Maya

Long before European conquest, the Maya had built one of the great Native American civilizations. The Maya people lived in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. No single Maya city-state dominated the entire region. Rather, each one had its own capital and surrounding, subject towns. Warfare and trade caused the power of various Maya city-states to expand and contract over time. The history of the Maya can be divided into three periods: preclassic (2000 b.c.e. 200 c.e.), classic (200 900), and postclassic (900 1540).

The early Maya practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. While this method produced high yields initially, it quickly exhausted the soil and forced the Maya to move to new fields. By the classic period, the inhabitants of growing Maya cities demanded more food. This led to the development of techniques to increase agricultural production. For example, the Maya drained swamps and riverbanks to create elevated fields near cities. They also built irrigation canals and reservoirs when needed. At other times, they constructed terraces on mountainsides for farming.

El Caracol, the tenth-century Mayan observatory at Chichn Itz in Mexico’s Yucatn Peninsula, testifies to the sophistication of that civilization long before European contact. The Spanish did not take control of the Yucatn until the 1540s. (Chichn Itz, Yucatn State, Mexico/Bridgeman Art Library) Improved agricultural techniques allowed the Maya to develop large cities. During the classic period in particular, significant urbanization occurred. The largest Mayan cities had more than 50,000 inhabitants. Each served as a political and religious center for the surrounding countryside. Examples of monumental architecture could be found in these cities, where large pyramids often served as sites for the many Mayan rituals and ceremonies. Limited technology meant that construction of these monuments required the mobilization of thousands of workers.

Among the largest cities was Tikal, located in the Petn jungle of present-day Guatemala. Tikal, established at least as early as 292 c.e., was one of the earliest settled Maya sites. The city possessed six great pyramids, including the tallest Maya structure (known to archaeologists simply as Temple 4), which was 230 feet high. Tikal also had reservoirs, artificial lakes, palaces, and ball courts.

Mayan society was divided between nobles, a middle class, and commoners. The members of the elite nobility served as political rulers and religious leaders, positions that were closely intertwined. Merchants and artisans comprised a middle group. Some merchants grew wealthy from long-distance trade; urban artisans made luxury items such as jewelry, ceramics, and other handcrafted products. Commoners worked mainly in agriculture, cultivating their own lands, as well as those of the elite. They produced crops such as corn, beans, and other vegetables to sustain Mayan society. There was one more class below the commoners that of the slaves, which was generally made up of war captives and criminals.

The Maya made many important advances in learning and culture. They developed a complex calendar system, including a 365-day calendar, as well as a 260-day ceremonial calendar. They made key contributions in mathematics and astronomy and understood the concept of zero and place value. The Maya also had written literature, using a form of hieroglyphics, although only four pictorial manuscripts have survived. The Maya also inscribed pillars, facades, and stairways, where they often recorded historical events. The importance of writing among the Maya placed scribes near the top of society. Europeans succeeded in conquering the Maya, as they did other indigenous groups in the New World. The conquest of the Maya was different from other conquests, however, in that the Spanish had to subjugate each region one by one, causing the process to take nearly 200 years in some areas. By the late 1520s, the Spaniards had conquered Chiapas in southern Mexico, but it took them several campaigns and twenty years to conquer Mexico’s Yucatn Peninsula. Spaniards arrived in Guatemala in 1524, fighting with the Quiche Maya and then conquering other Maya groups there. The longest holdout was the Petn area and its dense forests. Many Maya from other regions fled there to escape Spanish conquest.

After the Spanish conquest, the Maya did not always readily accept Spanish rule. The most significant Maya uprising against the Spanish came in 1712 with a widespread revolt in Chiapas known as the Tzeltal Maya Rebellion. The root cause of the rebellion, which included both Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya, was religion. Traditional religious beliefs persisted in the region, which alarmed the Spanish Catholic religious officials. The Spanish sought to end native religious practices, and a dispute developed over the recognition of Native American sightings of the Virgin Mary.

In 1712, thirty-two Mayan towns revolted, declaring Spanish authority void and creating their own indigenous priesthood and civil hierarchy. The next year, however, the Spanish put down the Mayan revolt. While the Mayan people survived, and continued to survive, as an ethnic group with their own language and customs, the existence of an independent Mayan political entity ceased. Ronald Young See also: Native American-European Conflict; Native Americans; New Spain; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Burkholder, Mark, and Lyman John. Colonial Latin America. 5th ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003. Coe, Michael. The Maya. 6th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Sharer, Robert. The Ancient Maya. 5th ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

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