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Notes on the Maya

    The Maya didn't call themselves Maya. We don't know what they called themselves. Their civilization has been the subject of intense study;considerable progress has been made in the last twenty years because scholars, using high-speed computers, have been deciphering Maya pictographs. Still, much of what we know of them is through inference.  Principal source of late Maya history is Father Diego de Landa, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, written before 1556. He was a Maya-speaking Franciscan. Christians destroyed most Mayan writings so his work is especially valuable.

    Maya civilization begins about 2000 BC,  a hypothetical date. During the long formative period, 1000-3000 BC, the  population centers were small, compact and self-contained. They were springing up all ever the area of Yucatán. There was a common trade, common language and similar cultural traits, i.e. a cultural union but not a political one. The cities that they built endured between 50OBC and 1000 AD. We don't know why but, after about 1000 AD, the bulk of population was concentrated in Guatemala and northeastern Yucatán. After 900 AD, the Maya in northern Yucatán brought into contact with the Toltecs.  There is evidence that Quetzalcoatl was there.  

    The  Maya were a feudal theocracy. Maya society was a society where priests ruled the roost. Apex of a pyramid with common men (yalba uinicob) at base. The common man was a maize farmer. Like all men of the Americas, he was bound to the the soil. Each member of society was part of a clan. Everything for the common man came from soil; he fed himself and his family as well as the bureaucracy. They had a soil and climate the gave them maize in such awesome quantities that it allowed them leisure. They ate better than did the classical Greeks. He paid taxes.  Water was the one element the Maya couldn't command. There were no rivers on Yucatán peninsula. The Maya constructed reservoirs and cisterns. Used cenotes. They also were seafarers, setting out in large canoes that held as many as forty people. They cruised for thousands of miles along the Gulf Coast around the Caribbean, one of the most dangerous of seas. They regularly used the sea for maritime traffic. In fact, Columbus met a Maya canoe off coast of Honduras in 1502.

    Around AD 800,  there were about 3 million people in Mayadom.

The average female was 4' 8" whereas the average male was 5' 1." Women married young and bore from 7 to 9 children, half of whom lived. The marriages were arranged. Adultery and divorce existed. Divorce by renunciation. Adultery carried the death penalty but had to be caught in the act. The husband was the executor.

Maya city-states, like Greece, had wars, roads, and the other accoutrements of civilization.


Classic art style. Loved riotous movements, luxuriant forms , flamboyance. Temples strove for height,  ascending platforms narrow temples small . Roofs  were combs. Mayas "drew in stone." Decorated with priests.

Religious sites in Petén area, Tikal and Uaxactun/Tikal (Guatemala). Limestone country about 700 feet above sea level.  Precinct of one square  mile; six temples. Suburbs for two to three miles. In AD 600, contained about 100,000 people. UAXACTUN -E-VII. 27 feet high. Faced with stucco. About 3rd century AD. .

Elsewhere Bonampak, Piedras Negras, Palenque.  Here,  Maya sculpture and stucco worked reached its zenith. Some non-Maya traits.

Copán was a scientific center. By the end of the 7th century, astronomers had worked out a calendar. Eclipse tables. Had the concept of zero, which Europeans didn't have.

Militarists entered the Maya area about 750-900 AD.