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Mayan Culture: Traditions and Achievements

Introduction

The Maya community is a classic society who has made use of almost the same land for thousands of years. The society speaks about thirty languages that are interrelated in such a way that scholars argue that they come from the same place. The Mayan culture over the years has expanded to the regions of what is today known as Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, and a large part of Guatemala and Bezile. In the Classical period which existed in the 3rd to 9th century, the Maya built inspiring temples, pyramids and urban centers and they also established sophisticated social and political ways of life. The reminder of the Maya people Takal, show the culture that was mostly prevalent in this region. Their culture shined in various areas and evidence of this is found all over the region. The Maya were dominant mainly in city-states. Most of the times, the Mayan were united but at other times there was serious divisions in the clan. The Mayan was also a tribe that was updated on the passage of time. They documented various dates in books that disappeared because Spanish Catholic priests ruined them in order to alleviate pagan beliefs. This essay discusses the history of the Mayan by critically looking at their way of life.

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Main Part

The Maya society had no national political governance. They established a general culture by merging and expanding values that they acquired from their neighbors. The extensive tally calendar and the fundamental doctrines of their religious beliefs can be associated primarily to the Olmecs found in Izapa.

The Olmec society became extinct before the birth of Christ. However, its heritage created the foundation for all Mesoamerican cultures including the Monte Alban Zapotec, the famous Teotihuacan hegemony, the Tula Toltecs as well as the Aztecs. The Maya also borrowed some values from Teotihuacán’s who dominated the Mexican highlands since the first century all the way to the Seventh century. The Maya people inherited many cultural practices from the north although they invented much cultural advancement that intensely affected the entire succeeding cultures all over Mesoamerica. A great deal of Maya culture mainly the religious activities of the time, is still an important feature of Native American living in Guatemala and Honduras. The Mayan golden age existed for about five centuries from 300 to 800A.D.

The only time the Maya people found some significance of the urban centers was in the Classic era that lasted between 300 and 900 AD. Their culture has not changed much since the classic times to the contemporary world. Their culture was mainly tribal and rural all over the Classic period. The difference between the Classic period and post- Classic period in the Maya society was the role of urban centers and their significance in the religious beliefs of the Maya and the degree of the learned society. It is important to note that the Maya were not real urban people since they used the urban areas wholly for religious functions by the rural people around them. In this case, the fall of the urban areas in 900AD did not bring any massive social changes as it did for the religious changes. Modern intellectuals believe that they abandoned the towns mainly because of religious intimation from the north. However, in the Classical period there was a large outburst of cultural expansion in the area that was inhabited by the Maya people.

Classic Maya culture advanced in three areas in Mesoamerica. The most significant area with total urban progress took place in the lowlands and in particular the central area of southern Guatemala. This area is a drainage basin which is very large and it is surrounded by tropical rain forest. The Maya people as a matter of fact are one of two societies to establish a city life in a tropical forest. The main city that was developed in this area was Tikal, although civilization expanded south to Honduras and the town that was in the south was Copan in northern Honduras. Mayan culture did not advance wholly in Guatemalan highlands. This is because the highlands were more moderate and they provided raw materials to the central towns. The biggest and fully advanced city was Palenque and the other region that advanced in Maya was Yucatan peninsula which became the southern and eastern regions of today’s Mexico. This area is dry even if cities were developed such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Many intellectuals however argue that Uxmal was ethnically a minor region. When the Classic Mayan towns were abandoned, the Yucatan peninsula came to be the main area of a new simulated way of life referred to as Toltec- Mayan. This was established when Toltecs migrated from the north and united with native Maya people.

Since urban centers were built in tropical rain forests, the Mayans were not able to establish the cities wholly. This is because tropical rain forest is particularly difficult to survive. This is because even if it is very green and lots of moisture, the forest can only sustain a small number of people. The forest mainly maintains large amount of plant and animals but it is very poor in terms of crop growing. Intellectuals state that there only lived around 30 people per square kilometer throughout classic era.

The forest mainly maintains a large amount of plant and animal but it is very poor in terms of crop growing. Intellectuals state that there only lived around 30 people per square kilometer throughout classic era. This shows that the Mayan people did a great job given the great heat and humidity coupled with a small population and despite the fact that they developed extraordinarily stylish cities. They also established astronomical science and arithmetic as the major classy pre modern society as well as established difficult methods of writing in America. They came up with great architectural methods of living and doing their work that has contributed a great deal to the way of life in the contemporary society.

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In the forest, they performed slash and burn farming where they would fell down a number of trees then burn the trees to plant in the area. The Mayan did not use modern fertilization methods and hence in three to four years the land would be exhausted. This was not a big problem because the population all over the Classic era was small. Slash and burn farming which the Mayans called milpa required a lot of labor. However, when they were not farming in the Classic era, they used the time in building and sustaining the urban centers and in expansion of artwork, which was common in this period. The Mayans staple food was maize and therefore this was the main food crop they grew. Slash and burn agriculture was associated with holistic beliefs because the cultivated land was movable, and thus it became the foundation for Mayan religious beliefs and practices.

The way they perceived agriculture in terms of religion involved the idea that slash and burn farming needed exact predictions of time and place in relation to the sequence of life in the tropical rain forest.

In their religion, they believed in accepting humanity to the sequence of the world. The world operated in a logical, recurring and predictable manner thus people could make use of this recurring character by relating themselves to these cycles. In this way, their religion was time conscious and to know the cycles correctly one was supposed to be very accurate.

This led them to create calendars with tzolkin in the middle as the holy calendar. This calendar had two cycles one with thirteen days and the other had twenty days. They also had the tun which was also known as ceremonial calendar which comprised of 360 days and 5 unlucky days. The community had two other calendars called the katun and the Venus calendar. They also had the lunat and the cycle of gods. These calendars made the Mayans make exact recordings of time before today’s period. They used these calendars to help in astronomical almanacs that strictly managed activities and religious ceremonies. This means that Mayans way of life was a lengthy continuous sequence of religious activities. The Mayans would seek advice from the priests on social, religious and farming issues and the priests would base their advice from the writings of sacred calendars. Since time was very significant in Mayan culture, children would be named depending on the date when they were born.

The urban centers the Mayans built were used for official purposes. The priestly class dwelt in the urban areas although almost all the society of the Maya people stayed in small farming rural communities. The priests practiced the religious functions, and this mainly involved offering sacrifices. The farmers occasionally got together for the religious rituals and festivals. Scholars argue that in 900 AD, the Mayans abandoned their urban centers because of attack from outside and it is likely that it was due to economic hardships.

The largest transformation is said to have been the departure of the priestly group and due to their departure, the Mayans also left their cities. However the Peasans are said to have gone ahead with their activities for a short period although this came to an end as well. There social life was not changed much by the fall of their cities however, because they did not use them much only in religious festivities.

In the religious section the leader of the setting were referred to as Ah Kin Mai, which literally meant the highest in the sun. This leader was the head of priests under him who were called Ah Kin. In the religious matters also, there were two special priestly activities that were concerned with human sacrifice. These were the chacs who in this case were old men who got hold of the person being sacrificed and the nacon were those who took the heart of the person being sacrificed. The religious festivities incorporated various features including dancing, contesting, dramatic presentations, prayer and sacrifice. The gods needed sustenance from mankind for them to do their work properly. In some cases, sacrifice included foodstuffs; although the main sacrifice was mainly a kind of human sacrifice. Most of these sacrifices that involved human beings required the spilling of blood to the gods and in this case a religious person like priest would willingly pierce oneself and give the blood to the gods.

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The sacrifice for the head of religion required much more blood than that of the priest. In this kind of ceremonies, a person’s heart was needed to perform the ceremony. During the ceremony, the top religious men else known as the chacs would cut open the mans heart. The heart would then be buried for the sustenance of the gods.

The Mayas also had the belief that the universe had been formed five times and ruined four times. This ideology was the main foundation of Mesoamerican religion starting 900AD and beyond when it was implemented by Toltecs. Many of the Mayan gods were reptilian and they comprised of double features, which means that every god had a compassionate feature and a wicked feature. They also alleged that there was an afterlife and that heaven was for those who had been hanged, sacrificed or died in childbirth. The other people would all go to xibalba, which meant hell and was thought to be headed by lords of death. 

The Mayan culture had a number of sections including the rulers, priests, common people and the slaves. The head in the society was referred to as ajaw, which meant a correct man and his place was mainly inherited. In the later years, his name came to be called k’uhul ajaw. The ajaw was in charge of both domestic and foreign matters getting assistance from the ruling body. Lesser chiefs headed minor social settings that did not raise any cause of alarm. The territories that the leader controlled were less than a major city and its environs and a number of smaller towns even if there were larger kingdoms which dominated bigger territories and expanded control over lesser regions. Each kingdom had a name which was by no means related to any neighborhood inside the territory.

The kingdom characteristic was mainly of a political entity connected with any exact ruling regime. The Saal kingdom had its headquarters at Naranjo. The territory of the kingdom and its capital were referred to as Wakab’ nal or Maxam, which was a component of a bigger ecological unit, called Huk Tsuk.

It is important to note that, even if there was continuous fighting and mainly a change in the territorial authority, many kingdoms did not leave the political arena pending the fall of the entire system in the 9th century AD. In many ways, the Classical Maya kingdoms were largely alike to the post Classic Maya leadership that the Spaniards met in Yucatan and Central Mexico. A number of kingdoms were inferior to powerful rulers who acquired their power by invading or by dynasty means and even then they still endured as separate entities.

The Maya culture had a special spot for physical beauty more that any other culture in Mesoamerica. They valued a long backward sloping forehead and for them to achieve that appearance, babies had their skulls tied with wood to create the shape. Crossed eyes were also valued in the Maya society and in this way babies had items suspended in front of their eyes for them to always have the eyes crossed. This practice is still practiced today. The other aspect of Mayan culture worth noting was the idea of commerce. The Maya society involved themselves in long distance trade with most of the rest of Mesoamerican societies. These were cultures such as the Teotihuaecan, the Zapotec and other communities in central and gulf coast Mexico.

The Maya also traded with cultures outside Mesoamerican region and this increased the productivity of the region.

The Mayan art and architecture was very classy and well designed and can only be compared to the modern art. They made carvings and classical art at Palenque and the statuary of Copan which displayed a sense of elegance and keen observation of a person.

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This in many ways allowed archaeologists to remember Classical culture in the early days and that led to the name of Classical period. There is no much evidence on how the art was advanced in Maya; mainly what has lived on in funerary poetry is a building in Bonampak where the early wall painters have barely survived. Intellectuals also came to learn that the Maya people used to sign their names on the work they designed. The buildings of the Maya people only lacked highly developed technologies to build such structures. They did not have draft animals required for wheel kind of transportation, metal materials and pulleys. Their constructions need sufficient labor to do it right. The other materials were not a problem for them. The stone used in Maya construction was gotten from the area quarries. They mainly used limestone which was flexible enough to be operated with stone tools. They also used mortar, which was composed of crushed, burnt, and a mixture of limestone. This gave it the semblance of cement that was mainly for stucco finishing. In most Maya houses, they made use of wooden poles. Adobe and thatch were mainly used but some occasional use of limestone by some people can be found. In their houses they also used corbel arch commonly called false arch which was used to allow open aired access.

The Maya Writing system which was known as hieroglyphics was a mixture of phonetic secret codes and ideograms. This writing system was the only system in relation to the pre-Columbian New World that can wholly characterize spoken language in similar magnitude as the written language of the earlier period. The translation of the Maya language has been a lengthy and tedious activity. Some of the language was translated at the end of the 19th century mainly the areas that consisted numbers, the calendar and astronomy.

However, major translations took place in the 1960s and 1970s and then the process was faster in a way that many Mayan books can be read wholly in their initial form. This however is not a success story since fanatical Spanish Catholic priests had many Mayan books destroyed. Various stone writings are still in existence that were left behind when the Maya left their cities but only three textbooks and few pages of a fourth that can be found in the early libraries. Rectangular piece of splash and paint fragments are regularly found in Maya archaeology. These are exciting remainders of what used to be books after all the organic matter has decomposed.

In mathematics the Maya came up with the idea of zero and they even came up with a base 20 numbering system. In all their work, they came up with exceptionally exact astronomical examinations, correct charts of the progress of moon and planets, which can be related to modern day work. The Maya computation of the duration of the solar year was in a way better than the Gregorian calendar. The Maya did not stop living with the fall of their cities. They still exist in the same regions that their ancestors occupied. Their culture however, has transformed with time but the Mayans have still sustained their language and customs. More than 750,000 people speak Mayan language in Mexico in the modern day. The Mayan religion today is a mixture of Catholic and early beliefs and customs. Lacandon Maya still exist in the traditional way of life in the Lacandon forest of Chiapas.

Conclusion

The Mayan culture has been in existence even before 300 AD. The Mayan culture was very diverse and well designed that even modern intellectuals admire their skills. There was a great deal of development both socially and economically within their territory. They played a great role in the growth of modern American society in many aspects of the society than any other culture. The work of the Mayan people will always be remembered and protected because it is rich and unique in so many ways. In the modern world, the Maya and their descendants make considerable inhabitants all over the Mayan region. They have sustained a set of unique customs and beliefs which are due to the unification of the pre-Columbian and post conquest concepts and way of life. A great number of Mayan languages are still spoken even to this day. This shows how significant and fundamental the Mayan culture contributed to the world.

Bibliography

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TEDLOCK, Barbara. Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1982. Print

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