George W. The Maya Civilization. Los Angeles, CA: Edwards Brothers, Inc, 1999.

Farris, Nancy M. Maya Society Under Colonial Rule. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Hammond Norman and Gordon R. Willey. Maya Archaeology and Ethno-history Eds. Norman Hammond and Gordon R. Willey The University of Texas Press: U.S, 1999.

Whitlock, Ralph. Everyday Life of The Maya. New York, N.Y: Dorset Press, 2000.

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